Soul Survivor: Festival that gave the church more oomph takes down its big top

A crucible for some of today’s most dynamic faith leaders, has played its final praise song. It leaves a strong legacy

Published by The Times.

Every summer for the past 27 years hordes of teenagers have squeezed inside huge circus tents at showgrounds across Britain. In Somerset, Peterborough, Stafford and Kinross they have come in their tens of thousands, not to marvel at acrobatics or knife-throwing, but to worship God. In 2019 more than 30,000 young people took part in this extravaganza of exuberant faith: Soul Survivor.

It grew rapidly throughout the 1990s to become the largest youth event in the British church. By the early 2000s it had become a three-week multi-site event and spawned its own overseas aid agency and a megachurch in Watford, Hertfordshire. The formula was deceptively simple: gather about 10,000 teenagers in a field for five days to camp, play sport and make friends. Then, in the morning and evening, squeeze as many as possible into the big-top tent for a two to three-hour event of live worship music, preaching and “ministry time”, moments where young people are encouraged to pray for an encounter with the Holy Spirit, to speak to them and even heal them.

Despite its continuing success, Mike Pilavachi, the youth leader and now vicar who has run Soul Survivor since the beginning, has unanimously agreed with his team that it is time to draw the curtain. “This will sound corny: we really believe God spoke to us about stopping, and that makes it very easy,” he said.

Although the Soul Survivor movement is no more, its legacy remains. The festival has left a deep imprint on British Christianity. It has set the agenda, won hearts and minds, and created a new generation of believers infused with the movement’s distinctive DNA.

First and foremost, Soul Survivor has been the place where an astonishing number of teenagers have become Christians. Those who attended the festival were a mixture of children from churchgoing families and those with no faith background. After each summer the organisers publicised the total number who have become Christians: this year it was 2,100 out of 32,500 festivalgoers. In the past decade more than 15,000 teenagers have become Christians during Soul Survivor events, the organisation claims.

Another way the festival has left its mark is among those who were already believers. Each year Soul Survivor put on seminars encouraging young people to consider becoming church pastors and vicars. The Bishop of Kensington, the Right Rev Graham Tomlin, said Soul Survivor had produced an “awful lot” of vicars, particularly among those leading the Church of England’s new crop of “church plants”, brand-new congregations aimed at reaching those who have given up on the established church. “There were very few other Anglican groups reaching people of that age range on that sort of scale,” he said.

One church planter in Preston, Sam Haigh, said that without Soul Survivor’s encouragement when he was a new convert aged 18, he would never have led a £1.5 million project to revitalise the Lancashire town. He previously worked at the evangelical megachurch Holy Trinity Brompton in central London and said that almost every member of that clergy team said Soul Survivor had been instrumental in their journey to faith and church leadership. “When the history books are written Soul Survivor will leave a legacy which can’t really be matched. It’s huge.”

A foundational part of the festival’s ethos was passionate, contemporary worship music. The morning and evening meetings in the big top featured up to an hour of guitar-led praise music, with spotlights, dry ice and soulful, emotional lyrics.

As well as inspiring a generation of Christians to abandon their traditional hymn books, Soul Survivor also launched the careers of many of the biggest Christian songwriters of the past two decades. Tim Hughes, who along with fellow Soul Survivor alumnus Matt Redman has dominated the worship music scene since the late 1990s, got his start when Pilavachi asked him to lead the big top celebrations aged 20 in 1997. He also encouraged the shy Hughes, who is now a vicar and leads a thriving church plant in Birmingham, to begin writing his own songs. Soul Survivor’s tracks were quickly picked up by teenagers attending the festival and then spread throughout their home churches.

Soul Survivor embodied the Pentecostal-charismatic tradition in evangelical Christianity, which combines the traditional emphasis on orthodox belief and the Bible with a radical openness to the miraculous empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Marked by faith-healings and speaking in tongues, Pilavachi calls it “naturally supernatural”, but in 1993 it was a tiny niche of the British church. Yet over 27 years Soul Survivor has taken this fringe movement and introduced it to hundreds of thousands of young Christians.

As this generation have grown up, they have made it mainstream. Even those churches that never sent their young people to the festival have imbibed its intoxicating cocktail through the songs of Hughes and others. “That sense that God speaks, is active, heals, shows up in power — it’s very much part of our DNA now,” Haigh reflected.

Bishop Tomlin said the festival had undoubtedly “made the Church of England a better place to be”. So if tomorrow you visit a Sunday service and see guitars rather than organs, a surprising number of under-40s, and maybe even some speaking in tongues, you might just have Soul Survivor to thank. Even though the movement has drawn to a close, the church it has reshaped is set to continue in this new pattern for many years to come.