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Evangelicals, New Frontiers, and the Cult of Personality

Updated: Aug 10, 2023

An image with New Frontiers branding and Terry Virgo preaching on a laptop and phone screen

You may not be aware but there is a seismic shift happening in evangelicalism, possibly even a death knell, but more hopefully a reformation.


Over the last few years there has been scandal after scandal of celebrity teachers, preachers, and evangelists who have fallen from grace. It's taken victims, most often women, years to have their voices heard, often after being smeared by their abuser's slander and attacked by their abuser's defenders. The cult of personality is the antithesis of Christianity and yet it is what props up many evangelical movements. Each movement that has relied on the charismatic individual is starting to fall apart - Soul Survivor being the latest as Mike Pilavachi faces 100s of allegations ranging from inappropriate massages and wrestling to narcissistic bullying and creating a toxic workplace.


After being suspended Mike decided to resign and while much has been written about what he said in his resignation on social media it is in this context that two renowned evangelical leaders with global followings decide to speak. Instead of giving voice to those trampled by Mike, or making clear their silence up to this point is due to waiting for the enquiry to pass judgement, both J. John and Terry Virgo decide to share how blessed they've been by Mike’s ministry. Due to my prior connections to New Frontiers, I'll focus on Terry's messages.

A tweet by Terry Virgo, who founded New Frontiers, the text is copied below.
"Continuing to pray for you Mike, deeply grateful for the massive blessing you've been in countless New Frontiers settings".

It was surprising to Terry, and his supporters as we'll see in a moment, that this caused a response on social media. So much so that he felt forced to clarify.


A Facebook post by Terry as a supposed clarification to his prior praising of Mike P

I won't copy it out but the following stands out:

- He was uninformed

- Never been involved in Soul Survivor (but doesn't say Mike has been a regular attender to NF leadership conferences over the last few years including one I attended in 2019 as an elder.)

- Hasn't studied "secular newspaper reports"

- "simply prayed for him out of sympathy"

- That the response is because people think Terry has given unqualified endorsement

- His sympathies lie with the traumatised

- He is sorry if his prayers caused dismay (I'll clarify my emphasis in a moment).


On Facebook the response to Terry has been a multitude of people praising and consoling Terry, assuring him of his integrity and grace, shocked that Christians would consider praying for Mike problematic, appalled that Terry has been attacked by a social media mob. If those were the things people were actually critical of then maybe they'd have a point. However messy theology is highlighted throughout the responses:


A Facebook post by a supporter of Terry Virgo that starts off 'let the one without sin throw the first stone'.

Don't you remember Jesus helping the poor religious leader who was about to stone the woman? Don't you see that Mike is actually the victim here? The reversing victim and abuser roles is typical in abuse situations and this is happening online by those rushing to console Terry that he didn't actually need to apologise.


As that secular newspaper, The Telegraph, writes:

"Another source, who used to work at Soul Survivor and who claims that they were mistreated there, said: “Terry Virgo’s clarification post misses the point – no one is saying it’s wrong to pray for Mike Pilavachi. The problem was his public appreciation for Mike’s ministry. I have no issue with him reaching out to support his friend, but what he did was tone deaf to all those who have been hurt by him and the wider culture at Soul Survivor.


"Claiming ignorance really doesn’t cut it – it takes a quick search online to find many stories of mistreatment and abuse being bravely shared. To say we must wait for the outcome of the investigation is to silence victims and ignore the glaringly obvious." https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2023/07/17/backlash-church-leaders-praise-soul-survivor-mike-pilavachi/


Terry publicly praised a man who has trampled on many and because of which, many are questioning the very foundations of their faith due to the systems of church which enabled him to do so. Even if the enquiry shows he hasn't done anything illegal, he's clearly not fit for Christian leadership and there are serious concerns the wider church needs to learn from. It isn't Terry's prayers that are the issue, but praising him as a blessing to New Frontiers without any acknowledgement to victims is the problem. Terry could have just sent a personal message, I'm sure he has Mike’s email, instead he chose to put it publicly.


I've learnt, due to personal experience, to always ask what someone says sorry for. Terry's final line is a conditional apology for anyone who may be dismayed by his prayers. This, as the quote in The Telegraph says, missed the point of the criticism and is a non-apology to those hurt by Christian leaders with massive platforms praising a man who has hurt them.


Instead of recognising that his public praise was ill-advised to say the least, Terry deflected, and instead of apologising he put the problem back on his audience - how can you apologise for another person's dismay? Instead of listening to critique, anyone on twitter asking questions of Terry or discussing the issues it raises gets blocked.


Blocking, silencing critique, only highlighting those who say the right things... this isn't new to New Frontiers as a whole. The number of voices highlighting deeper issues within the so-called family of churches are getting louder.


I find myself a stranger in the evangelical world these days, not just New Frontiers. I live and work in it but I don't feel like I fit like I used to. The responses to Terry on FB, many by people I once listened to, highlights the deep disconnect between those who've been burned by church and those who are platformed. It also highlights a lack of desire by many within NF/the evangelical world to think critically or make judgement calls about their leaders. Rather than highlight the overt inconsistency between a poorly thought through message and it's non-apology, the crowd jumps to defend the man and labels the hurting "a mob" and people to be ignored. All "the mob" are asking for is what we teach children when they hurt someone: "I'm sorry that in my ignorance of a situation, I hurt you, and I'll do my best to make it right".


Evangelicalism is falling apart because we continue to prop up those on the platform at the expense of compassion and justice. I hope it is a death knell for the cult of celebrity leaders in evangelicalism but the responses to Terry give me pause on that front. I pray it will be a reformation of humility, mercy, and gentleness. The reformation will start when leaders choose character over gifting, start apologising when they hurt people, and allow themselves to be held accountable by their congregations.


 

For more of my story with New Frontiers as an elder in Hope Church Guildford, you can start here: https://www.asimpleblog.online/post/dear-hope-church

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Dear Hope Church,

A letter to my church family that was Hope Church Guildford

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Phil,

in a word; Amen.

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Philip Duncalfe
Philip Duncalfe
Jul 19, 2023
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