The office running evangelical Christian Soul Survivor festivals is closing, but its influence among teenagers has shaped future church leaders.
By Tim Wyatt
Soul Survivor Ministries, an evangelical Christian movement, based in Watford, Hertfordshire, held its last summer festival in August in 2019 and is winding down to close by the end of the year.
The organisation, which began running summer camps for teenagers in 1993, grew into a sprawling network of “parachurch” groups, including a megachurch in Watford, which will continue. It held festivals across England, Scotland and Europe for many age groups, and oversaw overseas missionaries and social outreach programmes.
By the time it closed, it was gathering 32,000 teenagers each summer to its main events, which combined holiday summer camps, Pentecostal-style worship sessions, and evangelical Bible teaching.
But although the main focus of the group has now ended, the influence and legacy of the Soul Survivor brand will continue shaping the British evangelical church for decades to come.
The movement has been instrumental in mainstreaming Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity in Britain, a tradition that back in the early 1990s was relatively niche but today is commonplace throughout main denominations such as the Church of England, the Baptists, the Methodists and others.
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.
Commentators say the festivals played a significant role in catalysing and inspiring many young Christians to pursue ordination and church leadership. Many of those involved in the wave of new Anglican “church plants” led by the megachurch HTB (Holy Trinity Brompton) either found faith or felt called to become ordained while at Soul Survivor events.
The movement also continues through the group’s own megachurch in Watford, also called Soul Survivor. Its leaders, Mike Pilavachi and Andy Croft, both ordained Anglican vicars, co-lead the Watford church and have said they will continue speaking and teaching around the country and further afield.
Mike Pilavachi says he decided to shut down the Soul Survivor festivals, even though they were still drawing tens of thousands each year, because he felt it was time to hand over to others. He prominently endorsed several other similar but smaller youth festivals during the final sessions in August 2019.
Although the charity’s 2018 financial statements show it still had £475,000 in the bank, this is significantly less than in previous years.
After a string of megachurch evangelical scandals, particularly in the United States, many fear the influence and power that movements such as Soul Survivor can have. Soul Survivor, however, has long had a board of trustees overseeing the ministry, including many independent Christians from more mainstream parts of the church, such as Graham Cray, the former Anglican Bishop of Maidstone.
Observers suggest a significant point of difference between British and US parachurch evangelical movements appears to be the lack of commercialisation that predominates across the Atlantic. Soul Survivor insisted on keeping the price for attending its festivals artificially low to ensure more people could attend, making up the shortfall by gathering donations throughout the rest of the year.
Professor Mark Cartledge, Regent University School of Divinity, Virginia, US, and a theologian focusing on Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity:
“These festivals are almost like a liturgical seasonal cycle. Evangelicals love camp meetings. There’s something almost American about it. There is a link with various forms of evangelical piety and charismatic spirituality. These events have proved to be really important to resource Christians in churches that might struggle. Often, folk take their family away to these festivals and they get energised spiritually and that helps them for the rest of the year.
“Evangelicals have also wanted to gather together across denominations, to look beyond. In the past evangelicals have been under pressure from other sectors of the church and so they have banded together for support and encouragement. These pan-evangelical meetings were really to try to find people of common mind and common cause and that has continued.
“The literature of megachurches and the sociological research is very critical about the branding, but that’s part of life in Christianity now. The business side of things is inevitable – the question, of course, is whether that drives the model.
“As I listen to Mike Pilavachi, he talks the language of family, not the language of business. If you listen to the way in which evangelical institutions in America talk about how they do their work, it’s about increasing market share. I don’t feel that is strongly represented in the British groups.
“Soul Survivor hasn’t been principally about economics. The fact that Mr Pilavachi can in effect lay down what has been a successful 27-year event probably says a lot about this. It doesn’t make very good business sense to stop a thriving business, and that’s what he has done in effect.”
The Rt Rev Graham Tomlin, the Bishop of Kensington and president of the Anglican evangelical theological college St Mellitus:
“Over the years I have come across a lot of people, certainly at St Mellitus, who had come through Soul Survivor, either through the Watford church or the summer festivals. They have produced many ordinands, especially on the younger end of the scale in the Church of England. It’s a significant contribution.
“A number of them were quite entrepreneurial, more than the average ordinand, looking to do church in slightly different ways. A lot of people in the church-planting movement have Soul Survivor backgrounds. I think they tend to think in slightly unusual ways, unconventional ways. They will be more experimental in their approach to church life.
“One of the key factors has been Mike Pilavachi’s passionate belief in the ministry of the Holy Spirit and a lot of those ordinands have imbibed that. They tend to be focused on that rather than just the technicalities of fresh expressions or parish ministry.
“I felt there were very few other Anglican groups reaching people of that age range on that sort of scale, in terms of the sheer numbers involved there. Mike is an ordained Anglican priest . . . It seemed to me that Soul Survivor was a part of Anglican tradition and it echoes quite a number of Anglican churches around the country.
“I can see already a number of other similar ministries beginning to develop youth events in the summer which will probably be the next phase of a deeper and broader movement that Soul Survivor represented. It might not actually be a bad thing if there were a number of different expressions of ministry designed to reach teenagers and young adults, because we desperately need it. That could be quite a healthy outcome.”
Gavin Calver, chief executive of the Evangelical Alliance, the long-standing interdenominational umbrella group for British evangelicals:
“The legacy of Soul Survivor is massive – it was going when I was a teenager and I turned 40 this week. It’s been a wonderful thing for young people to experience Jesus powerfully. You don’t meet many Christians in my generation and below who didn’t go at some point. With Soul Survivor, you have the potential to do a year’s worth of youth work in a week. People being out of their normal context is a far more effective way of ministering to them when they are young.
“Parachurch movements have a different voice and space to speak into. They sometimes have more freedom to speak about issues without some of the constraints you might have in other contexts. The local church is God’s Plan A, B and C, but there are some other organisations out there that are helping to support what’s going on locally. The two work together wonderfully when done properly and the right heart.”