Almost five years ago I wrote a review and analysis of what I thought was one of the most influential churches in the US – Elevation Church in Charlotte – with their dynamic pastor, Steve Furtick. Elevation Church, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. https://theweeflea.com/2015/11/12/elevation-church-the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly/
For some reason that article has grown a life of its own. Normally an article will get several hundred views instantly (a few get thousands) and then die the death. But this one was different. Each year the number of views has increased, with several hundred people still reading it every month. I have no idea why. But anyway it prompted me to go back to Elevation and see what was happening. https://elevationchurch.org/
I’m not going to repeat myself from the original article…reading it over again I think the comments still stand – especially re the money, the teaching and the showmanship. But is anything different?
The church has continued to grow with 25,000 people attending on average at 17 different locations. The 2018 report is the latest annual report online and these impressive figures are from that. 80 million sermon views, 21 million podcast downloads, 34 million YouTube sermon videos, 500,000 weekly TV viewers. It’s all pretty impressive although the report says little about finance and nothing about Furtick’s salary.
It is a church that is clearly centered round the Pastor who is a superb communicator and has a good media presence. He is described as a pastor, songwriter and New Your Times bestseller. You can sign up to one minute or five minute motivations every week.
I think the big change for me is the growth in Elevation Worship as a separate ministry – very much in the Hillsong mode. 51 million views on their YouTube page, 71.3 million album streams, 242 million Spotify streams, make them one of the ‘hottest’ commercial products in the massive Christian market. They also make them a very powerful voice in the Christian world – and one that people are reluctant to upset and criticize. He who pays the piper calls the tune.
This is one of their best songs…beautifully done…
Of course there are always those who just want to be negative about anything they perceive as successful and big, especially when they are not. And there are the heresy hunters who will leave no Google stone unturned as they look for the latest Christian heretic to rant about. I have no interest in either of those positions and I understand why people, who do not wish to be associated with those particular tribes, keep silent.
I also have some sympathy with those who say that we should never write anything critical in public about a Christian brother or sister. When I wrote about Creflo Dollar the force was strong with these people! But we have a responsibility as Christian leaders and undershepherds – even those of us who are very minor ones – to raise our concerns and seek to help, discern and encourage. So I went back to Elevation and listened to Stephen’s latest service, did a bit of reading and observation.
Firstly let’s identify what is good.
Furtick is a superb communicator. He is easy to listen to, entertaining….great with the camera and he has some good things to say.
Secondly although they are not everyone’s style I actually quite enjoy Elevation the band. I haven’t downloaded them on to my IPhone but the following is a good example of what they do.
Babylon Bee did a spoof article about Furtick moving to Lakewood with Joel Osteen to form a $110 million preaching partnership (as though they were football stars). It is revealing and somewhat sad that Furtick felt he had to issue this tweet to reassure his followers that this was not the case. https://twitter.com/stevenfurtick/status/891782771437391874
He actually had something really wise to say – it’s always good to consider the source. So bearing that in mind lets look at his 65-minute sermon in the YouTube clip.
The Word of God?
The first thing that strikes you is that for a preacher of the Word, Stephen hardly uses the Word. It was 14 minutes before we opened a bible. 18 minutes before we read any bit of it (Exodus 14) …22 minutes before we mentioned it again (Romans 12:1).
This was not a sermon. A sermon is when the Word of God is proclaimed from the Scriptures in the power of the Holy Spirit. 2 minutes of the bible in a 65-minute sermon does not cut it. The vast majority of it was a pep talk; filled with pop psychology, stand up comedy and blessed thoughts. Certainly the overall message, that we need to look forward to a new normal and not back, was true. But he could have said it in one minute…not one plus 64 minutes padding – much of which was nonsense. Was ancient Egypt really 75% graves?
Stephen did tell us that he was excited about the Word of God…’it’s the Word of God that brings life’…but he seemed to confuse the Word of God with his notes or with the frequent conversations he has in which the Lord passes on his Word through Stephen. Who needs the Bible (such a dry and dusty old book) when you have a living prophet, in direct touch with Jesus, in your midst?!And of course when you are the prophet there is the enormous danger of pride…
“This might be the most anointed message I’ve ever preached in my life”.
Whatever happened to ‘let another praise you and not your own mouth”. When you have to tell your audience that you are anointed, it’s a pretty certain sign you’re not. When you tell the listeners that ‘God is speaking to your spirit too, you just don’t know how to say it’, you have now put yourself in the omniscient position of knowing what they feel as well as knowing what God wants, thus making yourself the representative of both.
The ‘In’ Church
This was a very ‘in’ message. It was for the ‘club’. For those who knew the language and were part of the culture. It was very immediate. No sense of the transcendent. No sense of the national never mind the international (although we were excitedly told to refer to the chat beside the video to see where everyone was coming from). This was middle class middle America. It’s ‘international’ in the way that the World Series is a world series! This is a product for a particular market and if you are in that market you will love it. The rest of us find it harder to connect.
Let me give you one particular example that shows what happens when you read the Bible through the culture, rather than reading the culture through the Bible. We were told that modern American Christians were to be compared with the slaves in Egypt. The Israelites in Egypt had to make bricks without straw and had their babies slaughtered.…the Christians in Charlotte have millions of dollars, great media outlets and fine buildings – some bricks!
When you are part of the ‘in’ crowd you can mock those outwith – Furtick mocks those who want back to the Old Time religion with old hymns. “How old? Gregorian chants?”
It was also somewhat self-congratulatory. They are meant to feel good that they live in America and above all that they go to Elevation. “Where do you want to go for vacation? Disneyland? No – I want to go to Elevation….Don’t ever take for granted that God put in your backyard what is on others people’s bucket list.” The Great Pyramids of Egypt, the Barrier Reef, the Great Wall of China and……… Elevation Church….the ultimate bucket list.
One of the ways that being part of the ‘in’ crowd manifests itself is when you show an inability to understand those outwith. For example; “Our faith finally fits….worship isn’t weird anymore. For once we are not the weird ones. The church finally fits…you could send this link today and they wouldn’t be annoyed that you invited them to church. “ Whilst there are doubtless some for whom this is true, overall its nonsense. Lots of people, even in Carolina will find what goes on at Elevation weird and won’t particularly thank you for inviting them to online church. Of course there are those who will…but the notion that you can now invite people to church because it’s no longer weird is weird.
The Hallmark Sermon
Furtick may be no worse than others but this was as full of banal and meaningless clichés as you could hope for. Even the title ‘Looking Forward to Normal’ is just an attempt to sound deep and profound whilst preaching what is shallow and cheap. Other Spirit inspired gems…?
“Just because you’ve not seen it before doesn’t mean is not normal…thank you Jesus.”
“Jesus was the only one on the boat who was normal….everyone else was weird”.
“God said ‘I’m not trying to get you back to normal I’m trying to get you into normal”
Who knew that the Holy Spirit spoke in such trite clichés?! Sorry for the sarcasm but I need to restrain my inner Elijah!
I’m not talking here about the flippancy or even the whole turning the worship of God into a TV show. But there is something even more telling and disturbing – a casual use of both Scripture and the name of God that chills me. When Furtick jokes “For God’s sake get my kids back to school…” he is using the name of God as a swear word not a plea. Despite all the shouting there is no sense at all of worship or being in the presence of the Holy God.
I thought there were things that were true – and even helpful. For example his statement:
“The news is not there to inform you – its there to engage you…to keep you watching….”. Whilst as a generalization that is unfair to many good news programmes there is a great deal of truth in that observation. But it struck me that it is an observation that applies to Furtick himself. He is not there to inform you. He’s there to keep you engaged – to keep you watching – to pile up the views….
“We don’t have to accept the patterns of this world as normal”. Amen to that brother. So why is your whole church and ethos patterned round the patterns of this world? If I was an alien from another planet (and being from Australia I might as well be) I would come away from that service knowing a great deal about Stephen Furtick, some aspects of American culture and almost nothing about either Jesus or the Bible.
Christless, Spiritless and Godless
There was little about Christ, little about God, nothing about the bigger picture….it was so narrow and myopic. The worst kind of Christian fundamentalism – the kind that leaves out the real fundamentals.
The message was not focused on Christ but rather on the preacher (as the Christ substitute?) and the felt needs of the listeners. It was a great example of what much of contemporary Western Christianity has become – moralistic therapeutic feel good deism.
We were asked to pray to receive Jesus – but given that there was almost nothing Jesus who or what were we receiving….he might as well have said pray to receive the Buddha, or Enlightenment or any of the idols of this world. How can you believe in the One of whom you have not heard?
What is depressing is that many people lap this up. And not just the ignorant and foolish. People who are Christians, who do love the Lord, they hear the words (You could play Christian bingo during the service and cross them off as they turn up…..Jesus, love, the Spirit, faith, anointing, etc.), but they don’t listen to the context and don’t think or question what is actually being said. It sounds good…it flows in one ear…gets reinterpreted in the brain and then flows out the other. Besides which we don’t want to question the Lord’s anointed. Well I do!
When I listened to this it reminded me of the song Elevation by U2 – (admittedly not their finest moment) – but there are a couple of lines in that, that are relevant.
Lift me out of these blues
Won’t you tell me something true
I believe in you
If Furtick and Elevation church want to lift people up to Christ, then they need to lift Christ up to people. I have no idea where they stand spiritually (which in itself is quite telling after watching the whole service) but if Furtick really is a true teacher of Jesus Christ he needs to repent of his self-obsession, pride, greed and denigration of the Word of God. He needs to get to know Christ better – and to preach Christ crucified. Leave the rest of the stuff to the stand up comedians, entertainers and pep talk pseudo-prophets.
If you are involved in Elevation church then sure, work to reform it…do what you can. I don’t doubt that there are good things and good people in the church. But I suspect it’s irreformable. I once heard Furtick say that those who disagreed with him should just go start their own church (which says a great deal about his doctrine of the church). If you can’t do that – then perhaps you need to ask what fellowship does Christ have with idols? Maybe it’s time to get out?
It would be wonderful if one day people came away from Elevation church thinking ‘wow, what a great Saviour, rather than ‘what a great preacher’! It’s what all of us as preachers should aim for….but sadly far too often do not attain.
May the Lord have mercy on His church and on us all!
2 Tim. 4:1 In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: 2 Preach the word;b be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encouraged—with great patience and careful instruction. 3 For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. 5 But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.