A cool pastor, and a hot church

As his young flock streamed into the Providence High School auditorium one Sunday morning last month, the Rev. Steven Furtick went about his get-ready ritual in a camper parked outside.

The 28-year-old lead pastor at Elevation Church anointed his lips and head with oil, knelt to pray with his entourage, and sang and danced to “What an Awesome God You Are,” a gospel-rock song that was a new favorite on his iPod.

Then, along with crew members crowded into the tiny camper, the platinum blonde minister began jumping.

“It's a pretty intense room,” said Larry Brey, Elevation's Connections Pastor and one of the jumpers. “It's where the pastor gets his game face on.”

Part spiritual athlete, part rock star preacher, Furtick is the talk these days in Charlotte religious circles.

Some criticize: He's taking members from other churches. He's more performer than pastor. His young staff puts “Pastor Steven” on a pedestal.

Others salute him, even envy his success: They say he's innovative, connects with young people bored by old churchy ways, and brings souls to Jesus at a dizzying rate.

“They really are the major show in town for (those) 20 to 32,” the Rev. David Chadwick said about Elevation. His church, Forest Hill, has lost some members to Elevation. “But, gosh, we're all on the same team.”

Less than three years after launching Elevation, a pop culture-friendly church with an orthodox Christian message, the S.C.-born Furtick has powered it onto the Top 10 list of fastest-growing evangelical churches in America, as determined by Outreach magazine.

With more than 4,000 attendees at its seven services every Sunday, Furtick's church is also one of the youngest around, drawing new families as well as high schoolers and college-age kids. Increasingly, these young “Elevators” are bringing their curious parents.

“When we first started the church, we couldn't get people over 40 to stay around for anything,” Furtick said. “They'd come and they'd go, ‘Is this the youth group? Where's the real church? Down the hall?'”

Last year, Furtick made headlines when his church doled out $40,000 to members, in envelopes filled with $5, $20, even $1,000, and told them to spend it kindly on others. Elevation made headlines again when members followed up by pledging $6.4 million to the church's capital campaign for worship space.

The church, which started in early 2006, has adopted a governance system that has Furtick answering – not to a group of lay members, as in many churches – but to a board of five out-of-town pastors he chose. These friends and mentors, who lead big churches like Elevation, set his salary, which Furtick won't divulge.

A ‘very modern' pastor

Besides Providence High in Charlotte, Elevation – a Southern Baptist church – holds packed services every Sunday at Butler High in Matthews and, since last month, at Spirit Square in uptown Charlotte. Furtick preaches live at some; he's on video at others.

What's Elevation's appeal?

For many, it's the church's loud Christian rock music. There's also the cool factor, stoked by a marketing-savvy Elevation staff of flip-flop-and-T-shirt-wearing twentysomethings. At a recent service, Elevation staffers distributed black rubbery rings to remind the wearers to invite friends.

But the star is Furtick, a passionate personality who blogs, plays guitar, wears pointy-toed European shoes, and studies videos of other preachers.

“The pastor makes everything relate to you,” said Maggie Amos, 16, a student at Marvin Ridge High School in Waxhaw. “He's very modern, saying things in a new way.”

When Furtick preaches, he's apt to refer to a TV show as well as a biblical scene.

His sermons usually have provocative titles. Today's: “Visionary Love/Dream Sex.”

But their messages are as by-the-Book and Jesus-centered as a Billy Graham altar call. And like Graham, Furtick keeps count of how many people under his ministry have begun to follow Jesus.

Take Elevation's recent goal of 1,000 “spontaneous baptisms” – the kind people don't know they're going to get when they show up for church in their street clothes.

On that recent Sunday morning at Providence High, Furtick got applause when he said Elevation had baptized 629 the weekend before.

Now it's your turn to get dunked, he told the crowd, wheeling out a cart loaded with shorts, T-shirts, flip-flops, sports bras, boxers – and more.

“I'm about to play Whac-A-Mole with your reasons” for not getting baptized, he said, throwing out combs, brushes, hair gel, towels and make-up remover. Some laughed, some wiped away tears as the steady line of people headed for the changing rooms.

Total baptisms for the two weeks: 1,044.

The planting of a vision

Though his grandfather was a Methodist minister, Furtick had no real interest in God until he turned 16.

He was in a band in those days, playing guitar at keg parties and meeting girls. He was into Nirvana and Guns n' Roses. So he had zero interest when a friend invited him to a revival at First Baptist of Moncks Corner, S.C., where they sang Southern gospel.

But he went, and met Jody Jennings. Afterward, they reconvened at a 24-hour diner to talk about Christ.

Furtick had never known another young man whose love for Jesus seemed so genuine. But he had questions.

“He said ‘What about the dinosaurs? And . . . how can God be three persons and yet one?'” recalled Jennings. “I was only 18. I said, ‘Steven, I don't know the answers to those questions. All I know is what God has done in my life.'”

Furtick felt himself change.

“God began to fill me with this anticipation that I had a destiny and a calling,” he said.

On the last Sunday of the revival, Furtick publicly confessed his faith.

Then he started acting like a pastor, penciling in appointments in a date book with friends he hoped to convert.

Said Furtick: “I'd take them to Taco Bell and say, ‘I'm going to buy you lunch, but you have to hear me talk about Jesus.'”

He hooked up with a Baptist church, where the pastor named him youth minister. At 16, while his old friends partied, Furtick was taking at-risk kids from trailer parks to Frankie's Fun Park.

Then one day, while reading “Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire,” a book his pastor had loaned him, a sentence on page 23 stopped him cold:

“I despaired at the thought that my life might pass me by without God moving greatly on my behalf.”

He came to believe that, with that sentence, God had planted a “vision in my heart” to someday pastor a big city church.

Starting with eight couples

By late 2004, Furtick was leading a musical worship team at Christ Covenant, a Baptist church in Shelby. Encouraged by his wife, Holly, he decided to make his move.

He asked seven couples to go with him and his wife, sell their homes, and move to a yet unknown city, with no promise of pay.

Brey, a staffer at the Shelby church, agreed to go. So did Furtick pal Chunks Corbett, a physical therapist who's now Elevation's executive pastor.

“I knew he was going to be successful at what God was calling him to do,” said Corbett, now 31. “I didn't think it would happen this fast.”

They looked at Raleigh, and at Jacksonville, Fla. In the end, after tooling around I-485 with Corbett, Furtick picked Charlotte – a city of churches, a city of newcomers.

“I saw potential (with) the number of people moving here,” Furtick said. “We knew it was not in desperate need for more churches. But we still felt that God had given us a message and a vision that would serve the city well.”

The story of Elevation since then is one of attention-grabbing sermon series and ever-rising attendance numbers.

At Elevation's offices in Indian Trail, posters trumpeting the sermon series hang in the lobby. In his computer, Brey keeps numbers for each service, beginning with the first in February 2006.

And he and others at Elevation are quick to credit God for every spike in the numbers since then. The 2007 goal for salvations – people committing to Christ – was 1,000. “God blew that out of the water,” Brey said. “We got 1,300.”

A 2007 sermon series promised “Confessions of a Pastor!” The poster featured a tabloid-like photo of Furtick, minus his head, and a description of him as a 27-year-old “Who . . . Rocks Out to Zepplin and Wants to Kick the Devil in the Teeth.”

With 24 staffers now, Furtick focuses these days on vision and sermons. Like other megachurch pastors, he leaves weddings or funerals to assistants; lay groups make hospital visits.

His way of being accessible to Elevation members: blog.

That's not enough for some families. The Rev. Al Cadenhead, senior pastor at Providence Baptist, said some families from his church have switched to Elevation. And some have come back.

“Most folks who are serious about church want a shepherd figure in their lives, whether marrying them, dedicating their children, burying their parents,” Cadenhead said. “When you omit that, you're missing something.”

10,000 by 2010

But Furtick has fans.

Carol Hardison, executive director of Charlotte's Crisis Assistance Ministry, called him a “one-of-a-kind leader” whose church has given checks to help people pay for utilities and stuffed trucks with mattresses, clothes and furniture.

Then there's Brittany Decker, 21, who started attending Elevation two months ago. She suffers from SLE lupus nephritis, a cancer-like disease for which she's undergone chemotherapy. That meant she had to doff her wig for all to see before being immersed in the baptismal pool.

“Whenever I went to church with friends, the (pastors) would condemn,” she said. “Pastor Steven never does. He's big on ‘You can be reborn, and leave behind your past.'”

To be the one to offer such uplift brings pressure.

“I'm a very young man trying to do this, and I've never done it before,” said Furtick, who sees a counselor. “By the time I get up on stage, I've wrestled through a lot of fear and insecurity and doubt.”

Still, he feels blessed and wants to keep on going – Elevation's attendance goal for 2010 is 10,000.

“I love my life,” he said. “I love my calling.”