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via Vineyard Churches

Mike Pilavachi: influential youth pastor accused of inappropriate conduct

The charismatic founder of Christian youth festival Soul Survivor quit the charity and stepped back from all ministry after The Telegraph published details of the allegations

Victims of the Rev Canon Mike Pilavachi, founder of Christian youth festival Soul Survivor, have come forward with allegations that he ran “a cult” in which young men were encouraged to receive massages on his bed and engage in wrestling matches.

Pilavachi is a 65-year-old evangelist who founded the Soul Survivor Watford church and its annual summer festivals, which ran between 1993 and 2019. The festival had an average annual attendance of 30,000 teenagers from around the world.

In April 2023, Pilavachi quit the charity and stepped back from all Church of England ministry after it was announced that he was being investigated over “non-recent safeguarding concerns” by the Church of England National Safeguarding Team, including claims first published in The Telegraph that he gave inappropriate massages to the group’s members.

It’s hard to overstate Pilavachi’s influence on Christian youth culture in the UK. For years, he has been highly respected within the Christian community, a household name – and hero – of young Christians growing up in the 1990s, 2000s and early 2010s. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was an associate of Pilavachi, as was one of his predecessors, George Carey. Welby spoke at a Soul Survivor festival in 2014, and handed an award to Pilavachi in 2020. Pilavachi’s reach was global due to his international mission trips as well as his close links with Hillsong United, a worship collective that originated as part of the Hillsong Church. He was one of the first people to bring Hillsong United to the UK via Soul Survivor.

Since founding Soul Survivor 30 years ago, Pilavachi has also created Soul61, a Christian gap year programme, and Momentum, a university programme. All of his ventures were created to cater to teenagers and young adults, and now past attendees are expressing concerns over safeguarding.

Some followers became interns for Pilavachi, and described him as a “powerful” man with “a direct dial to God”. In hindsight, victims claim that they were preyed upon by Pilavachi, who often targeted young men who had experienced difficult or traumatic childhoods.

Speaking to The Telegraph, victims claim that Pilavachi’s “toxic behaviour” and “horrible cruelty and obsession” with certain young, male members of the group was an “open secret”, but that nothing was done about it. One person said: “were it not for its affiliation with the Anglican Church, Soul Survivor might fit the definition of a cult or a sect. It operates around the figurehead of Mike – he’s a bit like a cult leader.”

Whistleblowers claim that Pilavachi would torment his victims psychologically, promising them a prestigious life working alongside him in ministry, before “ghosting” them.

A number also claim that they were encouraged to receive full-body massages in their underwear while Pilavachi straddled them. “I was obviously never going to say no because I had been specially chosen by Mike [...] He was an idol of mine. Who was I to question him? I was like putty in his hands, really,” one victim told The Telegraph. Others were made to compete in wrestling matches which made them feel “uncomfortable”.

Pilavachi is taking a break from ministry while “safeguarding” complaints are investigated and has resigned from the Soul Survivor charity. The Charity Commission is looking into him and has asked its trustees for “additional information”. The investigation is fully supported by Soul Survivor Watford – a spokesperson for the charity told The Telegraph that “all such allegations are being taken extremely seriously and we urge anyone with information to share to come forward and to make contact with the investigation.”