Last weekend Steph and I did something that I highly recommend: we got away for the weekend, even though we couldn’t really afford it and didn’t have much of a plan.
When we get caught up enough to post a few of the photos we took, I’ll put together a whole blog post about our weekend, but long story short: we ended up spending the night in the heart of Charlotte, so we decided to get up and visit Elevation Church on Sunday morning.
I’ve been familiar with Elevation for quite a while.
Steven Furtick, the pastor at Elevation, used to come speak at our Campus Crusade meetings way back when I was a college student and Elevation Church was a dream. I remember really appreciating his tenacity. I could see in him the spirit of a little boy with the balls to stand up to a giant and say, “Did you seriously just disrespect God almighty? I hope it was worth it because I’m about to feed your carcass to wild dogs.”
That tenacity has generated quite a crowd of critics for Furtick – including several people who I respect – and a lot of the folks reading this probably wouldn’t visit Elevation given the opportunity.
But I was eager to, for several reasons:
- Elevation is one of the fastest growing churches in America. I want to know why.
- When I was trying to decide whether it would be right to step down from leadership at an unhealthy church, I found myself having a one-hour phone conversation with one of the pastors at Elevation. He had never met me, but gave me an abundance of his time and counsel, and gave me some crucial parameters to help me decide how to lead my family.
- Though Furtick CAN come across as a bit imbalanced on the prosperity gospel end of the spectrum, I think he rings a bell that doesn’t get rung enough in a lot of the ‘proudly reformed’ circles I tend to run in: God IS for you.
We all need to hear that some times.
- Elevation has been incredibly transparent in their experience going from a handful of families moving to Charlotte to start a church to a giant, multi-campus, who-knows-what-to-call-it explosion of growth. They built whole websites to share the lessons learned along the way in church planting, going multi-site, hiring staff, doing childcare, doing smallgroups… and I read along pretty closely for the first couple of years. I had a picture in my mind of what they were going for and I was excited to see how it translated.
- I was really impressed with Steven Furtick when he participated in the Elephant Room. Several of the most popular and successful pastors in the country all but attacked him for things he has said and people he associates with, and he demonstrated a wealth of humility and wisdom in responding and sticking to his “I’m not accountable to you. I’m accountable to God.” guns.
I wanted to know what it’s like to visit the church that he leads.
So, we woke up Sunday morning and walked over to the Elevation “Uptown” campus.
Side note: I LOVE walking in big cities. HATE driving in them. But LOVE walking in them.
The campus meets in what appears to be an old church that has been converted into a theater.
Do you get the irony there? It was a church, that became a theater, and now a church is using the theater for church. Get it?
It’s a BEAUTIFUL venue.
Lots of stained glass. Gorgeous architecture.
Oh, and a couple of jumbo-trons above the stage – they don’t really help the romantic effect, but they do get the job done.
Steph and I LOVE our church home, so we haven’t visited a ‘new’ church in quite a while, so it was a really fun experience to be guests in someone else’s house, so to speak.
In case you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to visit Elevation, here are a few other observations, in no particular order:
They Immediately Identified Us As ‘VIP’ Visitors
I was expecting someone at the door to ask us whether we were new and I was trying to sneak in under the radar and just observe, but they weren’t having it. Someone immediately zeroed in on us, handed us a ‘VIP’ package (every visitor is a VIP), introduced us to someone who walked us almost all the way to our seat, and he was looking for us as we walked out too. He tried to hook us up with some more gifts (which we had to twist his arm to get him to keep for someone else) and he made sure we didn’t have to pay for our parking (which is a big deal in downtown Charlotte).
The VIP Package Includes A CD With A Welcome Message From The Pastor, And 4 Original Worship Songs
I mean… come on. That is awesome.
We listened to it on the way home, and I could tell that that’s exactly what they were hoping for.
And notice what is covered in the ‘VIP Package’: answers to every question someone might have visiting a new church.
There Is A DJ In The Lobby
Turn tables. Big speakers. Hat cocked to the side. This is not your grandma’s church.
The Music Was Really, Really Loud
I had heard about the legendary earplug dispenser on the way into the sanctuary. I didn’t notice it, but I wish I had. So. Loud.
There Was Very Little Diversity
There were at least 8 people on the stage over the course of the service (not counting anyone on the video screen), and every single one of them was wearing Toms or Justin Bieber high tops, deep v-necks, skinny jeans, etc.
In a strange way, the lack of diversity was backwards: folks in that stereotype would feel out of place in most churches in America. But in this particular context, a good ol’ boy in walmart jeans and boots would definitely feel out of place based on the crowd on stage.
For what it’s worth, I think my church only does slightly better on this one.
The Music Was Really, Really Excellent
Everyone who was up on that stage could make their living playing music (to the extent that anyone can actually make a living playing music). The songs were pretty much all new to me, and not really even my cup of tea. But the quality was sick.
They Used The Worship To Integrate The Campuses
Intermittently throughout the worship time, they would show live footage of people worshiping at other campuses. I knew that’s what I was seeing, because it told me so: “Live feed from ____ campus.” And the really awesome/amazing thing was that they were singing the exact same part of the same song at the same time.
Then they kicked it up a notch – for the last song, the worship leader at the main campus lead the singing (over a video feed), but the in-building band continued to play along, making this crazy experience where you’re kind of worshiping in two places at once. And of course they showed other campuses throughout the song.
As someone who goes to a multi-campus church myself, I thought this was very, very cool.
It also made the transition to the ‘video pastor’ very smooth, since we never switched away from the video feed after the last song.
The People At Elevation Participate
Even at the satellite campus, there were lots of ‘amens’, raised hands, and there were several points during the sermon where people literally stood up and clapped. Haters will say that this is because they’ve been coached to exalt their pastor in all his cult personality glory, but it felt to me like they were just excited about what he was saying about God.
The Bathrooms Have Life Savers
Big bowls – overflowing with delicious life savers.
Someone say amen.
The Sermon Was Theologically Light, But I Wouldn’t Hesitate To Share It With Someone
This gets to the heart of the question that Steven Furtick was challenged to answer at the Elephant Room: Are you preaching to people who haven’t embraced Jesus, or preaching to Christians?
Furtick unapologetically says “non-christians”, and that was clear in his sermon.
I think someone unfamiliar with Jesus or someone very young in faith would have been extremely challenged and encouraged by what he said. I didn’t hear anything unbiblical, and everything he said, I think, was helpful.
Yet, the other side of the coin was clear from our conversation driving home.
As Steph put it: “I love our church even more now… I always leave repenting and more thankful for Jesus”
We are used to hearing sermons where at least 40-50% of the content is straight scripture or explanation of scripture – and Jesus is almost always the hero.
I would say that the sermon we heard at elevation was more like 20% scripture, and the rest was stories, reflections, etc.
And Jesus was kind of the hero….
You can watch the sermon right now at this link.
We had a really wonderful experience visiting Elevation church.
They treated us like royalty and it was a little bit like visiting cousins you don’t get to see very often.
They do something a little differently, but it’s clear that we all come from the same family.
I have no doubt that God will continue to do wonderful things through their body, and even their tenacious pastor.