MY FIRST trip to Soul Survivor was in 2002, when Isle of Wight Youth for Christ organised a coach for us to go up together as a group. I’d grown up going to events like Spring Harvest, Easter People, and the Keswick Convention, but most of my church experience growing up was in small rural parishes. A festival on this scale was something new to me.
Going to the festival involved many firsts for me: my first experiences of Charismatic ministry, and the idea that something supernatural could really happen; my first encounters with loud Christian rock music; my first experience of such a large crowd of young and excited Christians; and my first real understanding that I might want to take ownership of my faith more seriously, and see what it might mean to take it further and deeper.
MARK PORTERMark Porter as a young man
Over the next few years, I went back to Soul Survivor a number of times, and I began to notice at baptism services in my Oxford church that there was a repeated pattern I would hear again and again from those being baptised: they had grown up Christian, they hadn’t been particularly serious about it, but then they’d been to Soul Survivor, and something had changed.
Over the past ten or 15 years, my own faith journey has slowly moved away from Charismatic Evangelical environments. As a result of different tensions with leaders, practices, and theologies, and a sense that there are aspects of my faith and journey to which they aren’t completely hospitable, I’ve made my home in other churches and other ways of worshipping.
Moving away hasn’t meant a total rejection of this aspect of my faith — indeed, I treasure it as part of my journey, and there are aspects of it that I still hold close and dear. It has, however, involved a growing sense of critical distance.
We’ve seen a lot of different scandals over recent years, many of which connect in some way to churches I’ve been part of. Soul Survivor felt quite different. For me, Mike Pilavachi has exemplified someone who was honest and relatable, who had consistently tried to downplay hype, and who eschewed the wider dynamics of Christian celebrity in favour of a ministry genuinely committed to serving young people and fostering the work of the Spirit.
The scandal around the church is something that leads me to question my own sense of judgement, and at the same time to wonder whether those parts of my faith journey which I still cherish are quite so trustworthy as I had thought. If even what seemed like the best examples of this kind of church culture end up like this, then is there anything left untouched by these dysfunctions?
At the same time, they help me to see how some of the things being asked of us at the time were less reasonable than they might have seemed. The things we were asked to give up and set down were at odds with the things the very leaders asking us were doing.
The story behind Matt Redman’s “The Heart of Worship” is one of the most formative narratives in the Soul Survivor worship ethos. It’s about how the band and their worship music got too big for their boots; so, one day, they decided to strip everything back — to return to the simplest form of prayer and worship. Reducing everything to just one person and a guitar showed how it’s really all about God and not about the performance, the power, or the other human elements that so often get bound up with worship music.
This story has been a foundational narrative in so many worship teams I’ve been part of — we’ve told ourselves that this is our job, this is the attitude we need, and that this is how we should be. But, now, we learn that that story could well have been bound up with abuses of power, with inappropriate relationships, with favouritism and gaslighting. I don’t know what to do with that.
Perhaps that’s simply how all human communities are — or perhaps there’s something about this kind of worship culture that was never quite as it should be. I’ve had more than enough mixed experiences over the years to have seen its problems as well as its possibilities. I’m still trying to sort those different elements out, and I’m not sure where they’re going to land.
Dr Mark Porter went on to serve as a worship leader and director of music for churches in the UK and in Germany. He is now is a research associate at the University of Erfurt, and author of Contemporary Worship and Everyday Musical Lives (Routledge, 2016).