Sitting in a restaurant in Charleston, North Carolina, we were delighted to meet a group of four men, who included a young man from the UK, who was working for a church called “Elevation” in Charlotte. Cool name, cool Church – I knew that it was one of the fastest growing mega churches in the USA, and had heard a little of its pastor, the dynamic Stephen Furtick. It was interesting and revealing to hear about their work. Since then I have occasionally listened to a sermon, read articles and heard news programes, and watched as this Southern Baptist church has grown to a reported 20,000 plus.
The Good – Contrary to expectations I am not one of those Calvinist ministers who automatically discounts any church which grows beyond a couple of hundred, as being a mega fake, doctrinally incorrect, pseudo church. If I were like that I would have to discount the Church at Pentecost! I think it is a good thing that a church grows within a decade from a hundred to 20,000 people and I would love that to happen in Dundee, or Edinburgh.
Some might expect be to be critical of the ‘entertainment’ Hillsong style worship and the whole professional stage go that goes along with it. But again, whilst it is not my style, I don’t see why it can’t be done well, reverently and to the glory of God.
And if the thousands of baptisms represent thousands of people coming to Christ, how could one not rejoice? So I hoped and prayed that this would not become another crash and burn mega church story.
The Bad – Sadly, whilst every church has ‘the bad’, because we are all sinners and therefore infect any structure or organization we are part of, there are sometimes churches that go much further and wander away to the extent that one can hardly call them a church at all. I don’t know enough about Elevation to make that kind of judgment, but there are warning signs.
Firstly in the teaching. Yes, some of it is biblical and Furtick is a good communicator, amusing, connected etc.…but a great deal appears to pay only passing lip service to the Bible. This following sermon was full of what can only be called psychobabble.
Someone made a sermon jam of it which I posted on my FB page – and all of us, who were not of a charismatic background, really had no idea what he was saying. In fact it was so bad most people assumed it was just mockers cutting and pasting to make it look ridiculous – yet it turns out that this was Elevation Churches own video and it was ‘liked’ by Furtick!
My main problem about the teaching is that it seems to be so man/woman centred. Outwith a Southern US culture it makes no sense – and I’m not sure that for many of my Southern friends it makes any sense either. It’s not the unadulterated Word of God for our generation. It is the Bible watered down by a mixture of Waltonesque homespun wisdom, pop psychology, stand up comedy and an unhealthy doze of ‘how to’ missiology. “Purpose doesn’t have a parking spot’ is no substitute for “many are the plans in a mans heart but it is the Lords purpose that prevails”. It is no improvement on, or explanation of, the Word of God.
The trouble is that these churches are so massive and wealthy that they can afford to send their pastors all over the world, exporting their dodgy theology and even dodgier ecclesiology. I have a suspicion that much of the health and wealth teaching which is plaguing much of the church in Africa, Asia and South America is primarily an export from the US, with perhaps a little help from Europe, (all in the name of ‘spreading the gospel’). It’s mainly a forlorn appeal but can we say to the mega churches – please stop it! Can you forget ‘your’ ministries, your programs, and your ‘visions’ and instead seek to follow Christ’s? Despite the blurb you are not ‘changing the world’. You are just exporting your own. I know in theory you agree with ‘He must increase, I must decrease’ – as do I. But can’t we all recognize how difficult we find that? Where is the ‘blessed self-forgetfulness’?
Then there is the whole question of what the church is about. In the sermon above Stephen lets out a wee quip at the beginning when responding to some criticism – ‘go start your own church’. I find this very revealing. It demonstrates a mindset that says ‘this is MY church’. The prominence of the pastor on the website, the ‘Stephen Furtick ministries’ page, the common self-referrals and endless self-promotion of books/resources etc. (At this point I am of course aware of the same danger for myself and it certainly does act as a warning to me! – point taken). The truth is whether it is a mega church pastor in the US, or a small church pastor in Scotland, it is not OUR church, it is HIS.
I don’t know enough to say anything about the worship, church structure and other ministries of the church, so I won’t. But if the theology and ecclesiology is off, then alarm bells start ringing. In case theology and ecclesiology sounds almost too technical and dull…just remember we are talking about who is God, and what is his church? There is nothing more basic than these.
One other thing is that success can get to one’s head. ‘See what mine own hands have wrought’. Elevation Church were accused of getting ‘volunteers’ to come forward during the ‘spontaneous’ baptism services, in order to encourage others to get up out of their seats. That is grotesque manipulation and a parody of the Gospel. Do we really believe that the Holy Spirit is incapable of working, without us chiding things along?
The Ugly –
As so often in the church, sex, money and power are the real problems for many because they are the idols of our hearts. I’m sure with a church of such a size these issues are found amongst some, and appropriate discipline and loving correction are needed.
However the issue that really gets to me is the money one. Stephen Furtick is his own brand and it seems it is a brand that sells well and pays well. The news clip above catalogues the controversy about his $1.8 million new build house caused. His church takes in $500,000 per week…certainly it has given $10 million over a decade to other causes, but for a congregation which is taking in over $26 million a year, that is hardly sacrificial giving. When asked why he marketed his book (or to be more accurate why the church paid thousands to market his book), he was unapologetic, if he didn’t believe the message he wouldn’t market it. Again as an author who is tempted to mention or quote from my couple of books in every sermon, I sympathise. But we must not quote our own books in sermons – as far as possible! Can I suggest an alternative standard? If we believe that the message in our books is from God, and we feel it so strongly, then we don’t really need to promote it, do we? I think about it this way – would I rather sell a million copies of my books with little fruit, or sell a few hundred of each and yet have those few hundred profoundly affect and change the lives of many? From an economic standpoint, that’s a no brainer. From a spiritual standpoint it’s an even bigger (and opposite) no-brainer!
And lets talk about finance. Because Elevation Church certainly don’t want to. They make their workers and volunteers sign a confidentiality arrangement that they will not disclose anything about the finances of the church, or they will be sued. No-one can find out what Pastor Stephen is paid, although it is decided by a committee of out of town pastors/advisors (who are probably on the same arrangement). Lets put it this way- if you are buying a $1.8 million home you ain’t exactly of the ‘take no purse’ school of ministry!
Now of course the labourer is worthy of his hire, and it is not a sin to be rich. However I don’t think it is wise or correct to take the givings of the Lord’s people to make oneself a millionaire – actually that is sinful. Furtick though is unapologetic..he boasted in a sermon “all the proceeds go to feed hungry children..mine!”. Doubtless it was intended as a joke – but I don’t think taking a salary of millions more than is necessary to live, work and provide for one’s family, is a joke – especially when there are hungry children, and many hungry for the Word, who do not receive it because of lack of money.
Conclusion: And now I wait. ‘Its not loving’, ‘judgemental’, ‘take the beam out of your own eye’, ‘it ain’t wrong to be rich’, ‘you’re just jealous’, hypocrite’. ‘all Christians are the same’ etc. I know the drill. I can write the e-mails. And they ain’t all wrong.
But there is one criticism that I want to deal with in finishing. ‘Its wrong to mock and you should try to win them over without mockery’. I don’t agree that it’s always wrong to mock (otherwise Elijah, Paul and Jesus were wrong), and indeed sometimes mockery has its place. But in this instance let me assure you I am not mocking. There is nothing that makes me believe in God and the Gospel more than the church in all its beauty, and there is nothing makes me doubt more than the church in all its ugliness. I’m afraid that the influence of the US mega churches such as Elevation is felt throughout the world. And whilst there are some who have a tremendously positive influence, I suspect that the majority do more harm than good. The trouble is that because they have the money, the media and the power, they are able to have an influence far beyond their spiritual authority and gifts. So for me this is not about petty jealousies, nor anti-Americanisms, nor cheap shots at other people’s foibles in order to make me feel better. It is about the honour and glory of our triune God. I love the gospel, and I love the Lords people from whatever background, and I want to see Christ glorified throughout the world. So when I see money, resources and people being diverted into what appear to be personal vanity projects, branding and corporate ‘Christianity’, I weep, am angry and cry out to the Lord. Have mercy! Have mercy! Will you not come and revive us? Marantha!
PS. Can we in the UK stop copying these kind of churches? We only do pale imitations of what is not great anyway! And it is culturally not relevant to us at all!
PPS. If you want an alternative from another megachurch pastor, then listen to this from Matt Chandler preached at Elevation (I think it was not actually posted at the time because it upset people – but I may be wrong). It is wonderful stuff – Matt and Tim Keller are two mega church US pastors who I listen to every week!
And this from a Scottish leader of an American megachurch – wonderful stuff again –