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7 December 2023

My reckoning with charismatic Christianity

There is an emptiness that the Church says only God can fill. But is He there?

By Pippa Bailey

It was June, and outside the light was just beginning to draw in, tinging the red bricks of Leeds with blue. Inside, the curtains were closed and fairy lights twinkled. The walls of the front room were covered in sheets of paper, torn from rolls and tacked up, on which people had written prayers, for their own lives, for this city, for the world. For a week, 24 hours a day, university students had taken shifts so that this room of supplication had never once been empty.

Now, a patchily bearded man was strumming a guitar, and you could hardly move for people, some swaying, some raising their arms to the sky, some crying, some laying hands on others in prayer. Our voices rose together in song. So intoxicating was the experience, so heavy the presence of God – or so we believed – in the room, that people stood in the hallway, and out on the street, just to be near it.

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I thought of that night, and the word that was whispered in both hope and disbelief – “revival” – as tens of thousands of people flocked to the small campus chapel at the US Christian institution Asbury University in February this year. A service of prayer and worship that began like any other lasted for hours – then days, then weeks – longer than planned. Friends travelled from London to Kentucky to see it, to be a part of it, and returned full of stories of lives transformed. This time, revival – a large-scale spiritual awakening of growing momentum, such as happened in Wales in the 18th century – was proclaimed in churches and newspapers across the world.

Two months after the events at Asbury began, the Telegraph published allegations of abuse against Mike Pilavachi, who in the 1990s founded a Christian youth festival called Soul Survivor, a cornerstone of the lively “charismatic” movement. Victims described a “cult” around Pilavachi and “inappropriate intimate relationships” between the leader and young people linked to the organisation. A Church of England investigation (Pilavachi “stepped back” from ministry while it was conducted) concluded in September this year that he had “used his spiritual authority to control” his victims. On 23 November, the Reverend Andy Croft – who after the allegations broke stepped in to lead the Soul Survivor church in Watford – resigned, saying, “The stories of victims that have now emerged… have changed my perspective on much of what I have experienced from a young age.”

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Croft’s personal reckoning is also a shared one. For nearly three decades, from 1993 to 2019, an average of 30,000 teenagers a year attended Soul Survivor – for those of them, now in their thirties and forties, who remain Christian, an event that was formational for their faith is forever tarred. In big-top tents, bands played Christian pop-rock under stage lights and dry ice. People shook and cried, threw their hands to the heavens, spoke in tongues, were healed from health problems, prostrated themselves on the ground (what we called being “slain in the spirit”).

Was any of it real? A decade ago, I would have said fervently: yes. A few months before that night in a student house in Leeds, I had been baptised (in a hall borrowed from another church, as mine met in a cinema). I waited until I was 21 to do it, so that I could be sure I was making a confident, independent, adult decision, unswayed – how naive! – by my upbringing in the 1990s house church movement.

Giving my testimony before I was fully submerged, I spoke of how, when I first got glasses, aged ten, I realised that leaves on trees could be seen from a distance, and that other people had known that all along. Faith, I said, was like that: through the lens of Christianity I now saw the truth that had always been. Afterwards I felt high – at the time I would have said on the Holy Spirit. Now I wonder if it was simply relief that this very public ritual was over.

There is a long-standing debate among charismatic Christians about the ethics of big, well-produced worship bands, of lights and smoke machines. Such style choices once changed the perception of staid Christianity and drew hundreds back into church – but do they simply enable worship, or is it more manipulative than that? Did the Holy Spirit really move in Leeds, or was it just a kind of collective hysteria? A mainstay of Soul Survivor, and other festivals and churches of its ilk (including the one I still periodically attend), is the altar call: towards the end of a service, the leader invites congregants to the front of the church to respond in prayer. In doing so you are stepping towards what God wants to give you, an outward sign of an inward truth. Or are you just being emotionally pressured to respond? In such a charged setting, the line between appropriate and inappropriate, pastoral and abusive, has not always seemed clear to me.

The zeal of youth always passes. Today, the call to church is for me often social rather than spiritual, my prayers the habit of a lifetime, rather than a habit of hope. I can no longer say with any certainty what I believe. My 21-year-old self would have considered this half-faith unforgivably vapid, but at least it is honest and perhaps clearer-sighted than my previous fervour.

In that living room in Leeds a decade ago, I encountered an answer to the emptiness at the centre of every life, which drives us from one promise of fulfilment to another (Christianity calls these idols), each time finding, once we have the thing we believed was all we needed, that it does not satisfy. It is an emptiness that the Church says only God can fill, and one that leads me to the open doors of churches at Christmas, asking: are you there, God?

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special