Now, Who Are We Following Again?

Recently, I did a little post that made a passing reference to Elevation Church and it was, basically, just a nod in the direction of an incident that occurred at one of their worship services which I read about elsewhere. It could have been one of many big entertainment-focused churches. However, someone mentioned to me that this church is located in my home town and this made me curious, so I looked up their website.

At first, I was ready to proclaim Anathema Sit! But there are some good things here and it isn’t quite fair to just proclaim the whole thing out of bounds just because I disagree with them. I feel compelled to lift these up before making note of what I really find concerning.

First, this is a Southern Baptist church (at least according to Wikipedia) even though I could not locate this fact anywhere on their website. I am not a Southern Baptist, but it is nice to know that Elevation Church is associated with a particular denomination. This is, of course, the source of some of my differences, but not all.

This is a mega-church. Unmistakably. Over 8,000 members, multiple campuses, etc. Definitely mega-church. However, it is more than this. It is a chain church. I am aware that this is a somewhat disparaging description but I can think of no other appropriate way to speak of churches that identify themselves as a single congregation with multiple ‘campuses’.These worship sites all experience the same sermon each week because it is simulcast to all locations each week. One pastor, one preacher, all these sites. Chain church. Most churches split before they get big enough to make multiple ‘campuses’, especially Baptist. (I may not be Baptist, but half my family is.)  For many years, larger congregations would plant new congregations, not become a chain with branches open all around town. However, Elevation is not alone. There are many chain churches across the land.

On the plus side–and it is a big plus–they have a clearly written section on beliefs. They have quick, clear statements about scripture, the Trinity, etc. I would have worded some things differently and there are certainly things I have some qualm about but this is simply because I am Lutheran and they are Baptist. Nothing more. They seem quite orthodox in their beliefs.

Their website is super user friendly. You can watch, listen and learn. You can sign up to be a small group leader and fill out the application. Ok, some envy here! I’d love to have enough people volunteering to be able to actually say something like this. You can give on line, write and share your testimonial on line, read their history and find a nearby campus there as well. The site is slick, sharp and up to date in every way.

And, before I launch into the concern portion of this post, I must say that there are some things I wholeheartedly agree with. This post on Pr Furtick’s blog is an example. Amen, indeed.

Ok, here’s the but. The focus of this entire site and, as far as I can tell from other sources, the whole focus of this church is on the Pastor. I could not locate a single image of Jesus on their site. That’s not the end of the world, of course, but I found the image of Pastor Steven Furtick on nearly every page of the site. There’s much that makes him appear to be a celebrity with very stylish images and photography that would make any star happy to have in their portfolio. It is slick and hip and cool and so is he. And there is nothing inherently wrong about this except….

Except that Christians aren’t supposed to worship their pastors, they are supposed to worship Jesus Christ. It could be entirely unintentional on the part of Elevation Church… they may not have intentionally set up Steven Furtick as an Icon. But they have. Pr Furtick may not have intentionally put himself at the top of this steeple, but he is there all the same. Now, I don’t think there is anything wrong with a pastor having a high profile in the community and having a life and image visible to their congregations. This is probably a good thing. However, if you removed the word “Church” from beneath the word “Elevation” on their site, it would look like a promo or fan site for Steven Furtick.

The Amen Corner, which is where people can post their own personal testimonies, has a rotating header showing excerpts (presumably) from three testimonials. Two of them are primarily about what Pr Furtick did for them. Believe me when I say that I’d be glad to know I did something to help a person in a time of faith crisis, but I would never dream of allowing my congregation to use my actions as a focus point for their advertisement.

The Code section is what is actually alarming to me. This section talks about how they “get things done” at Elevation Church. Again, there are a few places here that I agree, but some I do not understand at all. “We Are a Generation of Honor”…. I don’t get it. I mean, I understand the words and their description, but I don’t understand why this church is a “Generation of Honor”.

“We Are United Under the Visionary”. Now, who are we following again? It is not the vision that unites here but the visionary. I cannot imagine the weight of this upon Pr Furtick. This entire ministry is heaped upon his back. I’ve been a pastor for only two and a half years, but I’ve known pastors my whole life; pastors of many different denominations. All have questions and doubts and even a crises of faith from time to time. But all of them know that their congregations ultimately hang upon the cross, that the people are the body of Christ and are following Him. But these 8,000 or so people are following this Visionary–Steven Furtick. Their Code, that is to say how they “get things done”, is being united under him and the Code also says that they will “aggressively defend our unity and his vision”. If he stumbles, they will fall. And he is just as human as every single pastor and faithful lay person I’ve ever met… I’m sure of it. He, like all of us humans, will stumble.

Last but not least is a phrase in the Code that left me sitting with my mouth hanging open and confessing now that I just do not understand.

“We Are Ruth’s Chris, Not Golden Corral – Simplicity enables excellence. We place a disproportionate value on creating a worship experience that boldly celebrates Jesus and attracts people far from God.”

For anyone who does not know what a Ruth’s Chris or a Golden Corral are, the first is an exclusive, expensive steakhouse and the second is a buffet. The first requires reservations and is only open to those who are in an economic group that could afford steak and lobster. The second is a place where you have all kinds of food and all kinds of people of all kinds of socio economic groups present, side by side. There are no reservations required in the second.

I cannot conceive of a church that would wish to equate itself with an exclusive, expensive steak house. Maybe there is something I’m missing. It is so far beyond my understanding that I cannot even find adequate critique. Suffice to say that if I serve a Golden Corral church, I would call that blessed.

I will not even touch upon the extremely aggressive language that is used on this site. Even the word ‘aggressive’ itself is used frequently.

Lastly, it is necessary for me to acknowledge that I am critiquing a website and not a ministry. I am critiquing what I can see, hear and read about Elevation Church and Pastor Steven Furtick and have never attended a worship service at one of their ‘campuses’ and have never met the pastor himself. It is indeed possible that I have gotten the wrong idea about them altogether. I doubt it, but it is entirely possible.

********

I have thought long and hard about this post, which I actually began about four days ago, and debated whether or not to post it. I decided to do so because this is disturbing to me. While I am glad that there are people who are attending church who might otherwise not be, I also know all too well the hurt and pain of spiritual abuse and deep sense of spiritual betrayal that can come from the downfall of organizations such as this. I’ve known many who have been so let down and damaged by the flaws of a true-believer organization and the inevitable stumble of the iconic leader–the stumbling to which none of us are immune. This is why the church is the body of Christ, not one person alone. An acquaintance of mine once said, “what you win people with is what you win people to.” What do we win people with? This is an important question for All Church People to consider. Do we share the proclamation of the Gospel in word and deed with others who are also called by God to do so? Do we share the burden of leadership with other members of the body of Christ? Do we spend our time pointing to the cross? Returning to the cross? Seeking the cross?  THAT is what I want to spend a “disproportionate” amount of time doing.

And I’d be glad to do it at the Golden Corral.

15 thoughts on “Now, Who Are We Following Again?

  1. Rosemary — good thoughtful response to the website of Elevation Church. At the least, this is a warning about how we use and prepare our websites. More importantly, it is a warning about how we view ourselves in ministry. Blessings to you as you serve tomorrow.

  2. Two things you said could, quite possibly, be the spring-point for an entire blog post each . . . it is nice to know that Elevation Church is associated with a particular denomination. and I could not locate a single image of Jesus on their site.

    As to “Generation” talk, this is talk I’ve heard around the hip Christian block before. Young folks like myself are, depending on who’s talking, “a chosen generation”, “a prophetic generation”, “a pivotal generation”, or some such other talk. It’s almost as though people have decided what they wish this generation to be and then just pretend it is. It reminds me of some people who have been declaring imminent revival just about every year since the 80’s.

    I do hope that with the Ruth’s-Chris talk is about the pursuit of simplicity and excellence rather than the socioeconomic position of the clients, err, members. But churches are like starbucks anymore. And while we’re on starbucks: here.

  3. Hey Mitchell! Nice to see you over here on my blog for a change 😉
    Yes, those two topics could definately be entire posts all their own. hmmm…..

    Thanks for the interpretation of the “Generation” stuff. I am not familiar with this, so it is quite helpful. I’m not sure I have a generational hallmark–that is to say, I don’t know that people in my age group have a defining or unifying distinction. Maybe I should invent one!

    You may be right about the Ruth’s Chris/Golden Corral image. And I hope so. It seems remarkably tone deaf to use such an analogy for a church, particuarly one that is so fiercely determined to be culturally relavent.

    And Javallelujiah for Starbucks church! coffee is good all the time and all the time coffee is good. Actually, many Lutherans would say coffee could be a third sacrament.

  4. Believe it or not, ever since I first read an sermon here I haven’t missed a single post. I’m just a much better reader than I am commenter. This is one of just five websites where I keep track of every post.

    In Turkey, back when it had a theocratic government, it used to be that a marriage imposed a set of legal liabilities on a man, including the provision of adequate food, clothing, shelter, an allowance above necessities of life, and coffee. Failure to provide any of these, including coffee, was legal grounds for a woman to get a divorce. America could learn a thing or two from medieval Islam.

  5. This is a very insightful read for anyone who has never attended elevation. Sadly, having attended the church and worked as an intern “behind the scenes,” it is all too accurate. In fact, the concerns you address are much worse than the elevation website has led you to believe. On my first day as working at the church I got in trouble for speaking to Mr. Furtick. It pretty much set the tone for the rest of my time there. I tried to stick it out but eventually felt so uncomfortable with the situation that I had to quit. It truly felt like we were worshipping him everyday. I could go on and on with other examples supporting your thoughts but you get the point.

    • Hey! Thanks for stopping by and reading!
      I’m saddened to hear that it is actually worse than it appears. I was hoping that it was purely a marketing error. This is such a dangerous thing for church leaders to do–both for themselves and for those who would be Christians. It cannot end well.
      How bizarre to be in trouble for speaking to a church leader! Forgive me for making this connection but it sounds like a description of a rock star being protected by their entourage.
      I hope that you have been able to go on to another healthier place for an internship experience

      • Hey there, I just wanted to correct the above commenter. I’m not familiar with their experience, but I work at Elevation and I can assure you, no one would get in trouble for simply speaking to Pastor Steven. Someone might get scolded for being disrespectful to Pastor Steven the same way they would get scolded for being disrespectful to their supervisor, or a volunteer, or a first time guest (honestly, you’d probably get fired more readily for disrespecting a visitor or volunteer than a leader). The issues you raise are legitimate from a communication standpoint, but I assure you, that’s all it is, communication, and we’re working on it. I am proud to know Pastor Steven personally and I can assure you there is no more humble, passionate, and burdened a pastor with the responsibility of reaching people with the gospel. At least than I have met. Blessings! We’d love to have you visit if you’re ever in Charlotte!

  6. Watch this video (link below) of their 2008 year in review and you can see the dangers of “who” this church is about. There is a smug arrogance from Furtyk as he elevates himself and his team throughout the video. There website used to post pics of the staff holding a white card with the words “I AM….” and after it something to do with their position. One of the worship leaders wrote “I Am Legend.” A friend challenged me not to jusge a ministry by it’s methods but by it’s fruits. I just see a lot of potential pitfalls here.

  7. Pingback: So Ends The Year « Shepherdess Writes

  8. What I find most disturbing about their “Code” page, is that MANY churches are now using the exact same “code” on their church’s websites. I can’t tell you how many church websites I’ve come across in the page couple of days that use the exact same phrases “We are Ruth’s Chris, Not Golden Corral” and “We Are United Under the Visionary”, along with others from Elevation’s Code. These churches are from all different denominations, from all across the country, but they all seem to have the same thing in common…the hope of reaching the “Generation of Honor”, raising up “leaders”, and becoming huge churches. It makes me really sad to see pastors that feel the need to copy other churches (especially word for word) in an attempt to gain fame/improve church attendance.

  9. great thought, however the perception of the two resteraunts, i think is missunderstood, From what i can gather about elevation is not one of “highbrow” about the resyeraunt statement but one of focus. i believevthey are saying we cantt be all things to all people, but we can excell or be exelent at reaching lost people who are far away from Christ
    Tim Miller from Toronto
    timallenmiller@gmail.com

  10. I attend a church that is growing into a mega church and had a similar problem of being too focused on a charismatic pastor. I’m fairly confident that was not the pastor’s intention, but it happened nonetheless. Sadly that pastor got himself into an all too common moral failing that caused him to resign (perhaps the pressure of being the center of attention wasn’t any more healthy for him than it was for the congregation).

    The upshot has been that the church leadership realized the failure was not only of the pastor but of the model and, instead of trying to find a new camera-ready pastor to replace him, has gone about hiring a more diverse teaching team as well as increasing the frequency of sermons by guest teachers, non teaching-focused church leaders, and campus pastors (yes, it is a multi-site). All this puts significantly less emphasis on “our dear leader” and more on the community which is hopefully the reflection of Jesus. Our church is growing again and this time I think that growth is more focused on building up a community.

    I think pastor-centric churches are huge problem in the church in general. It is not an issue of (non)denomination, worship style, or even theology. My parents shared with me that they’d gone through a very similar situation with an episcopal church a generation ago. It is a structural problem that’s fairly pervasive (at least on the protestant side). I read an interesting book called Pagan Christianity a few years ago. I don’t agree with all of it but one of the of the problems it identified in all branches of the modern church was the all-in-one pastor who is supposed to be teacher, mentor, prophet, and counselor. I agree with the author that that’s too much to put on any one man regardless of the size of the church.

    As an aside I’ve had some of the same heartburn about “chain” churches as you do. However after being in two of them, the answer that satisfied my concerns was that they were aggressively supporting church plants outside of their “chain.” So they were not growing our church at the expense of the Church. One of the most interesting outcomes of our “chain” church has been the ability to support a jail campus that is similar in style and substance to any of our other services. They are not a ministry or a service project. They are just members of our church who happen to worship at another location.

    • I’m sorry to hear of the difficulties in your congregation but glad to hear of the leadership’s identification of a healthier path! That is good news! Something else as well about the one-pastor-does-it-all kind of thing that I have noticed lately: many young adults who might otherwise consider that God is calling them to be a professional church leader may be disheartened or feel that they are not capable if they are given the impression that a pastor, and a pastor alone, must excel in ever single aspect of leading a church. The truth is that no one does and that’s why leadership teams, be they professional paid staff or a cooperation of laity, pastors and teachers, seem to be a healthy place from which to lead.
      I hear what you are saying about chain churches and I’m glad to hear of what sounds like very positive experiences!
      Thanks so much for stopping by, for reading and for sharing your thoughts!

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