It was fake news on a satirical website. But so many people believed this “story” over the weekend that Pastor Steven Furtick felt the need to post a video of himself on Facebook and Twitter explaining that, no, he is not leaving Charlotte-area-based Elevation Church to join Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church in Texas.
The online hubbub began Saturday.
“Steven Furtick Signs 6-Year, $110 Million Contract With Lakewood Church” blared the headline on the Babylon Bee website, which also featured photos of Furtick and Osteen’s Houston church and a five-paragraph report that read like an Associated Press story.
“CHARLOTTE, NC – In a stunning move that is making waves throughout evangelicalism,” it began, “Pastor Steven Furtick has announced he has come to an agreement with Lakewood Church to preach alongside Joel Osteen, forming the core of a ‘superstar preaching team.’ ”
The story went on to “quote” Furtick and create a fake press conference:
“I’m going to take my talents to Houston and join Joel’s legendary squad,” Furtick said as hundreds of cameras flashed around Elevation Church’s press conference room. “I wish Elevation the best of luck in the seasons to come, and hope they can find someone as ripped and godly as me.”
By Sunday, Furtick was on Facebook and Twitter, telling his thousands of followers that “Of course, none of that is true. I am not leaving Elevation Church.”
The Babylon Bee was launched in March 2016 by Adam Ford of Detroit, a self-described “theology nerd” who once had dreams of being a pastor himself and now mostly satirizes evangelical pastors and churches. The site attracted more than 1 million visitors in its first three weeks, the Washington Post reported.
The Bee, which sometimes uses photo-shopped pictures to boost the laughs, calls itself “Your Trusted Source for Christian News Satire.” And that disclaimer was at the bottom of the website’s homepage on Saturday.
One of the other headlines on the website that day – “Jeff Sessions Wakes Up Next to Severed Horse Head” – should have signaled to readers that these reports were supposed to be funny, not real.
Just as the Sessions headline (and the accompanying photo of the U.S. attorney general in bed with a bloody horse head) was a jokey reference to “The Godfather,” the headline on the fake news about Furtick was a clever rewrite of a 2010 headline about NBA star LeBron James leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers.
That one read: “LeBron James Signs Six-Year And $110 Million Deal With Miami.”
The site also said Furtick, like James, broke the news in a TV special called “The Decision.”
But so many readers shared the Bee’s so-called report on Furtick and Osteen – both of whom are big names in the evangelical world – that the Elevation pastor sent out a minute-long video urging people to be more careful in believing things they read on the Internet.
“(It’s) something my mom taught me since I was a little boy – Always consider the source,” Furtick said.
The pastor told his Twitter and Facebook followers that “the thing was meant to be a joke – whether it’s funny or right for them to post that, that’s up to you to decide. But what’s crazy to me is the number of people who believed it and then even spread it around that I was leaving my church.”
Furtick said the episode “just reminded me: We’ve got to be careful. We live in the age of information, but we’re starving for the truth. And we can’t believe everything we read or everything we think. And we certainly can’t treat life like a middle-school cafeteria.”
Furtick ended by saying he was starting a new sermon series – “Bars & Battles” – at Elevation.
This isn't the first time the Babylon Bee has poked fun at Furtick and Elevation, which draws about 20,000 people to its weekend worship services in the Charlotte area and has fans and followers across the country. It's not even the first time a lot of people believed and shared one of the Bee’s fake news stories about Elevation.
In August 2016, the Bee had fun with a fake story that said Elevation had debuted “a water slide baptismal” in its sanctuary to speed up baptisms. Elevation does put a top priority on baptizing large numbers of people. But the baptismal slide got such a wide airing on the Internet that Snopes. com, a fact-checking website weighed in, saying the story was false and had originated on a satirical web site.
Like Osteen, Furtick has critics who consider his lifestyle too luxurious for a pastor – a charge that stems from Furtick’s decision to build a 16,000-square-foot gated estate (8,400 square feet of it heated) in Union County, which Elevation has said is being paid for with money from Furtick’s book sales.
That led the Babylon Bee to run a fake story last year with this headline: “Steven Furtick Forced to Cancel Book-Signing Event After Getting Lost In His Mansion.”