Religious Truth

From the executive editor

On May 21 of last year, my email dinged with an email from Emily Harris. The subject read: “Howdy & pitch.” She went on to tell me she wanted to write about Steven Furtick and Elevation Church. I was interested, but I knew it would be a tough get. So we met for lunch in early July, and we agreed that she’d attend a few Elevation services and report back to me. Where it went from there, I couldn’t believe.

From July through October, Harris visited every location in the Elevation network, some of them several times. She read all of Furtick’s books. She talked to Elevation members and members of the leadership. She talked to her husband. And she talked to me. It’s a special thing when a writer is passionate about a story. This one wouldn’t leave her.

It won’t leave you, either, if you take the time to read “On God’s Stage,” which starts on page 40. The reason it won’t leave you isn’t just that it’s well-written or well-researched. The reason is that Harris takes a question, maybe the largest question of all, and she sticks it right in your chest, right at your core: What do you believe?

She achieves this with the most amazing, unbelievable storytelling technique: Truth.

Harris’s own beliefs or preconceived notions are nowhere in the story. She doesn’t try to lead you one way or another, or even try to please you. She simply lets truth unfold. Everything in the story happened. Furtick did, in fact, televise an Easter broadcast in 3-D from Las Vegas. He did, in fact, write in a book that he, at age 16, stood in a South Carolina pet cemetery, listening to tapes of Pentecostal preachers, reciting the words out loud, while digging graves for cats and dogs. He did, in fact, write that he started his career as a preacher by bribing people with Oatmeal Creme Pies. His church does have thousands of members, and it is growing faster than any church around. And Elevation did once conduct 3,000 baptisms in a span of just a few weeks. It is true: People love this church. Do you?

I’m not a religious person. I was baptized Catholic, but when I was young, my father once cursed at a priest who’d made him mad, and we never went back to that church or any other. Sometimes, as I’ve worked as a journalist in various places around this state and now in this city of churches, I’ve wished I had a stronger faith background, simply to fit in better and to understand more. But I don’t, and that’s OK. I got it honest.

Still, religion fascinates me. Especially the community aspect of it.

So last summer, about three months after I moved here, I attended a few services around town, mostly to try to learn about my new city. One Sunday in July, I went to St. Andrews United Methodist Church. I walked through the doors, shook hands with the greeters, many of whom were silver-haired, sat in the service, heard a sermon, and listened to them heap praise upon their children and other members of the church. I guess, in this way, you could say I worshipped. It was nice.

The next week, my email dinged. It was from a woman named Wilda. I remembered her name from the service, and I remembered that she was sweet. In her email, she said she enjoyed meeting me and that she’d received a copy of the recent Charlotte magazine. She enjoyed my column, she said, and she looked forward to seeing me again.

It was, I suppose, a smaller church’s way of making a follow-up contact, not unlike the many things Furtick and his megachurch staff do to make people feel welcome there.

I liked Wilda, so I believe her. And I won’t lie: The note made me feel good, and isn’t that the answer we’re all looking for anyway?

Michael Graff
Categories: Editor’s Note, Opinion, The Buzz