In October 2012, the Pew Research Center released a study on religion that found that one-fifth of the United States did not identify with any religious faith or church. All faiths saw a significant drop, but the most dramatic change was for the Protestant (non-Catholic Christian) church. For the first time in the nation's history, Protestants make up less than 50 percent of the population. The top reason given for leaving the church? Greed. Many feel the church is too concerned with power and money.
Local news outlets reporting on this study pointed to the growing attendance and influence of Elevation Church as a bright spot in this darkness. The narrative was that Elevation's a kind of model for the new generation of the Protestant church — a highly successful megachurch with the ability to reach young people and get them excited to do the Lord's work.
By all appearances, these assertions were true. Facebook users fawned over Elevation's pastor, Steven Furtick, commenting on everything from his latest sermon to his facial hair. Cars sporting bumper stickers of the church's ubiquitous logo crowded Charlotte's streets. The church band had the No. 5 album on the iTunes chart. Even my mailbox was full of slick, eye-catching flyers urging my kids to come in for special programs.
A year later came the news that Furtick was building a multi-million dollar home, visible only by helicopter, in a forest of thick woods in Weddington. Once the story became public, he called the home "a gift from God" and said he'd used proceeds from his best-selling book to pay for the 16,000-square-foot mansion, which is one of the largest homes in the state. (For comparison's sake, Panthers owner Jerry Richardson's house is about 7,000 square feet.)
It was revealed that Elevation doesn't disclose Furtick's salary to the congregation — or to anyone, really. A board made up of megachurch pastors from other states determines what Furtick is paid. All employees sign a non-disclosure agreement, with the threat of being sued if they leak financial information. This lack of transparency seems problematic for a church that is supposed to be a model for the new generation. Beyond edgy graphic design, a chart-topping band and a pastor with a rock star image, didn't the Pew study tell us that more than anything, modern church-goers wanted to trust their churches?
Perusing Elevation's website seems to confirm its priorities. There's a tithing app for your smartphone, instructions on how to use donation kiosks, which act as one-way ATMs from your debit card to the church bank account, and a statement about accepting donations of precious metals, stocks, bonds and vehicles. If you'd like to contact the church for things like prayer requests, salvation or baptism, you're taken to an online form to send into the Internet abyss. If you have a question about giving, you're taken directly to the church finance office's inbox.
"Yes, the church wants your money! Guess what? It's not your money! God gave you that money, Big Boy!" Furtick yells out in one of his video sermons.
I expected a backlash against Furtick and these new revelations. Maybe not PTL levels of backlash, but at least an expression of disappointment from his followers and an apology from him for not being more forthcoming about where their money goes. Elevation members did react with outrage — but it wasn't directed at their pastor. It was aimed at the media, for reporting these facts. His congregation staunchly defended him on every blog, every article, in every private conversation I had with them.
They said things like, "If [Furtick] was compensated properly for his good works, he would own Dilworth. Not a house, but the entire neighborhood of Dilworth, and it still wouldn't be enough."
A YouTube video of Furtick calling out his "haters" went viral. Cries of a media smear campaign permeated social media, culminating with Furtick's brother sending aggressive, enraged tweets to WCNC's Stuart Watson, who broke the story about Furtick's mansion, while Furtick's wife, Holly, cheered her brother-in-law on via her Twitter account.
The opinion that seemed to dominate among Furtick's followers who spoke with me was that the church does so much good, a multi-million dollar home for its pastor is a small price to pay.
Elevation claims it has given nearly $10 million to charities since 2006 and gives 12 percent of its operating budget to local nonprofits. When you consider the offering plate is reportedly just shy of half a million tax-free dollars every week, that amount seems like nothing to scoff at.
When a church puts this kind of money into the community to help those less fortunate, is it then morally acceptable for the pastor to reap millions? I posed this question to other pastors in our community, but surprisingly, on the topic of Furtick, most were uncharacteristically silent about what was right and wrong.
Another area megachurch, Forest Hill, told me that an independently audited financial statement of its financials is prepared for its congregation and posted on its website every year. Like Furtick, Senior Pastor David Chadwick is an author, but unlike Furtick, he gives 100 percent of his book earnings back to the church. While Forest Hill leaders declined to comment on Furtick, these glaring differences between the churches and their pastors gave some insight into what they believe is ethical.
Mark Upton, pastor of Hope Community Church, discussed Presbyterian Church norms and what he thought appropriate in terms of pastoral compensation.
"You're supposed to make enough to live at the same standard of living as your congregation, because a pastor must be able to move in the circles of people he ministers to," Upton said, "but you have to stay within bounds." He cited Titus 1:6-9, biblical scripture which says those entrusted with the Lord's work must be disciplined, trustworthy and above reproach. "You can't ever be cagey or sneaky about you get paid," he said, "because then you undermine the trust of those you lead."
I asked if he ever saw a problem with greed in his church. "We have the opposite problem, actually. Our church had to set a minimum pay. We had guys coming into the ministry because they love helping people, and they never insist on getting paid a retirement, they opt out of social security, and when they die, their widows are left with nothing."
I asked what he would say to that large percentage of people who said last year that they'd left the church because it's too concerned with power and money.
"There are plenty of churches led by guys making sacrifices. The body of Christ is very diverse, and you can't paint it with a broad brush. I hope they keep looking, because there is a church for them."