Interview: Soul Survivor
Mike Pilavachi talks to Stephen Tomkins
In 1993, Mike Pilavachi founded two things called Soul Survivor. One was a church for young people in Watford, Hertfordshire, which started with 11 members. The other was a Christian youth camp in Shepton Mallet, Somerset, which 1,896 people attended. Today, the church has more than 1,000 members, and 26,000 young people attended Soul Survivor’s national events.
Mr Pilavachi’s earlier years in Christian youth work were a rather different experience. Reform heard his story at the Soul Survivor buildings, converted warehouses in a north Watford industrial estate.
As a teenager, you used to tell your parents you were going to the pub when you were going to church.
Yes! How did you know that? My parents were immigrants to this country from Cyprus and, though they were nominally Greek Orthodox, they were militant atheists. They hated the Church, what they saw as its corruption, and thought religion was for ignorant people. When I became a Christian they banned me from going to church, so I used to pretend to be going to parties when I was at Bible studies and prayer groups.
One day, the leaders of my home group said to me: ‘Mike, is that honouring to God?’ I said: ‘If I tell them the truth they won’t let me come, and I don’t know how I’ll survive.’ They said: ‘Why don’t we pray and trust God.’ So I told my parents and they went crazy. My dad wouldn’t speak to me for months – but he was so proud he wouldn’t even speak to me to tell me not to go. So every time I plucked up the courage and put on my coat and went.
I wonder where such great antipathy to Christianity came from.
They just didn’t want me to waste my time. They were really dismissive. I remember my dad saying: ‘Why would I want to go to heaven? It’ll be full of innocent babies. I’ll have to change all their nappies.’ I don’t know where it came from.
Were they ever reconciled to your faith?
No. My dad died 30 years ago; my mum eventually realised it wasn’t going to change and was resigned to it – but not reconciled.
You were a zealous convert.t was the most momentous thing in my life. I knew everything changed.
But I had more zeal than wisdom. I got it into my head that being like Jesus meant walking around Harrow barefoot – till I got an infection from a glass splinter and had to go to casualty.
I bought all these ‘Jesus Christ is the real thing’ stickers from the Christian bookshop and put them everywhere – lampposts, dustbins, windscreens, front doors. Until I went back to the shop to buy more and heard the shopkeeper talking about it saying: ‘It’s such a bad witness.’ All I wanted to do was be a good witness.
You spent six years as a youth leader in a Baptist Church. How did that go? Everything I touched went wrong. It was voluntary work, while I was an accountant – a terrible accountant – at Harvey Nichols, but I spent all my spare time at church. I ran a mission with other local churches and no one came. …
This is an extract from the February 2017 edition of Reform.