My wife and I were recently chatting about my experiences at Soul Survivor (SS), a major Christian youth festival associated with a church in Watford. Over 30,000 people attended the festivals in 2015; it is a big part of what we might call “evangelical youth subculture”.1 Given that they are ‘evangelical’, it shouldn’t surprise anybody that their primary aim is to evangelise (often vulnerable) 12-18 year olds.2
The stated aim of the associated charity is:
The advancement of the Christian religion in the UK and throughout the world.
The deadline for cheaper booking has passed (2nd May) so many teenagers will have already booked. Anticipation will be rising in youth group circles. I appreciate it’s a little late, yet I thought it important to flag numerous safeguarding and wellbeing concerns I have come to hold in the aftermath of the five times I went, including a personal one.
Not only that, it is a subject rarely blogged upon from a secular perspective. I found one series from the former chair of Oxford Atheist Society, Alex Gabriel, which is worth a read. There are also two critical Guardian articles, both from Dr. Thomas Prosser, a sociology lecturer, one in 2010 and the other in 2011. I shall cover:
(1) The basics, for my unfamiliar readers.
(2) My worries about speaker selection for the Main Meeting talks.
(3) The potential for emotional and psychological manipulation.
(4) Personal child protection issues both before and after the festivals.
One aim of writing is to try and get at least a few of you reading this to realise how such events and the worldview they represent come across when examined without “Christian-Vision” on. It’s the classic ’empathise’ moment. If you’re a Christian, imagine what a non-Christian parent may worry about if their young vulnerable teenage son or daughter wants to go along to SS.
If you’re a non-Christian, imagine what it feels like to have the overwhelming sense of being part of something greater, the feeling of having anything you feel guilty about ‘washed away’, yet the constant pressure to evangelise. I would like my Christian readers to put on their non-Christian goggles and vice versa. Do it… now! Good work! Let’s begin…
1. How It Works
Each festival runs over five days, with a rough daily timetable as follows:
09.30 – Seminars
11:00 – Morning Meeting (Everything Else Closed)
13:00 – Activities (e.g. Cafes, Sports, Cinema, Seminars, Shopping)
19:00 – Evening Meeting (Everything Else Closed)
21:30 – Activities (inc. Late Night Worship until 23:30)
Most days you’ll be awake from 09:00-23:00. Around 6 hours a day will be spent doing explicitly Christian things, while the rest of the time will be dedicated to activities done near entirely in the company of evangelical Christians, many of them explicitly Christian like ‘how to dance for Christ’, or spending time eating with Christian friends, or talking about Christian issues over games.
The rest of the folk there, the non-Christians, are essentially the “targets” – those people the festival is aiming to convert or rather hoping “will come to a saving faith in Jesus”, to use the SS lingo. The events are basically “conversion drives” and in the run-up to booking deadlines, they frequently promote it with the implicit “grab your mates” tagline.
2. Speaker Selection
I am unsure as to the exact process of vetting speakers at SS, though I hold it to be far from rigorous. One charismatic speaker which I remember well is Robby Dawkins. He told us to go around ‘doing the things which Jesus did’ like “healing the sick and raising the dead”.
Unless you go around with a conspiracy theorist hat on, i.e. claim the world is against all evangelical Christians, his charismatic claims are incredibly fishy at best and his motivations dubious. He should not be speaking authoritatively to vulnerable teenagers in an environment where nobody is encouraged to challenge or even question the speakers.
Beyond poor speaker selection, there’s the general issue with speakers’ using emotional language and (unintentionally) manipulative behaviours.
3. Potential for Emotional & Psychological Manipulation
When people are invited to the front to “give their lives to Jesus”, they do so to thunderous applause and the waiting around for minutes in half-silence until “every last one who Jesus is calling comes to the front” is painfully long and consequently effective. The rhetorical sleight of hand whereby “it’s not a religion – it’s a relationship with Jesus” makes one feel like nobody is compelling you to accept complex truth claims which, if lived out, would alter your entire life. Following the comments received on this post, I’ve written a more detailed three-part challenge to this idea:
As an example of the emotional power these events have, this main meeting was one I particularly remember. I recommend watching the entire 30 minutes, if you’re unfamiliar, to get a good feel.
You have been stood up for twenty minutes, singing emotive songs with lyrics like ‘everything we are is yours’, and are surrounded by thousands of other young people. Notice the use of imperatives, the spiritually authoritative tone, and repetition of key phrases like a mantra in Mike Pilavachi‘s interruption (08:30):
“Wait wait wait. Woah woah woah. Wait for Him, wait for Him, wait for Him. Wait for him. No prophecies, no prophecies. Wait for him. Wait for him. Don’t pray, don’t prophecy. Wait for him. Just wait for him. He’s going to move in this place. Don’t speak, don’t sing, don’t clap. Wait.”
“Don’t be a spectator.” (11:05) – This means there isn’t an option to sit back, be objective / critical, not participate. Laughter, screams, falling over – don’t just watch, join in!
“I’m just trying to be obedient.” (14:05) – If being obedient is good, and if Mike Pilavachi is issuing imperative commands, what kind of atmosphere do you think the young people present are under?
The thing which still strikes me most? He says, “The Father thing is a painful thing, you’re struggling to cry out ‘Father’. Your own situation has been so hard.” (21:00)
Difficult relationships with fathers is a topic which affects many vulnerable teenagers, and a response to something that generic is inevitable. If you watch the video closely, you may even be able to spot me somewhere in the masses, probably at the front. Watching this back, I still get a little tearful in memory of how I was a young person there, crying and shaking, hoping that God would speak to me, heal me, “meet with me”.
As one friend of mine put it:
“It exploits how little there is to do for fun as a teenager, particularly if you’re not wealthy. It’s like a youth group but it’s got an agenda.”
As much as my friend is fabulous, I semi-disagree with her. It is not that anyone is intentionally being exploitative. When I volunteered there from 2011-2013, my aim was to do the most possible good that I could do, and practically everyone there felt likewise.
Some of you won’t know that the term ‘meme’ was coined by Richard Dawkins in his (in)famous book The Selfish Gene (1976). The field of ‘memetics’ which resulted came with its fair share of criticism, yet its central idea is tenable: the world of beliefs is governed more by survival of the fittest than by objective truth. Powerful ideas survive better, capture more people’s attention and are more likely to be passed on. If a worldview and the cultural norms surrounding it appear manipulative to outsiders, it can as easily be the case that it is accidental as much as intentional.
My wife and I were also involved in Kidz Klub, ‘which aims to share the Gospel and God’s love to un-churched children in a fun, interactive and relevant way’.3 Both of us left once we’d experienced a particularly shocking moment in “leadership” there. A team leader and friend of ours, whom we love and respect, told a group of teenage “helpers” – most of which were only 13 years old and all of whom in a deprived area – that their friends were destined for hell, lest they come to Kidz Klub.4
“Today could be the difference between heaven and hell for your friends; you are the person who may bring them to Jesus.”
The most disturbing part of our recollection of this preparatory pre-event prayer session was that one of those teenage helpers was known to have a diagnosed mental age of 8 years old.
Conservative evangelical thinking allows precious little time to consider the emotional and psychological wellbeing of children and young people hearing such messages and seeing such ecstatic religious language and practice, since their eternal – albeit unproven – safety must come first. If you thought that most people you love (or more generally on the planet) were destined for hell, wouldn’t you do anything to save them from it?
4. Do Not Lower Your Safeguard
All volunteers are DBS-checked. For such an enormous voluntary workforce during the four festivals, they do have procedures in place to protect vulnerable children and adults. The people who volunteer are near-entirely selfless and generous. I know this because I was one of them myself for three years!
Joking aside, there are some safeguarding risks I have only recently reflected on, besides the potentially disputable categories above. The last year I went (2013), I spent much time praying one-on-one with a much older man (perhaps in his late fifties) about relatively intimate details of my personal life and my past. The ‘Chat Room’, where we were sat, is an area where untrained people can assume the role of a pseudo-counsellor, listening and then praying for people.
Whilst SS official guidelines say not to adopt this role, evangelical Christianity can lend itself to thoughts such as: “I’m God’s agent and can adopt whatever methods I like to achieve His will”. Moreover, the only qualifications you need to be in this role are to be: (a) DBS-checked; and (b) 18 years old or more.
As well as the one-to-one nature of things, the guidelines contain another thing which I feel uncomfortable with:
After each session, you’ll need to complete a short form so that we can keep track of the age and gender split of the Chat Room users and to have an overview of the kind of issues that are being discussed.
Since the man lived only 20 miles away from me, he gave me his details and told me to meet up with him a few months later, which I did. Being young and naive, I told my mum ‘God will keep me safe and I’ll have my wits about me’. He gave me control of his speedboat which I drove around the Isle of Wight at 50 mph and then we went back to his home to pray one-on-one in his study with nobody else in the house. I may have been 18 at the time, but this is still a safeguarding matter. Teachers who have relationships with pupils who have only just left their institutions have faced disciplinary consequences.5
Even if you don’t agree in the technical sense, I was young and naive and so it very much is from a ‘moral’ standpoint. His invitation was inappropriate and the situation was serious and could have led to me being abused. My faith had led me to implicitly trust this much older and “wiser” leader, and to believe that I was in essence “invincible”. He told fanciful stories – which I couldn’t possibly verify, yet had to trust – about him having been the second choice for Archbishop of Canterbury after Justin Welby. He trashed “modern psychology” and he recommended “spiritual counselling” instead of the ordinary kind for my personal wellbeing.
As a result of these memories resurfacing and me reevaluating what has happened, I have written to SS and I will publish their response here if appropriate. I believe that neither SS staff nor volunteers have any kind of ill intent toward children and young people at large. I am hopeful and positive that I will receive a good response.
The above concerns I have expressed are not “political”; they should be shared by anyone who has the welfare of minors in their heart. Every organisation working with young people has a duty of care and an obligation to continuously improve their safeguarding standards. Just because you wish to spread the “Good News” (i.e. the ‘Gospel’) should not necessitate the lowering of standard child welfare practices.
By and large, given the highly temporary and voluntary nature of the festivals, SS staff and volunteers try hard to do a good job. Nevertheless, they could do a lot better. This is mostly because good intentions aren’t enough.
Please do comment below with your thoughts, feelings, experiences, questions, criticisms. Do you agree? If so, why not say why? If not, why not say why? Also, please do like the Facebook page!
- Soul Survivor (2016). Director’s Report and Financial Statements for the Year Ending 31 December 2015. p. 7. ↩
- In the organisation’s own words: ‘Soul Survivor is aimed at 12-18 year olds (accompanied by over 18 group leaders).’ (31 March 2017) ↩
- Kidz Klub (~2013), available here. Kidz Klub particularly fits my friend’s description above, given that it is located in areas of high deprivation: “It exploits how little there is to do for fun as a teenager, particularly if you’re not wealthy. It’s like a youth group but it’s got an agenda.” ↩
- This is a paraphrase, of course, yet it is an authentic one combined from the memory of both my wife and I. The definite features we remember are: (a) ‘hell’ as finally a spoken threat; (b) personal responsibility; (c) immediacy. If you doubt our best attempt at recollection – and we’ve dwelt on that moment a number of times since with the same recollection – you may have cause to doubt the ‘oral traditions’ behind the Gospels! But that’s another story… ↩
- Teachers who have abused positions of responsibility, despite those involved being over the age of 18, face disciplinary consequences relating to safeguarding. See here and here. ↩