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.
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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.