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Believing in more than emotion

10 August 2012

Christian youth festivals meet their audience's needs to question faith, argues Joy Starkey


Emotive? Why on earth not? Worship time at Soul Survivor

Emotive? Why on earth not? Worship time at Soul Survivor

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 night.

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 high.

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 audience.

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 open-minded generation.

Joy Starkey attended a comprehensive school in London, and is now studying art history at Cambridge University.

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