(Photo: Elevation Church)
[UPDATE] 1/24/12 3:50 p.m.
[This updated version contains comments from Elevation Church]
What's more important? Reaching the lost or growing the reached? Over the past two weeks, the ongoing debate between discipleship and evangelism took center stage during one megachurch's Code Orange Revival.
Elevation Church, a seeker-friendly church in Charlotte, N.C., hosted a 12-night "old-school revival," that ended Sunday night, featuring presentations from well-known pastors like Ed Young, Perry Noble and T.D. Jakes. The event drew thousands of attendees but it also attracted critics, who raised important questions for the evangelical church.
Steven Furtick, lead pastor of Elevation, has made it clear that his church's main goal is about reaching out to unbelievers. In fact, his church's list of core values called "The Code" states: "We Need Your Seat. We are more concerned with the people we are trying to reach than the people we are trying to keep."
He told those attending the Code Orange Revival on night seven, "We're all about the numbers." Elevation has grown to six campuses in just six years and claims to have more than 10,000 people attending their services on any given Sunday.
Many pastors, including Craig Groeschel and Ed Young, have taken note of the rapid growth. Young, pastor of Texas-based Fellowship Church and author of the new book Sexperiment, highlighted on night five of the revival that Elevation has "baptized about a 'squillion' people. That's growth."
However, a wide variety of theologians and watchdog organizations have a different view.
David Wells, senior research professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, put it this way in an email to CP: "At the two NFL playoff games this weekend there will be large, enthusiastic crowds but a crowd by itself is no indicator of the work of God."
Chris Rosebrough, apologist, host of the radio program "Fighting for the Faith" and a long-time critic of Elevation, told The Christian Post: "They equate somebody who wants to go deeper in their understanding of theology as someone who is missing the need to be keyed into the latest move of the Spirit."
He said pastors like Furtick and Young believe they "know the Spirit is moving because of how many people showed up." They have a popular message and are "doing a great job of puffing up people's egos and telling them what they want to hear."
He compared Elevation to a Chinese company that produces millions of plastic toys that break easily and don't last. "It's more expensive and time consuming to make something that has quality," he noted.
Dr. John Hardin, a writer for 9Marks, a Washington, D.C., organization that helps "church leaders define success as faithfulness to God," recently completed his dissertation on the history of church promotion in the 20th century.
He told CP that often it's easier for churches to measure their success in numbers because it's how our society measures success.
"Quality is hard to measure, unless it's in a numerical ranking system," he said. "A quality hotel is one with five stars or 50 positive reviews or 500 guests or a profit of $50,000. It's much easier to measure and communicate success by reporting 50 baptisms instead of the details of transformation in one person's life. In 21st century churches big numbers mean big success. And big success means God is behind it, so don't question it."
For Wells, the real indicator of success is once people are brought in to the church, whether or not they see Christ as their redeemer.
"Whether they know that he bore their sin and gave them his righteousness, whether there is deepening conviction of sin, whether people yearn to find new levels of faithfulness, whether they are giving themselves to the service of Christ and so on. These are the only indicators there are as to whether God has been at work or not," he said.
Apologist and author Frank Turek agreed that the numbers aren't always the whole picture. "It could be a measure of success, but it could also be a measure of popularity. Joel Osteen preaches a mild prosperity gospel and hardly ever talks about sin. He's got the largest church in America. I would say that's not necessarily a measure of success for making disciples," Turek pointed out.
He told CP that part of the responsibility of the church is to make disciples. Just getting people to make a decision for Christ isn't enough.
Turek added that while it's a good thing that churches like Elevation are focused on reaching the lost, there is a problem if "the numbers don't convert to disciples." He said, "Jesus didn't say come make believers, he said go make disciples."
Tonia Bendickson, spokesperson for Elevation, stressed to CP on Tuesday that many of the attendees are active in the church and growing spiritually.
"Elevation focuses on participation, rather than membership, and I think participation in our church speaks volumes to the level of commitment and discipleship happening here," she said in an email to CP.
She noted that 4,500 people were plugged into "eGroups" or small groups that meet regularly to study God's Word. "We encourage people to get in a group, because that's where the real growth happens," she said. "We're about to have another eGroups enrollment push here at the end of January."
Elevation also has more than 2,800 people actively volunteering at the church, Bendickson added. They meet every week "to pray and serve and seek God together."