Apologies, friends. I appreciate my last two posts were a little heavy and I had every intention of writing something lighthearted and fun this week. Then, well, Soul Survivor.
Lord, help us.
The Telegraph reported this week that a Christian ‘cult’ leader was being investigated for inappropriate behaviour, amounting to spiritual abuse. The problem being, of course, that Soul Survivor is not a cult. It is mainstream, charismatic, Evangelical Church of bloody-well England, and its festivals were instrumental to the faith experiences of SO many teenagers and young people. We have been there. We have listened to Mike talk. We have laughed and cried and raised a ‘hallelujah’. We have engaged in discussions, prayed with young disciples, and stood back and watched them do those things together, thanks to the freedom and space Soul Survivor provided. We were devastated when it closed and prayed that something similar would take its place by the time our own kids grew up.
Like thousands of British Christians of a certain age this week…
But sadly, deep down, not surprised enough.
Time after time, one big name after another bites the proverbial dust. But this name, sadly, feels a lot more familiar than the rest. Is no one sacred? Is no one there to just be who they say they are and do what they say they’re doing?!
“When will these sheeple learn?” comments one presumed atheist on yet another article. And you can’t help thinking, they’ve got a point.
“No one should be allowed to evangelise anyone under the age of 18!” writes another. And that one really hits home.
See, I was ‘evangelised’ at the age of sixteen and am still convinced it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I stood at a festival not too dissimilar from the one now being scrutinised by the National media and ‘gave my life to Jesus.’ Yes, there was dramatic music and an emotive talk, but it was the tip of a much deeper iceberg. I was then discipled by a local church as part of a ‘youth nurture’ group. We met at our youth leader’s house, we went for walks and trips and camping holidays. Heck, we even had sleepovers where nobody slept and walked to the beach at 5am to catch the sunrise! I was indeed a vulnerable teenager who appeared in their midst without a guardian – but these spaces were safe. These spaces were sacred. These were the best days of my teenage life and I’m still thankful for them now.
God, was I just lucky?
I don’t think so. For many of us, that was the way it happened and as such, it gave us a passion to provide the same opportunities to those who came up after. Obviously, the Church has learned and times have changed, and there are much more rigid safeguarding structures in place (we certainly don’t have young people sleeping at our house these days!). But my point is, when you feel like this, when you work out of this positive experience; when you live and devote your life to a genuine desire to just do good for the love of God … it’s easy to believe that others do too. Never mind the hindsight, never mind the cautionary tales… most of us do not have an ulterior motive. Which is why it’s still so shocking, so heartbreaking, and so flippin’ infuriating each time you discover that others do.
But find out, we must.
The only thing to find encouraging in all of this is the way the Church has responded. So far, all associated ministries that I have seen appear to have expressed faith in the (alleged) victims, applauded their bravery and encouraged others to come forward. (Albeit, too little too late).
My prayers too are of course with said victims, and all those directly involved.
My thoughts are also, however, on the rest of us. People like me, though removed from the situation, who now find some of the most formative experiences of our lives called into question. What does this latest revelation mean for people like us?
Because this isn’t new. Over the last few years I have wrestled with the way “the gospel” is presented in our modern, western society. I’ve challenged my theology on women, on sexuality, on the way I read the Bible. I’ve struggled, as you know, to separate my spirituality from my humanity when ministry gets messy. As a Vicar’s wife in situ, with kids who ask a ton of questions, these struggles can feel pretty huge and pretty urgent; and the fall of yet another charismatic leader does nothing to alleviate the strain. Still, as usual, I’m sure I’m not alone in this.
Over the last few years, however, I’ve found it helpful to remember that in and apart from all this human mess… there’s a through-line.
See, before I ever showed up to that festival as a sixteen year old statistic… there was God. There was the Holy Spirt. And I’d been growing increasingly aware of that, through various silent prayers and conversations, for quite a while. There was a Bible I’d hidden under my pillow- too horrified when my peers were burning them, but too embarrassed to admit I was reading it. There was a friend trying to evangelise somebody else, unaware that I was listening! There was a hunger. There was an increasingly urgent desire to seek Him out- Jesus, the final part of the puzzle- and a gut feeling that deep down He was calling me too. By the time I got to that festival, I’d already made up my mind. Sure, someone put it into words and set it to nice music… but by then, I’m still sure, the decision was already mine.
In my youth group, we were encouraged to discuss and debate; to pray through what we read and talk about how we could relate. Yes, we were taken to festivals, but in all honesty, my YL wasn’t a fan! He’d say things like: “all cack and no substance!” – which was fair, given that we’d just watched another leader eat a Mars Bar from a pair of pants!
The point is, we were never taught to just accept the speaker’s word as Gospel. We discussed things said on stage and kept a critical eye on those lengthy altar calls. I even distinctly remember one young girl writing to YFC to complain about the contents of their National Leader’s sermon! We were equipped with the confidence to do that.
I guess I’m trying to highlight that all Christian youth evangelism isn’t the evil that’s been painted in the papers. I am the product of it, and it came at exactly the right time for me. I wasn’t preyed upon or manipulated. I was simply picked up by people and services who showed me exactly what I was looking for- Jesus- and then generously gave of their time, love and resources to help me on my way. And, though God called me away from home and thus, away from that place; though my understanding and approach to many things has changed; I remain incredibly thankful for that solid foundation.
For it is a foundation that enabled me to seek, see and hear God, throughout the many different places, people and challenges that I have encountered since then. For when I survey all – the good, the bad and the ugly- facets of this community of saints; the love, mercy, manipulation and mess I’ve experienced along the way… I can also see the landmarks of a loving God on each and every terrain. I can see words, dreams, and visions independent of men; divine appointments- the right thing happening at just the right time- to show me that I’m not alone; the hand of One with no strings attached, pointing me where to go.
The position many of us are in now, however, is learning – or rather reminding ourselves – to separate the human from the divine.
To recognise that just because yet another human messed up- doesn’t mean it’s all a lie.
To acknowledge that even though our God shows up on a never-ending through-line … that DOES NOT MEAN that every situation is, or ever was, alright.
Test the Spirits.
Defend the weak.
Ask your questions.
Dare to speak.
Our God, and His children, deserve better.
6 Comments Add yours
Thank you. You’ve expressed what I haven’t managed to.
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I am struck by how many people, including Christian leaders, seem to be assuming it’s all true. Perhaps I’m massively naïve, but I can’t believe it. What happened to innocent until proven guilty? The fact that he has not been suspended suggests that there is much ambiguity in the investigation. I am so sad for him, because even if he is exonerated his reputation, and that of Soul Survivor, will probably never recover.
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It’s such a difficult one. I desperately hope it isn’t true, but then that’s exactly what has kept abuse hidden in the Church for decades isn’t it? Protecting the powerful and popular 😞 And really just not wanting to believe it! With regards to other leaders, I think there’s just a massive shift towards validation- to express love for those coming forward because too often they’ve been doubted rather than believed?
All tricky. My heart just sank when they reported more recent allegations.
I also think, as a nuance here, that we have created an environment in which people can be abusive without realising that’s what it is. I definitely have one example from my own employment history. A woman I might add- not for sexual or financial gain – who used her position to enforce spiritual ideas and practices onto us, according to what she thought was OK. When I look back it really really wasn’t- and had a hugely detrimental effect on me at the time. I wouldn’t see the point of reporting that behaviour now, unless of course it came out that others had suffered the same treatment over a long period of time…
Makes you think!
Amen! you have expressed so much of what i too have experienced. I became a Christian back in 1967 at a Billy Graham rally having gone to prove he was a fraud! I am so thankful for God saving me and the love, welcome and solid Bible teaching I received at the local church I joined. Keep writing.
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Thank you again for your post
Although a generation older than you I had as a teenager similar experience of a welcoming church family who grew my faith and which kept me going through hard times and of unconditional support and love given by youth leaders .
Your point about not knowing where the lines are between support and ‘abusive’ behaviour is valid and speaks of the need for vigilance on the part of all of us to look carefully at what we do and how we act and also to be guardians of each other , we need Gods help more than ever in this respect as it is so easy to get it wrong.
thank you again for your insightful posts,
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Sorry Penny I just saw this for some reason! Thanks for the thoughts and encouragement xx