‘The only white kid in the black Gospel choir’ presides over more diverse Elevation

As an African-American growing up in New York, Darnell Jonas spent his Sundays in pews at predominantly black churches.

“They were always either 100 percent (black),” he says, “or maybe had one or two white families.”

But when Jonas, now 29, moved to Charlotte about a year ago, he bypassed the city’s mostly black churches in favor of Elevation, a Southern Baptist church whose 37-year-old pastor, Steven Furtick, is white. It’s the city’s fastest-growing house of worship – and, increasingly, one of its most diverse.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote about 11 o’clock Sunday morning being the most segregated hour in America is still the case in most churches dotting the country’s landscape.

But many megachurches, especially those that appeal to millennials like Jonas, are finding ways to build congregations that are multiracial and multicultural.

The leadership and staff at Elevation is still mostly white. But African-Americans now make up about a third of the weekly attendees, according to Chunks Corbett, the church’s chief financial officer.

When asked this week what attracted him, Jonas echoed many of the young white worshipers who flock to Elevation’s nine campuses in and around Charlotte: It’s church, but not churchy, with an orthodox Christian message that comes wrapped in a thoroughly modern package.

“A co-worker friend of mine invited me to go to Elevation,” said Jonas, who works for Avis, the car rental company. “I like the atmosphere – it’s not so rigid. And the (contemporary) music. And the people – the young people. And the way they use technology. When I travel for work, I can stream the sermon online and there are e-groups to keep you involved.”

By downplaying denominational ties and worship traditions, both of which carry some racial overtones, “megachurches are able to present themselves as contemporary, with a connection to modern pop culture,” said Scott Thumma, dean at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. “And that allows for an attraction across races.”

But Jonas and some other African-Americans who go to Elevation also say they appreciate that Furtick, unlike some other white evangelical pastors, has not been afraid to engage racial issues in these often-tense times.

Furtick has even come to rely on Bishop T.D. Jakes – the prominent African-American pastor of The Potter’s House, a megachurch in Dallas, Texas – as a sort of mentor, at least on matters of race.

Last year, when Jakes came to Charlotte in the wake of the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, he and Furtick met with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney and spent time at the site where Scott was shot.

On Monday night, Jakes will return to Charlotte, appearing on stage with Furtick at Elevation’s Ballantyne campus. His trip is partly to sell and sign copies of his new book, “Soar!” But it’s also a sign that Elevation is embracing its growing diversity.

White kid in a black choir

In a January 2017 podcast hosted by Jakes, Furtick talked at length about diversity.

He told the bishop that “it was never going to suit me to have an all-white church.” But getting African-Americans and other minorities to come to Elevation, he added, did not happen quickly.

“When we started (in 2006), it was one black couple in the church and no matter what I did or what I said, it felt like I would only attract white people,” he said. “I felt that to be a failure the first couple of years. Then I came to realize that some of the things in my heart were going to take time.”

Instead of trying to speed up the change by resorting to “cheesy” bits like “having Black Gospel Choir Sunday every month,” Furtick told Jakes, “I felt like if what we did was powerful enough and we continued to be strategic about trying to represent different cultures that it would happen.”

One thing Furtick had going for him is that he experienced diversity growing up in South Carolina. “I was the only white kid in my high school’s black Gospel choir.” And in college at North Greenville University, Furtick started a black Gospel choir – something the school never had before.

“So,” Furtick said, “all these things – whether multi-generational or multicultural – I think they were embedded in me through my life experience.”

It worked: There are now many more African-Americans and Latinos attending Elevation. But the church’s leadership ranks, while more diverse than a year ago, are still predominantly white – about 85 percent of the church’s supervisors, said Corbett. The Elevation staff? Currently 79 percent white, 21 percent non-white, Corbett said.

Furtick acknowledged to Jakes that “our leadership is not as diverse as it needs to be yet. I just came out of a meeting ... challenging my team (on improving that).”

And though Elevation Church’s flock is now about a third African-American, he said during the podcast, some of the nine local campuses are more diverse than others. All get the same sermon and the same set list of songs.

“I have some campuses that are very, very white, some campuses that are mostly black (including University City), some campuses that are older, country campuses,” he said. “It’s a challenge because I could take you on a tour of Elevation Church campuses and, based on which campus you attended, you would feel like you were in a different church.”

‘Shut up and listen’

Still, being a multi-site church is one reason megachurches such as Elevation are “the most diverse ‘class’ of churches,” said Warren Bird, research director at the Dallas-based Leadership Network, a think tank for evangelical churches. “By taking the church or at least one of its campuses to where the people are, the church tends to represent the community in any given locality.”

Size helps, too: The larger a church’s attendance, Bird said, the more likely it’ll be racially diverse.

In a 2015 survey by the Leadership Network and the Hartford Institute, 10 percent of megachurches claimed to have no racial majority, while 37 percent of the churches had, like Elevation, between a 20 percent and 49 percent minority presence in what was often a majority white congregation. At Elevation, Corbett said, about 60 percent of the flock is white.

A 2015 count of how many U.S. churches in general could be called multiracial – that is having no more than 80 percent of any one racial group – was not available. But it isn’t likely to be that different from the 2005 count: Only 7 percent.

But achieving and growing diversity is not just a numbers game, said Bird. It also requires church leaders to be “intentional.”

In Elevation’s case, for example, Furtick reached out to Bishop Jakes after the Charleston shootings for advice on how he should respond.

“I called you and you were generous enough to walk me through how I might address my congregation,” Furtick said during the podcast with Jakes. “I remember your exact admonition to me was: ‘If you will just say something. It’s your silence that’s deafening. So just to stand up in my pulpit and try.”

Jakes said in the podcast that he sent Furtick some books and movies “to give you empathy with black culture.”

And Furtick did speak up the Sunday after Charleston, at times directly addressing whites in the congregation.

“I’m talking to you, my white brothers and sisters,” he said. “We assume everything is equal. But we will never know the conversations (African-Americans) are having with their children. We need to shut up and listen.”

Message, not skin color

Christopher Williams, 35 and African-American, started attending Elevation Church five or six years ago. He’s even a volunteer now at the uptown campus – Spirit Square on Sunday mornings and South End on Wednesday nights.

Like Jonas, he grew up in New York, and knew only the black church as a child.

But as an adult, he felt it was time to find his own connection with God, to decide what was important to him and what was not.

Not important: The color of a pastor’s skin. Important: The pastor’s message. Will it have impact, will it bring him closer to God?

“Coming to Elevation was welcome and raw – natural,” said Williams, a business support analyst with Electrolux. “I think it’s the vibe I get from the people who serve here on a regular basis.”

Yes, it’s not exactly like the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church he was raised in. But, he said, “growing up, my mother wasn’t really stern about where I went to church, just that I went to church.”