Francisco Rivera of New York City knew exactly what wife Maggie wanted for her birthday last Sunday. So the couple packed up their car, drove 10 hours to Charlotte, and stood in line to get into the 11:30 a.m. “worship experience” at the Ballantyne campus of Elevation Church.
The Riveras had discovered Elevation Pastor Steven Furtick on YouTube, and were so affected by what Maggie calls his “real, in-your-face” preaching that they began checking in on Elevation daily via the church’s cell phone app, its live online devotionals at 7 a.m. and videos of Furtick’s sermons on the church’s YouTube channel.
Now Francisco, who works in IT, and Maggie, a legal assistant, consider Elevation their church – even though they live more than 500 miles away.
“It is God who created technology,” said Maggie, who just turned 46. “And Pastor Steven and Elevation are (using it) . . . to connect us with the Lord.”
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For Elevation, a Southern Baptist church that draws more than 20,000 people to its nine local sites every weekend, growth is no longer just about launching more campuses in and around Charlotte. The megachurch’s online presence is now reaching people around the country and all over the world.
Last Sunday, Furtick told the 1,600 people packed into the church’s state-of-the-art auditorium in Ballantyne that he’d seen a video of worshipers in the Russian capital of Moscow singing a song from Elevation Worship, the church’s music team.
“Think about it, man,” Furtick told the crowd. “All the way from Waxhaw . . . to Moscow, Russia.”
Elevation Worship has released CDs of original songs, some of which have climbed to the top of Billboard’s Christian Album chart. Furtick co-writes the songs with Chris Brown and others, and the team’s work can be seen on YouTube, the Christian video site GodTube and Elevation’s website.
With their sermons, their music and their two-way multi-language prayer chats just a few clicks away for Christians around the globe, “churches are discovering that the world is a very small place,” said Warren Bird, research director at the Dallas-based Leadership Network, a think tank for innovative, mostly evangelical churches in the United States and Canada.
20,000 People who worship at Elevation’s nine Charlotte-area sites every weekend
1.7 million Unique users to Elevation’s website in 2015, according to that year’s annual report, the latest available
85% The percentage of those users who came from outside Charlotte
350,116 Twitter followers for Pastor Steven Furtick, as of Thursday
Though Elevation is far from the only church to seize on the expanding possibilities of online, Bird said its rapid growth and Furtick’s “entrepreneurial bent” give it an advantage as well as the resources to try anything to grow even more.
“The speed of their growth and their current size help them rise above . . . other churches trying to get the same attention for the Gospel,” said Bird, the author of 29 books for church leaders. “Furtick and his church are on a roll, and are leveraging it.”
The latest example of their try-something-new approach: Furtick and Elevation Worship will join Outcry Tour 2017 – an upcoming multi-city tour spotlighting worship music and preaching. The target audience: Evangelical Christians ages 25 to 40.
Furtick will speak in five of the cities – Raleigh; Reading, Pa.; Cincinnati; Pittsburgh; and Charlotte, on May 3 at Bojangles’ Coliseum.
Ryan Romeo, co-founder and creative director of the tour, said Furtick “is resonating with the church and where it’s at unlike any pastor I’ve seen in recent history.”
Romeo cited Furtick’s pre-Elevation beginnings as a worship music leader, his fluency with pop culture and his focus on the message of Jesus.
“He brings a lot to the table,” Romeo said.
Still, Romeo said even he was surprised at the social media boom that happened after the tour announced that Furtick would be speaking at some of the stops.
“That first weekend, we got almost a half million views of the announcement,” Romeo said. “That’s really big.” Mostly, he said, such announcements get between 50,000 to 150,000 views.
Another testament to Elevation’s impact: Furtick has more than 350,000 followers on Twitter. That’s fewer than fellow N.C. preacher Franklin Graham (827,000), but more than Panthers star linebacker Luke Kuechly (270,000).
Officials at Elevation did not return phone calls, texts and emails from the Observer asking for comment.
In its annual report for 2015, the latest available, Elevation said it had 1.7 million unique users of elevationchurch.org. And 85 percent of them were from outside Charlotte. People from 186 countries visited the church’s online site that year, the report said.
Elevation put its overall reach in 2015 – counting video, app and podcast numbers – at 15.6 million. “For every one person attending Elevation each week (in and around Charlotte),” the report added, “there are 19 people represented online.”
And during a Facebook Live session this month featuring Furtick reading a chapter from his new book, thousands of “likes” and “loves” floated across the screen from as far away as India and the Philippines.
Fans of Furtick, who’s 37, also sent more than 2,000 comments, from all over.
“Pastor Steven please please please visit Boston MA?!?!” wrote Sarah Silva. “Thank you in advance.”
“Your ministry is impacting South America,” wrote Mateo Fajardo. “Regards from Colombia!”
And among the comments coming from South Africa was this one from Gareth Wiener: “Hi from Cape Town, when are you going to do a code orange (revival) in SA?”
He’s an actor, he’s a comedian, he’s a charismatic figure.
Hartford Seminary dean Scott Thumma, on Elevation Pastor Steven Furtick
Elevation’s online reach can also help Furtick sell his increasing number of books. In that recent Facebook Live, he read the first chapter of his latest, “The Seven-Mile Miracle: Journey into the Presence of God Through the Last Words of Jesus.”
“So excited that my Barnes and Noble has the book in stock!” Nikki French wrote in during Furtick’s Facebook Live. “Purchasing this evening. Pastor Steve has kept me together in such a hard time in my life.”
Pastors can make a lot of money selling their books. Ask bestselling pastor and author Joel Osteen. Elevation said in 2013 that Furtick would use proceeds from his own book sales and advances to pay for his 16,000-square-foot gated estate in Weddington. (8,400 square feet of the house are heated; the rest is basement, attic, garage and porch space.)
But books by pastors can also popularize their brand – and their church’s.
“For pastors, their books are a calling card,” said Dave Travis, CEO of Leadership Network. “They package some of their message, and make it easy to understand.”
There are now 72 Protestant churches in the United States that draw 10,000 or more worshipers to their buildings and sites every weekend.
Elevation is far from the biggest, but it is one of the fastest-growing.
The Charlotte church – launched in 2006 by S.C.-born Furtick, his wife, Holly, and seven other couples – has a ways to go before it has the national and international influence of well-known megachurch brands such as Saddleback (based in California), Life.Church (Oklahoma), Hillsong (Australia) and Osteen’s Lakewood Church (Texas).
But its average weekly attendance numbers have skyrocketed over the years: From 483 in 2006 to 18,660 in 2015, according to its annual report. The number is now above 20,000.
“It used to be a 10-year journey to get to 10,000 (attendees),” said Bird, of the Leadership Network. “But that timeline is shortening.”
Along the way, Elevation has also become one of the most diverse churches in Charlotte. Furtick has said nearly a third of the church’s attendees are African-American, and his preaching style is often reminiscent of the call-and-response tradition still popular in predominantly black churches.
And over the years, as it grew, Elevation also built – big. Its Ballantyne campus, which opened in 2016, cost $24 million. It’s the church’s broadcast home, so that’s where Furtick usually preaches in person most weekends. Elevation has also built Charlotte-area campuses at Blakeney, Lake Norman, Rock Hill, University City and Matthews (its home base, with church offices). It also rents spaces in other local sites such as uptown’s Spirit Square.
Even controversies haven’t altered Elevation’s trajectory. Furtick’s decision to build the sprawling Weddington house brought criticism. So has the church’s refusal to be more forthcoming about the pastor’s salary.
“Furtick has chosen to have minimal transparency outside the church about their finances,” Bird said. “I assume their full integrity, but others might assume the worst.”
Now, Bird and others say, megachurches such as Elevation are using multiple media platforms – from old-fashioned TV to live streaming on smart phones and laptops – to grow their online congregations.
“They are constantly re-inventing themselves,” said Scott Thumma, the dean of Hartford Seminary and the author of numerous books and studies about megachurches. “They have to remain relevant and all on board with a technology that is constantly innovating.”
And one that increasingly allows for a two-way conversation.
It’s now possible, Thumma said, for someone in Hong Kong to go online, find a U.S. megachurch, pick a language from a list of 80 to 100, type in a prayer request and have it seen back at the church by a volunteer or employee reading it in their own language.
“You could be sitting in Hong Kong, (e-talking) to people at Elevation Church,” he said.
And if 50 other people in Hong Kong are also taken with Elevation, he added, the church could bring them together.
Exchanges like these can broaden a church’s brand – and spread the Gospel.
Said Thumma: “You’re able to be missionaries to people (around the world) without leaving your town.”
Testing the waters
Furtick and Elevation Worship, the music team, will be heading out of Charlotte in late April for the Outcry Tour, expected to draw an average of about 10,000 people in each city.
The theme of the tour is support for local congregations, but Travis, CEO of Leadership Network, said such tours can also help churches market their worship music – and “test the waters” for possibly opening sites in other cities.
Elevation now rents space in high schools and city centers in several other cities outside the Charlotte area, including Raleigh; Roanoke, Va; Melbourne, Fla.; and Toronto, Canada. The church also helps volunteer leaders in what it calls “extension sites” in Asheville, Winston-Salem, Columbia, S.C. and Richmond, Va.
Could the Outcry Tour spark interest for Elevation franchises in those four other cities – besides Charlotte –where Furtick will preach?
Time will tell, but it’s clear that the still-young Furtick remains the biggest reason for Elevation’s continued growth – in the Charlotte area and elsewhere.
Before he started Elevation, he was a worship music leader at a Baptist church in Shelby. And he still brings a performer’s energy and emotion to his preaching.
During last Sunday’s sermon, which was shown on screens at the church’s other sites, Furtick brought many in his flock at Ballantyne to tears and to laughter.
“Tell them we’ll call ’em back,” he cracked when one congregant’s phone rang mid-sermon. Speaking of how the apostles encountered Jesus behind locked doors after his resurrection, Furtick invoked the apostle known as Doubting Thomas: “I call him Honest Thomas.”
Wearing a T-shirt, a light leather jacket and a cross around his neck, the bearded Furtick also sang, shouted, strolled all over the auditorium, and mixed biblical quotes with allusions to the Uber ride-sharing app and the “Rocky” movies.
And his sermon built toward a crescendo as he told stories – about his kids, about Jesus’ time on the road to Emmaus, about forgiveness, and about the wounds and addictions and imperfections many Christians bring with them to church.
“He’s an actor, he’s a comedian, he’s a charismatic figure,” Thumma said about Furtick.
And for Maggie Rivera of New York City, who called her day at Elevation last Sunday “my birthday gift from God,” Furtick’s talent –the reason she and others stay connected to Elevation from afar – is that “he makes you look at yourself” with forgiveness and love. And with that, she said, “you’re going to be able to stand up.”