this article from The Christian Post about Charlotte mega-church pastor Steven Furtick. It seems that a fairly large slice of western Christendom is up in arms about a young pastor of a fast-growing church building a $1.7 million home for his family. Subsequent questions have also surfaced regarding the financial dealings of Furtick and Charlotte's Elevation Church, which now boasts seven campuses throughout the metro-Charlotte area, as well as multiple video venues around the country.
Most of the vitriol, it appears, has been suppressed for some time. For at least two years now (The "Elephant Room" conferences catapulted Furtick into the national spotlight) Furtick has garnered strong critics because of everything from his methodology to the company he keeps (Most notably, he was criticized for claiming Bishop T.D. Jakes as a ministry and preaching mentor.)
Reading the above-referenced article got me thinking: What would I do if Elevation Church was linked with the Association I lead? My history--which briefly intersects Furticks if you go back around 15 years--makes that question uniquely personal.
I first met Steven when he was a junior Christian Studies major at North Greenville University, when I served as an Evangelism professor on that same campus. At that point in his life, he was an upperclassman who could have invoked the privilege of much nicer accommodations, but instead remained in the dorms affectionately called "the projects" by the freshman and sophomore athletes who were forced to make their beds there. His decision to remain in such less-than-desirable dorm space was motivated by the relationships he was developing with many of the athletes--a number of whom he introduced to Jesus. The day we met, he had no money for lunch, because he had spent it all on snacks the week before for his dorm buddies. Steven was practicing "incarnational ministry" long before Alan Hirsch ever published a book on the topic. When I think about his ministry today, It would appear that those same values continue to motivate everything he does.
It was a number of years after these events that Elevation Church was planted. As I've watched the story of that church unfold from a distance, I've seen things that make me shiver, and things that bring me to thank God. There are things Furtick says that I wouldn't say, and things he does that I wouldn't do. But as I think about it, those things are probably also true for nearly every church that cooperates in my network. What troubles me more than the concerns raised by the Post article is the binary way so many within the church today seem to react to mega-churches and those who lead them. Some are ready to make room for a fourth member of the Trinity, others ready to etch "666" across the foreheads of these pastors. I haven't encountered Steven Furtick for many years, but I'm betting he's somewhere in between those caricatures, just like all the rest of us. In fact, I think Steven Furtick provides us with a large model of the kind of loving critique we need to give each other. So with that in view, what would I say to him if we were back in that Travelers Rest South Carolina BBQ joint we met in years ago?
1. I would thank God for his ministry. Paul communicated to believers at Philippi his awareness of the wrong-headed motives of some preachers, yet thanked God even for them because "whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed." (1:18, ESV). I could write a series of blog posts about all the things with which I disagree, but when I look at Elevation Church, one singular, undeniable fact overrides everything else: more than 10,000 people have given their lives to Jesus since that church was planted. The same evangelists heart that motivated a young college student to stay in a freshman dorm now resides in a mega-church pastor whose desire to see people meet Jesus has not changed. Whatever else good or bad may be said about Steven Furtick and Elevation Church, I'm most thankful for this.
2. I would encourage sound ecclesiology that uses exclusively internal leadership. In the first months of a new church's life, we often encourage planters to form an outside "advisory committee" of pastors of other churches who can act as a sort of de facto "elder board" until the church can raise up its own indigenous leadership from within. Among the responsibilities of this committee are usually the setting of salaries and the approval of annual budgets. But over time, these outside advisors are to be replaced by leaders who rise up from within the body of Christ and demonstrate themselves Biblically qualified to serve as elders and deacons. Those offices are not optional, nor is it suggested anywhere in the New Testament that they can be filled by outsiders, and any local church--regardless of size--still using outside pastors to lead it after 7 years is asking for major dysfunction. Soteriology and ecclesiology are inextricably linked in Scripture, and sooner or later, dysfunction in one will inevitably cause dysfunction in the other. As a guy who provides counsel to more than 60 churches, I'd want to look at Steven Furtick and beg him--for the sake of continued evangelistic effectiveness--to revisit what the Lord of the church has to say about how His church is best and most effectively organized to execute its mission. I praise God for the numbers, but numbers alone are not the sign of a faithful ecclesiology.
3. I would encourage financial transparency. For one thing, its the law. Any non-profit entity operating in the United States is required to produce financial statements to anyone who asks--member or non member. Additionally, any refusal to disclose financial information automatically raises suspicions that you are hiding something unethical. If people ask for information, give it to them. And if they want to know your salary and benefit package, then make it public.
Doing this will accomplish two things: First, it will eliminate any criticism that suggests the church is hiding unethical and/or sinful behavior. Second, it will hopefully open up an honest conversation about pastoral compensation. Let me tell you something that might shock you: I don't think its a sin for a pastor to receive a large salary! I really don't! (and full disclosure: my base salary is considerably under $100K, and I live in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area, so this isn't a statement made in self-defense!). Elevation is an organization that receives around $20 million annually. If we heard that the C.E.O. of a $20 million corporation was making $2 or $3 million per year, it would barely illicit a yawn. So why do we get so upset when we learn that the pastor of a large, successful church is himself financially successful? When we make surface-level judgments based solely on the size of someone's salary, we have bought into the worldly game of assessing someone's spirituality based on what they possess. We are just judging in reverse. The story above of the college junior out of money because he spent it on snacks to get his buddies into his dorm to tell them about Jesus demonstrates that Furtick didn't get into this line of work for the money. Enough with the envy. Let's have a reasonable conversation about this issue.
But hiding the salary you collect from a non-profit entity only further exacerbates that suspicion. For your own good, and for the good of your church's reputation, when someone asks how much you make, tell them.
4. I would encourage him to keep it about Jesus. I'm not usually moved by the "guilt by association" gang. Furtick and others have often been accused of heresy simply because they keep company with some pastors who hold to questionable theology. Has Furtick said things I wouldn't say? Oh yeah. But if he has ever uttered full-blown heresy, I've not heard it.
I don't judge people merely by the company they keep. Doing so would force me to name Jesus Himself a heretic, and I think there are a few people out there who need to back off of the "look who he is hanging out with" rhetoric and start judging men by what comes out of their own mouths.
But when it comes to that which comes out of your mouth, I've seen too many men change messages mid-stream. D. James Kennedy died more political pundit than pastor. Rod Parsley, who once preached the Gospel with abundant clarity, now preaches the prosperity Gospel of American capitalism that has and will continue to send untold numbers of people to hell. Other examples can be given, but my point is this: it is possible to start well; to start faithful; to start in complete commitment to Jesus, and still end miserably. The only way to prevent that shift is to keep your nose between the pages of Scripture and your eyes more on Jesus than men.
Steven Furtick may not be doing everything right, but best as I can tell, his eyes are still on Jesus, and I believe that will take him, and Elevation Church, to some great places in the end--if he can manage to keep focus.
So to all those who think Furtick is some sort of mortal threat to western Christendom, save your flame-throwing, because I'm not buyin it. To those who are ready to canonize him, offended that anyone would suggest that there may be a few glitches in his ministry, he's just a kid from lower-state South Carolina whom the Lord is using in a great way.
Let's don't treat people like this as though they are infallible, and let's don't treat them like Satanic enemies either. Let's treat them like what they are--brothers.