The pastor’s methods have been criticized, but where do we draw the line between authenticity and manipulation?
The Christian community has been in an uproar in the weeks following the most recent scandal surrounding Steven Furtick, pastor of Elevation Church.
Furtick’s ministry — which draws approximately 16,000 attendees weekly to multiple campuses in and around Charlotte, N.C. — has been the subject of intense criticism as attackers claim Furtick and his church have been manufacturing “spontaneous” baptisms of thousands of people and passing it off as miraculous.
I understand this issue may be concerning, but the question of whether or not Furtick has indeed been manipulating the system is, in my opinion, misguided.
Yes, we as Christians are absolutely obligated to search the scriptures and hold leadership accountable for what is said and done in church. In no way do I condone blindly following our pastors simply because they hold a title. We are exhorted in Hebrews 10 to balance biblical submission with standing up against false teachings and leadership.
But, on the same note, if Christians are taking salvation personally and responding to a true prompting of the Holy Spirit, no amount of special effects will be able to influence this calling. The core issue in the allegedly manipulated baptisms is the more important fact that church members are so easily swayed into responding from emotion.
If Elevation were to be charged with anything, it would perhaps be with not preparing its baptism participants with the truth of how significant and consequential an event like baptism truly is. Are people being rushed into this decision? But, again, the responsibility falls back to the individual.
The church is intended to be a system of support for the believer who is daily in the word of God and constantly seeking after him, not a once a week refill of encouragement provided by a cookie cutter, feel-good message.
Yes, Elevation may provide a flashy, atypical version of church: The music is loud and pounding, the atmosphere is clouded with dense fog, the technology is modern and pricey. But, as a good friend of mine once explained, the church is telling the greatest story ever told — why should it not do so using the very best equipment and products available?
Warren Cole Smith, a critic who wrote concerning Furtick for World magazine, claims unease about the mega-church pastor’s character and doctrine.
“People were willing to excuse his flamboyance and extravagant lifestyle by saying, but ‘he’s doing such great work,’” Smith wrote. “Now, this new controversy calls into serious question the legitimacy of conversion rates the church has been claiming.”
And yet, the legitimacy of conversion rates is not a standard that man is qualified to answer. Despite any of our best efforts, we will never see the true intentions of the heart. If critics are primarily worried that salvation statistics have been skewed, I would retaliate with equal concern as to whether or not so-called believers have the best interest of the church and of Furtick in mind.
We speak the truth always, but we do so in love. To the critics insulting for no other reason than to cause controversy and chaos for a pastor who is provably dedicated to preaching the word of God, you too will stand before God to answer for your words.
As Furtick said in his rebuttal against the media, “This is not the last thing that is gonna be said about us unless we put the fire out, unless we just stop growing.”
I am as wary of the mega-church movement as the next Christian skeptic, but I am equally as cautious to speak out against a man of God. Christians are cautioned throughout scripture not to speak wrongly against God’s anointed.
Neither Furtick nor his congregation are in any way immune to sin. Furtick, like the rest, is human and thus fallible and prone to err. As Christians, we recognize the shortcomings inherent in humanity, and we remain ever-conscious of the fact that we follow a perfect God who has called on an imperfect people to carry out his work.
Elevation Church is still young — it has only just celebrated eight years of ministry. Furtick and his team have a long way to go as they continue to learn and to grow. It is unfair to place the amount of expectations and standards of perfection that have been donned on this young pastor and congregation.
If sacrifices are being made for the sake of an image, and if numbers are being used to shape that image, there is a question of integrity that indeed begs addressing. Church members should not be pawns in a self-serving religious system.
And yet, wrestling with the answers to these questions and discussing the role of the church is precisely what strengthens the Christian faith and pushes us out of our complacency.
I am confident that God both has and will continue to move in the ministry at Elevation Church. And as a Christian who is earnestly concerned with seeing the gospel preached throughout our nation and our world, I pray continued anointing and boldness for Furtick and the members of his congregation.