Megan Cornwell has spent the past twelve months investigating one of the most shocking scandals to hit the UK evangelical Church in recent years. Here she explains what her reporting for Premier Christianity’s critically acclaimed podcast series has uncovered

Laughter filled the enormous tent as a large, curly-haired man in a garish shirt walked across the stage, speaking into a microphone. Beside him was a younger, more athletic-looking man in jeans and a T-shirt. Occasionally, the older man would put his arm around the younger one and playfully poke fun at him – “Crofty”, he would affectionately call him.  

The pair were like a double-act. A Christian comedy duo. One boisterous, jovial and irreverent; the other measured, calm and with a dry a sense of humour. I turned to my then-boyfriend-now-husband and whispered: “What did Mike say?” I’d missed the punchline of his joke and I didn’t want to be left out. “He said something about massages,” he replied. “Massages?” I didn’t get it. “What’s funny about massages?” But my boyfriend couldn’t hear me. I was drowned out by the laughter of thousands of Christians. 

I looked over at the stage, at Andy Croft. There was something about his facial expression that confused me. He wasn’t laughing. He wasn’t smiling even. He looked…vacant. 

This was the memory that came back to me a few days after I first read the news that safeguarding concerns had been raised about Reverend Canon Mike Pilavachi. An article in The Telegraph described the “inappropriate intimate relationships” the pastor was accused of having with young people, and the “inappropriate massages” he allegedly gave them. Immediately, my mind rewound eleven years to that day with my friends in the big top at Momentum – the Christian festival for 20 to 30-year-olds run by Soul Survivor church. 

I don’t think any of us could have predicted how deep and dark this story would go

At Momentum I had laughed along with everyone else at Pilavachi’s silly quips and sarcasm. I had enjoyed the banter and the way he made you feel part of a tribe. And I had experienced profoundly beautiful moments during the worship time. But there was something about that particular moment on the main stage that had stayed with me. Perhaps it was the cognitive dissonance etched on Croft’s face, or the unresolved question that formed in my mind: What did Mike mean by massages?

Soul Survivor Scotland-1005 Mike Pilavachi

The prophet

The news that Pilavachi was under investigation by the Church of England’s National Safeguarding Team reached Premier Christianity just before Easter 2023. For several days you could hear a proverbial pin drop on social media as Christian organisations and leaders processed what was happening. Even among colleagues there was an atypical silence; I think many of us were thinking the same thing: Surely not Mike Pilavachi?

The 66-year-old pastor had been the UK’s most prominent Christian youth worker, and one of the evangelical-charismatic Church’s most beloved speakers. From 1993 to 2019 he ran the Soul Survivor festivals that attracted thousands of young people to Jesus every summer. Scores became Christians as a result of the gospel messages they heard in a field outside Shepton Mallet. Many testified to being powerfully healed or delivered during Holy Spirit ministry times, often led by prominent songwriters such as Matt Redman and Tim Hughes.  

Pilavachi also led Soul Survivor church in Watford, a thriving congregation planted out of St Andrew’s parish, Chorleywood. This was where the late bishop David Pytches had turbocharged charismatic renewal in the Church of England and where Pilavachi had cut his teeth as a youth worker and then as assistant to the associate vicar.

Pilavachi’s down-to-earth style and sense of fun meant he was popular with young and old alike. As a magazine that serves the evangelical wing of the Church, he was a mainstay of our coverage. As far as we all knew, Pilavachi was one of the good guys. 

Of course, his stage persona had a slight edge, but like an eccentric uncle at a family barbecue who uses mockery to connect with the teenagers, there was always an assumption that his was an attitude underpinned by love. Afterall, someone somewhere must have decided that Pilavachi was safe. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been given a platform. Would he?

When my colleague Kelly Valencia and I first began investigating this story, we had no idea what we would find – or how complex things would become. Initially, we faced so many closed doors we almost gave up. Even when we tracked down past students from the leadership course that seemed to be the focus of Pilavachi’s abuse, we heard conflicting accounts. But among the stories – many of which included fond memories of the church – there seemed to be a common thread. People with past links to Pilavachi were often not surprised that the pastor was under investigation. It was just enough to suggest there could be more to the story.

Matt and Beth Redman

Matt and Beth Redman share the abuse they experienced at Soul Survivor

Over the following months, we reached out to experts, former staff members, interns and those who had been on the leadership course for 18-24-year-olds. Many were now clergy or working for Christian organisations elsewhere in the country, proving that Soul Survivor’s impact on the Church had been immense.

When we finally accrued enough evidence to produce ‘Soul Survivors’, our investigative podcast series, and just before we launched episode one, the Church of England’s own official investigation concluded. It found that Pilavachi had abused his spiritual authority over a period of 40 years. The substantiated claims included “a form of emotional and psychological abuse characterised by a systematic pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour in a religious context”. This coercive and controlling behaviour led to “inappropriate relationships, the physical wrestling of youths and the massaging of young male interns”.

Decades of failings

I don’t think any of us could have predicted how deep and dark this story would go. By April 2024, almost exactly a year after the first allegations surfaced, Grammy-award winning worship leader Matt Redman and his wife, Beth, publicly shared their experiences of abuse in a short film called Let There Be Light. On the same day, we sat down with the couple to discuss the impact of their time at Soul Survivor. 

Matt had first met Pilavachi at the age of 13 – when he was a member of Pilavachi’s youth group at St Andrew’s. Together, they founded the summer festivals and the church in Watford. Beth later joined to coordinate the six-month residential course for young people that was then called Body Builders.

During our interview, Matt explained how he lost his father when he was seven and, later, experienced sexual abuse. “Mike was the person I told about that. I look back on those moments and it’s quite hard to revisit. There’s utter relief that I got to tell this youth leader what happened to me, and he helped me go to the police. But now, as I look at some of the patterns…he would counsel me about that abuse. He’d want to know all the details, but then he would wrestle me afterwards. That felt uncomfortable. It’s very troubling.”


Beth spoke of the torment of being called up on stage to deliver prophetic words she didn’t have: “There was a lot of psychological bullying that went on that I didn’t go into in the documentary, where he would pull me up on stage and say: ‘Beth’s got a word from God.’

Many of us were thinking the same thing: Surely not Mike Pilavachi?

“I didn’t have a word from God, you know?…And that was a terribly frightening, confusing experience.”

After the Redmans went public with their story – the details of which you can hear about in a special episode of the podcast – the well-known worship leader Rev Tim Hughes and his brother, Rev Pete Hughes, released a statement. In it they shared details of “psychological and spiritual abuse at the hands of Mike Pilavachi”. 

“Whilst under his leadership we also experienced the wrestling and the massages that have been well documented”, they said.

Like the Redmans, the Hughes brothers had both worked for Soul Survivor in the early 2000s – Tim as assistant worship pastor and Pete as assistant director. Like Matt, they too met Pilavachi when they were children. 

How was it possible that Pilavachi could have wreaked such a trail of destruction? And why on earth were we only finding out about it now, four decades later? The answer to that question lies in a litany of shortcomings by those closest to Pilavachi that I expect the barrister-led investigation into the church will expose. The findings of this review – which is currently being led by Fiona Scolding KC – are yet to be made public, but our own reporting has revealed many instances of institutional failings. 

We know, for example, that Soul Survivor’s chair of trustees was informed about Pilavachi’s behaviour as early as 2004. We have seen evidence of a massage allegation being disclosed to another trustee in 2016, which does not appear to have been properly investigated. We have spoken to former staff members and interns who, over the years, told various leaders at Soul Survivor – including an executive director – about inappropriate behaviour that had either been disclosed to them or suffered by them. Whether any of these leaders alerted safeguarding is yet to be determined. 

Professor Lisa Oakley, a safeguarding expert from the University of Chester, who I spoke to during our investigation, told me that Christian communities must get better at understanding and responding to spiritual abuse. When people come forward in our churches we must react well and appropriately, she said: “How do we create healthier cultures for the future in which these things are less likely to happen and more likely to be identified if they do?

“And perhaps a positive message is that we can do something about this – and exploring healthy cultures is part of the answer to that – but there’s a responsibility on us to do something about it.

mike and andy

Mike Pilavachi with Andy Croft

Jesus weeps

Our podcast, ‘Soul Survivors’ has been nominated for podcast of the year at the 2024 Professional Publishers Association awards. If we win, I’d like to dedicate it to the heroines and heroes of this story – those who were brave enough to come forward and speak out – often with fear and trembling. Those who Pilavachi silenced, abused or mistreated asked themselves the same question for years: What did I do wrong? You didn’t do anything wrong. You were wronged. And Jesus weeps with you.

But because we worship a bloodied and bruised saviour, one who embraces the sinner and sinned against with scandalous grace that transcends our understanding – and, if we’re honest, often our appetite – I suspect Jesus also weeps with the villains of this story. Those who were given power and wielded it like a sword. Those who stayed silent when they should have spoken out. Those who carried on because it was expedient. Those who looked the other way. 

Our reporting has revealed many instances of institutional failings

Whether it was sadism, sin or insecurity, self-preservation, fear or ignorance, Jesus sees it all. And he weeps. He is with those who knew and did nothing. He’s with those who tried and failed. He’s with those who made mistakes in the moment, who misread the situation, who believed the best. He’s with those who are now filled with shame and confusion.


Our God is a great big God, and what I’ve come to realise – through 12 long months of working on this painful story – is that he’s big enough to carry it all. So, let’s take all the sorrow, betrayal and confusion of the last year and lay it at the feet of the one who looked sin in the face and overcame. Because, ultimately, that is the only place we should ever put our hope. 

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If you’ve been affected by the issues raised in this article, or on the ‘Soul Survivors’ podcast series, a listening ear and spiritual support is available from Premier Lifeline. Call 0300 111 0101 (9am-5pm, Monday to Friday) or visit