Media coverage of Mike Pilavachi and Soul Survivor has lumped serious safeguarding allegations together with vague and nonsensical claims about the festival in general. It distracts from the allegations and does any potential victims no favours, says Tim Wyatt

Soul Survivor

Source: Soul Survivor

The news that the founder of Soul Survivor, Mike Pilavachi, is being investigated over safeguarding concerns has detonated like a bomb among evangelical Christians in Britain.

The possibility that one of the most admired and influential church leaders in this country abused his position, and the young people he served, has understandably caused huge anguish and soul-searching.

The allegations which have leaked out into the public domain via media reports are hugely concerning. All allegations must be fully and independently investigated.

Soul Survivor Watford, the church linked to the summer conferences, has called for anyone with information to come forward. And it’s been encouraging to see that, unlike in some previous church scandals, there have been few voices trying to suppress disclosures, or insist that previous good character supersedes listening to alleged victims.

Religious illiteracy

But the Pilavachi crisis has also exposed a more subtle issue – the broad religious illiteracy among some of those covering the story. Incredibly serious safeguarding allegations are being lumped in wholesale with a series of vague, dubious and, at times, nonsensical claims thrown at Soul Survivor in general.

Reading the lurid news accounts, it becomes increasingly clear that some of the journalists covering this story have little to no understanding of the charismatic evangelical Church world they are reporting on.

Practices and beliefs which are entirely mainstream are being misrepresented as malign

There are some small inaccuracies which immediately do not ring true for those of us with first-hand experience. One article describes how teenagers at the festivals would be pulled onto the stage to be prayed for and told their physical or mental illness was a result of sin. In fact, Soul Survivor’s policy was always for the young people to be prayed for by other delegates on the floor of the big top, and never taught that sin caused sickness. 

Another piece talks of Soul Survivor Watford being given unprecedented backing from Lambeth Palace, such as controlling its own funds and setting its own safeguarding policies. In reality, all Anglican churches are independent legal entities which have their own bank accounts. They all also are required by law to comply with central Church of England safeguarding rules.

A further article claims the “conveyor belt” of young men who acted as Pilavachi’s interns were chosen because they came from broken homes or had traumatic childhoods. This may have been the case for some, but it is also very misleading: many gap year interns actually came from the comfortable, stable upper-middle-class families which populate the average evangelical church youth group.

The cult of personality

Beyond specific mistakes like this, there is a general impression of Soul Survivor as a manipulative one-man personality cult; a sinister grooming machine where Pilavachi could make or break someone’s career in the Church. It’s not just slightly over the top, it’s flat out incorrect.

Yes, Pilavachi was influential and powerful within Soul Survivor, the movement he started and still leads. Yes, he took young men under his wing to intensively mentor them for ministry. But that description could fit many large evangelical churches in Britain.

Serious allegations are being lumped in with vague, dubious and, at times, nonsensical claims about Soul Survivor

Soul Survivor was part of the Church of England, overseen by the Bishop of St Albans and operating within the national safeguarding parameters. None of this means it is not possible that Pilavachi is an abuser – he would not be the first high-profile Anglican to be so exposed. But it is unfair to paint the movement and church he ran as an independent and depraved fiefdom, built to serve the ego and evil desires of one man.

There is a similar issue in strains of coverage which have muttered darkly about dangerous and oppressive teaching, brainwashing vulnerable teenagers. In truth, as almost any of the literally tens of thousands of Christians who have attended Soul Survivor over the years could tell you, this is also overblown.

In reality, Soul Survivor represented the boring mainstream of orthodox evangelical Christianity. They focused mostly on basic doctrines about Jesus, the cross, salvation by grace and how young people could experience God via the Holy Spirit.

No doubt many outside the Church, who had never heard of Pilavachi until a month ago, might find the messages of “no sex outside of marriage” bizarre and oppressive. But it’s also the official teaching (just about) of our established state Church, Christian tradition for almost 2,000 years, and something taught without controversy from thousands of pulpits up and down the country.

Likewise, some of the reporting has made much of Soul Survivor’s reportedly kooky beliefs about the power of prayer for healing, or listening to God via prophetic words. Weird to outsiders, no doubt, but also totally unremarkable for thousands of Pentecostal or charismatic churches across the UK every Sunday. And certainly not evidence of rot at the heart of the movement Pilavachi led.

This matters beyond being unfair to one particular church. Practices, structures and beliefs which are entirely mainstream and non-harmful, and indeed core to how many Christians worship, are being misrepresented as malign, or even intrinsically abusive.

Missing the point

Churchgoers reading some of this vague-yet-deeply-foreboding coverage are able to skim past this and focus on the substantial and very concerning safeguarding allegations against Pilavachi. But for those unfamiliar with this part of the Church, it seems to corroborate the allegations unjustifiably. And it reduces a complicated organisation full of hundreds of individuals each trying and failing to build the kingdom to a cartoonish parody; a sinister cult dedicated to facilitating one man’s alleged abuse.

It is vital that we listen carefully to all of the alleged victims. But responsible journalism does not simply uncritically repeat anything an (often anonymous) source states. Reporters need to carefully examine claims made by those coming forward, not re-broadcast anything critical anyone now says about Soul Survivor.

The huge danger is that the good reporting, which has brought to light safeguarding allegations against Pilavachi, will be sullied by being lumped in with a sea of vague and dubious claims about Soul Survivor - or even charismatic evangelicalism in general.

The worst outcome would be that Christians, who understand the Church in a way the media does not, conclude that everything they read is equally misleading or false, and therefore feel they can safely ignore the concerns about Pilavachi…or whoever comes next. 

See here for the latest news on the safeguarding investigation

Those with safeguarding concerns related to this story are being asked to contact Jeremy Hirst at the Diocesan Safeguarding Team at or Judith Renton, Ian Bowles or Anthony Clarke at the National Safeguarding Team at or to contact thirtyone:eight on 0303 003 1111