On God's Stage: Elevation Church

How did pastor Steven Furtick build a megachurch? Simple. He made people believe



People raise their hands in worship during the Saturday evening service at Elevation Blakeney.

LOGAN CYRUS

Steven Furtick takes the stage his favorite way, striding in a half-stroll, half-hop, not-dance, bellowing out a lyric here and there, eyes pinched shut as the music blasts. Outside Elevation Church’s uptown campus on a Sunday morning in July, big, orange flags reading “The Best Is Yet to Come” flap above city sidewalks. Inside, past a dish of complimentary earplugs, reassuring ushers with badges and flashlights guide latecomers through the darkness to the last dozen open seats. Onstage in the McGlohon Theater, a 700-seat venue in Spirit Square, young women wearing skinny jeans and cool cardigans and pendant necklaces sing, as musicians play  cello and electric guitar.

As the music quiets down and auditorium lights brighten, all eyes fix on the big screens above the stage. Furtick isn’t here. He’s on a stage at the church’s Blakeney campus, about 20 miles away in a medical office park near a Target. Video of him streams into uptown and six other packed regional locations. The text Live from our Blakeney location appears on the screen.

Furtick walks behind the lectern, a silver Star Trek-looking item marked not with a cross but with the church’s caret-like logo (^), which stands for elevating Christ and appears on thousands of orange bumper stickers affixed to North and South Carolina license plates. He is in great spirits, tan and relaxed and teasing the crowd. His look this week includes light stone-colored pants and formal white loafers. His black T-shirt hugs his muscled shoulders, the slight V-neck in front revealing that he’s shaved the top of his chest. The face of his black and orange watch is as wide as his wrist.

Scripture unfurls on giant screens as Furtick reads 2 Corinthians 1:19: “For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us—by me and Silas and Timothy—was not ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ but in Him it has always been ‘Yes.’ ”

Elevation isn’t quiet and it isn’t boring. With worship team members leading, songs fill every service. 

Elevation Church’s stated mission is to reach people far from God and see them raised to life in Christ. The sermon this morning is the second in a series titled (This Is Your) Permission Slip, designed to show how the laws of Christianity don’t take away freedom but give. During the first sermon a week ago, he told the crowd that God saw all of them as worthy and wanted them to come to Him no matter where they were in their lives. “People who’ve been divorced, who’ve had abortions, who struggle with addiction,” he’d shouted, pointing to an eight-foot prop onstage of the familiar carnival ride sign You must be this tall to ride. “They can come.”

“We’re flippin’ the script a little bit in this series,” Furtick, 33, says to start the second sermon, strolling back and forth across the stage. “Saying God is not a God of endless rules and restrictions but a God of endless permissions and promises.” Even under klieg lights and on days when he preaches for a solid hour, bouncing around and calling out and pumping his arms, he sweats very little. He’s funny and quick to improvise, sometimes playfully slipping into the voices he’d studied as a teen: trilling Old-Timey Preacher Man, booming African-American elder (he calls this his James Earl Jones/Morgan Freeman voice), turf-conscious rapper versed in the Old Testament (“east siiide” of Eden).

It’s hard not to watch hours of Furtick preaching without thinking about how talent can either be a product of genetic blessings or years of practice or sometimes both. Furtick’s style and confidence don’t come across as innate gifts. Instead, his skill appears formed through years of relentless pursuit, the sort of unwavering focus that included sleepless nights and many Diet Mountain Dews. Furtick studied harder, practiced more, and along the way outpaced onetime peers who’d had the same sorts of goals. His gift is being able to apply the wisdom and lessons of other preachers, marketers, and organizations.

Even with all the practice, there’s one odd characteristic to Furtick’s speech. Often, when he hits a word that ends with “s,” the sound trails a bit, as if both cheeks were loaded full of bubble gum. Genesisss, sinnersss, consequencesss.

Furtick grins at his audiences. He knows people love that smile.

“Our God is a Yes God,” he says. The camera in Blakeney zooms back to reveal the audience there, where the reaction is similar to what’s happening uptown: hooting and clapping and fist-pumping, beefy middle-aged guys who wear class rings tearing up, and young couples standing in side-to-side embraces rubbing the small of each other’s backs.

“High-five eight people,” he tells the crowd, and people start turning to their neighbors, hands in the air. “And tell ’em yesss, yesss, yesss, yesss, yesss.”

Furtick grew up a skinny kid in a football-crazed town. Forty-five minutes north of Charleston, Moncks Corner, South Carolina, population 5,952, takes pride in its freshwater fishing and five state football championships. Once home to the Native American Edistow people, the area became a major settlement for Protestant Huguenots fleeing religious persecution in France. Today the community is about 60 percent white and 40 percent black, and the per-capita income is $15,202.

In his years at Berkeley High School, the skinny kid who later said his dad advised him to always hit first if a fight seemed imminent, watched as the football team won two regional championships, one state title, and storied football coach Jerry Brown made a public acceptance of Jesus at age 50. There was probably no pulpit in town more influential than that of a football coach, Furtick later wrote.

In his books, Furtick, who declined interview requests for this story, says he grew up attending church with his mother, the daughter of a longtime Methodist minister. He rarely went with his thrice-married father. Furtick has described his father as there for him growing up, despite being a high-functioning alcoholic and heavy marijuana user. Then in 1997, an invitation to a Baptist tent revival sparked a more passionate relationship with Christ. At 16, Furtick believed God wanted him to be a preacher who would one day start his own church. That summer, while making money by digging graves at a local pet cemetery in the suffocating Lowcountry humidity, Furtick began listening to tapes of Pentecostal preachers on his Walkman. In a moment Southern Gothic novelists can only wish they’d imagined, Furtick, shovel in hand, dead dogs and cats beneath his feet, rewound the most dramatic parts over and over, reciting aloud “word for word, breath for breath, down to the pauses and cadences.”

Soon he stood out in his church choir for dyeing his hair orange. He burned his beloved hard-rock CDs, even the Guns N’ Roses ones he’d treasured, and invited his friends to watch the fire. At the Taco Bell in Moncks Corner, he began trying to get friends to commit their lives to Christ, often with mixed results, including even fewer party invitations. But he was hooked. “I got high off of every encounter, slipping into an evangelism addiction that I have never recovered from,” he wrote in Sun Stand Still: What Happens When You Dare to Ask God the Impossible.

In 1999, Furtick arrived at South Carolina Baptist Convention-affiliated North Greenville University, home of the Crusaders, ready to launch his preaching career. But he found that with the school’s required twice-weekly chapel attendance requirement, students in his dorm hall weren’t interested in invitations to come to his room for a third sermon. Undeterred, Furtick stocked his room with Oatmeal Creme Pies and Nutty Bars. He told students that God compelled his heart to share the food with hungry students.

The Church of Little Debbie worked, and the power of a giveaway stayed in Furtick’s mind. Furtick became a self-described hall chaplain of sorts and, through a student ministry, began preaching at local churches. Preaching at his church back in Moncks Corner during a visit home from college, he says one of his greatest moments in life happened when his dad stopped drinking and decided to come to Christ during one of Furtick’s sermons.

In 2002, at age 22, he married Holly, a Baptist pastor’s daughter he’d met at North Greenville. Furtick said that he not only saved his virginity for his wife but that he did not kiss her for the first time until their wedding day. Holly wore a purity ring from age 13 until the wedding, when the stone was put in Furtick’s ring. Holly Furtick, with Kate Middleton-like wavy, brunette hair and  a self-deprecating nature, would shape her role of pastor’s wife and eventually busy mother to three young children as a good-humored everywoman. On her Twitter feed, she posts things like “Ziploc bags are my gift from God” or a photo of her coffee-splattered mug when, on a tired morning, she’d placed it upside down in the machine. In blog posts, Steven Furtick calls Holly “my hot wife.”

The couple moved to Charlotte from Shelby, where Furtick worked as a church music director, joined by half-a-dozen couples who believed in his vision for a new church. Elevation’s official recounting of this move is laced with free-wheeling whimsy and pure nerve, but Furtick, then 25, and the families were also backed with church-planting funds from other Baptist groups. Furtick began a 40-day fast “as a way to humble myself in preparation for the work He wanted to do through our church,” he wrote in his 2012 New York Times best-seller, Greater: Dream Bigger. Start Smaller. Ignite God’s Vision for Your Life—a book that includes 14 pages of study questions and a supplemental DVD filmed in Israel.

Charlotte, with its Billy Graham heritage and hundreds of houses of worship, many so popular that cops direct traffic for blocks on Sunday, doesn’t seem like a place that needs another big church. The Elevation couples originally singled out five cities and said God picked Charlotte for them.

Divine guidance or not, Charlotte was a clever choice. When academics began studying megachurches as a societal trend, they found something interesting: Megachurches did best in predominantly white, suburban areas experiencing large population influxes.

 

Tonia Bendickson’s email inbox once filled every day with news releases from local groups wanting media coverage. The veteran evening news anchor could spot a gimmick, and that’s what she expected when she first encountered Elevation in 2006. After attending one service earlier in the spring, she went with a news crew to film Elevation’s pre-Easter Sunday event. The church, then only a few months old, knew how to court the media: It hired a helicopter to drop 5,000 candy-filled eggs onto a football field. Prizes given away that day included iPods and flat-screen TVs. More than 2,000 people showed up.

At the time, Presbyterian-raised Bendickson, who’d relocated to Charlotte a few years earlier for her job, had been church-shopping for her family. Shortly after the Easter event, she attended a service at Elevation—the church calls them “worship experiences”—held at the Levine Senior Center in Matthews. She found herself so moved by the music that she held her phone up so her husband could listen in. “I just found our new church,” she told him.

“It was a very emotional connection,” Bendickson tells me one recent morning over lattes at Not Just Coffee uptown. She’d never expected to stay in Charlotte. Petite and wearing a cross-body purse repurposed from retired Elevation banners, Bendickson is used to talking in stops and starts while remaining calm. She has a warm smile for everyone and gives hugs to people she’s meeting for the first time. When I’d joined her during a worship experience a few weeks earlier, she stood out in the aisle during the music, arms stretched out above her, swaying and singing.

“I was falling in love with Elevation and in love with Jesus,” she continues. “I fell in love with what Elevation and Jesus are doing in this city.”

After a few years of regular attendance at Elevation and helping launch outreach partnerships with area charities, Bendickson felt torn between late-evening television shifts and time with her two young sons. In 2010, when her contract came up for renewal, she decided to leave.

Bendickson and her husband, a photographer, now work for the church. She oversees the outreach program, which pairs Elevation volunteers and church money with about 100 area charities. Elevation volunteers help fill social service gaps by tutoring low-income Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students, serving breakfast at the Rescue Mission, volunteering in a shelter for abused children, working as literacy coaches to the homeless, sorting grocery stores’ donations for Second Harvest Food Bank, cooking and cleaning at a residential center for people with addictions, giving rides to and from doctor’s offices to cancer patients, or offering an ear to hospice patients. The church has given away about $10 million since its founding.

“Pastor Steven is anointed by God,” Bendickson tells me. “As a journalist, of course I wondered, ‘Is it real? Can I trust it?’ And every day I see people living out audacious faith.”

Regularly during Elevation’s worship experiences, there’s a brief in-house-produced video clip, often promoting an upcoming sermon series or documenting an outreach effort. It’s Super Bowl-ad quality—gorgeous photography and soaring music and slow-motion shots that make everything look more meaningful. The proud smiles of hundreds of volunteers in hairnets preparing meals and the cries of relief of believers in the baptismal pools could be mawkish. But the video manages to convey earnest emotion in just a few frames. Only the most hardened viewer wouldn’t feel an empathic swell of hurt and hope and joy. 

Remember that small Easter program that hooked Bendickson in 2006? By 2010, 11,500 people came to hear Furtick speak on Easter Sunday at Time Warner Cable Arena. For the 2011 Easter service, Furtick was filmed on location in Las Vegas, and attendees in Charlotte were given 3-D glasses to watch.

As churches and nonprofits struggle to take advantage of social media and debate marketing techniques—how much of a nonprofit budget should be marketing? Shouldn’t the most money possible go to the needy? If marketing means reaching even more people, isn’t that the most responsible thing to do?—Elevation leaders don’t wring hands. The quality and effectiveness of their branding efforts outpace perhaps any other organization in the city, public or private. The church’s most brilliant strategies are the ways in which it makes people feel welcome and want to get involved and the ways it comes up with solutions to potential excuses before they are even voiced.

Hesitant to attend the uptown location because parking can be scarce and expensive? The church validates parking tickets for the 7th Street Station deck ($10) only two blocks away. Worried about getting lost heading to the more out-of-the-way campuses, such as Gastonia and Concord? Orange flags pointing to the campuses begin miles from the location. For people who think they’ll feel lost in a huge church, there are 509 weekly prayer eGroups with a dozen members or fewer, specializing in personal interests like fitness or support for single parents. “It’s like Meetup.com,” one woman tells me. The small groups, known to be effective retention tools at other megachurches, meet in homes of group leaders who attend training on how to make people feel welcome (have refreshments on hand, make the bathroom sparkling clean).

In July, when attendees were reminded that local blood banks were in need, they left the worship experience with a Billboard Top 100 techno song blasting and the surprise of Red Cross trucks lined up outside ready to take blood. The effect was similar to football players doing the popcorn bounce as they wait to take the field before tearing through the booster-club banner.

Like many Baptist churches, Elevation emphasizes that believers are reborn in Christ through baptism as adults. In late summer, a time in North Carolina when a clean outdoor pool holds incredible allure, Elevation campuses set up big, portable pools of waist-high water in the parking lots of rented high schools and office parks. The church was ready with everything you’d need for an unplanned full-body submersion: tampons, maxi pads, hair gel, mousse, makeup remover, hair dryers, long, loose-fitting shorts, and even a security guard, in case you were attending alone and worried about an unattended purse. It set up bleachers where guests watched and cheered everyone on, and tied balloons around the pool. Pastors baptized more than 3,000 people in the Charlotte area over a few weeks. A professional photographer at every campus was there to capture the momentous photo and made it easy to share, complete with a themed Twitter hashtag.

Sometimes the emphasis on positivity and branding at Elevation veers into full-on Dilbert.

The church follows “The Code,” a dozen values “to help maintain our unity, tone, and trajectory.” Number 7 is “We will remain on the edge of our momentum by overreacting to harness strategic momentum initiatives.”

From sermons to written materials, words such as activate, audacious, daring, complacency, outrageous, raw, and radical alone could make for a drinking game where everyone would be on the floor in 15 minutes. The staff retreat is called the staff advance. During collections, campus pastors tell the audience members they don’t have to give but they get to give. Do not expect a job in the marketing department to open up. “There is no marketing department at the church because we are all the marketing department,” according to a church document. An obsessive reader and student of celebrity and successful leaders, Furtick required staff to read books by Seth Godin.

“The sermon starts in the parking lot, as most people decide in the first 8 minutes whether they will come back,” the staff handbook reminds.

Echoes of Starbucks, Apple, Google, and Zappos are evident throughout megachurch design. Elevation benefits from what appears to be careful study of groundwork other megachurches have laid in three areas in the past few decades: predicting the wants of people already resistant to church, using the web and social media to maximize a message’s reach, and focusing on the healing aspects of Christianity, with the Bible as the world’s best self-help book and guide to personal development.

That spirit carries over to how the church treats staff. Elevation covers the cost of a monthly date night for staff members and sends them on all-expenses-paid trips to marriage conferences. “An investment in the marriage of our leaders is an investment in the health of our church,” Furtick wrote on his website. At Elevation’s offices in Matthews, there are often diet and fitness challenges, chili cook-offs, ping-pong in the office; they once turned the building into an indoor competitive miniature golf course. Pastors are eligible for “performance bonuses.” Bendickson recalls with a grin missing an event at her son’s school because she had a mandatory Elevation party.

The fun times and start-up spirit have led some to think Elevation is socially liberal, which it’s not. The church, following the belief that God reserves sex for a husband and wife, has strict protocols. Married staff members “should not be alone with members of the opposite sex,” the staff handbook states; riding in a car or visiting someone’s home qualify. Pastors cannot provide pastoral care to the opposite sex alone at the office or anywhere else, and follow-up sessions with a married person must include the person’s spouse. All Elevation pastors are male. Furtick brought in Ted Haggard, a onetime megachurch pastor who lost his position after a gay prostitute scandal, to speak about his intensive Christian therapy that helped him identify with heterosexual feelings. Furtick said the “real hero” of the story was Ted’s wife, Gayle Haggard, who also spoke. He praised her for standing by her husband, inviting her to explain how she did it.

In September 2008, as part of a series called Visionary Love, Dream Sex, Furtick, then 28 years old with bleached-blond highlights, encouraged men not to keep sexual secrets from their wives and for wives to give their husbands “consistent sexual access.” Wearing a shirt bearing the word Savage, Furtick told couples not to wait but to invest in their marriages that moment with date nights, discussion, and regular sex. (Single women were also addressed: “You’re worth the wait. Keep your spring on lockdown.”) Acknowledging that the recession, then fresh and full-force, was keeping many couples from indulging in an evening out, Furtick made his giveaway reveal.  

“Every single couple in church is going on a date,” Furtick told the crowd, which responded with gasps and cheers. “We’ve set aside this money to build into your marriage.” The church gave all married couples, including those attending for the first time that day, three hours of child care and $30 to a local restaurant. All around the auditoriums at every campus, grinning church staff and volunteers appeared wearing Date Night T-shirts and carrying balloons.

When Elevation’s attendance crossed the thousand mark in 2007, Furtick began seeing a local Christian therapist for what he calls “preventive counseling.”

“I started realizing the devil had a bull’s eye on my soul,” he later wrote. He went every week for three years. When he told the congregation about it, including that the church was paying for it, they gave him a standing ovation.

Privately, as the church experienced growth so rapid it received national attention in Evangelical circles, the bull’s-eye mentality showed elsewhere. Staff and volunteers have to sign confidentiality contracts, which state that they are forbidden to release anything about church finances, including the pastor’s salary, and anything related to church strategy. Furtick and other senior church members began forming trusts used to buy their homes, to avoid addresses searchable online by their names.

In Greater, he describes himself as a “guy who has had to tangle with insecurities so ugly that some days they make me feel like I’m not even a Christian, let alone a pastor.” He wrote that he often has nightmares, even while wide awake and writing a sermon at his desk, about people turning against him and heading to another church. He has occasionally snapped back at combative comments on Twitter. At the church’s main offices, all visitors are now required to sign in and check out at the reception area and wear a visitor name badge. The once-skinny kid took up boxing, posting photos online of him training with Brazilian mixed martial arts champion fighter Vitor Belfort, and hired personal bodyguards.

In a 2010 sermon series titled Scarecrow in a Melon Patch, Furtick spoke about Leah, a woman in the Bible who believes if she births enough sons, her husband will finally love her. Chasing blessings, he called it. “What we foundationally want … is this thing called acceptance,” Furtick said. “I wanted to get to this place where I was accepted, where I achieved a lot.” He thought he’d feel successful once the church hit 1,000 attendees, and when he didn’t, he thought maybe 5,000 would do it. It didn’t. He still obsessively checks attendance numbers; on weeks when it is up, he feels good; when it is down, he feels like he did something wrong.

“I’ve been like this my whole life … ‘If I achieve this, I will be this. If I could just, then I would be,’ ” he said. “But it ain’t true. What you do isn’t who you are.”

Furtick has been the subject of more than a little jealousy. Churches everywhere wrestle with low attendance, with studies finding that millennials are the generation least likely to belong to a religion. The recession still looms. Yet Furtick has been able to attract thousands of followers of all ages, and he’s had particular success drawing young followers. Gifts to the church since its founding hover around the $100 million mark, and that doesn’t include money made from books, DVDs, and the church’s music group, Elevation Worship. Elevation Worship’s second full-length album, 2013’s Nothing Is Wasted, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Contemporary Christian Chart. The church’s 2013 budget was $25 million. Online, when the church announces a new location, dozens of people post in the comments begging for their city or their college to be next. 

Furtick does give critics who call him vain some material to work with. He autographs Bibles and likes to mention that Carolina Panther Steve Smith is a friend (Furtick recently preached while wearing Smith’s jersey). Elevation’s website specifies that being part of the church means believing “Elevation is built on the vision God gave Pastor Steven. We will aggressively defend our unity and that vision.” On the same website is a list of 30 reasons why it’s great to work at the church, which currently employs about 100 people. The list leads off with “We serve a Lead Pastor who seeks and hears from God.” The Charlotte Business Journal in November named Elevation one of the best places to work in the region. Furtick’s personal website unfurls like a special 16-page posed photo spread in a teen magazine: Serious Steven, Grinning Steven, Goofy Steven, Passionate Steven, Working Steven, At Home Steven. Interspersed among the photos are quotes from his own sermons. Everything hyperlinks to a blog post or Elevation materials.

But it works: When Furtick posted a photo of his gleaming, orange-red patent leather Nikes with Velcro at the ankle hightop, it was immediately liked by more than 1,000 people who left comments like: “BALLIN,” “Super HOT pastor,” and “My boys asked where you got them! They think it’s cool that their pastor wears cool kicks!”

On an old YouTube channel with no updates in two years, a video titled Hey Haters and apparently uploaded by Furtick on March 1, 2011, remains the pastor’s most off-script moment. Standing before a backdrop that looks stolen from a 1980s Jostens yearbook photo day, Furtick, is wide-eyed, jumpy, and speaking in a way that confirms your worst fears about slam poetry. “Hey haters, I hate to break this to you, but your day is done,” begins Furtick, wearing a suit and smirking. In two and a half minutes, he tells critical viewers “You look like a toddler” and “We’re not looking for approval from you.” He’s defiant and scowling, saying, “Are you going to criticize, or create?” He closes the video on a cheery note: “This generation is waiting to restore the hope of a nation.”

 

This fall, when links first surfaced on discussion boards and anti-church blogs to permits and other public records detailing Furtick’s new home under construction—a mansion on 19 wooded acres on the exurban edge of Union County—part of the surprise was that anyone was surprised. The church has long been open about having a $25 million operating budget, giving 12 percent of its money away to charities (more than many churches, which are closer to 10 percent), and requiring secrecy around Furtick’s compensation. The house’s tax value is $1.6 million, according to Union County tax records.

Did Furtick fans not think someone whose Instagram account includes a close-up photo of his Fendi sunglasses and photos of him trying on jackets inside an Alexander McQueen boutique in London would be someone who’d like a fancy house? Did Furtick not notice or not care that almost every megachurch pastor, many of whom he promotes or receives guidance from, has been brutalized in the media for jets, cars, and mansions?

The scene at an Elevation service is a religious experience unlike any other in the area.

But when a local television station flew a helicopter over the construction in September to get footage, Furtick seemed unprepared. The muscled kid hit first in the fight, and he missed. Furtick warned his audience that a reporter who didn’t like the church was going after his house; he then delivered a manna sound bite, describing the mansion as “not even a very big house, just a nice house.” He continued by comparing himself to the disciple Paul, going to the gates of heaven scarred but still there.

When the news report ran two weeks later, the house’s square footage made for made for irresistible headlines. The television report said the house was 16,000 square feet. But a Union County building permit shows a request for 8,076 heated square feet and 8,014 unheated square feet. Elevation officials would later say the unheated portion was for things like the garage and attic. But the number discrepancies ultimately wouldn’t matter. The 16,000 figure is what gained traction. As one punishing headline after another ran, social media exploded with debates over the Bible’s explicit warnings against the love of money, versus calls to leave judgment to God. Observations that the church operated as a tax-free multimillion-dollar corporation abounded, as did arguments about whether a pastor with Furtick’s level of fame deserves privacy or if pastors are public figures. There were references to Praise the Lord, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s infamous suburban Charlotte-based televangelist ministry in the 1970s and 1980s. (Jim Bakker served federal prison time in the late 1980s and early 1990s for diverting millions in church money and using it for himself.) Elsewhere, people went for equal-opportunity mockery: “Look out needle, this camel’s a-comin,’” crowed blog Stuff Christian Culture Likes. “Let us know when you get some real jack, Signed the Catholic Church,” wrote a commenter on a news forum.

Furtick, like all the pastors at Elevation, is classified as self-employed but receives full benefits, and his salary is set by a group of fellow megachurch pastors. As pastors, their income from the church is exempt from most federal and state income taxes. Furtick also receives a housing allowance, which he can legally use to pay for expenses including a mortgage, repairs, utilities, and furniture. Other megachurch pastors nationwide make millions, mostly from books and videos their churches promote. Rick Warren made so much money—The Purpose-Driven Life sold more than 50 million copies—he famously repaid all of his salary to the church.

Even with considerable scrutiny, Elevation didn’t release Furtick’s salary, only confirming that he receives a housing allowance. While many churches know how much their pastors make and the whole matter is treated with the earnestness of a high school student council, with results printed in a weekly newsletter passed out by hand, keeping top salaries a guarded secret has been the evangelical megachurch way for decades. Furtick’s own references to his wealth veer from proud to inviting questions. “The amount that we gave away in that one year far exceeded our total household income in the first year of marriage—just eight years earlier,” Furtick wrote in 2010 at age 30, referring to his family’s 2009’s finances. The church requires all staff members to give at least 10 percent of their income. But around the same time, when the church’s budget was in the seven-figure range, he said he’d recently opened a doctor’s bill related to one of his children’s ear infections and felt a sick pit of worry and stress in his stomach when he saw “lots and lots of zeros.”

Elevation says Furtick’s house money came from book royalties and advances for upcoming books. Churches serve as book-marketing arms that most authors could only dream of. What remains murky is just how many copies of Furtick’s books the church buys and how much tithed money is used to do so. Greater debuted on the New York Times best seller list, which authors know is a money game: Anyone can beat the system by buying enough copies of a book within a weekly timeframe, if they have the money. By becoming a proven best seller, Furtick is able to command a much higher advance on future books.

As criticism over the house continued, fans of the church were dismayed to see coverage focused on square footage and not the church’s importance in their lives. They want people to know that before Elevation, they were in abusive relationships they were afraid to leave. That they are followers of Jesus, not Furtick. To mock Elevation and Furtick is to invalidate how much pain they felt, how real and crippling the hurt was in their lives, how close they were to an edge. If Elevation and Furtick were the vehicles to finally feeling loved by God, or if the church inspired them to work on their families and serve their communities, does it matter how many bathrooms are in his new house? 

Liana Montsinger, who leads an eGroup weekly Bible study, tells me that the church saved her life. Raised Methodist, she liked church but says she’d never felt close to Christ until a friend brought her to Elevation. She knows some people find Elevation weird. “My family was worried, thought it was drinking Kool-Aid,” Montsinger says, dismissing the word Kool-Aid with a hand gesture and a laugh. Soon after beginning regular attendance, she was laid off and her engagement was called off. She went into a crippling depression. She’s eager to share her story, she says, because she wants people to know things were that bad, that she’s been there.

“I was suicidal,” Montsinger says. In her 20s, she looks fit and healthy from months hiking the Appalachian Trail alone, a trip she’d returned from just two days before we talked. “Pastor Steven and coming to Elevation saved my life,” she says. “Saved my life.”

At dinner with me at Newk’s in Ballantyne, she marvels over the clean silverware and food served in real bowls. On the trail, she preached to people she met, telling them how belief in Jesus brought her relief. “No one dropped to their knees and gave themselves to Christ,” she says. “But I think I planted some seeds. There are a lot of lost people out there on the trail.”

The week after the story about his house broke, Furtick, calm but brief, told his congregation he was sorry if they’d fielded ugly questions about their church. He described the media as the church’s friend and ally, and like the day years ago when he discussed his “preventive counseling,” he received a standing ovation.

On a cool Sunday morning in mid-October, Elevation volunteers laugh as they pretend to hold the large flags and tents in place outside Jay M. Robinson High School in Concord. Heavy winds blow across the huge parking lot. The school, 18 miles from uptown Charlotte, is surrounded by farms, and the farms are bordered by clusters of competing posters for new housing developments. Inside the school, another 100 volunteers from the church’s University campus are on hand to launch the first-ever Concord worship experience, the church’s eighth location in eight years. The University campus grew its numbers early on by sending rented party buses to the UNC Charlotte campus. The church plans to open a ninth location in Lake Norman in January, and it has approval to build a 264,000-square-foot building in Ballantyne for offices and worship. In February, Furtick’s next book comes out. He says it’s about insecurity, fear, condemnation, and discouragement. 

In Concord, Disney-happy volunteers call out welcomes and hellos as newcomers walk inside the glistening lobby. Like at every campus, a mobile “resource center” sells church books, DVDs, and clothes (Elevation logo baby onesie, $8; hooded sweatshirt, $25), and the bathrooms have been spruced up with baskets of breath mints and extra paper towels. Church-wide, the day of the Concord launch is also the last day of Furtick’s latest series, I Don’t Know What to Believe.

Furtick isn’t here for the first service at the new campus. Appearing on two huge screens, he seems to be in Blakeney, taking the stage with the not-dance, the belting of a lyric or two, the pinched face. This time, he also pumps his arms above his head, leading the audience in a cheer: “Con-cord! Con-cord! Con-cord!” The auditorium at Jay M. Robinson fills with proud hoots and applause as sounds of cheers in Blakeney play on the screen. Furtick’s look this week is paler skin, a Skull Church shirt (a Montana-based ministry emphasizing sexual abstinence), black jeans, and the retro-look Nikes, all black with the white swoosh. But his favorite part of his outfit leads him to call his wife onstage. Up Holly goes; she’s wearing a button-down shirt and thick, black-framed glasses. The women in the audience always give her an extra-loud cheer, and she waves to her fans.

“You like my jacket?” he asks, holding his arms out and turning them over, admiring the sleeves. It’s black leather, motorcycle style. Holly says the jacket is hot and that he looks great. He prods her again. She confirms the jacket is great, that Steven looks great. Steven asks if she’s got anything else she wants to add.

“I was so excited to come to church tonight,” Holly says.

Tonight? It’s rare for her to slip up like that. Looking calm, Steven provides quick cover. “Tonight, today, wherever you are coming from,” he says, turning to the audience with a slight shrug and grin.

Turns out, Furtick’s screen appearance was recorded the night before. When he fist-pumped for Concord, the Concord campus hadn’t been opened yet, and the crowd in Blakeney was roaring for an empty auditorium the next county over. And while a full house cheers on a Sunday morning church service in Concord, Furtick is actually in Greenville, South Carolina. He and 40 other pastors are attending Redemption World Outreach Center, a Pentecostal megachurch where Pastor Ron Carpenter recently announced that his wife had entered treatment after having numerous affairs. Carpenter faced a swell of criticism, some from people who objected to his airing of a private family matter and others who found the pastor’s vague description of his wife’s post-infidelity psychiatric treatment (isolation followed by a yearlong program) alarming. Furtick and the other pastors are there to show support.

Back in Concord, as a visiting pastor finishes his sermon and the live band begins to rock, volunteers hand out communion, which is grape juice in a coffee creamer with a wafer built inside the tiny lid.

“This is so cool,” a group of young women behind me whispers to one another. “So, so cool.”

Emily Harris is a former reporter for The Chicago Tribune and The Charlotte Observer, and a frequent contributor to Charlotte magazine. She can be reached at esabaum@gmail.com.

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