(Photo: Elevation Church)
Editor's Note: In a season where every day seems to bring a new assault on traditional biblical views, there are nonetheless a whole new generation of young pastors preaching orthodox biblical Christianity and seeing their churches grow exponentially because of it. The Christian Post has picked but a few of scores of pastors enjoying the favor of God in this way, in an effort to find out what about the Gospel resonates in today's generation.
Pastors interviewed are under 40, most, but not all, in urban settings and are attracting Christians over a wide age spectrum, including Millennials and Generation X. These pastors uphold traditional biblical views of family and morality, yet attract young people and are gaining national reputations.
Today we spotlight Steven Furtick, 33, lead pastor of Elevation Church, a multi-site church in Charlotte, N.C.
Steven Furtick founded Elevation Church in 2006 with a group of just eight families. It has grown rapidly since that time, and over the course of the last two weekends alone the church baptized more than 3,300 people, Furtick announced Sunday via Instagram. Elevation Church averages more than 14,000 people in attendance each weekend, according to the church.
The church, which has seven locations in the Charlotte area and one in Toronto, Canada, has been named one of the "Fastest-Growing Churches in America" by Outreach Magazine each of the last six years, according to Furtick's website.
In addition to seeing more than 6,000 people make decisions for Christ in 2012, according to the church's annual report, Elevation has also generously given back to the community.
Between April 2011 and April 2012, the church showed the city of Charlotte love by giving away more than $1 million and 102,208 service hours as a part of its Orange Initiative, according to the church's annual report. In addition, the church also provided more than 1,000 at-risk students with mentors through its M1 Initiative last year.
Furtick lives in the Charlotte area with his wife, Holly, and their three children. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is the author of Sun Stand Still: What Happens When You Dare to Ask God for the Impossible and The New York Times bestseller Greater: Dream Bigger. Start Smaller. Ignite God's Vision for Your Life.
The following is an edited transcript of Furtick's email interview with The Christian Post:
CP: You are experiencing success gathering people to orthodox Christianity in a generation increasingly opposed to it. How would you explain this?
Furtick: We have seen extraordinary things in the life of our church. I can't fully explain how or why God has done what we've seen Him do. He's too big for that. I do know, however, that there is a misconception that says Christianity is a dry religion based on rules and restrictions. That couldn't be further from the life Jesus came and died to give us.
The fact is there are people hurting all over the world. Whether they've been in church their whole lives or never heard of Jesus at all, people are constantly searching for the full life that only Jesus can give us. The more we can break through barriers that people may put up against religion and allow them to experience Jesus in a clear, refreshing way, the more we will see people embrace Him.
CP: Are you an expository preacher? An exegetical preacher? What kind of preacher are you?
Furtick: I'm a preacher at heart. You can call me an expositor. I tend to anchor my sermons on a particular scripture or passage, but my goal is to get people to look at that scripture in a fresh way. I'm not preaching God's word in ways that it's never been preached before, but if I can do it clearly and passionately, and connect what passages need to be connected, then perhaps people will say, "Okay, I get it. I never saw it that way before."
CP: Now that we understand how you preach, how do you do practical application?
Furtick: It's difficult for me to separate preaching from practical application. I hesitate to preach anything that I haven't pored over and allowed to soak into my life first. It's no small task to stand before people presumably with a message from God, so as much as possible, I want to stay sensitive to the ways God is growing me and share them with the church. Understanding and communicating God's Word is the first step. I've found that the more attuned I am to the way God's word is shaping me, the more naturally I can interweave practical application into the exposition of the text I preach from each week.
Most of the practical examples in my sermons stem from my own stories. Whether it's a story involving my wife, Holly, my kids, or something I saw while traveling, I want to show our church exactly how my sermons are shaping me, as it gives them a glimpse of how it can shape them.
CP: How do you set up your church to keep the practical application going? How do you make sure your congregants bear fruit?
Furtick: Elevation Church is set up so that people can participate in the work God is doing in their lives. From the early days of our church, I've always wanted us to be the kind of church that empowers people to take ownership of their faith. We technically don't have membership at Elevation, but we track participation.
It's on us as leaders to provide clear avenues for our people to live out the faith that's growing inside of them. When God's word changes someone, it becomes difficult to remain still for long. People want to participate.
Whether it's through joining a small group to connect and grow with other people in the church, serving on a volunteer team, giving financially, or growing our church by inviting people to attend with them, I want our church to emphasize the practical, measurable ways we can enable a person's spiritual growth.
CP: What about the hard places, ones where society is really coming against Christian beliefs, how do you maintain orthodoxy there?
Furtick: Christianity can catch a bad rap in our society. Much of it comes from lifelong perceptions people carry of the Church, or Christians themselves, as being harsh, restrictive, and judgmental. I'm learning more and more, however, that Christianity is less about the rules and restrictions that polarize the perception of our beliefs, and more about the life that is available through Jesus.
While Jesus came to offer us eternal salvation, He also came that we may have life, and have it to the full. There's something to be said about pointing people to Jesus, not for the sake of condemning the life they're in, but highlighting the life they have yet to experience.
Jesus came to save the world, which is the greatest news anyone could ever deliver. Perhaps His message would become more attractive to all people when we focus more on who Jesus is and what kind of salvation He really offers us.
CP: How do you keep the Bible in one hand, preaching orthodox theology, but balance that with being relevant to the young generation and engaging the culture?
Furtick: I consider myself part of the young generation; I'm not that far removed from being a student myself, but I've been around long enough to see that young people are just as hungry for the life Jesus has to offer as adults.
But God's word is living and active. Its message itself doesn't have to be manipulated to engage with one generation over another. While I may reference popular culture or make a joke in my sermon that steps outside of the stereotypical church context, that's not what engages and changes people. God's word does that. I don't have to make God's word relevant – it transcends time. I simply have to make it clear. If I can communicate God's word clearly and understandably, all people – young people included – can apply it to their lives.
At our church, we put a high value on the weekend worship experiences we create, primarily because we place the highest value on the message we're delivering. Our church is built to reach people far from God.
CP: What is the balance between evangelism and edification (discipleship)? You're preaching to mostly saved people in the congregation.
Furtick: I believe the two go hand-in-hand. The Greek definition of a disciple is a "learner." Whether we've been a believer for two days or two decades, we're always learning about Jesus and growing our faith in Him, and the ground floor of being a disciple of Jesus is learning about Him for the very first time. From there, the more we learn about Jesus, the more we learn about His heart to reach those far from Him. Therefore, it's difficult to separate evangelism from discipleship.
Many people may use discipleship and spiritual maturity interchangeably, or perhaps they believe people concerned with evangelism are less concerned about spiritual maturity. But I believe one of the most spiritually mature things a believer can do is to reach someone far from God and show them the life Jesus makes available to them.
CP: Do you think orthodox churches should be more multicultural than they are?
Furtick: Every church in the body of Christ is positioned exactly where He wants them. I don't think there should be a set standard for the culture of a given church – that's something that should fit what God calls each church to be. Our church is built to reach people far from God – not people who fit a certain cultural or socioeconomic status. People far from God is all-inclusive, so we're doing our best to create a culture that welcomes people from all walks of life.