I didn’t know what to expect walking into the McGlohon Theatre in Uptown Charlotte. After all, I’m an outspoken critic of many of the things that go on behind these doors. That was what brought me here in the first place: An interest in truth and fairness in any criticism I leveled against Elevation Church.
Inevitably, when you criticize a church via the internet, you will receive the objection that you can’t criticize them until you’ve experienced their service, met with the pastoral staff, and heard it “from the horses mouth,” so to speak. While I don’t necessarily put stock in this objection, and believe public false teaching or dubious practice ought to be responded to publicly, I have never passed up the opportunity to experience first hand what I criticize — for instance, my visit to Newspring Church back in July of 2012.
But this was different. Joel Delph, the campus pastor at Elevation Uptown, and Matt Furtick, brother to Steven, had personally invited me to Elevation to have a face-to-face talk with Joel. This was a gracious move, especially considering my less than gracious initial response. Of course I had to take an offer like that. Even the local media hasn’t gotten a face-to-face with the pastoral staff there. Still, I was wary walking in.
Coming in at 8:45 I was too late to be a volunteer and too early to be a congregant — I stood out. A volunteer immediately stepped up to help me out — since I didn’t ask permission to use his name, we’ll keep him as an anonymous M. I told him I was supposed to meet with Joel and he helped me get all settled. As we chatted I found out M. and his wife had moved to Charlotte from my current city of residence, previously living just minutes from where I grew up. He had started attending Elevation about three years ago, and within three weeks was volunteering and participating in the church’s “eGroups.” He said that was “when the church got small,” taking a congregation of thousands and shrinking that community down to fit in someone’s living room.
M. brought me back to the volunteer green room, where there was breakfast and coffee. He grabbed a couple cups for the two of us and we chatted about marriage and church, life goals and plans. As we were waiting I met his wife, and we chatted briefly about our mutual city of origin. Then, he introduced me to Joel.
My first impression of Joel Delph was that this man was clearly mad as a hatter — there is no other way I can explain that much energy packed into one person that early in the morning. He was incredibly enthusiastic about his job, even when it required meeting with a critic. His easygoing warmth took the edge off my anxiety.
I opened by explaining that I was indeed one of the Dreaded Critics of the Internet, and that I was there in the interest of fairness and accuracy in my criticism. I have no intention of tearing down men, but of building up the Body of Christ. Unfortunately, I think that sometimes takes hard questions and criticisms, and that while it’s not politically or socially correct, it is morally necessary. Then I asked why he thought Elevation got so much heat.
His answer was interesting. He said that no church was perfect, but the bigger your church gets the more perfection is expected from you. I asked how he felt about the criticisms in the media, social or otherwise. He said that fighting critics distracts from God’s mission for Elevation Church. He told me how Steven Furtick used to get in fights on Twitter defending himself, and finally reached the point where he realized he was wasting time and could be investing that in the Vision.
The Vision. There’s a doozy. A lot of people critique Elevation because the Vision is something that Furtick has allegedly received from God. This kind of top-down pastoring is problematic at best and downright dangerous at worst, as the critics put it. I asked Joel to define what it meant that Steven had received this vision, particularly as outlined in article number four of the Elevation Code. He responded with a story:
When Elevation Church was first started, they planned to have maybe 100 people by the end of the year. Instead, they blew up. Thousands of people streamed to Elevation from all over the area. As they grew, the culture that was so strong in the original core congregants was diluted.
Then one day church leadership noticed the ING Bank’s Code, and thought it was a great idea. It’s all about preserving a particular culture in a group of individuals. Thus inspired, the Elevation Code was born. The purpose of the code is to protect and encourage the same culture of passion, honor, and drive that was present in the early days of Elevation Church; to delineate their unique qualities and characteristics. One of those unique qualities is the Vision of Steven Furtick.
When he talked about the Vision, Joel assured me that it wasn’t anything I couldn’t get from praying and reading my Bible. It wasn’t, he insisted, how the critics cast it as a special revelation from God. In fact they had updated the language of The Code: Whereas it had once read that Elevation was united under the visionary — namely Furtick — it now read “Elevation is built on the vision God gave Pastor Steven.” The language swap was meant to dispel the negative connotations the original wording elicited. The idea of aggressively defending unity and vision was meant to uphold the ideal culture in the church, not in the militant sense some critics had taken it.
He likened being under the Vision to being on a battleship rather than a cruise ship. The metaphor made a lot of sense, but I tried to press him on what exactly the Vision was and how Furtick had received it. Again he reiterated that it was something that we could all see in Scripture: The Vision of Elevation Church is to see people far from Christ raised to new life. He said it was just the Great Commission. Cast this way, it certainly seemed harmless enough. I couldn’t help but wonder, though: If that’s all that the Vision is, how is that something that God gave specifically to Furtick? It seemed like there was more under the surface, but I was unfortunately pressed for time. I had to move on to other questions or I would lose my opportunity.
I asked the question I had been dying to ask since I woke up that morning: Were you involved in the so-called spontaneous baptisms that have received so much pushback from the media? Absolutely, Joel said. He was out in the parking lot baptizing many of the people himself. So what about the 15 volunteers? According to the media interview of Prof. Duncan, you had shills in the audience who never intended to be baptized. He corrected me: Elevation Church did not plant anyone who didn’t intend to be baptized. According to Joel, the 15 volunteers for each service had pre-registered for baptism weeks in advance, and had been contacted with instructions just prior to the baptismal services in question. According to Joel they were clearly mentioned as volunteers by Furtick.
On this point I must ask Prof. Duncan, Chris Rosebrough, and Stuart Watson to correct their stories to include this fact. Knowing what I do of these men and their dedication to the truth, I have no doubt they will. The now infamous 15 were themselves not necessarily complicit in the spontaneous baptism event beyond what I can only pray was a genuine desire to follow Jesus.
EDIT 2/24/14, 1:16 PM: I hear through a friend that Dr. Duncan’s media interview lacked proper context, and he may be posting a clarification soon.
Still, I said, the volunteers were told to take the longest possible walk through high visibility areas. Whether or not they were conscious of it, the semblance to manipulation is striking. You may not have planted people who never intended to be baptized, but you still planted people and made it seem that their baptisms were spontaneous with the intention of inspiring — read: manipulating — more people into being baptized. Joel responded by saying that critics take an uncharitable view of the intentionality with which Elevation operates. For instance, when seating guests and congregants, they make sure to pack them into auditoriums rather than letting them spread out. Everyone is familiar with the difference in energy between the two seating configurations — Elevation, Joel said, wants its congregants to experience better room dynamics. They’re intentional about small things that most churches don’t think about. I pointed out that it was precisely this control of the experience that critics viewed as manipulative. Joel said he simply disagrees, and expects that the critics cannot see the heart behind the methods.
Glancing at my watch I saw I had two minutes before Joel had to go start the service. I had two final questions, this time about his perspective on the critics. Had he engaged with the content of either James Duncan or Chris Rosebrough? What were his thoughts about accusations not only of poor methodology but of false teaching from Furtick? Outright disagreement, he said. He shared several stories about people who had been baptized who had experienced life change. I asked him to clarify: Was it because they had experienced life change that he felt the teaching was accurate? Had he ever listened to one of Rosebrough’s podcasts critiquing one of Furtick’s sermons?
He said he hadn’t engaged with the content of critics beyond what was necessary to be knowledgable enough to talk about. While I found this to be a bit vague, I asked again: How do you respond to charges of false teaching? Joel said he disagreed, both with the charges and the methodology. He opined that for men like Chris everything becomes about pointing out false teachings, rather than pointing people to Jesus. He was very hesitant to use the word, but he said it seemed almost Pharisaical.
I wanted to press him on this, but short on time I shot off my last question: Do you think there’s any such thing as a Godly critic? Joel said the best picture of a Godly critic in his mind was Nathan, restoring David to right standing, building up the people of God in love. As I had promised only two more questions, I had to break off my interview here. We shook hands and Joel invited me to speak again with him after the sermon. As we were leaving I bid farewell to M. and his wife. I walked out to my car past the DJ who had just cranked a Bastille remix to full volume.
In the preceding account I have tried to avoid biases and preconceived notions wherever possible. My goal in the interview was to be as fair as humanly possible, and to give the pastoral staff at Elevation a chance to respond to their critics, including myself. I have saved my commentary until now so as to maintain that fairness. However, I struggle with many of the statements raised by Joel today. I will limit myself to only a few in this commentary, to avoid overloading an already extensive post.
First of all, on the count of baptism, I do not think the news that the shills were not shills settles the matter. It is deceptive to portray people who were not spontaneously deciding to get baptized as doing exactly that. In fact, this seems in some ways almost more insidious than outright deception. It seems to exploit those who have a genuine desire to receive Baptism in order to boost the numbers which Elevation is so unapologetically focused on. I cannot see anyone’s heart, but as an outsider looking in, it certainly looks manipulative and dishonest — I hope you can at least understand our perspective.
Secondly, the intentionality that is paid to every specific detail of the service in order to maximize positive energy (my words) is a disturbing trend to say the least. I also don’t see how it makes sense as anything other than psychological manipulation — detailed control of the environment to evoke a specific response. Furtick clearly stated at the baptism event that it was the Holy Spirit, not emotional manipulation, that was creating that response. Given the information in this interview it seems that at best he had no way of knowing whether the person was actually hearing from the Holy Spirit or simply responding to the intentional room dynamics. At worst he is outright blaspheming God by attributing to Him what is not His work. How is this different from the Mormon who says that the burning in the bosom is evidence of the Holy Spirit? This is ambiguous and vague, at best.
Finally, I would like to challenge Elevation Church members and pastoral staff — especially Joel — to do what they requested I do: Engage and experience the content of the opposition. As requested, I showed up today and talked and listened. I hope to hear from Joel that I have reported his words fairly and accurately. Please do the same. Consider that men like Rosebrough may actually be doing what they do because they love Jesus Christ and want to see His Church built up. Go and look at his podcasts and hear his criticism — go and listen to the copious amounts of good and salutary theology he points people to as well! As someone who has met Chris, I’ve seen him get misty eyed talking about his Savior. Don’t make the negative assumptions that your camp has said we critics make. Do as I did and doubt your preconceived notions. It will do us all good.
A very special thank you to Joel Delph for his incorrigible hospitality during my entire stay. He really went above and beyond and I am so grieved that we disagree on important issues like these. It hurts my heart to not be able to have Christian unity with anyone of such high caliber. The same extends to the whole Elevation Uptown staff: They were helpful beyond everything I asked.
I would also like to extend an invitation to M. and his wife: If you ever come back down our way, we should grab dinner together! We don’t have a Ruth’s Chris near here, but I’m sure we can figure something out.
Pt. 2, a review of the worship experience, is in the works.