In the wake of abuse allegations against Soul Survivor’s Mike Pilavachi, and the Redmans’ video response, Laya Watters interrogates how music can prop up the power of celebrity culture in church leadership.

The words of Mike Pilavachi formed so much of my understanding of leadership, the church and worship. Often as I stand in my churches on a Sunday, trying to focus on the worship song or hymn we are singing, rather than the sermon I’m about to preach or the troubled parishioner behind me, old words of Mike said at Soul Survivor summer festivals ring in my ears: ‘worship isn’t the warm-up act to the main event, it is the main event’.

Yet worship is more than the songs we sing. The music that punctuates our worship is a springboard and a backing track to the lives of wholehearted obedience that we are called to live.  Worship in a lyrical and musical sense does not make you a holy person, but a life lived in worship, a life which proclaims the love and glory of God, in word, action and song, that is the main event.

When the news first broke about Mike last spring, I was heartbroken but not surprised.[1] I had spent my teen years attending and then serving on team at Soul Survivor, listening to close friends who had served at Soul Survivor Watford who spoke about Mike’s behaviour and the culture he created. But perhaps more than this, by the final few years of the festivals, I felt the familiar echoes of spiritual abuse which I had experienced in my local church, resonating from Mike’s stage in front of thousands of young people. But like so many, I dismissed my fears, putting it down to the pantomime comedy and trusting those in power and proximity to hold him accountable.

Now high-profile survivors of his abuse, those who are Christian celebrities themselves, are stepping out and releasing statements and most recently a documentary about their experiences. Matt and Beth Redman’s documentary ‘Let There Be Light’ has received over 170,000 views since its release in April.[2] It shares their experiences and pleas with people to report any concerns they have about abusive behaviour. Whilst they do not explore it in the documentary, the placing of music in abusive cultures deserves to be unpicked in and of itself. Many of the survivors of Pilavachi’s abuse were his young, male, worship-leading interns. The similarities are glaring with abuse perpetrated by parish priests and organists against vulnerable choirboys, the first wave of church abuse scandals which still rock local churches. It is tragically an ever so familiar pattern, magnified by the stages of fame and pedestals of popularity.

‘Yet even now, says the Lord,
    return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
    rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord your God,
    for he is gracious and merciful’
Joel 2:12-13a (NRSV)

These verses have continually come to mind as I have reflected on the heartbreak of Pilavachi’s abuse and the fallout amongst the church in the UK. Music moves our emotions. Worship leaders and the pastors are very good at leading us to rend our hearts and not just our garments. However, here we are confronted with the phenomenon of parasocial relationships (the common experience where we feel like we really, truly know celebrities because we’ve interacted with their work, while they do not even really know that we exist) create chasmic pitfalls for Christian leaders. The rending of garments on stage, tells the congregation nothing of whether leaders are also rending their hearts. When someone reputable on stage, on Twitter, or simply at the front of church, is so publicly rending their garments, it is incredibly difficult to call into question whether they are also rending their hearts. Where they could be very openly rending their hearts on stage, because we do not know them, all we can possibly see is their garments. 

For tens of thousands of us, whole generations of the church in the UK, Soul Survivor’s ministries created parasocial relationships between Mike Pilavachi, all those who appeared on the stage and the congregations before them. And where this is an almost inevitable impact of being a person on a stage, especially where gifting, comedy, and God’s presence despite the leader’s flaws, are all tangled up in the midst of it all, it is an illusion. One of the most jarring things about Matt Redman’s testimony is that on stage, things seemed to be fine. In his music, most listeners could never have perceived the parts of his story which were forming the lyrics. But very quickly and starkly we are learning that while there is no doubt Redman’s music reflects some of his story, we do not know his story, we only see the garments.

Katelyn Beaty, in her book Celebrities for Jesus, unpicks the dangerous creation of celebrity within modern Christian culture, defining celebrity as ‘social power without proximity’.[3] As we see so often with church scandals, the bigger the stage, the more people listening, the greater the leader’s social power and the lesser their proximity. We, in the pews, do not see what is forming their actions, they, on the stage, do not see the impact of their actions. We, in the folding chairs, do not feel like we can hold them to account, they, under the stage-lights, have so few people holding them to account or asking difficult questions. Worship leaders, due to the emotional impact of the music they write or lead, may have even more social power with even less proximity to those they are leading. Beaty highlights how whether from a stage, through social media, printed words or recorded music, we are always engaging with ‘a presented, mediated self’ and that the ‘absence of true knowledge, and true accountability, leave abundant opportunity for their social power to be misused and abused’.[4]

To have immense social power and little proximity is a spiritually dangerous place for any of us to be.

Beaty, Celebrities for Jesus, P19 [5]

So what do we do?  

Ultimately, there is no leadership that doesn’t have some element of power without proximity. There is no element of music which does not have power without proximity. Worship music is no exception to this complexity. But as a worship-leading, local church leader and survivor of church abuse, advocating for trauma-informed practice within the church, I implore us to be aware of the balance of power and proximity within our churches, and to resist as much as possible the parasocial pull into false intimacy and proximity. There is often little we can do to entirely mitigate the impact of this dynamic, nor would it necessarily be right to do that either, but we must know it is happening. We must all be intentional at resisting the feeling that we know people better than we do, and at persisting in truly knowing and challenging those who we are in relationship with.

As the church, as the Body of Christ, we are called to work together to challenge unhealthy cultures and build healthier ones where that dangerous place of disparity between immense social power and little proximity does not become a chasm into which leaders fall and victims are mercilessly taken. The Church of England National Safeguarding statement in response to the findings of Pilavachi’s behaviour and the Redmans’ response, included this reiteration: ‘we all need to take responsibility for creating a healthy culture where abuse is seen and prevented, and where power is held with humility and accountability’.[6]

The final words of the Let There Be Light video from the Redmans’ are the words of Diane Langberg as she speaks hope of the church’s growth and reads the words of the Lord in 2 Chronicles 7:14:

‘if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land’.

In 2 Chronicles 7, throughout Scripture and church history, and in the later verses of Joel 2, after the imploring to rend our hearts as well as our garments, comes the collective invitation for not just one individual, but the entire community to come together, to gather and repent, and to return to the Lord. Meaningful, lasting change in the Body of Christ, can only come from the Head Himself, Christ Jesus, who will transform us from glory to glory as we turn back to Him, rending our hearts as well as our garments.

Reverend Laya Watters is a curate in the Church of England, based in Bradford, Yorkshire and co-lead of the Mental Health and Trauma Awareness Network for Growing Faith. She writes about faith and trauma, and is passionate about facilitating conversations around trauma-informed practice and the church as a blessing to survivors of abuse.

[3] Beaty, Celebrities for Jesus, p.17
[4] Beaty, p.18-19
[5] Beaty, p.19

As with all guest blogs, the views expressed in this blog post may not represent the views of the CSBV.

Pilavachi, Redman, and the Perils of Power without Proximity
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