If you’re from anywhere near Charlotte, then you’re aware that it’s become quite the epicenter of “shocking” news about Elevation Church and its pastor, Steven Furtick. In fact, it’s become quite trendy to look into every single thing Furtick and Elevation Church have done, are doing, or ever will do, especially if your name is Stuart Watson and you work at WCNC as the lead investigative reporter. In case you’ve missed out on Watson’s “thorn in the side” reports, you can access most of them on the WCNC website. The latest one, published yesterday, revealed the methods behind how Elevation managed to baptize a couple thousand people over 2 weekends and seems to imply that there is some kind of corruption behind the scenes that would make innocent baptisms somewhat less innocent.
Most of it started back in October of 2013 when the news broke of a really big house that Furtick was building, and suddenly social media was filled with defenders and attackers (or, as Elevation loves to call them, haters). In all honesty, when I read the news about the house, it grieved me deeply and I had wanted to write about it then, but I chose not to because I felt that my approach to the story was skewed because I read about it after spending a long day in the poorest slums of Delhi, India, and so the story of a famous preacher building a house that could hold almost every street kid I had seen that day just didn’t feel good.
But that didn’t warrant a post, especially since I’d love to have a bigger house, too.
Then, Watson aired a story about how Furtick and Elevation were jumping through a bunch of hoops to get his books bought at a discounted rate that could then be sold at retail prices to a congregation big enough to all but ensure 12,000 copies would be sold. As weird as all of that sounded, I didn’t write about that either, mainly because I’d love to write a book and know that everyone in my church would buy a copy, too.
Of course, it would be a lot less than 12,000 copies. 11,850 less.
But when this story about the baptisms broke, I had to write. I mean, at some point enough is enough, right? At some point, someone needs to shed some kind of biblical perspective on all of this silliness, and while I’m not the biggest (or even the best) voice out there to do it, I can’t stay silent anymore.
But what I say may surprise you.
Back in AD 60 or so, the apostle Paul sat under house arrest awaiting trial before Nero. This was the Nero who later would be suspected on burning Rome on purpose in order to blame Christians just so others would hate the believers more. Not a nice dude. In fact, Paul was so aware of Nero’s tendency to persecute and kill followers of Jesus that in the letter he wrote to the Philippians while waiting for his trial, he hoped that – whether he lived or died – he wouldn’t be ashamed for a lack of courage (Philippians 1:20).
But something else was going on while Paul sat waiting to find out his fate. There were other people preaching the same gospel that Paul preached, only they seemed to be doing it in a very different way than Paul did and with a very different motive than Paul did. Apparently, Paul had heard about it, and in what could have been the last letter he ever wrote (as far as he knew), he took the time to address the situation. To paraphrase it, he said some preach with good motives and others with bad, and then he asked a very odd question in Philippians 1:18: “But what does it matter?” How would you answer that question? How would I? Here’s how Paul answered:
The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. (Philippians 1:18)
Of course, we know how Stuart Watson would answer it, but Paul didn’t write to an investigative reporter in the letter to the Philippians. He wrote to the church. He wrote to every believer who has jumped on the “burn Elevation to the ground” bandwagon. I’ve seen enough, and unless we can answer that simple question with the same answer Paul did, we need to forget about Furtick and we need to repent of far more than increased living space and a bump in book sales in order to land on the New York Times Bestseller list.
We need to repent of pride.
Once, Jesus was asked by 2 of his disciples if they could have the best seats in his kingdom (Mark 10:37). This was right after they told him that they wanted him to do anything they asked him to do. When I read that, I think of one of Elevation’s core values about acting in audacious faith. It’s pretty audacious to ask Jesus to sit on his right and left, and when the other 10 disciples found out about it, they got pretty jacked up about it.
Jesus saw an opportunity to teach something about the kingdom, and he took it. He didn’t throw James and John under the bus for having the courage to ask something that maybe they shouldn’t have asked. He just told them that their audacious faith was really just an ignorant faith and that they didn’t understand the price that had to be paid to have what they were asking.
But the greater lesson was to the 10 who freaked because they were afraid they might lose the best seats to the 2 who were willing to ask. He told them about the world’s way of leading and his way. He talked about letting others go first, about serving and dying. Of laying our lives down so others could be raised to life.
He called them to repent of the pride that made them try to protect something that wasn’t even theirs.
So often, the loudest critics are the proudest people. It sounds so good to talk about how Elevation shouldn’t brand themselves over the gospel until we realize that we’re just the 10 disciples who are mad that we didn’t create the brand first.
Not too long ago, I thought The Gathering would be the next Elevation. I had dreams of Furtick calling me and telling me that I’d done such a good job getting The Gathering started that they would love to incorporate it into the Elevation family as the Albemarle campus. It wasn’t necessarily a bad dream, and my heart (I thought) was in the right place. But today – a little over 2 years removed from those thoughts – I couldn’t be happier that God stuck us in a coffee shop instead. There, hidden in a room that could realistically only hold a hundred people or so, I started to realize how much my dream was, well, about me.
I wanted our little church to grow bigger because it would validate me, not only as a good pastor, but as a great church planter. I wanted people to come because it’s easier to write a compelling annual report when the bars go up from left to right instead of staying flat (or worse, going down!). I wanted people to be saved because saved people talk about the fantastic church where they heard about Jesus (and the fantastic preacher who preached there!).
But something happened in the box. God started to kill me by reminding me why Jesus died. To bring strangers into the family. To bring enemies together as one. To breathe life into dead bones. Remembering all of that gave our church the solid foundation that we needed before moving into our new location with more space and more seats, and now that there’s less of me, there’s more room for people who desperately need Jesus.
While I’ll probably never meet him and he’ll probably never read this, I’d like to thank Steven Furtick for leading with the kind of bold faith that encouraged a couple thousand people to make a public demonstration of a personal commitment to follow Jesus. Your passion for preaching Jesus encourages me, and I’m not the judge of your heart. If given the same circumstances that you find yourself in, would I build a house as big as yours? Maybe not. Would I push my new book from the pulpit the same way you (and many, many other megachurch pastors) have? I’m not sure. “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached.“
And as the number of people being baptized would suggest, you seem to be doing a pretty good job of that.