On God's Stage: Elevation Church
How did pastor Steven Furtick build a megachurch? Simple. He made people believe
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org.