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Soul Survivor: Farewell in the Big Top

13 September 2019

As Soul Survivor draws to a close, 26 years after its first festival, Tim Wyatt considers the Charismatic youth movement’s influence on the Church of England


Sung worship in the Big Top

Sung worship in the Big Top

LAST month, Canon Mike Pilavachi stood on a stage in front of 10,000 teenagers and offered words of reassurance. It was evening ministry time in the second week of the annual Soul Survivor festival, and among those crammed into an enormous tent at Peterborough Showground ripples of laughter had begun to arise. Gradually, the giggling and guffawing was spreading through the tent. Sporadic shouts and screams were beginning to break out.

Canon Pilavachi seemed unperturbed. “Don’t worry,” he told the crowd. “This is normal. This is the Holy Spirit. This is what he does.”

Suddenly, a single impassioned scream could be heard. “That is a cry of freedom,” he calmly informed the Big Top. The yell continued at full pitch for another few seconds. “That is a long cry of freedom,” he continued, a grin flickering across his face. “Normally, we like to pray ‘More, Lord,’ but in this case maybe ‘Less, Lord’ would be better.”

This scene, or something like it, has unfolded every summer since 1993, when 1896 teenagers gathered at the Bath and West Showground. But this year will be Soul Survivor’s last.


OVER the course of this summer, about 30,000 young people gathered for Soul Survivor’s festivals. When it began, in 1993, Canon Pilavachi was the youth worker at St Andrew’s, Chorleywood, the church that launched the New Wine conferences. He felt that the teenagers whom he was serving needed their own dedicated festival. He told the Church Times that, while other gatherings were available, “there is nothing specifically for young people who have had an experience of Charismatic Christianity” (News, 6 August 1993).

SOUL SURVIVORCanon Pilavachi speaks in the Big Top

In its first year, numbers were about a thousand fewer than expected, leaving St Andrew’s with a financial loss. But the next year attendance doubled, and Soul Survivor quickly gathered momentum, expanding to two weeks in 1995 and then to three. A church planted in Watford by Canon Pilavachi and a team of 11 from St Andrew’s, also called Soul Survivor, flourished alongside the festivals.

By the turn of the millennium, it had grown beyond a summer gathering. In 2000, about 10,000 young people descended on Manchester for a week of outreach, and 15,000 attended a similar Soul in the City event in London in 2004. Gap-year programmes, an overseas-aid charity, and new festivals — one in Scotland, and another for 20- and 30-year-olds — followed swiftly.


TODAY, Canon Pilavachi describes Soul Survivor as a “cross between New Wine and Greenbelt, with a touch of Spring Harvest, but just for young people”.

“We wanted to take Jesus seriously, but not take ourselves very seriously,” he says.

“From the beginning, we wanted to model intimacy in worship as opposed to performance, and also linked with that ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit: what we would call naturally supernatural.” It is a tradition that draws heavily on Pentecostal-Charismatic roots, and, in particular, the Vineyard movement in the United States.

In the Big Top at Peterborough Showground, the evening began with more than half an hour of contemporary sung worship, exuberant in celebration and heartfelt in devotion. “Nothing else, I just want you,” the congregation sang. Many closed their eyes and raised their hands amid dry ice and flashing spotlights. Laura Hancock, who works for Youth for Christ, gave a talk that urged those present to cast everything aside to follow Jesus: “I believe you were created for an intimate relationship with Jesus — that he would be the very centre of all you are.”

It is a message that seems to resonate with the young festivalgoers. Daniel, 18, who is attending for the fourth time, said that he had seen “God work in more and more miraculous ways”. Lily, a vicar’s daughter in her mid-teens, described the experience as a “booster”: a spiritual top-up that kept her going throughout the rest of the year.

“Soul Survivor is one of the most tangible times where I have been able to meet with God and have seen other people meet with God,” Emily, a shy older teenager who had been coming to the festivals for seven years, said.

SOUL SURVIVORThe Revd Andy Croft presides at communion

Others enthused about the quality and impact of the sung worship, particularly those whose home churches preferred more formal and traditional music. Temi, an older teen, said that, until she entered the Big Top, she had never been in a place where so many people were worshipping at the same time.

“The first time I came, [I was] overwhelmed with emotion, and you don’t know where it’s come from, but you just start crying. In our church, sometimes, I don’t connect with the worship as much, but here it was so overwhelming.”


IF SOUL SURVIVOR is still — 27 years later — having this kind of impact, and feeding a clear hunger among teenage believers, why is 2019 the last year?

“This will sound corny, [but] we really believe God spoke to us about stopping,” Canon Pilavachi says. Aged 61, he no longer feels that it is right for him to lead a movement that seeks to reach those young enough to be his grandchildren.

One by one, other members of the small, tight-knit team that runs Soul Survivor had told him that, when he stood down, they would go, too. In the end, he decided to close down the festivals for good.

This decision to call it quits was surprisingly easy, he says. “God never said ‘I will build my Soul Survivor,’ he only said ‘I will build my Church.’ I’ve always been very aware that we exist for a season to serve the Church, and, when it’s time to stop and hand on the baton, then others will take it on.”

The priority was always to see young people become Christians. “It’s been a harvesting place, I suppose,” he reflects. Although not every meeting in the Big Top includes an explicit call for the teenagers to come forward and profess faith for the first time, every day dozens do.

There was nothing special about the Soul Survivor formula, he insists. The teenagers arrive ready to meet God: “They come ripe. All you have to do is shake the tree and you’re there.”

He tells the story how a 15-year-old about to come to Soul Survivor for the first time messaged him on Facebook to ask which night was the best to become a Christian. “He wanted to ask my advice: ‘My friends say the third night. What do you think?’”

Last year, an older man came up to him after one of the main sessions to say thank- you. His 13-year-old son, attending for the first time, had just become a Christian. “He started crying, and said ‘The reason it means so much is that in 1995 I was 13, and I came here for the first time, and I went forward and gave my life to Jesus.’ Honestly, with just a few stories like that, I’d go to my grave.”

Each year, Soul Survivor records how many teenagers come forward: in 2019, some 2100 did, out of a total of 32,500 attending the three weeks. In the past ten years, more than 15,000 delegates have become Christians, the organisation reports.

Canon Pilavachi’s hope is that those who attend will “catch the vision” rather than enjoy the festival as a one-off spiritual high: “We wanted to equip the young people to pray for each other and expect something to happen. To listen to God’s voice and to expect to hear him speak.”


IT IS not hard to find non-believing teenagers at the festivals. Evie and Zara, both in their early teens, had come along with some Christian friends they knew.

Zara, a first-timer, spoke enthusiastically about how much she had enjoyed the week so far: “I would even say it’s a bit better than how I imagined it.”

“The Christian community is actually really nice,” Evie said; she was here for the third time. “I’ve enjoyed coming here just to talk to people. Literally everyone just smiles at you and tries to talk to you. They don’t really try to force you into believing anything. I just find it really cool.”

SOUL SURVIVORAli Martin, assistant pastor at Soul Survivor, leads a seminar at the festival

Both had found the meetings engaging, and Zara had stood up to respond to a call from one speaker earlier in the week, despite not being sure whether she even believed in God: “If you see everyone around you standing up, then you might feel like you’re not alone,” she said in a quiet voice.

Evie seemed genuinely attached to Canon Pilavachi and the other regular characters on the stage in the Big Top. “We go to the meetings as well with our youth group, and it’s cool to see what’s happening. It makes you question really, whether you should be following Christianity.”


BESIDES bringing young people to faith, perhaps for the first time, Soul Survivor leaves behind a significant legacy within the ranks of the Church of England’s clergy. Many of those interviewed spoke without prompting of how many ordinands had either become Christians at Soul Survivor or first began to feel a call towards the priesthood during the festivals.

At a youth service in St Paul’s Cathedral in 1999, Canon Pilavachi introduced the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, before telling the congregation: “Let’s love the Church of England. Don’t give up on it. God’s calling you to serve it” (News, 7 May 1999). Twenty years later, it seems that many responded.

Despite its status as a non-denominational event, every year, Soul Survivor has put on a seminar for anyone interested in Anglican ordination, often run by theological- college principals. Among them is the former principal of St Mellitus College and now the Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin. He agrees that the festivals have produced many ordinands over the years, especially those in their twenties and thirties: “It’s hard to put a number on it, but it’s quite a significant contribution.”

The impact has been particularly felt in the church-planting movement, he says. Many of the priests who had come through Soul Survivor had picked up the organisation’s “entrepreneurial” and “unconventional” DNA. “One of the key factors has been Mike Pilavachi’s passionate belief in the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and a lot of those ordinands have imbibed that,” Dr Tomlin reflects. “It’s a key part of their ministry.”

This story rings true for the Revd Sam Haigh, the new Rector of Preston Minister, a new plant from Holy Trinity, Brompton, which has secured funding from the Church Commissioners (News, 25 January). He went to Soul Survivor six months after becoming a Christian: “The impact of being in an environment where there were 10,000 Christians was absolutely mind-blowing. It’s difficult to over-estimate how significant that was.”

But more important was attending the annual seminar on ordination. It immediately connected his newfound zeal for evangelism with a tangible career-plan. “The pathway to ordination as a way of helping me find my God-given purpose . . . it was massive.” Having left school without any GCSEs, he would never have felt able to begin the discernment process less than a year later without Soul Survivor’s encouragement, he says.

“That sense that God speaks, is active, heals, shows up in power — it’s something we have carried from that time in Soul Survivor,” he says. “It’s really shaped the way I do ministry.”

SOUL SURVIVORSung worship in the Big Top

When it was announced last year that Soul Survivor in 2019 would be the last, a meeting of the clergy team at HTB (where Mr Haigh served as a curate) realised that every person present had either become a Christian, had a significant encounter with God, or felt called into ministry at the festival.

The Revd Tim Hughes, now Priest-in-Charge of St Luke’s, Gas Street, in Birmingham, another HTB plant, agrees. While training at St Mellitus, having grown up at Soul Survivor, he had been “blown away” to find out how many ordinands had been converted at the festivals. “I think it’s been an incredible gift God has given the UK and beyond.”


ANOTHER legacy of Soul Survivor can be found in the growth of Charismatic worship in the Church of England. Mr Hughes, who grew up attending the Watford church, and whose worship songs are now sung worldwide, says that Canon Pilavachi was instrumental in encouraging him to start composing (Features, 24 September 2010). Among those who helped to plant Soul Survivor in Watford was Matt Redman, another influential worship leader (News, 12 August 2016).

“We were articulating in song some of what God was doing in the Church and in the movement of Soul Survivor. It was an amazing time,” Mr Hughes recalls.

“It did really inspire people. The songs are simple because they are mainly written by people who can’t really play the guitar. So it’s always four chords, with a capo — very accessible.”

He remembers how, as a teenager, he would attend the early Soul Survivor festivals, fall in love with the Big Top worship, buy the songbook, and then learn how to play the new hits on his guitar when he got home. This feedback loop is clearly still at play: many of those teenagers who attended this year’s festival spoke warmly of the sung worship and how they would attempt to bring back what they had sung to their churches.

“As a youth movement which has embraced the Charismatic, I think it has been a significant part of the Church,” Dr Tomlin says. An expression of faith that was dynamic, deeply experiential, and offers a “radical challenge to live in a counter-cultural way”, is particularly appealing to teenagers. There is almost nothing else in the Church that is reaching young people on the same scale, he says.

Although this influence extends beyond the C of E — for years, the festival has included a Roman Catholic mass on the final day — Canon Pilavachi confides that the movement is more Anglican than it may have appeared. Ordained in 2012, he serves at Soul Survivor alongside the Revd Andy Croft, the son of the Bishop of Oxford. Relations with the diocese of St Albans are excellent, he says.

“I’m an Evangelical, but we wanted to model an open-hearted Evangelicalism which is open to the rest of the Church, doesn’t feel superior, that doesn’t turn down our nose because we have folk from every churchmanship.”


YOUTH workers in Peterborough did not appear unnerved by the end of the festival. “It’s allowing the Spirit to do a new thing and let the next generation of leaders come up and give their gifts to the Church in the way that Mike has for nearly 30 years,” Ali, who had brought a group with the Steward’s Trust charity, said.

Tom, another youth leader who had attended as a teenager, was “quite excited, simply because it means there will be hundreds of opportunities for different things like this”. Perhaps the excellence of the festivals had allowed churches to rely too heavily on Canon Pilavachi rather than build up their own youth ministries.

The Soul Survivor team chose to pick out three existing festivals to advertise prominently during their final weeks: Dreaming The Impossible, run by the Vineyard network; Limitless, from the Elim Church; and Movement, which grew out of a group of Anglican churches in Somerset. Each of the three had agreed, at Soul Survivor’s prompting, to abandon their denominational trappings and open themselves up to all corners of the Church. At the main evening meetings, Canon Pilavachi invited the leaders of these three festivals to introduce themselves and their events. He is also planning to speak at some of them in 2020, to ease the transition.

The teenagers present in Peterborough seemed sad that their familiar festival was closing down, but intrigued about what the future might hold. Jennifer, who had attended Soul Survivor for the past four years, said that it would feel strange to return home and realise that she would never again find herself inside the much-beloved Big Top; but she said that it was also “exciting” to attend something new.


Caleb and Euan, both in their late teens, said that they intended to transfer their allegiance to the Big Church Day Out: a well-established weekend of worship for all ages, in Sussex. “I don’t think it’s anything to be sad about: there will be more huge festivals like this,” another boy, Will, said. “It’s not like they will stop: it’s just planting a new seed.”

Reuben, who was at his tenth Soul Survivor despite being in his mid-teens, summed up the thoughts of many when he remarked that the real reason tens of thousands were drawn to the showground each year was not going to go away, even as Soul Survivor shut up shop.

“At the end of the day, it’s God: it’s not the festival — in the same way that Christmas isn’t about the presents, I guess. The presents are great, but they are not why you’re there.”


Where I heard God’s call

HANNAH BARRHannah Barr (sixth from the left, back row) with young people at Soul Survivor this year

“Are you okay, Hannah?”

“I think I’ve found God.”

“What’s happening with you, Phoebe?”

“I’m meeting with God.”

These were my first and last experiences of Soul Survivor. The first was back in 2004, when I became a Christian; the last was this year, when I went as a youth leader with a group of young people. The intervening years included countless encounters with God, friendships forged through prayer and partying, talking late into the night until our youth leaders told us to be quiet, then being that youth leader telling them to be quiet (again). So much rain, so much laughter, and so much salvation. It’s been glorious.

As a teenager, Soul Survivor was the high point of my year. A week of worship so intimate and joyful it was liberating, of ministry times that were transformative and healing, of talks, and seminars which stretched my mind, my faith, and my imagination. Above all, it was a week of being loved — primarily by God, but also by Soul Survivor.

Mike Pilavachi never needed to say how much he loved young people — although he frequently did — it just radiated from him. It was like he didn’t see a crowd of thousands, but a room full of individual vessels of God’s image and delight. Soul Survivor felt safe. Mike and the team never looked out of their depth at what God was doing; they never hyped anything up, even as a young person, their integrity shone through, and that really matters to young people.

Soul Survivor, as a teenager, was not the pinnacle of my experience: going as a youth leader was. To have the privilege of getting a front row seat as God meets with my teenagers is an indescribable joy. To rejoice with them as they bounce around after God has called them by name, to when they’re buried in your arms and trust you with their deepest secrets, fears, and hopes — what a gift to get to love young people like this. And, of course, this is possible back home in our churches and youth groups, but the set-apart time and space of Soul Survivor freed both young person and youth leader alike.

On the last night of Soul Survivor 2011, the music was roaring. God’s voice cut through it all, and I fell to my knees. And God called me to ordination. It was also fancy-dress night, and I was dressed as a zebra, but I missed that detail off when telling my DDO. . . I’m not alone; so many of my peers at theological college were nurtured by Soul Survivor in some way. It made me realise that it is more than possible to be a Charismatic, Evangelical Anglican who loves the Church of England and takes communion seriously, because this was modelled.

Soul Survivor isn’t perfect. It didn’t always practice what it preached when it came to women in leadership, (side note: so many of the Soul Survivor reflections haven’t mentioned the incredible Ali Martin, who leads alongside Mike and Andy, and this is unfair).

Its leading and teaching have been very white when the demographic of attendees is far more diverse. My hope is that the events which follow take representation seriously. And jokes which I found risqué in 2009 certainly didn’t land with the far more socially conscious teenagers of 2019. But Soul Survivor was brilliant precisely because it wasn’t perfect; it wasn’t led by celebrity Christians so slick and shiny that their brilliance seems unattainable.

It was led by people who were a family, who loved God and each other fervently, who spoke the truth saturated in love, who laughed and lamented together, who stuck by each other, who bickered and reconciled, and who always sought Father and family rather than fame.

And that might well be the legacy of Soul Survivor in the Church of England: of people leading churches and missions and organisations together, as people who love God, love each other, and love whoever God puts in their path. And who, when God speaks, obey his voice, whatever the cost.

Soul Survivor — what a remarkable thing! Well done, good and faithful servants, now go enjoy some quality family time; those of us you nurtured for all those years will take it from here.

Hannah Barr is entering her second year of training at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.

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