Jesus people, loving people

Talking To Mike Pilavachi

About Celibacy, 'Soul Survivor' and the charismatic movement

Mike Pilavachi is founder and leader of ‘Soul Survivor’, an organisation seeking to disciple, equip and empower young people to make a difference in their generation.

He is also an author, international speaker and pastor of Soul Survivor Watford, a congregation aiming to reach out to the young people there.

In this interview he talks to Huw Lewis, editor of Jesus Life and member of the Apostolic Team of the Jesus Fellowship.

Huw: What were the significant moments in your own spiritual journey to finding Jesus?

Mike: I became a Christian just before my 16th birthday. I’d been a complete non-Christian up until then, but I was searching for something and seeking alternatives, like Christian Science. Then some Christians came out of the woodwork and explained to me the gospel and I realised that Christianity wasn’t about rules and regulations and going to institutions, but it was a relationship with a person. I met Jesus as a result of that and I gave my life to Him.

Soon afterwards, I heard about what it meant to be filled with the Holy Spirit and receive the gifts of the Spirit. I was desperate for that and kept asking on my own. Nothing happened so I went to a couple who were leading my home group, and asked them to pray for me. They didn’t know what they were doing any more than I did! So they sat in one corner of the room, I sat in the other, and we just sat in silence and prayed! After an hour, suddenly the Holy Spirit came upon me. It was the most wonderful meeting with Jesus, in such a fresh way – knowing God was in me and God was with me!

That launched you in a whole new direction in your life?

Yes. I was 17, so had more zeal and passion than common sense and wisdom! I heard someone talk about how Jesus and the disciples probably walked around the Judean countryside without any sandals on. So, I spent the next two months walking round Harrow without any shoes on, trying to be like Jesus! I did the most ridiculous, crazy things like that! Coming to know Jesus for me was a totally life-changing event – it was momentous, and I wanted to serve Him from then on in whatever capacity and whatever way I could.

And after that?

I went to university because no doors opened to do anything else for the Lord. I came out with a degree and I got a job as an accountant for eight years, which was agony. Eventually I got to the place of acceptance where I said, ‘Lord, I just want to love You, and that will be enough.’

Then suddenly, the doors opened. I went to a church (St Andrews, Chorleywood) where I heard they prayed for people for healing, and when I first went there it was like I’d arrived home. I used to sit in the meetings and it felt like waves of love flowing over me. To my amazement, after about a year, the vicar asked me if I would become the full-time youth worker.

How long did you do that for?

For two years and then we started the New Wine camps, and I did the youth work for those. That was in 1989. In 1993 we began Soul Survivor festivals and planted the church here in Watford that I now lead.

Were you commissioned and released to do that or was it your own initiative?

After a while I sensed the Lord was saying that we were to plant a church specifically aimed at reaching young people. It was never a youth church – it couldn’t be because I was in it!

The church leaders laid hands on me, released me and sent me off with a team. Eleven of us came to Watford to plant this church. St Andrews supported us, financially and in terms of friendship, and still do.

At the same time I had a vision that wouldn’t go away, of creating a festival that would have worship, teaching and ministry at the heart of it, but would also have creative arts, music, sport and fun! This was the beginning of Soul Survivor – an event which wanted to identify, envision, train and empower young people into ministry.

What have been the challenges in terms of discipling the new unchurched generation?

It’s been an incredible challenge, when discipleship has to be an awful lot more than sitting down and working out the original Greek together in the Bible! It’s much more of a way of life. That demands huge amounts of time and input.

What’s the future of Soul Survivor?

I honestly don’t know. Whatever we’re doing, we will be seeking to encourage the church to reach and keep young people.

We’ve done ‘Soul in the City’ in London, and we’re wondering about doing the same thing in Durban, South Africa, in a few years’ time. We’d like to take thousands of young people to proclaim Christ in word and deed and serve the street children, the AIDS orphans there and hopefully, as a result, to catch God’s heart for world mission.

We also long for more holistic mission – that as a church we would be good news, not just speak good news. We don’t just want to throw Bible bombs at people from a safe distance and hope one explodes in the vicinity!

Soul Survivor has become an international event in a number of countries overseas. How did that come about?

It just happened! People came from overseas to Soul Survivor England and said that this was what they longed to do back home. Each overseas work has its own distinctives and we now have Soul Survivor in eight different countries.

How has this involvement with a youth culture changed you and your view of church?

Church has been in my DNA right from the start when I first became a Christian. I’ve always loved church and wanted to serve the church. Soul Survivor ministry isn’t very important and will disappear at some stage. Jesus didn’t say ‘I will build My Soul Survivor’, He said ‘I will build My Church’ and our only validity is in the way we serve the church – we can’t be a substitute for church.

My home is within the Anglican church and I want to be a loyal, committed member of this bit of the body. But I also love the whole church, and I’m not really a denominationally-minded person. What’s amazing is young people come to our festivals from every denomination and non-denomination and we want to serve them all.

In the end to reach young people you proclaim Christ, and that always works. But it’s also about how you proclaim Christ and what language you use, as we’re not a cultureless church. We have to be a church that’s incarnated in a culture, because there’s no such thing as a heavenly culture.

A culture is the language you speak, the symbols you use, the ways you communicate, and if we don’t communicate in the culture of this generation we will be communicating in the culture of the last generation or of the generation that lived 200 or 300 years ago! Those cultures weren’t more holy than this culture or less holy; they just spoke a different language.

So our challenge is to constantly have a heart of love, keep the same gospel, the same cross, the same Christ but be able to communicate Him as relevantly and as effectively as possible.

Will the Church of England split over the gay issue?

It’s possible. I hope it might be in as pleasant a way as possible, with folk agreeing to go separate ways and the bulk of the church staying together.

I believe what the Bible seems to clearly teach about sex is between one man and one woman in the context of marriage, which is a lifetime relationship.

At the same time it’s painful to see so many of my evangelical brothers and sisters sounding like they hate gay people. We have to love people who are homosexual, who are in the gay scene, because that’s what Jesus does. That doesn’t mean we approve. Sometimes we evangelicals come across as right, but nasty. That’s a tragedy and we need to repent of that. We sound self-righteous.

I watched a TV programme at the height of the debate where they had a liberal Christian who doesn’t believe anything I believe, and an evangelical Christian who believes everything I believe, and I thought, ‘I agree with the evangelical, but the other guy’s nicer’. That should not be.

I wish we were as passionate about the poor, the broken, the marginalised, the dispossessed and about the outsider as we are about holiness and sexuality.

I do want us to be passionate about holiness and sexuality. But we appear to many young people who are not gay, to be wanting to persecute a group in the population, and they say, ‘how can we listen to you talk about the God of love’. They don’t understand why we make a big deal of this issue.

What advice would you give to a local church in terms of winning and keeping its 15s to 30s?

One of the things the church has got to do if we’re to reach young people is that we mustn’t own them anymore. I love the story of Hannah, when she made a promise at the beginning of 1 Samuel, when she was barren, and said, ‘Lord if you would grant me a son, then I will give him back to you. I will present him in the temple; I will not keep him for myself.’ We know they belong to God and we will release them from trying to be pew-fillers.

Others need confidence that the young generation are not a different species, they’re just a younger version of them, and actually love transcends cultures. Some of the best youth leaders I’ve known have been people with white hair who just love the young people. We also need a passion to go and find them where they are, get beside them, care for them and to be genuine. It’s more important to be authentic than it is to be relevant.

What was the fruit of ‘Soul in the City’ in London during July, 2004?

We learned what can happen when God’s people come together. We had 770 partner churches, 30 per cent of which were black majority churches. A number of large churches were involved: Holy Trinity Brompton, Kensington Temple, All Souls Langham Place and others. We also had very tiny churches drawn in. There were Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, House Churches and New Churches all working together and going for it!

We had 11,500 enthusiastic Christian young people who came as missionaries to serve the people. It was a whole mixture of social action projects, gospel proclamation, celebration and unity.

We’ve heard some wonderful stories: the bus driver who came along to a meeting because he was curious about the enthusiastic kids on his bus and gave his life to Jesus. One council hadn’t allowed a church to use the community centre for eight years, and then a group of kids went and redecorated and renovated the centre, and as a result, the council said to the church, ‘You can use the community centre whenever you want. Can we talk about how we can work together?’

It was wonderful to see the change in the way people view church and discover what church is really about. It was humbling to realise that together we serve in our weakness. It wasn’t rocket science, it was basic stuff: tell the people Jesus loves them and show them His love yourself in ways that people can understand.

What do you feel about the dangers in charismatic worship?

The heart of charismatic worship is rooted in the local church. We need to encourage all our worship leaders to be accountable to the authority of the local church. It can be so easy to end up becoming independent. That is the key thing, because in some places now there’s a fair bit of money in it, especially in America. We don’t just want to make worship albums because there’s a market.

True worship becomes real in the context of a committed community adoring Jesus together. While I hate entertainment worship, we need to make a distinction between what I call ‘temple’ worship and worship for the streets. The old ‘Come Together’ musicals were a mixture of worship and evangelism! They were playing songs, but there was also an element of outreach and there was a bit of entertainment in it as well. Yet it was all pointing to Jesus.

At the same time I passionately believe that anointed, Christ-centred, Spirit-filled, adoring, praising, thanksgiving worship is the best evangelistic tool we have, because people sense the presence of God.

How have you coped with some of your disappointments in life and the painful times which you write about in your book, ‘The Wasteland’?

Well, the reason I wrote that book was not because I did a Bible study on the desert and thought, ‘this is an interesting subject’. It’s because I seemed to have spent most of my life in one! Before I became a Christian I was in a lot of pain. After I became a Christian there were times when I was in a lot of pain.

Those years when I was an accountant, sensing that this couldn’t be what the Lord wanted for me, and yet not Being sure, was a desert experience. I look back and I realize that God was dealing with me, preparing me and taking me deeper.

Pain is very much a part of our Christian experience.

In our walk with Jesus in this world there will be tribulation and pain. It’s all over the scriptures. Many of those that God uses He prepares in the crucible of the desert. Our culture is about instant everything, it’s the McDonalds generation. McDonalds Christianity isn’t very nourishing! It makes you fat and it doesn’t make you grow. We need fewer fat Christians and more growing Christians!

We need deep people, because that’s what communicates to a broken and hurting world, and the only place you find depth is actually finding God in the pain and learning the secret of praise and thanksgiving when it hurts.

We need to allow Him to humble us in the desert where we realise that we haven’t got it and can’t do it. I think it’s the antidote to shallow Christianity which has imbibed the spirit of the world, proclaiming a Christianity that is ‘come to Jesus and you’ll never have any more problems and you’ll be healthy, wealthy and wise – instantly’. The reality of the scripture is different to what many of us would like and we need to challenge one another and challenge the church to go deeper.

And you’ve been here ever since?

Yes. Remarkably, Stuart Lindsell gave me his house to live in, so we’ve been living here, rent free ever since. That was a major step of faith by him. We’re here basically to expand the vision to this region – London, for us, is a key city.

You’re a celibate. How do you see that in terms of your ministry and what it has released in you?

There are two gifts God gives for human relationships – the gift of marriage and the gift of celibacy. I would never have said in the past that I had a calling to celibacy; it’s just the way it worked out. Now I think I have because this is where I am. The truth is, for many, their calling is to marriage, but in the church we have lost that sense of the vocation and calling to celibacy.

I couldn’t do what I’m doing, spending half my year traveling the world, if I was married with kids. We need to say to young people that you’re not an incomplete person if you don’t have sex or a marriage partner. You’re only incomplete if you’re not walking with Jesus.

There have been times when it’s been very lonely – going home wishing you could tell someone all about it because it’s been wonderful, or because it’s been bad. But most of the time it’s not lonely because I have lots of friends and brothers and sisters who do just that – some who are married and some who are single. However, there’s no worse loneliness than the loneliness in a marriage that isn’t right.

Where do you see the charismatic church going at the moment? Have we reached a bit of a stagnant point?

I think the renewal constantly needs to be renewed, and that’s always found by going back to basics. We need to get back to listening to God in the prophetic, praying in the Spirit, praying for one another to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and pursuing God – which is what it’s all about – in our worship and in our lifestyle.

We need to see what the Father is doing and do what He’s doing. Without losing any of those things that we learned and moved into years ago, God is saying today we need to add a passionate evangelism. That’s not always been there in the forefront of the charismatic movement.

We also need to add a biblical concern for justice and the poor. It’s amazing how we go back to tradition, and the danger is that we do all the outward charismatic things – we lift our hands, we sing the modern songs, we bang drums, we pray for each other – without the charismatic power. Then it becomes empty formalism.

The heart of the charismatic movement was desperation for greater intimacy with Him and for greater power to break the chains that bind people. We need to keep getting desperate – again and again and again!

Who are the spiritual heroes that have particularly influenced you most?

Not in any order – John Wimber, who was by no means perfect as a person and yet in his imperfection and his weaknesses he had a boldness and he carried something powerful. I hope I can emulate the generosity, warmth, humility and encouragement of David Pytches, who is my spiritual father, and bring that to others.

I admire Brother Andrew, whom I’ve had the privilege of getting to know recently. He’s 78 now and still faithfully serving the Lord in as passionate a way as he ever was. Years ago David Watson had an impact on me. Rees Howells was an amazing man in his devotion to Jesus and his commitment to serving in every way. There have also been a number of people that no one has ever heard of but who serve the Lord in a hidden place and love Him.

Have you got any dreams that that the Spirit’s planted inside you which you feel haven’t been fulfilled?

Yes – there are always lots of dreams. I’ve asked the Lord that before I die I would love to see a true revival in this land, with tens of thousands of people coming to Christ. Also for these people to be discipled in churches that are not filled with Pharisees, but filled with lovers of God and lovers of broken people, who are open-hearted, sacrificial and compassionate.

I long for a church in this nation, and around the world, that really speaks and spearheads peace – an example to the world of an alternative society, that cares and loves and serves and weeps.

Anything else that you wanted to say that you see as significant or important?

I want to encourage people not to wait until they think they’re sorted before they step out in His name. Do it now and He’ll somehow sort them out on the way. I suppose as I’ve gone on I’ve realised how much I struggle with things. I sometimes feel low, I sometimes have insecurities and doubts, I sometimes mess up and I hurt people. In the end to some degree or other, we’re all going to limp into heaven and when I see Him face to face, then everything will get completely sorted!

I pray that I’m faithful to the end and I don’t mess up before I die. Also I hope and pray that many of my brothers and sisters would see that God can do amazing things in their weakness and their vulnerability. It’s His treasure in our jars of clay.

This article was taken from our Jesus Life magazine, and was first published in January 2005.

Published 15th February 2005 with tags: celibacy prophetic sex youth

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