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 Sþren 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 Ă  ĂȘtre, 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.