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From 121 to 17,000-plus: Charlotte’s Elevation Church congregation keeps growing

Later this month, Elevation Church plans to open a  1,200-seat campus in University City.
Later this month, Elevation Church plans to open a 1,200-seat campus in University City. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

In nine years, Charlotte’s Elevation Church has grown from the 121 worshippers at its first service to the more than 17,000 who now show up every weekend at its 13 locations.

And with Easter on the horizon, the evangelical megachurch led by Pastor Steven Furtick is about to open a University City campus that cost nearly $5 million to turn into worship space. It’s just the latest piece of an ambitious expansion that involves spending big, building big and even carrying the Elevation franchise to another city, another state and another country.

The details:

▪ In January, Elevation spent $10.2 million to buy the Matthews Plaza shopping center that has housed its headquarters for five years.

▪ The church will spend $24 million for a Ballantyne site – with a 1,600-seat auditorium – that’s expected to be ready in 2016.

▪ Like other Charlotte megachurches – including St. Matthew Catholic and Forest Hill – Elevation now has a Sunday presence in fast-growing Union County. Since January, it’s been holding services at Weddington High School.

▪ On Sundays, about 1,500 people attend services at three schools Elevation rents outside the Charlotte region: in Raleigh, in Roanoke, Va., and more than 700 miles north in the suburbs of Toronto.

“We never dreamed of being what we’ve become,” said Elevation Chief Financial Officer Chunks Corbett, who’s been at the church since the beginning. “We always had a big vision to reach a lot of people for Jesus. But we didn’t know what that meant.”

Elevation has grown so rapidly in part by riding a multisite wave that has lifted an increasing number of megachurches to prominence: When Elevation began in 2006, about 1,000 churches nationwide had multiple locations. Now, 8,000 do, said Dave Travis, CEO of Leadership Network, a Dallas-based think tank for innovative, mostly evangelical, churches.

“Before multisites took hold, churches would have one master-planned campus,” Travis said. “Now it’s about multiplying sites, expanding across the city and the region.”

At Elevation, that means more than 75 percent of the worshippers now see Furtick’s sermon on a screen, Corbett said. The 35-year-old pastor preaches most weekends from the stage of the church’s Blakeney facility in south Charlotte. His sermon is broadcast to other Elevation locations.

For the past three and a half years, Elevation has been renting the University City YMCA for a Sunday morning service in the gym. But the church has outgrown that space, and wanted a building it could use all week.

So Elevation decided to sign a 10-year lease on a building on IBM Boulevard and spend $4.9 million to turn the 38,000-square-foot site into Elevation worship space, complete with the church’s now-ubiquitous orange inverted-V logo.

Larry Brey, 44, who has been with Elevation since its founding, will be the campus pastor at University City.

“We now have a building (where) we can add multiple worship experiences,” Brey said. “We can do them Saturday night, Sunday morning, Sunday night, Monday night, Tuesday night.”

When it opens March 21, the church will have four so-called permanent sites. The others: Blakeney, Matthews and Cornelius.

Elevation holds services in six rented spaces in and around Charlotte: uptown, Gastonia, Providence High and at schools in Concord, Rock Hill and Weddington.

At last count, in 2013, the self-described “Elevators” attending these services were giving the church an average of $484,000 a week.

The main draw is Furtick, whose dynamic preaching style, casual persona and fluency with Bible verses and pop culture references are popular with many people, including teenagers and those in their 20s, who are turned off by more formal and traditional churches. Elevation’s congregation also appears to be more racially diverse than most Charlotte churches.

Other attractions: The Christian rock music, its investment in multimedia messaging, and its history of funneling several million dollars and many volunteers to charities such as Crisis Assistance Ministry.

Plus, like a lot of megachurches, Elevation tries to steer its regulars into small groups that meet and pray in homes. Each site has its own full-time campus pastor, its own live band, and a staff that works with children during the weekend services.

Scott Thumma, one of the country’s leading experts on megachurches, said he and colleague Warren Bird have found in their last two national studies that “younger megas” such as Elevation “are growing faster and larger” than big churches did in previous decades.

“These young clergy (like Furtick) are learning from the experiences of their elders and are often being directly mentored by them,” Thumma said.

Elevation is governed not by a board of church members, but by Furtick and a group of four out-of-town pastors who lead their own megachurches. Some of them, including Perry Noble of 15-year-old NewSpring Church in Anderson, S.C., have been among Furtick’s mentors.

Experts have said this lack of oversight by those who attend the church, and the transparency that usually comes with that, sets Elevation apart from other Southern Baptist churches and even other megachurches. But there are few signs that this has become an issue with most of those who attend Elevation.

Expanding to Raleigh and beyond

Furtick routinely declines interview requests from the Observer, which

last talked to him in 2008

.

But Corbett, 37, agreed to speak about Elevation’s growth. As chief financial officer, he’s in charge of the building and spending at what Outreach magazine says is the 11th fastest-growing Protestant church in America.

Overall, the magazine also said, Elevation is the country’s 15th largest Protestant church – and the youngest church on the “largest” list.

Travis of the Leadership Network said Elevation is now doing what megachurches tend to do in their first 20 years: “Build all their campuses.”

The biggest project still on Elevation’s drawing board: Its upcoming Ballantyne site.

Corbett said the church has already paid $3.8 million for the land – 22 acres off Lancaster Highway and U.S. 521, near the South Carolina line. The building will be equipped with the latest in digital technology, he said, and will become the church’s new broadcast location. That means Furtick will usually preach from the stage there.

Elevation has also been expanding outside the Charlotte area, including services at a school near N.C. State University in Raleigh. “We’d had a good base of (Raleigh-Durham) people … who had been watching us online and coming to Charlotte,” Corbett said. “We’ll expand there as God grows it.”

In Roanoke, Va., he said, a group of people watching Elevation videos grew large enough for the church to send some leaders to set up a site.

When growth slows?

What lies ahead for Elevation as the church – and its young pastor – get older?

What experts have seen across the country suggest that, around age 10, which Elevation will hit next year, megachurches “begin to feel a little more corporate,” Travis said, with more rules, processes and internal controls. Church professionals are often brought in, and church leadership becomes “not just family and friends,” said Thumma.

Elevation – launched by Furtick, wife Holly and seven families who left a Southern Baptist church in Shelby to start one in Charlotte – probably has another decade of steady growth, Travis said.

The road bumps could start coming after that, both experts said.

“What we tend to see among founder-led churches is that, up until the senior pastor hits 45 or 50 years old, the church continues to truck along,” Travis said. “But often, by then, there’s somebody else who is the hot young guy in town.”

At churches such as Elevation, Thumma said, the founding pastor’s charisma and leadership authority are tied to his record of rapid success. “The temptation comes when growth slows,” he said. “This often causes the church leadership to try to artificially manufacture the illusion of success.”

There could prove to be a down side to multisites. “Will the eventual desire for independence arise in various campus pastors?” asked Thumma. “Will in-fighting and tensions arise between locations?”

One thing is certain, Thumma said: No congregation keeps growing indefinitely. “How the church handles its eventual plateau,” he said, “will determine its health and longevity.”

Furtick is still young and is still packing his churches. And Elevation is still focused on getting bigger and spreading the Gospel to more locales.

Moving forward, Corbett said, there’s not so much a master plan as a process of looking and listening. He and business leaders that are part of Elevation’s expansion and finance team always want to know what properties are available.

But he said the church also tries to listen to God and to people excited about possibly having an Elevation site – or a permanent church building – nearby.

“We’re always looking to expand to different areas, to bring the message of Jesus,” Corbett said.

Wherever Elevation ends up growing, Corbett said Charlotte will always be the church’s hub.

“In 10 years,” he said, “we’re going to be right here, doing the same thing we’re doing now.”

Funk: 704-358-5703

Investments, income for Elevation

$4.9 million spent on new University City campus.

$10.2 million price paid for Matthews headquarters site.

$24 million Amount budgeted for Ballantyne building, where Steven Furtick will preach most weekends starting in 2016.

$484,000 Latest estimate of what Elevation collects every weekend.

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