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Soul Survivor: From a big tent to the heart of parish churches

08 June 2023

Madeleine Davies charts the influence of the movement over two decades

Soul Survivor

Young people at the last Soul Survivor festival in 2019

Young people at the last Soul Survivor festival in 2019

FOR those outside the Charismatic Evangelical sphere, the extent of Soul Survivor’s influence on Christianity in the UK and impact of the allegations should not be under-estimated. In its recently published advice for youth leaders dealing with the fallout from the allegations, the charity Youthscape observed: “Mike Pilavachi’s influence is such that a significant proportion of Christians in the UK and beyond will feel some connection to the ministry of Soul Survivor.”

This is no exaggeration. Every year, between 1993 and 2019, thousands of young people gathered at the Soul Survivor festivals, accompanied by youth leaders from churches around the country (Features, 13 September 2019). They packed the Big Top to sing worship songs, pray to receive the Holy Spirit, and to hear from Canon Pilavachi, a speaker who combined passionate exposition of scripture and an unabashed expression of love for Jesus with comic, self-deprecating turns that raised waves of laughter.

For some, brought by Christian friends, it was their first experience of Christianity. For others, perhaps the only churchgoer they knew of in their class at school, or part of a small youth group at their home church, it was an opportunity to be bolstered by the presence of peers who shared their faith.

Canon Pilavachi was a compelling figure, partly because he was prepared to reveal his own vulnerability. “Mike’s audiences heard about the brokenness in his youth that led him to Jesus, the bouts of depression that hit during and after the summer festivals, his loneliness, his occasional habit of hiding from his friends,” Lucy Sixsmith, a Ph.D student at the University of Cambridge, recalled in a recent blog.

“Mike, one hand nervously plucking at the front panel of his trademark multi-coloured shirt. Sitting down on the edge of the stage to talk to several thousand teenagers like his own youth group. . . Soul Survivor seemed to be the genuine article. . . Mike Pilavachi came to UK evangelicalism in weakness and fear and with much trembling, and perhaps it made us all more trusting.”

 

THE first Soul Survivor festival was held in 1993 at the Royal Bath and West Showground, in Somerset. About 2000 people went; attendance peaked at 30,000 in 2014, a figure matched in the festival’s final year. It was also in 1993 that Soul Survivor began as a full-time church in a warehouse in Watford. For many years, this was run by Canon Pilavachi and other lay leaders. It was granted a Bishop’s Mission Order in 2014, two years after Canon Pilavachi was ordained.

His connection to the Church of England began in 1987 when, having trained as an accountant, he became a youth leader at St Andrew’s, Chorleywood. The church launched the New Wine festival in 1989, and Canon Pilavachi was keen to launch something specifically for young people, to which they could bring their friends.

New Wine itself was born of the desire to “refresh, inspire and minister in the Holy Spirit” in the wake of John Wimber’s visit to England and its dramatic effect on a group of Charismatic Evangelical churches. St Andrew’s was the first English church that Wimber attended on his visit to the UK in 1981. A former member of the group that became the Righteous Brothers, and latterly leader of the Association of Vineyard Churches, he was once described by Bishop Sandy Millar, a former Vicar of Holy Trinity, Brompton (HTB), as having had the most significant impact on the C of E since John Wesley.

His signs-and-wonders ministry had an immediate effect on those first churches. The Vicar of St Andrew’s, the Rt Revd David Pytches, previously the Bishop of Chile, Bolivia, and Peru, recalled “holy chaos”, during which people fell down in the pews. A later visit transformed the life of HTB, the home of the Alpha course.

 

IT ALSO changed the life of Canon Pilavachi. Having experienced a conversion at the age of 16, he was in his mid-twenties when he first encountered Wimber at a conference in London in 1983. In his book For the Audience of One, he recalls being “totally unhinged” by the singing. “I spent a whole part of the week just crying and sniffling my way through songs. . . Many of the songs were incredibly simple and yet totally intimate. As I worshipped, I found healing for my soul. Intimacy set me free.”

This was the approach to worship adopted at Soul Survivor, where music was led by a series of young worship leaders, several of whom have become some of the most celebrated Evangelical songwriters. Matt Redman, the composer of “Ten thousand reasons” and “Blessed be your name”, was just a teenager when he began leading worship at the church in Watford. One of his successors was Tim Hughes (“Happy day” and “Here I am to worship”), who became the worship leader at HTB, and now leads Gas Street Church, an HTB plant in Birmingham.

Both men have issued statements praising the bravery of those who have come forward in the Pilavachi investigation, while stating that they cannot talk about their own experiences publicly while the investigation is ongoing (News, 5 May). Among those who have come forward is David Gate, a former Soul Survivor worship leader who was a 12-year-old attending the New Wine festival when he first encountered Canon Pilavachi.

He was 16, he said, when Canon Pilavachi “singled me out and told me I was going to do amazing things for God”. He wrestled with Canon Pilavachi, “but always fully clothed in the company of others”, he told The Times. “Looking back, it must have appeared strange, a 45-year-old, well-built man wrestling on the floor with a 16-year-old boy.”

 

ANOTHER aspect of Wimber’s spirituality which shaped Soul Survivor was his motto: “Everyone gets to play”: the conviction that, as a “royal priesthood of believers”, there was no need for worshippers to wait for the minister to pray for the Holy Spirit. Against a background of plummeting numbers of children and young people in churches, Soul Survivor was celebrated as a place where young people encountered God, and where lives were changed.

Many of these — both men and women — went on to pursue vocations in the Church of England. It has been estimated that about one third of the ordinands in just one diocese — St Albans — have had a connection with Soul Survivor. The Revd Nicky Gumbel, until recently Vicar of HTB, has described asking his clergy colleagues at the church what led them to ordination, and “practically every person in the room said the main reason is Soul Survivor.”

Other former members of the congregation have spoken of going on to dedicate their lives to social action (Features, 2 January 2015). In 2020, the Archbishop of Canterbury presented Canon Pilavachi with the Alphege Award for Evangelism and Witness in recognition of his “outstanding contribution to evangelism and discipleship amongst young people in the United Kingdom”.

Accounts online from people who spent time at Soul Survivor include descriptions of the attempt to reconcile painful aspects of the period and what has come to light with positive memories. “I had sacred and beautiful experiences at Soul Survivor,” Becca McGowan wrote on Twitter. “I still believe they were genuine. Were they always divine experiences? I don’t know. It’s complex.”

Within its framework for “healthy discussion” with young people, Youthscape has suggested that, “If the allegations are true, it doesn’t undermine everything that happened at the festivals, programmes, or church.”

Others have come to different conclusion. In a recent blog post, the Revd Luke Larner, Assistant Curate of St Paul’s, Bedford, and a former member of the prayer and prophecy team at Soul Survivor festivals, dared others to ask: “What if it wasn’t real? What if a lot of what we experienced was hype? What if we were carried on the wave of hope for a better world and a better life, but were left wanting?

“What if we hurt people in the process? What if we gave our everything to something that failed us? What if we were just impressionable kids who deserved better? Will we still follow Jesus? Or will we find a different way?”

While the church in Watford continues, the Soul Survivor festivals ended in 2019 (News, 1 June 2018). “We believe that we are to lay it down and that God has said he is going to raise other things up,” Canon Pilavachi said in a video. “God said to us at the beginning, ‘I never said that I will build my Soul Survivor, I will only build my Church.’ . . . We just want to be obedient to him.”

Sam Wilson is a youth leader in the diocese of Chester, and a General Synod member. He said this week: “In youth ministry, we are always looking for ways to proclaim the gospel afresh to the next generation. For many years, that was what we felt Soul Survivor was doing. Most youth workers I speak to know so many who describe coming to faith at the annual festivals. So many of us are feeling frustration and anxiety as we wait for the investigations to complete.

“Personally, I’m just so tired of these sorts of things happening, and I don’t want this to be another example of us failing to learn from our mistakes. We trusted those in positions of power with our own faith and the faith of those young people we minister to and alongside.

“This ought to be an opportunity to look at youth ministry across our Church. It is not right that so often youth ministry is ‘siloed off’ and seen as an entirely separate ministry from the rest of the Church, leading it to being almost ignored by senior leaders. It’s not good for sharing the gospel, and it’s not good for our young people.”

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