This summer Martin Saunders visited the Soul Survivor festival to discover why it has become an irresistible force in UK youth ministry It’s Monday evening, 8.30pm. Jeremy Vine’s earnest face appears, introducing a Panorama special about ‘the disturbing youth rallies taking part in sleepy Somerset.’ Cut to a montage of video footage, where huge crowds of young people stand with their hands thrust aloft; among them, one is weeping uncontrollably; another is screaming in emotional pain. In his voice-over, earnest Jeremy announces that ‘this is Soul Survivor – a festival for fanatical Christian teenagers.’ Then he lowers his voice and asks: ‘are your children at risk?’
Panorama has never visited Soul Survivor – the charismatic Christian youth festival that has been held for the last 18 years in a usually-muddy West Country showground. Yet as I stood in one of the event’s main meetings this August, I looked around at some of the sights described above, and wondered: what kind of documentary would they make if they did?
When I was a teenager, the event was in its infancy; I attended along with perhaps 3,000 other young people, all of us squeezed into a large shed usually reserved for selling animals. Thanks to the summer heat, basic camping facilities and our collective aversion to soap, I’m sure the smell in that room remained consistent. However, when I returned for the first time in 14 years this summer, as a youth leader, there were over 12,000 of us crammed into an enormous marquee. Even though I was well aware of its growth curve, I was still stunned by the scale. In the centre of the tent, a four-sided stage stood, surrounded by video screens and dominated by a huge white luminous cross. The event’s founder, Mike Pilavachi, still acts as ringmaster for the central meetings, during which loud guitar worship is led by people who can’t legally buy alcohol, the Bible is taught - often via the medium of stand-up comedy, social justice is given right billing as a form of worship - and then… well, we’ll get on to what happens after that.
Numbers and fruit
Crucially, you can’t talk about Soul Survivor for long without bringing up its most startling and encouraging statistic. Every year, hundreds of young people – many of them completely unchurched – are making a first time faith commitment in those meetings. Across the three, five-day festivals in 2010, 1,596 young people made a first-time commitment to follow Jesus. And those are the ones they know about.
A former accountant-turned-youth worker who was mentored by Charismatic pioneers David and Mary Pytches, Pilavachi set up the festival, and the Watford church of the same name, in the early 1990s. He did so out of a passion to see young people engage in a living relationship with Jesus Christ; a passion that has gone on to define him. Pilavachi is now regarded as a true visionary; and is not only one of the UK’s most in-demand speakers for both youth and adults, but also an influential mentor who has helped some of the world’s best-known worship leaders – Matt Redman and Tim Hughes among them – to emerge and flourish.
One of Pilavachi’s key values was making space for the work of the Holy Spirit – an integral element of the festivals that has drawn both praise and criticism from different wings of the church. So here’s the bit that might bother the uninitiated: at the end of each meeting, Pilavachi (or his impressive protégée, Andy Croft) calls the crowd into an intentional time of waiting on God. Without fail, what follows is a kind of holy chaos, as people begin to manifest the results of a dynamic encounter with the Holy Spirit. And frankly, it’s all a bit weird. What took me aback however, were the lengths to which the host went to in order to negate any sense of hype or hysteria. ‘We don’t hype the Spirit up; he comes down’ was a recurring phrase. Having read a little about hypnosis, neuro-linguistic programming and the like, I can only confirm that Mike and his team are doing all the wrong things if they hoped to whip up this kind of reaction on their own steam. They crack jokes at crucial moments; they regularly remind people not to fake it. Having arrived with a healthy scepticism – and then having witnessed physical healings, and the immediate fruit of such encounters – I can only report that much of what went on seemed genuine. A bit weird, but genuine all the same. So if Panorama did turn up, perhaps they’d come to the same conclusion.
A new generation
The surprising scale to which Soul Survivor has grown extends far beyond those Big Top gatherings. Initiatives bearing the name currently run in six countries. In the UK, the organisation runs a variety of smaller conferences for young people and their leaders throughout the calendar, and in recent years, have extended their main focus to one of the church’s black hole age groups – the 18- 30s. Enthused by my visit to one of the youth weeks, I made an unplanned return to the site for Momentum, the self-proclaimed ‘older sibling’ to Soul Survivor.
There was a perceptible difference. Whereas Soul Survivor is for teenagers who are fixed on the rails of the education system and are simply hungry to work out their faith in the context of that limited universe, Momentum caters for a group who have been catapulted into the big wide world, and have abundant questions as a result. Issues such as self-esteem, singleness, and the struggle to engage with traditional church come high on the agenda. And while Pilavachi himself concedes that Momentum could be seen as a concession to a consumerist age group, at least they’re getting an opportunity to work through those issues. As I sat among an estimated 5,000 twenty-something Christians in one of main sessions, I was struck by the fact that I had never seen such a gathering before. Many of our churches have barely anyone in that age group – for the few who remain, Momentum must prove a mighty encouragement.
Keeping the fire
Both events make a predictably massive impact on the majority of attendees. They return home to their churches full of passion and purpose, and close to God. Yet in many cases, that fire doesn’t last for very long. Young people go from being in a huge crowd of their own generation, where God seems to move dramatically and the music is so loud they’re prepared to sing out like poorly-advised X-Factor contestants, to a local context that can never match up. Some are left with a warped theology that God acts there but not here, and all are hit by a realisation that 80s Power Ballads don’t work in a congregation of 60.
How do we help our young people to make the transition from what youth ministry thinker Fuzz Kitto calls the ‘temple to the synagogue’? Partly by being comfortable with that distinction – there were distinct roles for both of those places in Jesus’ day – but also by taking a look at some of Soul Survivor’s key, and apparently successful, values, and asking whether they can inform our local expressions of church. How patient is your church, for instance, in waiting on God? Is leaving space for the Spirit to move an essential part of your Sunday service, or would that leave everyone worrying their roast dinner might burn? What opportunities do we create for young people to hear the gospel and respond? How good are we at communicating in a relevant way to our younger members? How well do we join the dots between worship, evangelism and justice? The answers may help us to shape church to meet the high expectations of young people descending from their mountain-top experiences.
Soul Survivor is undoubtedly one of the most exciting things happening in the UK church today. Somehow – perhaps even by mistake – they’ve stumbled across an approach to Christianity which is drawing unprecedented numbers of young people to Jesus. While it isn’t perfect, many exciting things continue to pour out of its ministry, the greatest of which is a steady stream of young people choosing to put Jesus at the centre of their lives. In the context of a culture which regards Christianity as dead and buried, the 1,596 young people who made that decision this summer are perhaps worthy of a Panorama documentary all their own.