I began my search for the church that best exemplifies the life and teaching of Jesus Christ at Elevation Church in Charlotte, NC. Elevation is one of the largest churches in the Charlotte area and is supposedly one of the fastest growing churches in the country. When I arrived this morning, I was asked "How did you hear about Elevation?" My answer: "You can't live in Charlotte without knowing about Elevation". I can be in any part of the city or surrounding area and I will see an Elevation bumper sticker. If I do a Google search that includes the word "church", Elevation is the first site that pops up.
So I decided to check out this mega-church to see what it was like. To be completely honest, I am not a big fan of mega-churches. I tend to lump them all together into the category of "seeker-sensitive churches that have lots of people but very little depth". Be that as it may, I did my best to set aside my prejudices so that I could learn what this church was about. In my search, I want to do my best to see the good in each church that I attend. To be sure, I will be noting things that I disagree with or that I find problematic, but these things will not constitute the substance of my blog posts. At this point, I am more concerned about what it is that draws people to one church or another.
Description of My ExperienceIf I could used one word to describe my experience at elevation it would be "professionalism". As soon as I arrived in the parking lot, I felt as if I were attending a basketball game or a concert. In many ways I felt like I was showing up to meet a celebrity. The main difference being that I am not usually met by a small army of greeters at a basketball game or concert. I was informed by one of the greeters that pastor Steve would be at our campus today. I would be able to see him live and in person!
For those of you who do not know, Elevation Church has several campuses and services and the services are streamed live to all campuses. The lead pastor, Steven Furtick, rotates between campuses and you never know which campus he will be preaching from until you arrive. So to have him at your campus is considered quite a treat.As I stood in line to get into the building (you have to wait outside until the previous service lets out), someone blurted out "Steve can help you!". More than half the line of people quickly turned their heads thinking that they might catch a glimpse of pastor Steve. But sadly for them, it was one of the greeters whose name also happened to be Steve. By this time, even I was beginning to get stoked about seeing him. I thought "you have to give the guy credit for creating such a fan base."
Eventually, we were let in the church and someone saw me looking a bit out of place. She quickly asked me if I needed help. I was immediately whisked away to where I needed to bring my son and given clear instructions on what I need to do! What excellent customer service!
After dropping off my son, I found my way into the auditorium. I walked through a hallway lit by blue lights on either side directing me to an energy filled room. Before I entered, I could hear the thundering base drum and the contemporary melodies of the Elevation band. As far as I knew, I could have been walking into a Green Day concert.
I stepped into an auditorium filled with a thin haze which was lit up by stadium grade lighting. I took my seat and began to watch the pre-sermon video. The video was perfectly timed with the service and its content had to do with the lofty achievements of Elevation Church. Prisons were being transformed by joining the congregation via broadcast. People all over the country were being transformed by the ministry via satellite campuses. I watched the congregation to see their response to the video and they were very moved. They clapped as person after person described the changes in their lives due to the ministry of Elevation Church.
As expected, the worship band was excellent. Everything was planned and coordinated with the other satellite campuses. The whole set was seamlessly executed. During the worship set, a small narrative was even worked into a song. One of the ladies in the congregation had a miscarriage, but placed her faith in God and prayed for another pregnancy. Being woven into the song, the testimony of her faith in God was very moving.
One of the things I noticed had to do with the sparsity of symbols. Historically, churches have used Christian symbols to draw the soul to that which is spiritual. The church did have what looked like tubular steel structures. The "construction" theme may have some symbolism for the church that I don't know about, but other than that Christian symbols were absent. That being said, they had many screens that could be used for displaying videos and other graphics that might help illustrate the sermon.
Towards the end of the worship set, pastor Steven (again seamlessly) appeared on stage. There he was, right in front of us! Even with my mildly cynical attitude, I was geared up and ready to hear what he had to say. I didn't expect anything too terribly deep, but I was really curious as to what it was that drew people to him. It didn't take long for me to find out.
Steven Furtick is a very dynamic speaker. He is funny, he engages the audience, he makes a few simple points and offers generous illustrations, and he is very good at recasting criticisms into material that actually extol the highlights of his ministry. In fact, as he was preaching, one girl was so moved that she started crying and had to dismiss herself from the auditorium. These are not skills you simply pickup at seminary. Many speakers work for decades on their rhetorical skills without achieving this kind of persuasiveness. He is clearly gifted in this area.
Next, I asked myself about the content of his sermon. Is he advancing any heresies? Does he appear to have a grasp of basic Christian theology? Is he merely offering a kind of "pop-psychology" or "self-help" theology?
I was pleasantly surprised to find the following: he didn't espouse any heresy, he seemed to have a handle on basic theological matters (even bringing up God's eternality), and he appealed to theological virtues (primarily faith) in order to prod believers onto living life as Christ intended. I am not saying that he delved into any theological topics in depth; I am merely saying that the presentation today didn't display the problems that I had heard from his critics. Additionally, his points displayed a deeper knowledge of Scripture than someone like Joel Osteen.
EvaluationOverall I was pleasantly surprised by Elevation. I didn't get the overly sensitive "we want to please you at all costs" which was nice. In fact, on their website, they have a section dedicated to saying "We need your seat", basically saying that if you don't like it here, by all means find another church.
I also appreciate their dedication to doing things well. It is refreshing to see Christians who want to be excellent at what they do. They are not content with mediocre talent when it comes to worship, welcoming staff, media and production staff, etc. They obviously have very talented people working at Elevation. The logistics side alone would be a nightmare for most event coordinators.
On that note, however, it does appear that training for leadership in the E-Groups is on the light side. This is my understanding based on people involved in E-Groups at Elevation. My understanding, and it could be wrong, is that leaders of these small groups are usually not very Biblically literate. Additionally, this appears to be where people are getting the bulk of their spiritual formation. On the one hand, if this is true, then that is a problem. On the other hand, I have only been to two churches in my lifetime that do have Biblically literal individuals leading the small groups (and I have been to a LOT of churches). So if I am going to criticize them for this, I should equally criticize 98% of the churches I have attended.
In addition to my concerns about Protestant churches in general, I do have a few concerns about Elevation Church:
- The church seems to be very centered around a specific personality, namely that of Steven Furtick. I don't know that this is always a problem as there are other churches I like that are centered around a specific person. (for example: Living Way Ministries, Insight for Living, etc.) However, my concern in these kinds of churches is that if the leader falls, the consequences have a larger impact on the spiritual well being of the congregants.
- The church is curiously focused on its own achievements. I find this to be true in a lot of large churches.
- Pastor Steven (judging from watching many sermons online) has a tendency to be overly defensive. He is a young pastor who is very successful. Naturally there is would be a desire there to defend himself and his ministry, but it seems to me to be a bit excessive as every sermon I hear has that element in it.
- I have some reason to question the effectiveness their discipleship programs. I know of many "elevators" whose thinking and living are blatantly secular (living with people before being married, thinking that sex outside of marriage is ok, lacking in the ability to discern virtues from vices in general, etc.) I don't mean to say that pastor Steven would agree with these congregants, as I heard him denounce some of these things this morning. I only mean to say that the message may not be working it's way down through some of the small groups. This may be a problem with the small group leaders, it may simply be disobedient and immoral individuals, or something like that. Either way, once it is known it should be addressed by the leadership.
- The church seems to be ok with the teaching of T.D. Jakes. I don't know the extent of which they are ok with his teachings, but their affiliation with him is a concern.
Ultimately, it's my hope that God continues to use Elevation Church for whatever purpose He has for it. I was glad to be able to attend one of their services this morning and I look forward to seeing the work there continue and deepen. We should pray for the leadership of the church and for our own growth as we serve our common Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.