I love me some church current events. I’ve tried to follow the general happenings of evangelical megachurches in particular over the last decade or so. I plan to write about them more now that I have this platform. A recent big piece of news is that Charlotte, NC- based megachurch, Elevation, is leaving the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). You can read their exit letter here:
You may be thinking, “Since when was Elevation part of the SBC?” Well, they have been since the church began. In fact, lead pastor Steven Furtick went to an SBC seminary. However, their affiliation was kept on the down low. It was not clearly stated on their website, nor was it ever mentioned at church gatherings. I attended the church for a few years, and I have one memory of being at a meeting for volunteer leaders and someone mentioned how he grew up Southern Baptist and had to adjust to Elevation since it is so different. The campus pastor responded with something along the lines of, “Guess what! Elevation is Southern Baptist affiliated!” Someone who had been attending long enough to be a leader of a volunteer team didn’t know. I don’t understand the point of affiliating with something you’re not proud enough about to make public.
The timing of their exit is not coincidental. Just a few weeks ago, the SBC held its annual meeting, in which members voted overwhelmingly to disfellowship another prominent megachurch, Saddleback Church, after they had appointed several women as pastors. I’m not here to debate about female pastors. You can find many opinions on that around the internet. I don’t want to write what everyone else writes, so I’m here to offer insight into what this letter says about the culture at Elevation and similar churches.
Elevation has female pastors on staff and had a female campus pastor a few years ago. They have regularly let women teach from the pulpit. For whatever reason, they were not one of the five churches the SBC chose to remove earlier this year for having women teach regularly. Saddleback was one, and its pastor, Rick Warren, did not go out quietly. After his appeal was denied last month, Elevation almost immediately penned this letter. They do not specifically name the female-pastor issue being the reason, but it is hard to believe that is not their primary motivation.
In the letter, which by the way is signed by the CFO and not lead pastor Steven Furtick (note the difference from Saddleback’s exit response), they claim their “Statement of Beliefs…is very much in line with the Baptist Faith and Message,” and they “have no intention of changing those core beliefs.” While the beliefs listed on their website do seem to be a condensed version of the Baptist Faith and Message, the church’s day-to-day operation does not reflect them.
In God-honoring Baptist churches you will see discipleship, not just a seeker sensitive production. You will see servant leadership, not volunteers being forced to “show honor” to the staff who don’t ever ask how they are doing spiritually (Matthew 20:26-28). At Baptist churches you will participate in worship that is more reverent and less experiential and emotionally manipulative (this article discusses Hillsong, but Elevation is just the same). You will hear about the truth of your sin and your need for Jesus Christ preached weekly. Unfortunately, these things are rarely, if ever, found at Elevation.
It is clear Elevation has not held the traditional Baptist beliefs for quite some time. So why have they never been disfellowshipped or even disciplined? Autonomy of the local church is a core characteristic of the SBC, so it makes sense that the denomination would be careful to not come down with a hammer on any church that veers in any way from their core beliefs. But I would argue Furtick has more than veered from them, and I’m not even talking about women preaching. Furtick himself preaches a self-centered, prosperity gospel lacking in sound doctrine, while the Baptist beliefs are clear that the gospel is about Christ and the substitutionary atonement that gives us eternal life. We exist for God and not the other way around. But according to Elevation, “we are all on the same side!”
I think their departure is long overdue, and while some are arguing this as a loss for the SBC, I see it as a win. I think the SBC can keep local church autonomy while holding pastors accountable for the gospel they present, for making sure the basic truths of Christianity are presented in a biblical way. It’s unfortunate that Elevation went willingly and was not removed already for the content of the preaching week-to-week.
The other thing that frustrates me about this method of leaving the SBC is Elevation’s avoidance of controversy. They say they “have no plans to make a public announcement on this decision,” that they have “too much to do in reaching a world that needs the love of Jesus.” In my opinion, making a public statement wouldn’t take but a fraction of time in comparison to the time spent sharing Jesus with the world. Additionally, it seems that standing up for truth (in their mind) does not fall in line with reaching the world. Jesus seems to think otherwise:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:19-20
Paul also had some things to say about proclaiming truth:
“Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” Ephesians 4:15
“Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.” Ephesians 4:25
I think Elevation doesn’t want to draw attention to themselves, so they came up with an excuse to say nothing more than a few sentences in a letter that is only being made public by news outlets and not the church itself. If they stay vague enough, maybe they can stay out of the spotlight.
We have seen this time and time again. They don’t even come near potentially divisive topics. They don’t preach on marriage anymore. When Roe v. Wade was overturned, they didn’t say anything one way or the other. They only started speaking about racial issues when the mainstream culture was onboard. Whether you agree with their theology or not, I think we can all agree they don’t want to step on toes. Which is weird because that’s what Jesus did all throughout his ministry.
They have been in the news before and want to stay out of it. They have watched as other prominent megachurches have fallen from grace due to real and terrible sins of their leaders, and they don’t want their own leader’s wrongs to be revealed. I’ve never been a big fan of Rick Warren, but at least he got behind the mic and passionately shared why he believes what he believes. Steven Furtick has yet to say a word on this.
I think this letter should get more attention for the characteristics of the church that are displayed. A church for Christ should take a stand for what they believe to be truth. If they really think God is telling them to leave the SBC, then why are they scared to say anything too public? Why can they not even state their reason? If we know anything about Jesus from the Bible, it’s that he did not tip toe around controversial topics. He was not afraid to call people out or speak truth. We as believers, and our leaders even more so, should follow suit.