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Reverend Pilavachi’s irresistible charisma My faith left me with an awful, gnawing hollowness

'He first invites the Holy Spirit into the room.' Credit: YouTube

'He first invites the Holy Spirit into the room.' Credit: YouTube


October 24, 2023   6 mins

At the height of their fame, Rev Canon Pilavachi’s Soul Survivor festivals in Somerset drew 30,000 worshippers every summer. As a once-fervent young Baptist who grew up around Britain’s often-overlooked Charismatic Christian movement, I was one of them. The camps involved ecstatic praise set to sub-U2 rock music, speaking in tongues, faith healing, prophesying, and what we believed was the literal presence of the Holy Spirit, descending on the faithful to leave us quaking, weeping, or physically blown off our feet as we were “slain in the spirit”. I stood in the crowd of ten thousand young people, screaming and shaking, swearing to return home fired up with Christ-like passion, desperately wanting to believe the promises made by Pilavachi and his ilk were real.

But they were not. The Telegraph has this year broken a series of revelations about Mike Pilavachi, the Charismatic Christian leader and figurehead of the “cult-like” revivalist youth movement, who allegedly groomed more than 100 young men, pressuring them into full-body naked oil massages and “vigorous” wrestling sessions — occasionally even in church. A subsequent Church of England investigation into Pilavachi — an ordained Anglican priest — has concluded that he “used his spiritual authority to control” victims.

Mainstream media coverage of Pilavachi’s abuse is coloured by the prurient fascination typical of abuse scandals and “cult” stories, but also inflected with a particular abhorrence of Charismatic Christianity. To British eyes, Charismatic worship appears weird, vulgar, and above all fundamentally American, tarred by association with megachurches all too often dogged by their own abuse scandals. We prefer our faith anodyne, compartmentalised to a Sunday morning, fundamentally faithless. Yet the Charismatic tradition has deep, historical roots in Britain, and I’ve witnessed the very real good an anti-authoritarian, non-conforming interpretation of Christianity can do in driving believers out from their staid pews to minister to impoverished communities in the UK and beyond.

The real harm done by the Charismatic tradition, which perhaps enabled Pilavachi to get away with exploiting so many young men across three decades, lies deeper — in the very mystery of faith itself, and the impossible promises it makes to young people desperate for a fundamental truth they will never find.

The Charismatic movement has influenced worshippers for generations across multiple denominations. There are said to be almost 300 million neo-Charismatic worshippers worldwide, and while Pilavachi found a home in the Anglican church, I came to Charismatic worship through a non-conformist Baptist church which emphasised a personal experience of Christ and grassroots social outreach over church ritual and hierarchy — characteristics shared with many Charismatic congregations. Broadly, the Charismatic tradition views itself as radical in the etymological sense: going back to the very root (or radix) of Christianity. I was raised to view the modern, non-conforming Church as standing in the direct succession of the first church among the apostles which, as we learn in Acts 4, held all goods in common while ministering fearlessly to the poor. We weren’t reformers, but restorers, of the faith.

As such, our mentors laid a certain focus on the repression of the initially-insurrectionary Christian movement by the Roman authorities, exhorting us that Christianity remained the world’s most-persecuted religion. This ecumenical understanding underpinned an impressively internationalist political outlook, with our global brothers and sisters in Christ supported through prayer, financial support and mission work, thus enabling imaginative young Baptists such as me to link the primary-school bullying we endured with (say) the torture of true believers during China’s Cultural Revolution.

Of course, this radical social outlook wasn’t always implemented in practice. Charismatic Christians, too, can be greedy, hypocritical, fallen sinners. But from the quiet way in which members of my parents’ church gave away substantial portions of their income, through my bookish father’s willingness to spend his evenings in often-thankless outreach work with the homeless and on local council estates, to my youth group leaders who eventually sold their home and moved their young family full-time into a Bangkok slum, in hindsight there was plenty to praise in the more-or-less anti-authoritarian streak which ran through the Charismatic movement.

The accusation could be made, of course, that all this mission work was just a trick, intended as a cover for covert conversion. Even since leaving the faith, I’ve struggled to understand the suspicion with which non-Christians view proselytisation. If one truly and fervently believes, as we did, in a literal eternity of hellfire and suffering for non-believers, it is an incumbent duty to save friends, family and neighbours from the flames. What might seem an annoyance or an insult from the outside is (or should be) as urgent, to the true believer, as pulling a child out of a house-fire.

Rather, the urgent moral imperative to convert speaks to the unique, powerful draw at the heart of the Christian faith. As the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard argues, Christianity requires believers to undertake a “leap of faith”. If belief in God were reasonable or logical, it wouldn’t be faith at all. Paradoxically, “faith” is only worth the name when we know God to be unreachable, hoping in full knowledge of how hopeless our hope is.

In the Charismatic tradition, faith is an all-or-nothing, total experience, rather than a set of devotional practices (communion, confession, good works). We are saved solely through the personal acceptance of our irrevocably fallen status and Christ’s correspondingly infinite mercy. Whether this radical conception of faith does indeed mark a restoration of Christ’s original offer to mankind is a question for the theologians. In practice, though, it left me, like other former Charismatic Christians, enduring an awful, gnawing hollowness — both during and after leaving the faith.

I felt this emptiness most keenly during a controversial practice known as the “altar call”, a crucial feature of Pilavachi’s summer camps. After hours of lively, joke-filled sermonising segueing into high-octane worship, Pilavachi begins to pray. Following a familiar formula, he first invites the Holy Spirit into the room, then invites those young people who feel the Spirit resting upon them to respond — initially, perhaps, simply by standing up, then steadily through various manifestations of the “fruits of the spirit”, including tongues, the prayerful “laying on of hands”, prophesy, healing, and sometimes-extreme physical responses redolent of an epileptic fit. Finally, Pilavachi invites all those who feel called by Christ to advance to the stage, and make a first or renewed commitment to the Christian faith.

The “altar call” is controversial among Charismatic believers since it lacks a clear Biblical basis, puts perhaps exploitative pressure on worshippers to demonstrate their commitment, and arguably glosses over the need for a personal, inner, life-long journey in favour of a performative, public act. There’s a lively debate in the Charismatic community, ongoing since my own days in the faith, as to how appropriate it is to use music, lighting and other effects to create a nightclub-like atmosphere conducive to ecstatic experience. When does worship facilitation become exploitation?

But in my recollection, the silence was even worse than the noise. There’s something eerie about a vast hangar crammed with young people, standing silently with outstretched arms, all waiting for an experience which cannot come. And yet it did come, time and again, in wave after wave, as we shrieked and spasmed and rejoiced, in the grip of what I suppose psychologists would deem mass hysteria. All I knew was that I desperately wanted to feel Christ’s transcendent mercy and power resting on me, and sometimes did — or almost did. For of course, there was nothing there.

To the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, all desire ultimately stems from a fundamental lack, what he called the manque à être, or wanting-to-be. His analysis is borne out in my experience: in the cavernous silence of the worship hall, as the minutes stretched out, it was all but impossible not to let out a cry, raise your hand, or delude yourself into believing that the Spirit was descending upon you, as a way of filling that terrible audible, psychological and spiritual void.

Ever since leaving the faith, I’ve been grappling with that same, unfulfillable wanting-to-be, seeking out (sexual, chemical) extremes as a way to stifle the inner silence. The ex-addict turned born-again Christian is a stereotyped figure, but “addiction transference” works both ways, and anecdotally I know many other ex-Christians who end up engaging in self-destructive behaviours as a way to fill the space left behind by a non-existent God.

It’s easy to write off Pilavachi, who was wont to present himself as a poster-boy for voluntary celibacy, as a self-loathing gay hypocrite. (“I’ve stood up in front of 1,000 teenage boys and said ‘I’m 51 and I’ve not slept with anyone, animal vegetable or mineral, and I’m OK’,” he once claimed.) But this misrepresents, I think, the fundamentally radical nature of the problem. I’ve had my own brush with the Charismatic movement’s wrong-headed pray-away-the-gay mentality, and those raised outside of the faith with a contemporary, liberal sensibility tend to focus on this aspect of the church’s wrongdoing: but the deepest harm is not done by individual teachings on celibacy or homosexuality alone, which after all remain mainstream Church doctrine.

Rather, the particular danger in the Charismatic tradition lies in the stress it places on one, transcendent Damascene moment of fear and trembling before the Lord, taking faith to its logical extreme. Charismatic worship is a radical expression of the deceptive, alluring paradox of faith, which by definition makes a promise it can never deliver. As Kierkegaard suggests, this emptiness is not merely a problem borne of the unfortunate fact of God’s non-existence, but the nature of faith itself.

The terrible “lack” at the heart of those altar calls inexorably draws vulnerable young people deeper into the faith. In pursuit of an answer, people are willing to do almost anything to feel the Spirit descend. Surely, we think, there must be something transcendent at work here, an absolute answer which will speak, finally, to the silence in our hearts. But silence is all there is.


Matt Broomfield is a freelance journalist and co-founder of the Rojava Information Center, the leading independent English-language news source in north and east Syria.

MattBroomfield1

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Simon Neale
SN
Simon Neale
6 months ago

It sounds as if the author has had a bad experience, and realises he has been conned by a proven exploiter/abuser; and has then generalised from his experience to claim that all Christian or spiritual seeking is pointless, as there is “nothing there”.
Even as a non-Christian, I can see that such a conclusion is illogical, even if it is understandable.

Keith Merrick
KM
Keith Merrick
6 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

You’re right, it is illogical but perhaps he has reached the correct conclusion by the wrong means. Yet now I come to think of it, he’s not exactly illogical. It’s more that he went from enthusiastic belief to total disillusionment in one go without first looking around for ways to salvage his old hopes. He now has no reason to think there is a God, which is pretty much the position of all atheists. Perhaps, deep down, he knew all along that it was all just wishful thinking and too good to be true.

Last edited 6 months ago by Keith Merrick
Bret Larson
BL
Bret Larson
6 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

He hasn’t explained his younger self in his renunciation.

Mike Starkey
MS
Mike Starkey
6 months ago

An odd article, full of non-sequiturs. He seems to assume Pilavachi’s behaviour discredits all Charismatic worship (it doesn’t, any more than misbehaving geography teachers discredit geography).
And he asserts that ‘of course, there was nothing there’, later referring to the ‘fact of God’s non-existence’. Just because he had a dodgy experience, it doesn’t prove anything about the existence or non-existence of God.
Oh, and speaking in tongues, prophesying and healing are ‘Gifts’ of the Spirit, not ‘Fruits’ of the spirit (the latter are listed in the Bible as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness etc).

Last edited 6 months ago by Mike Starkey
Dumetrius
D
Dumetrius
6 months ago
Reply to  Mike Starkey

Don’t think he does say that. He points to the fundamental emptiness of the key moment – in this case, the altar call – as the thing that discredits it, at least to a lot of people.

There are other things within the charismatic experience that can kill it, but perhaps none is as pressured – so if you can’t do it then, you’re probably going to step away eventually.

Mike P. is more what’s waiting for you if you lie to yourself and try to convince yourself that it IS there, when it isn’t.

Because if you can make yourself believe that, maybe you can believe ol’ Mikey’s tie-dye and roving hands aren’t so very bad?

Dominic S
DS
Dominic S
6 months ago
Reply to  Mike Starkey

Agreed. I’d also like more definition of some of is comments, such as, he says that charismaticism drives many “to minister to impoverished communities in the UK and beyond” – but to minister what precisely? The implication of his words is that it is to good works in the poor old disadvantaged elsewhere (a rather patronizing concept). But Christians are called to minister the saving Gospel of Christ alone, not simply to do what many in the world are already doing and ‘be nice’ to people.

Adam Clark
AC
Adam Clark
6 months ago

“As the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard argues, Christianity requires believers to undertake a “leap of faith”. If belief in God were reasonable or logical, it wouldn’t be faith at all.”

Is that what faith meant until the last couple of centuries though? Until at least the 18th century, the existence of God for nearly everyone wasn’t a transcendental leap but assumed to be obviously the case.

So when our ancestors talked of faith surely they must have meant as in staying faithful to a spouse: avoiding the temptation to go whoring off after strange gods.

Kirk Susong
KS
Kirk Susong
6 months ago
Reply to  Adam Clark

There have been atheists denying God’s existence throughout all of human history – “The fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God'” (Ps. 14:1, c.1000 BC). And the difficulty of believing in the impossible is central to the Gospel – In the words of Paul: “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks” (1 Cor. 1:23, c. AD 40) But that belief in the impossible grace of God to his people is the central feature of Christian belief for 4,000 years. (“Can my post-menopausal 90-year-old wife have a baby?” – Abraham believed, and it was counted to him as righteousness. (Gen. 15:6, c. 2000 BC))

Keith Merrick
Keith Merrick
6 months ago
Reply to  Kirk Susong

The belief in the impossible grace of God has been a central feature of Christian belief for 4,000 years? Are you sure? Surely Christian belief can’t be any older than 2,000 years with the birth of Christ. Any further back and surely you’re talking about Judaism rather than Christianity?
I still don’t get why Christians think that the impossibility of some of their beliefs is a positive rather than a negative. It’s like failing to score a penalty and then turning round and saying, ‘But don’t you see? The point is to miss!’ As my dad would have said, ‘Any old fool can do that‘.

Last edited 6 months ago by Keith Merrick
Kirk Susong
KS
Kirk Susong
6 months ago
Reply to  Keith Merrick

This feels like one of those old school house jokes, ‘Was Christ a Christian?’ Was Paul? I don’t understand the point of these semantical disputes. I’m happy to acknowledge they’re Jews… who believed in the Gospel. Call that what you like.
If you don’t understand why the impossibility of belief is a positive, may I suggest Kierkegaard? Or how about Wittgenstein:
“But if I am to be really redeemed, I need certainty — not wisdom, dreams, speculation — and this certainty is faith. And faith is faith in what my heart, my soul, needs, not my speculative intellect. For my soul, with its passions, as it were with its flesh and blood, must be redeemed, not my abstract mind. … So this can only come about if you no longer support yourself on this earth but suspend yourself from heaven. Then everything is different and it is ‘no wonder’ if you can then do what now you cannot do. (It is true that someone who is suspended looks like someone who is standing but the interplay of forces within him is nevertheless a quite different one & hence he is able to do quite different things than can one who stands.)”
But yes, I quite agree with your dad, any old fool – and it takes a fool – can believe. Hence there is yet hope for me!

Last edited 6 months ago by Kirk Susong
Dumetrius
Dumetrius
6 months ago
Reply to  Keith Merrick

Why is it a positive ? Well, the impossibility is a proof the faith is sincere, so that’s one goal to them.
And failure to score the penalty can’t be proven, only suspected, and that by outsiders, who in a movement like this, are regarded as suspect.
Even for Catholic charismatics, regular Catholics weren’t much rated. They were the out-group.
So for the in-crowd, it’s something of a risk-free win.

Dominic S
Dominic S
6 months ago
Reply to  Adam Clark

Yes, avoiding idolatry, of self or of self-made gods.

Pip G
Pip G
6 months ago
Reply to  Adam Clark

Adam: I understand your argument, but suggest it is wrong. The idea is that faith is the response to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, and ‘Grace’ – the offer that we can come to him without judgement or condition. Otherwise it can be said “There is no proof of God”; although equally there is no disproof. Keep searching.

Adam Clark
AC
Adam Clark
6 months ago
Reply to  Pip G

For what it’s worth Pip I do believe in God, but I think Kierkegaard represents a wrong turn by making faith a leap in the dark rather than a choice to stick to it in the face of difficulty.

Also Kirk I said nearly everyone because I’m aware of Epicureanism and so on. But I don’t think unbelief was a major conpeting cultural thread for most of the history of the church.

Christ crucified was a stumbling block because it shows the self abasement of God and, for the ancients, power was all: “Let the strong do what they will, let the weak
suffer what they must”. Likewise Abraham and Sarah having a child shows the power, not the existence, of God.

Jeff Butcher
JB
Jeff Butcher
6 months ago
Reply to  Adam Clark

Maybe unbelief’s status as a niche cultural pursuit had something to do with the church’s merciful habit of burning people alive if they dared express any doubts.

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
6 months ago
Reply to  Adam Clark

Appreciate the response – but the “leap of faith” that Kierkegaard discusses is not belief in some abstract monotheistical entity, but belief in what Kierkegaard called the “Absolute Paradox” (Phil. Fragments, Ch. 3), i.e., not just a transcendental First Cause, but one which was reduced to pitiful, broken, mortal human flesh, and sacrificed and endured pain on behalf of his dearly beloved… the absolute monotheistical source of Being who became ‘the god who defecates’ in Ernest Becker’s phrase, though those two concepts are utterly impossible to reconcile.
This is precisely the absurdity that Jews and Muslims stress when they talk about the incoherence of Christian belief… how can the Eternal Almighty Most High have gotten pimples and made grammatical errors and burped? And how can the one to whom virtue is owed, have “died for us while we were yet in our sin”? Makes no sense!

Last edited 6 months ago by Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
6 months ago

“All I knew was that I desperately wanted to feel Christ’s transcendent mercy and power resting on me, and sometimes did — or almost did. For of course, there was nothing there.”
The reason this essay is ultimately a failure is because of this sentence. The author is fully justified in exploring how this Christian leader’s personal failings call into question the truth of his claims. He’s also fully justified in exploring the way people find and then lose faith.
The problem is that he doesn’t do *that*. He acknowledges that at one point in his life he experienced a profound sense of redemption arising from his Christian experiences and beliefs. But then he says he lost it and is now convinced it was all fake.
But this is the crucial bit that he glosses over without description. Looking into his life, what are the experiences, the problems, the qualms, that led him to question the validity of the redemption experience which had previously been so moving for him? He doesn’t say.
I find that people usually lose faith in one of two situations… (a) bad things happen to them after they thought that being ‘with God’ would insulate them from bad things, or (b) they have strong desires to do things – sexual, chemical, financial, etc. – that are contrary to what ‘God’ wants, so they prefer to conclude ‘God’ does not exist if he disagrees with them. There are strong theological responses to both these situations – but again, we have no idea if the author explored them or not.
But as Jesus said, some seed is sown on stony ground. The plant comes up, but its roots are not deep, and it does not last long (Matthew 13:5-6).

Last edited 6 months ago by Kirk Susong
JR Hartley
JH
JR Hartley
5 months ago
Reply to  Kirk Susong

Interesting idea as to why people lose faith. You of course exclude the main, more reasonable reason, that the former believer loses the ability to maintain the self delusion. The world loses the false colour, and they recognize the resulting grey as reality. If gods were real, there would not be so many humans who just don’t get it.

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
6 months ago

I got a real sense of sadness reading this, for the author’s experience of emptiness both before and after his conversion. Hope his journey is a bit more meaningful in future than it has been so far.

Ian Jennings
Ian Jennings
6 months ago

The label, “Opinion” is apposite. Faith requires evidence and reason too. So sorry that this author did not get a confirmatory experience he longed for. His sadness comes through, and the way he dismisses Charismatic Christian claims is upsetting and perhaps shows he is still searching, I am guessing. And that is a good thing, though so sad for me to read. Keep looking! Others have found it.

Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
6 months ago
Reply to  Ian Jennings

“Others have found it”. Millions throughout the world have found joy: peace: a deep experience of God’s Love: healing of body,mind and spirit: a strength of faith to live daily with discrimination and the most vicious persecution: meaning and purpose in life etc.etc. And all brought through the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon their lives. And this is mediated more consistently and effectively through the charismatic movement in the Church than by any other grouping or movement within her. Many have gone through difficult and empty periods in their life with God. There is indeed such a thing as the “dark night of the soul”. But according to John Bunyan the pilgrim will make progress as he continues steadfast in faith.

Dominic S
Dominic S
6 months ago

No. Not so. It is not the humanistic movement that does anything for the soul, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And he didn’t go round waving his hands in the air, playing loud music, and demanding all his followers have a good experience they worshipped. As far from it as it comes.

Michael Whittock
MW
Michael Whittock
6 months ago
Reply to  Dominic S

Yes,it is so. The charismatic/Pentecostal expression of the Church is the fastest growing part precisely because it is not a”humanistic movement” but is preaching the Gospel faithfully in reliance on the Holy Spirit. Lifting hands in worship is totally optional and has biblical foundation ie Psalms 28.2, 63.4, 134.2 for starters. Jesus may well have lifted His Hands in worship of His Father when appropriate, as He also knelt when appropriate. As for loud music my experience is that worship bands can be as soft or as loud as organs depending on what is being sung. The one thing Jesus requires is that we worship His Father in spirit and in truth. John4.24 I take that to mean that we worship Him from the heart and for all that He is.

Howard Jones
Howard Jones
6 months ago

Not a very useful article. You may have left the faith, you may no longer believe in God, but that has got little to do with Mike P, charismata or soul survivor. You seem to be trying to post hoc weave a narrative that you knew you were being duped all along!
I have been there done that, was at Soul Survior during the 90s, did all the ‘Toronto Blessing’ revival shaking and baking, been a member of low church, charasmastic and pentecostal churches. Seen it run it course through my church and city, seen Chritian leaders rise and fall ( no shortage) and still I continue in as a believing Christian, I hope, growing in faith, wisdom, love for Jesus, love for the church (hard to do as I am back in the CofE) and love for my fellow believers and unbelievers.
I did not put my trust in charismata at the time and I don’t put my trust in the (relative) lack of it now. I don’t put my trust in leaders, Christian or otherwise (which is the point of Christianity) I put my trust in Jesus Christ. The constant failure of all people to live up to the moral standards they espose is the whole point of the Christian message, you can’t save yourself, you are a flawed human being. You need a saviour Lifting up leaders to stardom just is a mistake and foolishness.
Fine if you have criticisms of the charismatic movement ( I have plenty).
Fine if you have criticisms of Chrisitan leadership styles, emotionalism, youth movements, motivations to (minister) etc. Of course you do, these are human and therefore bound to be flawed activiites.
Fine if you have servious philosophical objections to theism etc I am sorry for your loss, as it seems from what you say , you are too. I hope nihilsm doesn’t crush you and I hope another ‘religious’ cause doesn’t rush in to take the place of Christianity.
But please, don’t put it all together in one mess of pottage and serve it up to us like you are making a useful argument against the existance of God or something.

Right-Wing Hippie
RH
Right-Wing Hippie
6 months ago

Perhaps the lack of transcendence is itself the transcendent element. Tigers do not have crises of faith; sturgeon do not seek to grasp the ineffable. To be human is to be empty, and the human quest is to seek to fill oneself up.

Dominic S
DS
Dominic S
6 months ago

Or to find that which does fill one up…

Dumetrius
D
Dumetrius
6 months ago

Yes, there’s a point in that. The transcendence reimagined as a kind of persistence.

Which is transcendent, when you think about it – because it remains, regardless of ups & downs, trials, troubles and strife.

R Wright
RW
R Wright
6 months ago

A very interesting piece. It is a shame so many of these otherwise positive movements fall prey to these degenerate individuals who use them as a tool to destroy the lives of others.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
6 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

That kind of thing is virtually hot-wired into these movements.
At the heart of charismatic group experience is a kind of coercion. That works for some but not for many.

If you can be coerced into semi-believing their schtick, but at heart have doubts, people who are coercive, skilled-up in taking advantage of coerced stragglers, since they are good at spotting vulnerabilities – are likely to come to these movements, will rise up, and once temptation strikes & they feel things they are not supposed to feel, they’ll look around for stragglers they can coerce participation out of, in order to meet those needs they have.

Last edited 6 months ago by Dumetrius
Dominic S
DS
Dominic S
6 months ago
Reply to  Dumetrius

Agreed. Try standing in such a group and refusing to wave your hands into the air – see the response you get from others, and ignore it – it isn’t easy. Try going to such an event and not being ‘carried away’, or ‘enjoying yourself’, and see what response you get from those there – it isn’t easy. I’ve encountered several such events, and seen the looks of derision on the faces of the leaders and others when I didn’t hang round for long and walked out, when I didn’t accede to their ridiculous emotionalist shtick.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
6 months ago
Reply to  Dominic S

That was why everyone in my family who was involved in charismatic stuff eventually did as I did from the get-go, and distanced themselves.
The nasty, catty and competitive side of it eventually surfaces.

Last edited 6 months ago by Dumetrius
JR Hartley
JH
JR Hartley
5 months ago
Reply to  Dumetrius

“Holier than Thou” is a thing.

Pip G
PG
Pip G
6 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

Yes. People motivated by pride and self importance love power. It has gone on for 2000 years in Christianity, other religions and the secular world. We hope others will be able to distinguish them from ‘the real thing’, but can they? The worst aspect is the Church which has no ability to state what is Christianity. It may be that the Hierachy collapses and we revert to small groups of individuals ‘spreading the message’ as 2000 years ago and after.

George Alliger
George Alliger
5 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

I personally imagine that there is validity in various ways of worshipping in Christianity. For example, on one hand you have the contemplative with a vow of silence. On the other, perhaps, the visibly enthused. God looks not on the physical body, but the heart — a heart which might be equal on either end of the spectrum…

Pip G
PG
Pip G
6 months ago

Charismatic movement. From experience I agree it has been used for emotional manipulation, just as Matt says: it repelled me and my emotions were screaming out ‘This is wrong’. This is unacceptable, unscriptural and contrary to the teachings and Traditions of the Church. I can imagine many people have turned away from God in consequence.
This does not necessarily mean that there is not validity and benefit from some aspects of the Charismatic movement.
Matt has turned away to “There is no God.” Understandable but not logical. Bad behaviours by some power seekers does not equal no God. Indeed Matt recognises the void – the hole needing to be filled. St Augustine recognised this – our hearts are restless until we find our rest in God.
The essence of Christianity is that we can have a relationship with God. This distinguishes it from other religions. The relationship is based on humility and not good works; what is called grace. As such we can NOT ‘convert’ anyone else; the idea is abhorrent. Rather we try to live out our lives in line with the teachings & example of Jesus Christ. To do so some of us look to the wisdom of the early church (Augustine, Aquinas, et al) as correctly interpreted for today; and we look to the sacraments for reminders. All irrational behaviours and superstitions are to be rejected.
in no way is this an attempt to persuade anyone that God exists – look elsewhere for that. Rather it is to show empathy with Matt’s experiences, refute the wrong doers who misused him, but indicate there is a better way than despair.

Keith Merrick
Keith Merrick
6 months ago

I don’t get it. So the genuineness of the shaking, weeping and wailing, the speaking in tongues all depended on the good character of the bloke with the microphone? What kind of belief system is that?

David Kingsworthy
David Kingsworthy
6 months ago

I agree with some observations here that the author lost his way toward the end of the piece. One of the great dangers of a charismatic leader is that the followers put their faith in the human instead of in God. Inevitably this leads to disappointment and poisons the well in terms of one’s future interest in faith matters. But this is not to do with God — we are all fallen, all make mistakes, and are all invited gently back into His presence after episodes of pain and rejection.

Right-Wing Hippie
RH
Right-Wing Hippie
6 months ago

I sometimes say that I believe in God, but I don’t have faith in Him.

Derek Smith
DS
Derek Smith
6 months ago

I don’t understand why this was downvoted, so I’ve upvoted it.

One can hold quite easily to a mental concept of God, but without the personal reliance, loyalty and trust in that God (the biblical definition of ‘faith’). I would suggest that it is the default position of a lot of people.

Last edited 6 months ago by Derek Smith
Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
6 months ago
Reply to  Derek Smith

Many preachers have expressed their view of this sentiment thus: “It’s not that you don’t believe in God, it’s that you don’t think he believes in you.”
The abstract concept of a supernatural first cause is no stretch for most people (indeed, it takes a lot more faith to deny it). But to believe said supernatural first cause is a person who loves you individually, and wants to have an intimate relationship with you personally? That does require a leap of faith.

Geoff W
GW
Geoff W
6 months ago

If Mr Broomfield wants to minister to the poor, engage in outreach work, donate a portion of his income to the disadvantaged and perform other such praiseworthy acts, he can just do so. A paedophilic cult, sincere Charismatic Christianity and the mainstream churches don’t have a monopoly on good works, and aren’t necessary prerequisites for them.

Dominic S
Dominic S
6 months ago
Reply to  Geoff W

Spot on. This is what many in the world do very well. And all credit to them. The task of the church is to preach Christ crucified. No-one else will do it.

Citizen Diversity
CD
Citizen Diversity
6 months ago

God must feel an apocalypse coming on.
No wonder Jesus told His followers not to go among the Gentiles. If anyone thought that some ordained magician could summon the Holy Spirit they couldn’t have been paying attention. ‘The wind blows where it wills’.
It took a professional missionary, an expert salesman, Saul of Tarsus, to straighten out the Gentiles (who, as Romans, had been primed for a long time previously by their own poets as to their ’emptiness’ in overcoming their own predisposition to wrongdoing).
Didn’t pay attention to the warning? ‘False Christs will arise to deceive the elect’? Didn’t pay attention to the warning? The seeds that spring eagerly to life and exhaust themselves even more rapidly? Instead of casting pearls before swine, the pearls cast themselves in their hundreds before one of those unhappy creatures. ‘Just as a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool returns to his folly’.
At least if you go to your Anglican parish church you won’t find among the evensong, the flower-arranging, and the coffee mornings anyone plotting mass murder. The Dark Age people who buried their dead at Apple Down in West Sussex and who festooned their graves with mausolea, mounds and pillars hung about with flags, tinkling chimes, models of gods and fetishes (as some people do today) would have been in a happier spiritual state than all these young people that the author describes.
Didn’t pay attention? Invitations are sent out, not to come to a session of frottage, but to a banquet. The Apostle Paul reminded his converts of what they had once been. They had been darkness. Not just in the dark, but had been impregnated with darkness so as to be identified with it. Now they are light in the Lord. No interval, no leap of faith, no journey of faith between. The world doesn’t get educated into that sort of holiness.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
6 months ago

Come again?

Dumetrius
D
Dumetrius
6 months ago

Been paying attention to this story for a while.

As I’ve got a liking for Watford, and grew up with experience of the charismatic arm of Catholicism in Australia, and having the kind of gay street sense that clocks guys like Mike P from a mile away and instantly thinks ‘not in a million f*****g years, sunshine’, I was interested to see how their communications and statements would evolve, as the inevitable became well, inevitabler.

Peter Lucey
Peter Lucey
6 months ago

I can recommend the film “Marjoe” to the author (and others).

(Add) it’s a 1972 film documentary showing how the money is made on the Evangelical,/charismatic US circuit. But the congregations appear to be enjoying the experience, so perhaps they weren’t conned?)

Last edited 6 months ago by Peter Lucey
Samuel Turner
Samuel Turner
6 months ago

Innocent until proven guilty I say. Pilavachi hasn’t been convicted of anything.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
6 months ago
Reply to  Samuel Turner

Well, as of 6 Sept 2023 they say he’s stood down from Soul Survivor and handed back his license to the Bishop of St Albans, so that’s him done as a Church of England priest.

Doesn’t that amount to having accepted a degree of guilt?

Last edited 6 months ago by Dumetrius
Michael Whittock
MW
Michael Whittock
6 months ago
Reply to  Dumetrius

No it doesn’t necessarily. It could be that he was bullied into resignation by the church authorities in the hope that the media circus would die down as it did. Also whatever faults and weaknesses he may have Mike Pilavachi had a very effective ministry over many years. There are thousands of people of every age and particularly the young who will be eternally ( I use the word advisedly) grateful to Him for helping them into a living relationship with God, through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
6 months ago

Well, you may think it could be anyone of a number of things, but let’s face it, it’s not likely.

Has he even denied any of the allegations? If so, it hasn’t been reported as far as I can see.

And I could give damn about his ‘effective ministry’. It doesn’t justify his behaviour.

And what I mean by his behaviour is this. I’m a regular gay guy. If I wanted to massage someone, or go further, then I’d jump on Grindr and find someone NOT in my church, my workplace, my charity, someone where I wouldn’t be introducing an inherent conflict of interest into my relationship with them, or with God, because of the unfair power relation.

No one would know, no one (much) would care. If Pilavachi had behaved that way, he’d be fine. Maybe not with God, but the two of them can work that out, and at least third parties would be spared!

Why is it so hard for these guys to keep their predilections out of their ministry ?

And if you look at Facebook and other social media, it is full of people from his ministries, who are now questioning that ‘living relationship with God’ as a result of MP’s conduct.

Last edited 6 months ago by Dumetrius
Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
6 months ago
Reply to  Dumetrius

I was answering your speculation with my speculation and that’s all it is although I take your point about no denial.
There was no attempt on my part to justify sinful behaviour. But my point still stands whether you “give a damn” or not. Thousands of people have been greatly helped by Mike Pilavachi in the most important and significant area of their lives – the salvation of their souls.
I do not do Facebook. I’m sorry for those who are questioning their faith as a result of Pilavachi’s conduct. I hope they will come to a place where they realise that the Gospel they received from him truly is their joy and salvation and totally transcends their feelings about the messenger. A crown received in a soiled box is still a crown.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
5 months ago

Maybe for you. But for most people, when someone climbs onto the party table, hitches up his surplice, and uncurls a crackler into the punchbowl, they don’t feel particularly ‘transcendent’ about it.

Last edited 5 months ago by Dumetrius
Dominic S
Dominic S
6 months ago
Reply to  Samuel Turner

Maybe not, but he’s admitted plenty.

David McKee
DM
David McKee
6 months ago

It’s a very brave piece to write. Thanks, Matt. Inevitably, perhaps, this piece is more about his own disillusionment, bolstered with the opinions of a clutch of philosophers, than it is about Pilavachi. That’s a pity.
Charismatic worship (and yes, I’ve dipped a tentative toe in those waters) automatically raises the hackles of the British. It seems terribly _enthusiastic_, and that’s enough to damn it. I suspect this attitude goes back to the civil wars of the seventeenth century, when religious enthusiasm seemed to be followed in very short order by lots of people winding up dead. But it is Biblically based, and therefore has its place in Christian worship.
What’s more to the point here, is how did Pilavachi get away with it for so long? I can offer an insight. I worship in an Anglican church about three miles away from Soul Survivor in Watford, and I had never heard of it or him. The Anglican church is terribly, terribly parochial. But what about clergy gossip? Were there any rumours that the St. Albans diocese chose to ignore? Good question. I know from personal experience that the diocese relies entirely on the incumbent to alert it to any problems. If the incumbent _is_ the problem, the news filters through very, very slowly.
In an organisation where we should be policing each other, we don’t. And so the scandals keep coming.

Lancastrian Oik
Lancastrian Oik
6 months ago

If you don’t look at that picture and immediately think “Now there’s a wrong ‘un if ever I saw one” then I feel sorry for you but am not surprised you were duped. Sometimes, Occam’s razor is all you need.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
5 months ago

People these days are not very streetwise.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
6 months ago

Strange the article was commissioned – what’s the point of writing about leaving the faith of over a billion people – who cares?

R Wright
R Wright
6 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

I’m more interested in this than three essays on Israel or trans issues a day, personally.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
6 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Because it’s a very particular part of that faith, and one that in contrast to most other bits, is growing.

And it involves Watford.

Last edited 6 months ago by Dumetrius
david barlow
DB
david barlow
6 months ago

Been there, done it, seen it done multiple times. As Gandhi once mused, he admired Jesus, but had a problem with his followers.

david barlow
DB
david barlow
6 months ago

Charismatics boast about possessing a variety of gifts of the spirit. Where was the gifts in recognising sins in its midst?

Sam Agnew
Sam Agnew
5 months ago

What a desperately sad story the author has told of himself.

Mangle Tangle
Mangle Tangle
5 months ago

Seek your own path. You don’t need charismatic bible thumpers to show you the way, any more than you need dry, formulaic ministers of established religions. If you are attracted to the glitz and the glamour and the crowds, believe me, it’s not for spiritual reasons.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
6 months ago

Huge credit to the author for his vivid descriptions of how and why people are drawn into a compelling but ultimately desolate experience. The human psyche requires us all to try to reach out beyond ourselves, to seek “communion” with others, to close the gap between our internal life-long dialogue with ourselves and our fellow human beings, each going through their own internal dialogue, and the physical manifestations of this same reaching out.
He reaches the right conclusion in the end, the “non-existent god” which we’ve gone to extreme lengths to persuade ourselves must exist, including so much civilisational destruction and the infliction of suffering to try to demonstrate the superiority of “our” god over other versions. He also alludes to some of the good that people are encouraged to do through helping others, and that can’t be denied. I’d argued that’s the true foundation of our civilisation, but one which has an element of self-interest too (mutual help).
The issue is the rise of human consciousness, which makes us aware of our selves and the wide scope of humanity beyond our selves, and the vastness of the universe beyond that. It’s this awareness that we must start to come to terms with, and do so with honesty, as the author now does, without recourse to deities and “leaps of faith” which he rightly now sees as the psychological trick employed to convince ourselves of something which can’t exist, but which leaves us open to manipulation and desolation once it’s seen for what it is. There is meaning to be found by being true to ourselves, and our common humanity.

Mike Starkey
Mike Starkey
6 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

You imply people of faith are more prone to violence/intolerance, and to manipulation/believing nonsense. The 20th century seems to disprove the first (state-sponsored atheism has been the most violent movement in history). And the 21st century seems to disprove the second (unhinged conspiracy theories, post-truth and gender ideology are largely secular phenomena, and postmodernism writes off rationality itself as a colonial construct).

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
6 months ago
Reply to  Mike Starkey

Those 20th/21st century systems you refer to all rely on the key element of “belief”, e.g. in the state, gender ideology, etc. It’s “belief” systems in general that arise from our experience of consciousness which we really must start to try and understand more fully. Of course, your comment completely ignores that fundamental issue.
If you’ve lived your life having been indoctrinated in one form of belief or another, it must be galling to have them laid bare – as in this article, for which i commend the author for his bravery; and in my wider point about human psychology.

Last edited 6 months ago by Steve Murray
Derek Smith
Derek Smith
6 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I’m not sure that someone’s personal experiences confirm this one way or the other. He didn’t really discuss his de-conversion in detail.

Last edited 6 months ago by Derek Smith
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
6 months ago
Reply to  Derek Smith

It’s not about one person’s experience “confirming” anything, and to even consider i’d implied that isn’t any assistance to your point of view.
What i’m describing is the universal experience of human beings, whose consciousness seeks that which is outside itself. A great many people are now concluding that “god” isn’t that something, but a psychological device to provide a sense of comfort and togetherness. I fully understand that. It is, however, still a psychological device which the author (among many others) has come to realise.
The worst aspect of this device is how it leaves people wide open to manipulation, or even coercion, and even to the point of mindless violence committed in its name. The pages of history drip with the blood of religion-inspired violence, and/or by state-inspired violence. That’s why we need to understand it better, and move away from the “leap of faith” nonsense that just pushes the device like a drug.
I also fully accept that many people will be very uncomfortable with this analysis, and with good reason – their whole psychological status depends on it.
Just take gender ideology as an example. If we wish people to stop proselytising on behalf of a very small trans minority (who deserve our sympathy if genuine), one has to accept that they’ve somehow been fooled into believing in it. It’s precisely the same mechanism.

Last edited 6 months ago by Steve Murray
Derek Smith
Derek Smith
6 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Ah I see where you’re coming from now. I disagree that it’s a psychological coping mechanism – of course I would, but from a certain point of view I can see it makes sense.

Last edited 6 months ago by Derek Smith
Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
6 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Every part of the human experience “leaves us wide open to manipulation or even coercion”. This is not down to any particular religion or religion in general. It’s down to the imperfection of humans.

Last edited 6 months ago by Kirk Susong