Christianity gets away with a plethora of things that, were other religions to attempt such feats, would be equated with grooming, radicalisation, or at least a borderline cultEsther Arthurson

It is an open secret that the Church has a long lineage of amazing dis-grace. Most institutions’ closets are skeleton-ridden once you scratch below the surface – they are composed of people, after all. And it is naïve to think the Church would be an exception, that you can sail straight through its closet to Narnia without passing a few horrors on the way.

Mike Pilavachi, founder and leader of the Christian youth festival known as Soul Survivor, has recently come under safeguarding scrutiny and a less than flattering spotlight, with allegations of "inappropriate relationships" with young male interns. While this is not a criminal investigation, I imagine that the escalation in cases reported in recent weeks have been devastating for those who greatly admired and looked up to this religious leader. While there is little point in speculating on the specifics of these accusations, it raises the wider question of whether an institution can be judged through its leaders and how you cope when your heroes let you down.

“Looking back, I have often wondered whether we were worshipping God or Mike.”

To provide an idea of the scale of this man’s influence, here is an outline of the festival he created: Soul Survivor ran every summer for 27 years, with around 30,000 teenagers attending on an annual basis. An entire generation of young Christians were raised on his teachings, and will probably forever associate his name with the development or even inception of their religious faith. The festival lasted six nights and involved three-hour "meetings" in a big top tent where there were talks, worship music, and kids were heavily encouraged to prophesy, pray and speak in tongues. I attended this festival four times in total. Most of my friends went, and it was pretty normalised within Christian communities, an event to look forward to all year round. I have since wondered about the ethics of sending kids to camps like these from a parental perspective, especially during formative years, before they’ve had a chance to grapple with these ideas for themselves. I went to my first Christian residential camp at ten years old, and while I was a pretty sceptical kid, there were definitely things and ideas that I feel crossed a line I have only recently become aware of.

Perhaps this is one of the many examples of how Christianity gets away with a plethora of things that, were other religions to attempt such feats, would be equated with grooming, radicalisation, or at least a borderline cult. I get it: we’re a Christian (post-Christian?) country, and certain norms of the past will persist well into the future. But even the slightly invasive presence of the Christian Union at Cambridge, the audacious and unapologetic evangelising and promotion of events, indicates a level of exceptionalism that would not necessarily be tolerated of other religions. Soul Survivor proved to be no different.

“Were other religions to attempt such feats, they would be equated with grooming, radicalisation, extremism, or at least a borderline cult”

Mike was much more than just the founder of Soul Survivor; he was like a cult personality, the omnipresent face on the stage towards which everyone was turned. We hung off his every word, laughed at his recycled jokes and were desperate to be like him, approved by him, as in touch with God as this man seemed to be. Looking back, I have often wondered whether we were worshipping God or Mike. Perhaps this is a lesson in idolatry: idols, like heroes, come crumbling down if you inspect them too closely.

The news about this man will lead thousands of young people to question his teachings, his authenticity, and through this, their own faith, of which he may have been a figurehead. But should the faults of this individual, serious as they may be, lead us to question the authenticity of the Church as a whole? Or, taking this a step further, should a man who seemed, like David, “a man after God’s own heart” reflect some darker truth about God or religion that has been previously overlooked? Or is the comparison between creator and created a one-way street?


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I have come to the conclusion that the alleged actions of this individual, covered up or left an open secret for almost thirty years, can indeed tell us something about the institution in which it thrived. But the religion itself, not so much – it is merely the victim of human influence, words taken and corrupted by our flawed, power-hungry interpretation, used to oppress and marginalise instead of to heal and unite. The Church, or more specifically Soul Survivor, has questions it must answer, safeguarding forms it must yet again fill out to explain the neglect of its members at the hands of one of its leaders. And, in the meantime, a generation of young Christians must pause to reflect on the faith which was partially moulded by this man’s charismatic hands, asking themselves questions that perhaps have been buried in the onslaught of Christian propaganda and camps in their upbringing.

But that is not the end. Out of the rubble of our former heroes’ reputations, we can build a new, more sceptical, dare I say more adult understanding of the faith in which we were brought up. And we can move forward with an independent, more authentic version of the message that they taught – that is, if we should choose to stick to it.