There are few things that get me as riled up as knowing that someone made my wife cry. If you want to push my big red “ANGER” button, if you really want to see me mad, make my wife tear up. That is a sure-fire way to incite my ire. Of course my wife weeping was not what I expected to see when I attended Elevation Church last Sunday. And yet that was exactly what happened.
After my interview with Joel Delph I went to go pick my wife up from our hotel. We had originally planned to drive out the the Blakeney campus to experience the live service, but given various time constraints we decided to attend the Uptown campus for service as well. As it stands, I think that gave me a more complete experience and insight into what goes on at Elevation.
As we walked in the DJ was pounding a remix of some pop song that I vaguely recognized. A volunteer handed us two VIP packets containing CD’s with special content for us — songs from the praise band and a special message from Steven — and walked us through to the theater. As we walked, she explained what various stations were: Prayer, the bookstore (void of copies of The Code coloring book, unfortunately), childcare. When we neared the theater the pulsing beat of the DJ gave way to the steady beat of drums, distant and muffled. She handed us off to an usher who lead us upstairs to our balcony seating.
We entered the theater to be greeted by a wall of sound. The band was mixed well, but loud. Using flashlights the ushers directed us to our seats. Immediately the effectiveness of the intentional seating arrangement was evident; the room crackled with unseen energy. Golden light filtered gently through the stained glass triptych of Christ welcoming little children in the wall opposite us, offsetting the low blue lighting of the stage. As the band sang on my wife leaned over to me: “This is nothing more than motivational singing.”
She was right. The content of the songs paled in comparison to the solid Lutheran hymnody we’re used to. It was wildly individualistic worship, seemingly divorced from any sort of corporate church life. The songs were unabashedly about I… I… I. This experience was already going poorly.
Now here some will criticize me and say I’m imposing my stylistic preferences on Elevation. While it’s true that I think the Liturgy is a superior form of worship that has been handed down since ancient times as a means of confessing the faith once delivered to all the saints, I also am a huge fan of a very wide range of worship music. The hymns performed by Kings Kaleidoscope, Ascend the Hill, Citizens, and many other loud, occasionally raucous bands bring great joy to my heart. No one who knows me would use silly words like “quiet,” “controlled,” “calm,” or “subdued” to describe me. Music style varies from church to church and is adiaphora — that is, a matter of Christian freedom. Music content, on the other hand, is not.
If, for instance, one were to sing Highway to Hell during their Easter service, many would rightly raise the criticism that this is not an appropriate song with which to disgrace an allegedly Christian worship service. If you responded that they were disputing the style and imposing their own preferences on your church, you would be wrong — this is a red herring that simply distracts from the actual point of contention, namely that the content of your worship music means something and Highway to Hell is not what it ought to mean.
In another way the hypothetical critic of my point will be correct: I am criticizing the style of Elevation Church. Not their musical style, but the design of their service overall. As they clearly understand, what you do confesses something to the world. If they did not understand this, they would not be so intentional about things like seating arrangement. How you worship confesses a lot about who you worship. But that is another post entirely.
Worship gave way to a short video from Furtick’s Chatterbox — the voice of fear in your head that keeps you from hearing the other voices in your head, one of which presumably belongs to God. The video then cut to a live feed of the worship leader at the main campus. The band at Uptown joined into a slow ballad. I want to point out that coordinating music over remote feed is a feat of incredible proportions, in regards to both technology and talent. This was no easy thing. The amount of planning and practice that has to go into this is very telling, as you will see.
The song ached on, until the man himself ascended to the podium.
The last strains of music died down to a dull hum in the background — mood music, clearly. Furtick began to pray over the service. As he ended his prayer, he looked gently out over his flock. After a moment of silence, he softly sang the chorus of the song that had just ended. As if on cue — and truly it must have been well rehearsed — the bands joined in at both campuses. Again, the time, technology, and talent blended perfectly, using the simultaneous combination of tom/snare/kick to build into the smoothly engineered peak on the other side of the Spontaneous Musical Prayer Valley™ Furtick had just lead us through. It was the perfectly planned break to steer the energy of the crowd exactly where Furtick wanted it. Then began the sermon.
Now, I have made the incredibly difficult editorial decision not to respond to the entirety of the sermon in the post. I am seriously considering undertaking a series of essays on how problematic this sermon was. This sermon could do well with a detailed review, minute by minute, to discuss everything from Furtick’s narcissism to psychologically manipulative techniques and on and on, and perhaps sometime I may do exactly that. However for the purposes of this post I find it better to review a few highlights — or lowlights, rather — of the pontification which was Furtick’s sermon that day. For your viewing displeasure, you may find the 11:30 service of Sunday the 23rd recorded here.
Before we deal with the substance of the message, I want first to deal with the style. Furtick’s preaching is high energy. In this message particularly, I was shocked by how much he emulated his self-assigned pastor, T. D. Jakes (yes, the same Jakes who prefers “manifestations” to describe the Trinity rather than “persons”). His roller-coaster cadence — yelling applause lines one moment only to dive down to what is surely meant to be a gut-wrenching low point of the sermons dynamic — spot on matches the “Bishop.”
This style is particularly compelling here in the American South, and often the charisma of the speaker can override the sensibilities of the hearer. Indeed, Furtick seems like the high-school funny man on stage, with some witticism never far from his lips. It’s an emotionally attractive preaching style; his energy will draw you in. Now there is certainly nothing wrong with energy while preaching; I don’t advocate the boorish droning of a pastor without personality reading as from a script. A pastor who speaks of Christ may easily be moved by the joy of the words he speaks. But the style of preaching should, in my opinion and the opinion of the Apostle Paul, give way to the substance: Words of wisdom should be readily abandoned in favor of the simple preaching of Christ and Him Crucified.
So what of his content? The passage selected for the sermon this day was Acts 27:9-28:5. This is an historic passage of Scripture, detailing the shipwreck of Paul and Luke on their way to Rome. It is descriptive of actual events: There was a real man named Paul who got on a real ship which ran into a real storm and really shipwrecked etc. However Furtick’s hermeneutic from the beginning is not to exegete the significance of these events in the narrative of God’s missionary Paul, but rather to allegorize them: Furtick (and you or I) becomes Paul. The storm becomes problems in our life. We can’t place our faith in the ship to get us to shore, because the ship may be lost. The fire that is lit to warm real men who were shaking cold (but alive, just as God had promised) becomes the fire that is Elevation Church, which drives the snakes (read: Critics like me) out to bite. But we, like the Apostle Paul, must simply shake off the snake into the fire so as to feed said fire. It is, to say the least, an incredibly self-centered hermeneutic.
Now building on this idea, consider about 9:30 in the previously linked video. Taking the two words “driven along” out of their appropriate context — the ship that Paul was actually on was really driven along by a real storm — Furtick decides to apply them. But the method by which he does this is interesting. He describes the different ways we are driven along; fear, worry, and anxiety are all emotions we experience and run with. Then, without breaking eye contact with the camera, he says he is going to speak to someone who is being driven along in their life. He then uses a technique called shotgunning, making statements that are specific enough to seem meaningful but vague enough to be widely applicable. It’s the same technique used by mediums, helping them to find a new mark in the audience. Now the person listening is hooked: Steven has described their problem, and is subtly implying that he has the supernatural solution.
This is certainly manipulative. By this apparently divine insight Furtick has set himself up as the mouth piece for God. Now, to disagree with or critique him is to disagree and critique God Himself. Notice, for instance, at 13:20 how Steven says that he is speaking to someone, “God knows who you are.” He makes a vague statement about hopelessness, fear, and being unable to see the start that guides you. Now we can certainly all identify with that situation at some level. Now that Furtick has elicited that response from us, the thought process goes, “gee, God really did give him this message to speak to me today.” Now the shift has happened; Furtick has changed from mere pastor to inspired Pope.
The next section of the sermon that is begging for comment is the part that caused my lovely young bride to weep. She was so overwhelmed by grief that I honestly considered walking out of the service right then. Beginning at 17:45 Furtick begins to minimize both the egregious nature of sin and the sovereign character of God. Furtick talks about living in “now,” as opposed to the regret of the past which generates fear. “When you can’t see the stars…and when you’ve lost all hope, God says ‘but now. Yeah there are some things you could have done differently, yeah there are some contributions you made to this conflict, but now, but now.'”
The notion that sin is something we could have done differently, or a “contribution to this conflict” is drastically underselling the serious nature of sin. Sin isn’t sin because it gets us in trouble; sin gets us in trouble because it’s an affront to a Holy God. That sin is reduced to a little mistake is powerfully explanatory as to why Jesus’ atoning work is so difficult to find in the sermon. Someone who doesn’t understand the evil and weight of their sin will never be able to understand the righteousness and greatness of their Savior.
What really set off my wife’s tears, however, was the genie-in-a-bottle way in which God comes at our beck and call given this theology. Because sin is just a mistake, a little bump in the road, God is not concerned with our holiness as much as our happiness. The whole experience at Elevation seemed designed to identify and eliminate bad feelings and maximize good ones. Thus sin, guilt, and conviction, being generally unpleasant experiences, are eliminated, along with the Holy God from which they have their meaning. Likewise God becomes someone primarily concerned with perpetuating our happiness into the future. God smooths our mussed up hair from our past mistakes and holds our hand as we walk into the future with Him, completely devoid of that repentance and contrition which was meant by Christ to be our whole life.
Rapidly shifting gears, I want to reiterate that this was the second service of the day. In other words, this was the second time through the same script. So the next part of the motivational speech I would like to cover is, in my mind, incredibly deceptive. At 25:50 Furtick says, on behalf of the Apostle Paul (where in the text he finds this quote I’m slightly confused about), “if there’s one thing I know about God it’s that my life… is in… His hands.” He then gets very excited about an old Kirk Franklin song, saying he’s just thought of it. He stammers a bit, but says specifically that he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to remember all of it. He then spontaneously launches into this song. The problem is, as much as he plays this up, it’s not spontaneous at all. My mother-in-law watched the first service via the internet and the song break was in the exact same spot, with the keyboardist coming in; He pulls the audience into a passionate performance of the song.
Now, given the raw oozing wound that is the “spontaneous” baptism debacle, you’d think that Elevation et al would shy away from forced spontaneity. However that doesn’t seem to be the case. Along with the clearly planned and coordinated-across-multiple-campuses Spontaneous Musical Prayer Valley™ there’s this new spontaneous musical interlude. Clearly the folks at Elevation have a vested interest in selling a spontaneous experience to their parishioners.
Now to be entirely fair to Furtick he does talk about the suffering, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in this sermon. He takes about 20 seconds, starting at 37:50. Now he fails to mention why this is good news. He says that it was the “worst thing [that could have] happened” but he doesn’t go any further. It’s just the worst thing but Jesus rose. It’s simply a passing applause line — on the third day he roooooooooose.
At the end of the text, when the snake is driven out by the heat and bites Paul, Furtick uses this text to inoculate his church against the haters. His argument, in brief, is that when you build a fire it will drive out the snakes. When the snake bites, shake it back off into the fire; feed the fire. By doing this Furtick has solidified himself in the minds of his hearers as the Apostle Paul. The fire is Elevation Church. The snake is anyone who criticizes Elevation, specifically the media. When Furtick was upset by the media reports criticizing his now apparently “not-so-spontaneous” baptisms, he claims God told him to shake the snake off and feed the fire, resulting in his big announcement that there would be a special baptismal service that night. The parallel is clear; the message is crystal: Anyone who criticizes what we do here is simply a snake driven out by the heat. Furtick has set up a self-fulfilling prophecy: The critics are proof that Elevation is doing something right, and can therefore be safely ignored. This is a very dangerous line of thinking.
My final comment on the sermon will be brief: At 52:00 Furtick talks about how the news was lying when it said they planted people who pretended to be baptized. His exact quote: “For the record, we have never planted anybody in our church to pretend to be baptized.” If what Joel Delph told me is true, then his statement is, strictly speaking, not a lie. But it is deceptive: He does not explain that those “volunteers” were still indeed plants, if not shills, who were still instructed to walk through highly visible areas. The only thing that the news got wrong was that the plants were never getting baptized. They were. As I discussed in my commentary on the interview, I think that may actually be worse. The fact that Furtick could tell such a politicians truth in the middle of his sermon stood out to me. That statement was carefully crafted to be true but not overly informative. This, too, is dangerous behavior.
If you attend Elevation Church, and you’re reading this post, all I ask is that you consider what I have to say. After all, if your faith is not in the boat, then what’s the worst that can happen? Furtick said it himself: What if Elevation comes crashing down? Will not God sustain you through that? If your faith is not in the boat, you have nothing to fear from a little criticism. I’ve come and seen what you had to offer, and I extend the same invitation to you. Actually engage with the ideas being presented here rather than dismissing me as a snake.
As I stated in the beginning of this article, there is so much more that could be said. However I recommend you watch the sermon yourself. Watch the end, where he whips the crowd into an emotional frenzy. Read the passage in Acts over and over again and ask yourself where he’s getting his story from. Watch the previous sermon, to add context to the series they’re in. But watch like a hawk.
After you watch that nonsensical sermon from Furtick, allow me to commend you to a much more excellent pastor:
- The best sermon I have ever heard on the Beatitudes.
- Christmas Day.
- The Lamb of God.
- Adopted into God’s Family.
May this help clear your head after all that noise.