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Soul Survivor: Season of change

Ahead of Soul Survivor's final festivals, Mike Pilavachi spills his heart for youth and the church

Almost 12 months ago Mike Pilavachi, founder and leader of Soul Survivor, announced that the movement that has been overseeing Christian festivals aimed at young people since 1993 is due to bring its festivals to a close after this year’s string of events.

In this interview with Joanna Sopylo-Firrisa, Mike pours out his heart for young people and talks from decades of experiences about what the wider church, young and old, can do to help children and teens enter into a personal relationship with Jesus and remain excited about their faith. Mike also reveals some of Soul Survivor’s plans for the future. 

You clearly have a heart for young people. How far back does your passion to see young people accept Jesus as Lord of their lives go?

When I was a teenager, I struggled with life, but I didn’t receive any support until I found my comfort in God. When I became a Christian, and wasn’t a teenager anymore, I decided I wanted to do everything I could to prevent others going through what I went through and not having anyone to help them. So, I started volunteering with a youth group and that’s how it all began. What I love about young people is that they’re open to change – open to grow and to respond to Jesus. Working with them is fast-paced but very rewarding also. 

Many churches struggle to connect with young people. What do you think is the key to engaging with young people and keeping them excited about Jesus?

Young people love to be around other young people, or older people, who genuinely love them. If there aren’t many youths in your church, connect them with young people from other churches. Do things together. It’s hard to be a Christian without other Christians around you, let alone a teenage Christian without other teenage Christians. 

We need mature Christians, who are interested in young people, but aren’t their parents, to connect with them. What I’ve noticed is that older people, who don’t interact much with teenagers, are a bit afraid of them and think that the teenagers won’t accept them. But, if they show love, generosity and give encouragement, young people will blossom. 

You’ve worked with young people for some three decades. To what extent are today’s children and teens battling with the issues back then?

Culture changes but human nature doesn’t. It’s good to understand the changing mindset, but young people struggle with the same issues, questions, insecurities, hopes. Underneath the surface, it is all the same. 

Soul Survivor’s summer festivals have played a big part in bringing young people to Jesus. What are some of Soul Survivor’s stand-out accomplishments?

I don’t want to look at statistics and talk about our accomplishments, because these are not our accomplishments. It’s about Jesus. What we always wanted to do was to create a place for young people to be introduced to and meet Jesus. Soul Survivor set out to provide a place for Christian young people to grow their faith, encounter God, be filled with Holy Spirit, grow in their knowledge of God’s word and truth, and have fun. We wanted to encourage a generation of young people to feel natural and comfortable with the ministry of the Holy Spirit. I think we’ve seen these things happen. 

Soul Survivor’s festivals will come to a close after its summer events. Will saying goodbye to the festivals and young people, in this context, be difficult? 

I don’t want this summer to be an orgy of sentimentality, because we were there for a season and we always knew it. We want to tell young people about and encourage them to join other festivals and groups we know about. On the last night of the festival, I want us to focus on Jesus and what He did on the cross at Calvary.

For those who don’t know, what is the reason for bringing Soul Survivor to an end?

We always said we were here for a season. God never said, I’ll build my Soul Survivor”; He said, I will build my church.” The bottom line is, we strongly believe, God told us to stop. When I was coming up to 60 years old, I started talking to the trustees and the staff about who’s going to take my place. I assumed that my colleague Andy Croft would succeed me. But after a while it became clear that the Lord didn’t want him to. 

We started looking for someone from the outside to takeover, but it just didn’t feel right. The team that’s been leading Soul Survivor approached me and said that if I’m done, they’ll be done too, because God called them to work with me, and not someone else. We’ve have run Soul Survivor as a family for so many years, and if we parachuted someone from the outside and we all retired, it wouldn’t feel right. 

Gradually, we started asking, is the Lord telling us to stop? At first, we couldn’t believe that, because we were wondering what would happen to all these young people. But God told us they were His responsibility, not ours. We then realised that He was saying that the season is over, and the others will rise up. Before we announced it, we had folks from around the world giving us prophetic words confirming that this is the end. We were completely at peace.

What is the next season for Soul Survivor?

There’s definitely another season for Soul Survivor, because it’s not only the summer festival but churches and the whole charity. We want to grow our church by reaching those who aren’t yet Christians. We’ll continue to focus on encouraging the whole church to be comfortable with moving naturally in the supernatural realm. I want to talk about the ministry of the Holy Spirit in which the power of God’s love is displayed and which can be reproduced’ by different churches. I’ve noticed that a lot of churches believe in the ministry of the Spirit but not many puts it in the central place. We want to encourage that. 

On Saturday, 4 May we’ll hold a Leaders’ Day’ to share what it means to be family and how to transition a church into a family, rather than a business. We’ve a lot to look forward to; it’s only the festival that we’re stopping. I also want to spend the rest of my life encouraging churches and church leaders to build the church on family, not business, principles. People aren’t longing for a good show. If church, or anything else, is only a good show, it gets boring after a few weeks. 

There are many good shows around but when non-Christians come to church, they want to belong. That can only happen when church is a family – in a family we’ll find healing, we’ll become whole, we’ll know we’re loved and accepted. It glorifies God. Jesus prayed that we will be one and that goes beyond structure, administration or even unity of denominations. It’s about being one in heart. 

You have been talking about making the supernatural a norm’ in the church and building church on family principles for some time. Why is this important to you?

It always felt instinctive – I only needed to verbalise it. I’ve heard many talks about building a successful church in five steps and a lot of them was about hiring the best people. I understand what it means and why those people say that, but you can’t go to a village church with congregation of 36 and a dog and tell them that, because they’re not going to be able to hire the best’. But they’ll be able to raise them through building family-like relationships within their own church. 

Rabbi Jesus didn’t do what other rabbis did. He didn’t go to the top rabbinic scholars and to people who were the best’. He went to the Sea of Galilee and selected seemingly regular individuals. He loved them, served them, encouraged them, and was committed to them, and they changed. This is what we need to do. 

In a business you hire and fire employees but, in a family, you raise up sons and daughters. In order to do that, you need to first raise mothers and fathers, but people don’t know how to do that. We need to encourage church leaders to be mothers and fathers. They need to see that the investment isn’t in the programme but in the people. It’s so rewarding. 

What season are you in your own spiritual life and is there something we all can learn from you?

My season is the season of old age’. I’m 60. I don’t know what else you can call it – a twilight season’, perhaps. Personally, I’m in a very happy place. I have no ambition left. It’s wonderfully freeing and relaxing. I can enjoy people more. I’m available to God to do the next thing He asks me to do. I want this season to be the one where I serve other people more and encourage them more. Ask me in five years if it really happened. 

What is your prayer for young people?

I pray that young people around the UK come to know Jesus and love Him – that’s the foundation. After that, I pray for issues that have got worse over last years: mental health, loneliness, anxiety, self-image, lack of communities or harshness in the existing ones. I pray that young people come to a place of healing in Jesus and His church, and that church rises up to become a place of acceptance and healing.

About the author

Writer and blogger Joanna Sopylo-Firrisa has worked as a freelance journalist in Poland and has written for various media in the UK. At www​.good​goodlife​.co​.uk, Joanna blogs about faith and everyday life.

See more from Joanna Sopylo-Firrisa

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