Soul Survivor, a summer youth festival rooted in the charismatic movement, completed its final season last month, with five events that drew a record-breaking 32,500 attendees. In 1993, Canon Mike Pilavachi, then a youth minister at St. Andrew’s, Chorleywood, a large evangelical Anglican church in Hertfordshire, felt called to launch a youth event focused on “ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit.” A retrospective article by Tim Wyatt in The Church Times traces the way that the festival called many youth into ordained ministry and helped to place charismatic spiritually firmly in the mainstream of the Church of England.
Soul Survivor gatherings featured long sets of intimate contemporary praise and worship music and talks calling youth to make a commitment to follow Christ. They helped to launch the careers of Tim Hughes and Matt Redman, among England’s most influential contemporary worship leaders, and popularized many worship songs that have become standard repertoire in evangelical churches. Soul Survivor has tallied the number of commitments to Christ made at the events for years, and said on their website that 2100 made this promise at this summer’s gatherings and that more than 15,000 young people have become Christians through the festivals in the last 10 years.
The group noted that one of its consistent core values was “making space for the Holy Spirit to move during our meetings, wanting to be led by his agenda and not our own as much as possible.” Shaped by the teachings of John Wimber, the American founder of the non-denominational Vineyard Movement, Soul Survivor events included times for charismatic prayer ministry. Young people prayed for one another to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit, believing that experiences of divine power would help deepen their knowledge and love of God.
From an initial gathering of less than 2,000 people in Somerset, Soul Survivor grew steadily. Pilavachi planted an Anglican church in Watford bearing the same name, and focused on reaching young people. The group sponsored massive outreach weeks, a 2004 event in London that attracted 15,000 youth, gap-year internship programs, a relief and development program and, eventually festival events for 20’s and 30’s and for whole families, as alumni of the earlier events aimed to pass on their experience to their own children.
The events have always been open to people of all religious backgrounds. Charismatic and Pentecostal spirituality have firmly shaped them, and more recent weekend gatherings have included a Catholic Mass. But Soul Survivor’s roots have been firmly within the Church of England, and its impact has been felt most strongly there.
The Rt. Rev. Graham Tomlin, Bishop of Kensington, has been connected with the movement for many years. In an interview with Wyatt, he said, “As a youth movement which has embraced the charismatic, I think it has been a significant part of the Church.” He described Soul Survivor as “an expression of faith that was dynamic, deeply experiential, and offers a radical challenge to live in a counter-cultural way, [which] is particularly appealing to teenagers. There is almost nothing else in the Church that is reaching young people on the same scale.”
From the beginning, Soul Survivor offered a seminar each year aimed at encouraging vocations to ordained ministry in the Church of England. These gatherings, which were often led by theological college principals (including Tomlin in his former role as principal of St. Mellitus College) have led many people in their 20s and 30s to begin the discernment process for ordination. Tomlin noted that the Soul Survivor ordinands have been especially drawn, like Pilavachi, to church planting, and many have “imbibed his passionate belief in the ministry of the Holy Spirit.”
The Rev. Sam Haigh, who is planting a church in Preston, told Wyatt that his own experience demonstrated Tomlin’s conclusions. He attended his first Soul Survivor event as a teenager, six months after becoming a Christian. “The impact of being in an environment where there were 10,000 Christians was absolutely mind-blowing. It’s difficult to over-estimate how significant that was. … That sense that God speaks, is active, heals, shows up in power — it’s something we have carried from that time in Soul Survivor. … It’s really shaped the way I do ministry.”
Haigh’s first call was as a curate at London’s large and influential Holy Trinity, Brompton, the birthplace of the Alpha Course — a 10-week evangelistic course started by Anglicans in 1977, but now conducted by many denominations around the world. He said that he was present at clergy team meeting there last spring when Soul Survivor’s closing was announced. Looking around the room, the group realized “that every person present had either become a Christian, had a significant encounter with God, or felt called into ministry at the festival.”
Hannah Barr, an ordinand studying at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, noted in a testimony appended to Wyatt’s article that she felt God’s call to the priesthood at Soul Survivor, “So many of my peers at theological college were nurtured by Soul Survivor in some way. It made me realize that it is more than possible to be a charismatic, evangelical Anglican who loves the Church of England and takes communion seriously, because this was modeled [there].”
Many have questioned ending the festivals, when they remain so vibrant and well-attended. Canon Pilavachi said it doesn’t seem right for him to lead a movement aimed at reaching teenagers who could be his own grandchildren. He also told Wyatt, “This will sound corny, [but] we really believe God spoke to us about stopping.” As he announced his own sense of the Spirit’s call, others in the movement’s leadership team said they felt it was also right for them to step down.
Pilavachi concluded, “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.”