Explainer: Soul Survivor

Image: Mike Pilavachi at Coming Back to the Heart worship conference, Soul Survivor

By Lianne Kolirin

Mike Pilavachi, the founder of the evangelical charismatic movement Soul Survivor, has stepped back from ministry while the Church of England conducts a safeguarding investigation after allegations of inappropriate intimate relationships with young men. His influence on contemporary evangelicalism in the UK is profound and the story of his departure is of huge significance to the church

What is Soul Survivor? 

Soul Survivor is an evangelical Anglican group that in the UK is part of the Church of England. Based in Watford, it is also overseen by the Bishop of St Albans and describes its approach as “relaxed and informal”. 

It is best known for its annual festival for teenagers, which ran from 1993 to 2019, attracting on average 30,000 people from around the world each year.

It began as a weekly meeting at St Andrew’s church in Chorleywood, Hertfordshire, in 1993. Now its followers meet in two warehouses next to each other on an industrial estate in Watford for three services every Sunday, one of which is livestreamed. The 90-minute services feature sung worship and talks focused mostly on basic doctrines about Jesus, the cross, salvation by grace and how young people could experience God via the Holy Spirit. About 1,000 people attend the weekly services, with more tuning in online.

How was it set up?

Soul Survivor was set up in Watford in 1993 by Mike Pilavachi, a youth worker at St Andrew’s, Chorleywood. The original vision, according to its website, was “to provide a place where young people from all over Watford could come”. As a result, it launched “Dreggs Café” to attract young people and spark their interest in Jesus. 

What started as a handful of people meeting in someone’s front room every Wednesday, soon flourished and that same year Mike Pilavachi launched the Soul Survivor festival, with the inaugural event at the Bath and West Showground attracting 1,896 teenagers. 

In an interview with Church Times that year, he said he was motivated to set it up because “there is nothing specifically for young people who have had an experience of charismatic Christianity”. 

Who is Mike Pivalachi? 

Mr Pilavachi was born in London in March 1958. In a testimony filmed at a church event, he said his parents were Greek Orthodox atheists who migrated to England before he was born. He became a Christian at 16 after being introduced to the faith through friends at school. After university, he trained as an accountant and joined a church where he began a youth group that turned into Soul Survivor. His voluntary work as a youth leader became a full-time position as youth worker.

Under the current Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, efforts were made to formalise Soul Survivor’s relationship with the diocese. In 2012, Mr Pilavachi, then 54, was ordained and became associate pastor of Soul Survivor, followed a year later by the Rev Andy Croft, who is now senior pastor at Soul Survivor.

In 2014, Soul Survivor was granted a bishop’s mission order, in which a bishop endorses and authorises an initiative deemed likely to further the mission of the church through developing a distinctive Christian community.

In 2016, he was made an honorary canon of St Albans Cathedral. He is a great storyteller and has written several books on Christian themes. He has spoken publicly about leading a life of celibacy, encouraging celibacy outside of marriage.

In the 2020 New Year Honours, Mike Pilavachi was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for services to young people. That same year the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, recognised him with an award at Lambeth Palace for his “outstanding contribution to evangelism and discipleship amongst young people”. 

Commentators agree that Mr Pilavachi’s influence on contemporary evangelicalism in the UK, particularly on people aged under 50, has been enormous. Therefore they regard this story as highly significant for the church.

What was the Soul Survivor festival and why did it end?

The first festival in 1993 ran for five days and was aimed at introducing teenagers to “charismatic” Christianity. There were just under 2,000 people in the first year, but the audience had doubled by the second. In 1995, the festival, which drew heavily on Pentecostal-charismatic tradition, was expanded to run for two weeks and then again to three weeks.

Festivalgoers would sing worship songs, engage in seminars and try to experience God. According to Soul Survivor, more than 15,000 delegates went on to become Christians as a result of attending the festivals in the 10 years up to its final event.

Soul Survivor held festivals across England, Scotland and Europe for many age groups, and oversaw overseas missionaries and social outreach programmes.

In 2018 it was announced that the next year’s festival would be the last. Explaining his reasoning in an interview with Church Times in 2019, Mr Pilavachi said: “God never said ‘I will build my Soul Survivor’. He only said ‘I will build my church’. I’ve always been very aware that we exist for a season to serve the church, and, when it’s time to stop and hand on the baton, then others will take it on.”

Mr Pilavachi prominently endorsed several other similar but smaller youth festivals during the final sessions in August 2019.

Soul Survivor also runs a gap year project called Soul61 that aims to “train and equip young leaders”, according to its website.

What do they believe? 

The group places the Holy Spirit at the heart of its beliefs and revolves around three core elements: worship, teaching and ministry. 

Through catching the hearts and minds of Christian teenagers, Soul Survivor spread its core values of “miraculous encounters with the Holy Spirit” and informal, soulful contemporary sung worship throughout the broader church. It also regularly released worship music albums and books, and the leaders often spoke at other conferences and events.

Soul Survivor is part of the Church of England, its local diocese is the Diocese of St Albans and its clergy are licensed by the diocesan bishop.

Soul Survivor Watford is a member of the Soul Survivor Family of Churches, a group that “share similar values and are seeking to support one another”. These are mostly dotted around the UK — among them Woodlands Church in Bristol and St Francis’s Church in Luton — as well as others as far away as Italy, Hawaii, South Arica, the United States and Australia. 

Why has Soul Survivor been making headlines? 

4 April 2023: Mr Pilavachi stepped back from ministry while the CofE national safeguarding team and diocese of St Albans conducts a safeguarding investigation. It followed allegations emerging in the press about “inappropriate massages” with young men in his inner circle. 

The pastor has also been accused of having “inappropriate intimate relationships” with young people believed to be linked to the gap year scheme, while stories have also emerged of him wrestling on the floor with young churchgoers.

Alleged victims told The Daily Telegraph that their vicar “left a trail of broken, young male adults scattered all around the world”, while the founder of the US branch of Soul Survivor has claimed that others in the UK branch had been aware of these allegations for two decades

2 April 2023: In April Soul Survivor announced that Mr Pilavachi had agreed “to step back from all ministry” while concerns were investigated.

A joint statement on behalf of the Church of England national safeguarding team, the St Albans Diocese, and the Soul Survivor Watford trustees, on 19 April 2023, said: “Safeguarding concerns relating to Mike Pilavachi have been reported to the national church and, working closely with the Diocese of St Albans, these are currently being looked into according to the Church of England House of Bishops guidelines. Soul Survivor Watford trustees were informed this week and have since been working with the national safeguarding team and the diocese. It was mutually agreed with Mike that he would step back from all ministry, while this investigation is carried out. We would like to stress that the police are not involved; this is not a criminal investigation and Mike has not been suspended. It is also not currently a clergy disciplinary matter.”

In a later statement, the Rev Andy Croft, senior pastor at Soul Survivor, encouraged those affected to come forward. “We want you to know that we are especially aware of how much those who have come forward have been affected and of how much they are suffering, as are all who are directly involved in this investigation,” he said. “I want to say, on behalf of the leadership of the church, how much this grieves us.”

On 15 May, the Watford Observer reported that police were now “monitoring” the church investigation, but had not received any criminal allegations.

On 16 May, Archbishop Justin Welby issued a statement saying he was deeply conscious of the impact of the reports concerning Soul Survivor and Mr Pilavachi and he knew how profoundly painful this was. He encouraged anyone with information to come forward and offered information about a helpline for those affected. His full statement:

“I am deeply conscious of the impact that reports concerning Soul Survivor and Mike Pilavachi continue to have on many people. The investigation, which is being led by safeguarding professionals from the national safeguarding team and the Diocese of St Albans, is independent from Soul Survivor and has my full support.

“The investigation is prioritising the wellbeing of everyone concerned, and I am confident they are treating all who are involved in the investigation and everything that has been shared with the utmost care and sensitivity. Access to counselling is available and support is being offered to all concerned. 

“I cannot comment any further at this stage while the investigation is ongoing, but I know how profoundly painful this is. I would like to assure anyone who has been affected by this situation of my ongoing prayers. For some that will be from their direct involvement, for others this is bringing to the surface past experiences from their own lives. Please continue to support and pray for one another, as we remind each other of the love of Christ which never fails.”

On 4 June 2023, The Times reported that a communication officer at Soul Survivor heard about the inappropriate massages 20 years ago – in 2004 – and reported it to a senior official.

11 July 2023: Mike Pilavachi resigns from Soul Survivor, by issuing a statement on his private Instagram account, picked up on social media, seeking forgiveness for anyone he may have hurt in the course of his ministry.

Sphere of influence

Soul Survivor is said to have had a “massive influence” on Anglican youth work and latterly on helping churches to exercise leadership, according to the Rev Stephen Parsons, a retired Anglican cleric. One impact of Soul Survivor reported by Tim Wyatt, writing in the Church Times, is that many churches have embraced charismatic worship with its appeal to young people.

The Soul Survivor “family” of churches is a common structure found in the Church of England, where mainly conservative evangelical churches group together in networks parallel to parishes and dioceses. Others include ReNew, New Wine and the HTB network.

The largest of these alternative structures, the HTB network, is based at Holy Trinity Brompton, a large wealthy evangelical charismatic church in south Kensington, London, which started the Alpha course and has given birth to many church plants. This is when a group from the mother church starts new communities of Christians often in rundown church buildings at risk of closure.

The HTB, sometimes described as the closest thing the Church of England has to a megachurch, has been driving the evangelical movement in Britain since the 1980s. One of HTB’s graduates is Archbishop Welby, who started worshipping there 40 years ago. 

Many of those involved in the “church plants” led by HTB either found faith or felt called to become ordained while at Soul Survivor events. Leaders of various charismatic networks meet at the annual HTB-run leadership conferences designed to bring people together across traditions, generations, and cultures. As recently as February this year, Mike Pilavachi interviewed the Rev Nicky Gumbell, vicar of Holy Trinity 2005-22, and his wife Pippa, at a Soul Survivor meeting in Watford.

On 14 May, a man called David Gate shared his story in The Sunday Times of allegedly being mistreated by Mr Pilavachi while a worship leader at Soul Survivor. Mr Gate gained further attention two days later when he took to Twitter saying it was “very concerning” that he had been contacted privately by someone called Matthew Rayner who appeared to work for HTB and the Alpha Course “questioning why I needed to speak to the ‘secular press’ and telling me to ‘do better’ just a day after I shared my experiences as a child with Mike Pilavachi.”

He went on to comment on HTB’s silence on the reports about Soul Survivor, tweeting: “This is especially galling because we have been waiting weeks for comment from @nickygumbel or @htbchurch and @justinwelby.”

David Gate’s message gained much attention online, while the Twitter account for Mr Rayner was deleted soon afterwards.


Dr John Maiden, senior lecturer in religious studies, the Open University

Professor Mathew Guest, sociology of religion department, Durham University

(last updated 11 July 2023)


Join our Newsletter