On God's Stage: Elevation Church

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


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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.”

We invite your responses and discussion. Please refrain from personal attacks, profanity, commercial promotion, or non sequiturs.

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