The first minute was the most unsettling. Right before 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, the bright lights at Elevation Church Blakeney blacked out and the room rumbled as the sound system revved up with drumbeats. The message “1 MIN 46 SEC UNTIL THE WORSHIP EXPERIENCE BEGINS” blazed across the enormous projection screens above the stage. So did the words: “PLEASE REMAIN SEATED.”
Then the stage lit up with fiery red lights and an intense rap session began: “Shhh, can you hear it? Listen.”
The rapper (rhythmically) said the omniscient God was inviting us to get involved. The word “WORTHLESS” drifted across the screens and, by 11:31 a.m., people in the crowd were on their feet, arms raised.
Let me back up. I come from a Christian family and attend the nondenominational Calvary Church on holidays with them, but my current spiritual stance is basically: be kind, love more, try to see the divine in others. I’m certainly not against Christianity, but I’m not interested in worshiping religious figures.
Regardless, I encounter signs of Elevation more than any other religious institution in Charlotte — their bumper stickers are everywhere. And their 2015 annual report shows 2,491 baptisms, 8,615 decisions to live for Christ and 1.7 million unique website users. What I wondered: why are so many people finding God here?
I thought I’d try out the Blakeney venue because it’s a broadcast location, which means it functions like an indoor concert hall that’s loaded with media equipment plus a giant camera swiveling on a long arm to broadcast the sermon to other locations, and the Internet.
Back to me being unsettled — this 90-minute experience was a lot to handle in the morning. First off, I had to wait for the 11:30 a.m. service because the 9:30 a.m. service had reached capacity by the time I got there.
After camping out at Starbucks, I stood out in the chill with a ridiculous line of people hoping for a chance to get in at 10:45 a.m. Fifteen minutes later I got lucky and was ushered to the front by a nice member of the welcome committee (new worshiper pamphlet in hand) when she found out I was here for the first time.
Second: I was prompted to pick up a packet of orange earplugs once I made it through the crowd surge. Which told me this was going to be loud. And it was — the first 30 minutes of the worship experience was an eruption of live band music churning with lyrics like “burning bright because we’re not ashamed” and “I give thanks for all you have done.”
I might as well have been at Snug Harbor — one singer sported a nose ring, the guitarist’s arm was tatted up and another singer had a half-shaved, half-curly punkish haircut.
Third: Everything about this was overwhelmingly loud. On top of the music, Pastor Steven Furtick’s sermon intermittently crescendoed into near shouting and the worshipers buzzed with “Wow” and “Mhmm” and “Jesus!” and “You’d better preach” and “Come on!”
But no matter how deeply I sank into my seat while others leapt to their feet, I understood why people were there. This experience is kind of beautiful.
The way new members are welcomed with gusto, the way the crowd is a quilt of diversity — black and white and Hispanic and beyond — and the way people are moved to sway on their feet to the music, eyes closed, arms raised toward a savior.
I’ve always wondered what that feels like.
Also, I can’t lie — Furtick’s charisma is stunning. His messaging that day flashed with phrases like “purpose is revealed in pieces” and “we’re so familiar with our weaknesses we forget our potential” and “can you trust moving forward in what you can only see looking back” — the big picture?
And though the big picture of my life may not include Elevation, or any other church, it has potential. I have a yoga class to get to. That’s where I move, raise my arms, reach for something, feel my spirit.
Photos: Katie Toussaint