Before I tell you what I thought of Steven Furtick and the sermon he delivered in the middle of Wednesday night’s Christian-music concert at Bojangles’ Coliseum, let me tell you this: It’s been a long time since I willingly took an assignment that I felt certain was a no-win situation.
If I go too overboard while calling him a gifted communicator and a charismatic leader (which he is, both), if I fawn over him for building a congregation from nothing to nearly the size of UNC Charlotte’s student body in just over a decade (truly an impressive feat, really), I probably lose credibility with the many folks who dislike or distrust him.
On the other hand, if I accuse him of being a narcissist (and it’d be easy for a casual observer to make that leap just by perusing his Instagram), or if I take it a step further and wonder aloud whether he’s more wrapped up in himself than in God (which I’ve done myself), I’ll get trolled on Twitter by his legion of devoted followers for a month of Sundays.
Oh well; it seemed like a good idea at the time. And that idea was: Have a guy (me) who’s heard a lot of different opinions about Furtick – but who has never actually heard Elevation Church’s pastor deliver a message – give an honest assessment of his performance at the 2017 Outcry Tour.
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Outcry, of course, is much bigger than Steven Furtick. It’s mainly a massive multi-denominational celebration of God and Christ through the instruments and voices of rousing contemporary Christian music artists, in this case Jesus Culture, Lauren Daigle and the Charlotte church’s Elevation Worship. But Furtick is only joining the show for five of the 18 cities on the tour, so having him here was special and I was there to focus on him.
(By the way, if you’re thinking it’s unfair for someone who’s never heard Furtick to be writing about Furtick, I’m thinking you’re wrong; that’s the whole point, that Elevation is courting new members all the time, and so first impressions like this are probably pretty important.)
But let’s cut to the chase. On Wednesday night, Furtick took the stage to give a meandering yet compelling talk linking the Book of Exodus story of Moses and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea to the importance of continuing to push forward when you’re in the middle of a crisis.
“Keep it moving – in the middle,” he repeated over and over to the gathering, which numbered in the thousands and filled almost every available seat in the old arena off Independence Boulevard.
And when I say both meandering and compelling, I mean stuff like this:
“Have you ever felt trapped like this – in the middle? How many of you would say tonight – and this is just a personal question. It’s real dark in the room, nobody’s gonna see, and just raise your hand – how many of you are in the middle of a battle right now, where you need wisdom from heaven tonight?
“You don’t just need somebody’s opinion, you don’t just need some good advice or a cute little cliche, because we’re really good at Christian cliches, you know, ‘Uh, let go and let God.’ But in case you hadn’t noticed, sometimes if you let go, and let God, they will cut off your power. God isn’t gonna write the check to the power company!”
He sprinkled lots of levity into the 30-minute sermon – particularly in the first half – and you have to decide for yourself whether you think these examples are effective:
▪ “(This is) not a sermon... It’s... a little appetizer. Just a little chips and salsa. OK? OK. I don’t wanna spoil your appetite, ’cause I know you’ve got a big night ahead of you.”
▪ “When you get through with that story, Exodus 15 Verse 1, it says something kind of cool. It says that Moses and the Israelites, after they came through this Red Sea, after God put 485 in the middle of a body of water and drowned all the enemies behind them and brought these people through to freedom because they had been enslaved for over four centuries, they sang this song to the Lord after they got through.”
▪ “Exodus Chapter 14 Verse 8, it says they marched out boldly because God was leading them out of Egypt, and they were bold, kind of like us in here tonight. Bold. Bold in the Bojangles’ (Coliseum). Bolder than a spicy Cajun Filet Biscuit.”
I suppose touches like this are intended to be disarming, to meet his largely 25- to 40-year-old audience’s on their level. Just like his outfit: a short-sleeved blue denim shirt over a black tee, both untucked, and black skinny jeans, all of which make him look younger than his 37 years (but also – for me – a little bit too casual).
As for his delivery, he can shift quickly from calm to storm, storm to calm, and back again. He looks as comfortable just leaning against the lectern as he does when he’s stalking the stage and gesticulating and shaking his fist; sometimes his voice drops to a whisper, other times he works himself up into such a frenzy that he sounds like he’s channeling the angriest emotions felt by Samuel L. Jackson’s character in “Pulp Fiction.”
Those crescendos – which also whipped up the crowd and were amplified by swelling noise from Elevation Worship’s instruments – actually tended to lose me, literally, because even though he’d be shouting, the audience would respond with so much hooting and hollering of their own that it drowned out the climactic kicker he was building to.
I should say, speaking of his followers, that earlier Wednesday, a friend who knew I was going to the show texted me to say her son referred to Elevation as Cultivation, a nod to the somewhat-common notion that the church resembles a cult. I’ve got good friends who have pledged allegiance to the church, and I know them to be sane and free-thinking, so I won’t go that far.
But here’s what bugs me about Furtick, and probably always will, whether it’s fair or not: The fact that he lives in a 16,000-square-foot house valued at $1.7 million (as of 2013, at least) still seems like an inappropriate extravagance for a man in his position. And yeah, yeah, I know that church leaders have repeatedly emphasized that 8,400 of those square feet are unheated, but it’s still a 16,000-square-foot house, regardless of which parts of it are warm in the winter and which aren’t.
I’m not alone, by the way. I know this because when I type “Steven Furtick” into Google, the suggested searches by the time I get to “Steven Fu” are “Steven Furtick house” and “Steven Furtick salary.” I know this because when I ask people who’ve tried Elevation but decided against it why it didn’t work for them, more than one has said either “It seemed like it was more about Steven Furtick than God” or, simply, “I just couldn’t get over the house thing.”
Anyway, you’re allowed to give me (and them) a hard time about the fact that this is a hang-up. But you can’t blame people for letting it color their opinion of him.
ALL THAT SAID... bottom line: I believe Steven Furtick is responsible for renewing and strengthening the faith of lots and lots of younger adults in an age when, by and large, it seems to be weakening. I believe he presented a lesson on Wednesday night that was in no uncertain terms positive and valuable, that he sent his followers back out into the world sincerely wanting to be better people.
And, in these times, I believe it couldn’t hurt to have as many “better people” walking the earth as possible.
I welcome – and fully expect – your feedback.