Rumours of the Christian faith's demise among the young may have been greatly exaggerated. At least, that's the impression you draw from a visit to Soul Survivor, the British youth festival now in its 22nd year. Along with almost 5,000 young people and their leaders, I've just spent a week in Stafford taking in the first of this Summer's four instalments; in total well over 20,000 teenagers will attend the events in England and Scotland.
Centring around nine 'big top' meetings which are essentially huge youth-relevant church services, the festivals have consistently become a place where young British Christians either find or are encouraged in faith. In the first week alone, several hundred teenagers stood to respond to traditional 'altar calls', with hundreds more going forward to rededicate themselves to their Christian faith.
Although the event also features seminars, sports activities and other gatherings, the main meetings are really the spine of the event. Each of these sessions begins with an extended worship time, enhanced by a sizeable band, smoke machines, snazzy lights and a giant neon cross that wouldn't look out of place around Jay-Z's neck. The preaching is surprisingly traditional and intentionally biblical – verses are regularly displayed across the main screens as the speakers mix humorous storytelling with no-nonsense teaching.
In ministry times at the end of each service, young people pray for one another to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and for God to interact with them supernaturally. Beyond the slick musical production, this is the real USP of the event, and perhaps the strangest element for outsiders or first-time visitors to cope with. Mike Pilavachi, the event's founder and still its main host, is especially careful to dispel concern, operating with a mantra that the supernatural should be made to feel natural. In that context, some fairly remarkable things seem to happen, from people dealing with deep-lying emotional trauma, to physical healing, as proclaimed in this tweet from the festival's official account this week:
Remarkable evening with God moving in amazing ways, including a lady who had been in a wheel chair getting up and walking onto the stage!— Soul Survivor (@SoulSurvivorGB) July 27, 2015
In the arena of those main meetings, anything seems possible, and God seems tangibly real. And this is perhaps the biggest problem faced by the youth leaders who will this week take their excited, renewed, faith-filled young people home, and out of the bubble of a Christian festival experience. When they return to St Mildred's, and to their church youth group of five, those moments of tangible experience and intellectual surety suddenly feel as far away as the campsite they've just left.
Of course, if an all-powerful God can make himself present in a field in Stafford, he's just as able to be present in a drafty youth room in Stockport. The question is, do our youth leaders and church ministers believe that, let alone our young people? If our teenagers are to have a fighting chance in pursuing the faith they find so clearly at Soul Survivor, they'll need the help of leaders who can possess the same sense of clarity without the aid of an exhilarating big top meeting.
Next stop for the Soul Survivor whirlwind: Kinross in Scotland, then down to Shepton Mallet in Somerset for the event's two larger weeks. If previous years are a guide, well over a thousand young people will commit their lives to God over the course of the summer. If you're after a good news story about the British church, look no further.