THE bandwagon of Christian festival-style events is ever
growing. For many years, Greenbelt, New Wine, and Spring Harvest
have been drawing in thousands with their large-scale, often
welly-booted gatherings. But, when it comes to teens, Soul Survivor
is the Glastonbury of faith festivals.
The annual event, usually running for five days every August in
the muddy fields of Shepton Mallet, has now expanded to three
separate weeks, including one in Stafford; it is all aimed at
teenagers. The organisers explain that they hope to encourage
"young people of all denominations to capture first a vision of
Jesus, and then to equip, train, empower, and release them into his
ministry in their everyday lives". During the day, seminars focus
on topics ranging from theological discussions on life after death
to popular culture and world economics; while other events such as
sports and music run from the morning until late into the
The whole gathering is primarily focused around two main
meetings, held every morning and evening; the format loosely
resembles a church service, with talks and a worship time - but it
is certainly more electric guitar than evensong.
IT WAS in the summer of 2007 that my 15-year-old self skipped
home, bright-eyed, from my first Soul Survivor. I had triumphantly
returned as a new Christian, and was on a gushing, evangelistic
Unfortunately, the response from my unreligious friends was one
of bemused concern. They came to the conclusion that that I had, in
fact, been brainwashed. My shine quickly dimmed by a few watts. All
I needed, they explained, was a sit-down and a nice cup of tea to
bring me back down to earth. Were my friends right?
Yes, replied the journalist Thomas Prosser, who wrote a scathing
review of Christian teen camps for The Guardian. He echoed
the views of my non-Christian peers, hinting at a "dark message"
lurking beneath the shiny lights and emotive music.
He condemned the "damaging" and "manipulative" messages hidden
under a guise of "yoof" lingo: "After having their emotions
softened, hypnotic music typically sounds out in subdued lighting
as youngsters are urged to come to the front and give their lives
to Christ." Through his black-tinted spectacles, every visiting
preacher was a Bible-bashing child-catcher in disguise.
AS SOMEONE who has attended this and similar festivals for five
years now, I can see how Mr Prosser and many other secular critics
- including Professor Richard Dawkins, who famously claims that the
biggest damage religion does is "brainwashing" children - can reach
these cynical conclusions. As objective onlookers, they simply do
not understand what goes on at these events.
They see emotions heightened, as difficult topics are tackled
and prayed for; rock music celebrating a faith they think is dead;
and young people committing their lives to a God whom they don't
believe exists. No wonder they don't get it. Yet religion could
never exist without emotion, and has rarely existed without music,
particularly music contemporary to its time.
Many cultural activities - such as fashion shows, concerts, and
sporting events - use atmosphere and performance to entertain,
convey a message, and captivate an audience. Only two weeks ago,
emotions were lifted at the opening ceremony for the Olympic Games.
The award-winning film director Danny Boyle created a visual
spectacular, ending with the swaying crowds who roared the lyrics
of "Hey Jude" alongside Paul McCartney, to celebrate a belief in a
country; similarly, Christian festivals use music and performance
to convey their beliefs, in a medium that is suitable to that
MODERN faith camps, although celebrated in some quarters for
their ability to advertise the Christian message to a social-media
generation, hold a deeper question about how the Church should try
to update itself. In a country where church attendance is the
fourth lowest in Europe, new ways of reaching out in an
increasingly secular milieu are crucial.
The rock-festival aesthetic used by such events as Soul Survivor
is an attempt to bring the Christian messages to an age group that
sees church as boring, traditional, and irrelevant to their lives.
Perhaps "brand" is too clinical a word; yet, in a world where
advertising, pop culture, and social media reign, you could argue
that the Church needs to imagine life through the eyes of a
15-year-old to be in touch. If some critics had their way, perhaps
Christian youth events would held in empty warehouses: in silence,
without light - jolly good fun.
In a society where knife crime, drug use, and binge-drinking are
problems that continue to dominate youth culture, it seems curious
that anyone would criticise an event that encourages young people
to exercise selflessness and humility. It allows teenagers to
ponder the big issues of life: to question the possibility of a
God, independently and regardless of their upbringing. Yes, young
people are capable of independent thought, Professor Dawkins.
I do not deny that there is such a thing as getting caught up in
a crowd mentality; yet, in my experience, this is successfully
toned down as much as possible by those who run the events. Every
year, during the communal "ministry time" - a period of quiet
contemplation and prayer - Mike Pilivachi, one of Soul Survivor's
founders, insists that no one should "hype the Spirit up", but
rather they should "let him come down".
Nearly 1900 teenagers attended the first Soul Survivor in
something like its current form in 1995, a number that had risen to
30,000 by 2011. Clearly, there is something that has intrigued many
young people - something beyond the seemingly cool shiny façade and
loud music. I believe that if the people who are so readily
critical of such festivals actually experienced them - in an
unbiased way and without cynicism - they would see that it is a
celebration, not a denigration, of a growing, dynamic, and
Joy Starkey attended a comprehensive school in London, and
is now studying art history at Cambridge University.