CHARLOTTE, N.C. – In round two of The Elephant Room conference, a series of "blunt conversations" between influential megachurch pastors held in Aurora, Ill., Wednesday, the non-negotiables for presenting the Gospel were discussed.
The seven pastors participating in the event all agreed that in a Gospel presentation there are five elements that are key: recognition of sin, that Jesus lived without sin, Jesus' death and resurrection, repentance, and faith.
But discussion mediator James MacDonald said even with that agreement, there is still "a lot of talk these days about the Gospel" and how to present it. He asked Crawford Loritts of Fellowship Bible Church in Roswell, Ga., and Steven Furtick of Elevation Church in Charlotte, N.C., to weigh in on the topic.
Loritts told those in the audience, "We've gotten sloppy in terms of [the Gospel] framework. We've become pragmatic … Pragmatism takes us to the wrong place.
"People end up in heresy because they gravitate towards what works and edit the content, rather than questioning what is working and why it's working. We've become so pragmatic that the results define success."
This often leads to making the Gospel more complicated than it really is, Loritts said. His plea to younger Reformed pastors: "Please stop frontloading the Gospel. Don't crowd the cross; the cross is simple and profound and eloquent enough."
The discussion turned to Furtick who was asked about a statement he made earlier that "presenting the message creatively isn't watering it down."
He said critics accuse his friends who preach creatively or try to get people's attention of being "stupid" or "inauthentic." He admitted he also tries to be creative.
But he stressed, "We know that the power is in the Gospel and the power is in foolishness of the cross and we can never let our faith rest on men's wisdom … I just I applaud my friends willing to tear off the roof to get somebody on a mat to Jesus."
Furtick has drawn some critics since his church burst on the scene as one of the fastest-growing churches in the country. He has been criticized for not preaching a biblical gospel. He revealed during Wednesday's discussion that some on Twitter have told those who were baptized at Elevation Church that "their baptism didn't count because I preach a false Gospel."
Amid ongoing criticisms of pastors' methodology, teenagers are going to hell, Furtick noted.
"We align ourselves I think more closely with the Pharisees who are sitting [in the] front row trying to see how Jesus would heal the man versus rejoicing that somebody got healed today."
Furtick emphasized that he believes in a strong Gospel presentation and that he would never leave out the cross, the resurrection, and the need to be saved by grace through faith.
"I would never give a Gospel presentation without talking about the sinless life of Jesus Christ, without addressing that man in his sinful state needs Jesus Christ, needs a savior," he asserted.
"I love the Gospel and the greatest evidence is that I'm giving my life to preach it – not critique it."
Furtick was also asked how emotion should play into a Gospel presentation. He acknowledged that emotion can "become manipulative and there is also a danger to it" but he indicated that that wouldn't stop him from giving an invitation to receive Christ.
"Engaging people emotionally is absolutely within the bounds of the New Testament preaching and teaching model I see," he said.
His six-year-old church had its first funeral this week, he mentioned. This "emotional event" contributed to people's receptivity to the Gospel, and people came to Christ at the funeral, he recounted.
"I asked the family if I could ask people to raise their hand to give their hand to Christ. I slowed down, because you have to be careful that people don't answer from emotion. When people raised their hands, I could tell the family, Riley's life was not in vain. I'm not saying that everyone who raised their hands necessarily gave their hearts to Christ. But I'm going to err on the side of asking people to respond."
Loritts agreed, saying, "What we forget that's inherent in the Gospel is urgency. There is an air of urgency." He said the balance lies in giving people the opportunity to respond without manipulating them with "smoke and mirrors to get people to respond."
Wayne Cordeiro, pastor of New Hope Christian Fellowship in Honolulu, added, "We need to give people opportunities to cross over the line of faith."
Weighing in on the debate, Bishop T.D. Jakes of The Potter's House in Dallas warned that pastors run into problems when they start comparing different styles and methods of Gospel presentations and ministry.
"We are in an age where we want to come up with a recipe for everything," he said. "When we try to get methodology down to a science we defy the mystery of the Gospel."
Other pastors who participated in The Elephant Room included Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle and Jack Graham of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas.