Love is in the air in Charlotte, N.C. Jesus' love, that is.
One of the fastest growing churches in the country is sending out a refreshing message to the city: We're not here to condemn but to love.
"Somebody needs to tell somebody that there's a church called Elevation in Charlotte, that although we don't bow down to the idols of this city or this nation or the world that does not know God, we will not condemn this world. We will change this world. We will seek to light a candle rather than continually cursing the darkness," said Elevation's lead pastor, Steven Furtick.
The multi-site church of some 6,000 regular attendees has declared this week "Love Week." Every single attendee was urged on Sunday to give at least one hour to serve the city and demonstrate the practical love of Christ. Furtick didn't make room for excuses.
With still a weekend left in the initiative, the church has already surpassed its goal of giving 5,000 hours to the community. And their biggest projects have yet to take place.
"The response has been overwhelming," Chunks Corbett, executive pastor at Elevation, told The Christian Post on Friday. "The challenge was laid out to our congregation that nobody is 'too important or busy' to volunteer just one hour and our people have responded and stepped up in a big way!"
Tonia Bendickson, a news anchor at WBTV and community outreach liaison at Elevation, has called the effort unprecedented. During her nine years in Charlotte, she said she has never seen a community service effort of this scale.
Love Week is a year in the making. Corbett said Furtick "simply wanted the church to put into practice what we as the church preach."
Elevation already engages in community outreach and volunteering year-round through its 13 local outreach partners but Love Week is the church's largest collaborative effort to date.
The initiative was strategically scheduled to kick off on Valentine's Day and on the church's fourth anniversary.
"You need to know that this church does not exist for this church ... and for you, or for me," the lead pastor told the congregation this past weekend. "We exist to love our city, to love our world, and to demonstrate Christ to them through the extravagant love of people who call on His name."
Furtick, who turned 30 on Friday, started Elevation Church just four years ago. In that short span, the church has grown both in size and prominence, seeing over 7,000 commitments to Christ.
"I think there's a tendency for people to conclude that because Elevation Church has grown at a very fast rate, we must be experts on all subjects related to church leadership," he said in a recent blog post. "If you only knew how much we know that we don't know much at all."
He makes mistakes, he said, and is still learning. But he takes great pride in "what Jesus is doing through Elevation" and has no apologies for that.
Though Charlotte already had over 700 churches when Furtick felt called to start a church there, he believes those existing churches serves as a foundation for "the possibilities of more and more churches like Elevation reaching more for Jesus."
"Because although many have been reached, many more are still lost," said Furtick, who is often labeled as the "cool" pastor by other ministers.
Planning to stay in Charlotte for the long haul, Furtick wants to see the city transformed.
The church has the responsibility of praying for and loving the city, he said, citing the book of Jeremiah. But he recognizes that many churches have taken the opposite approach by condemning the world, isolating themselves, or imitating the world (so much that the church can't be distinguished from it).
Rather than have "hate week" or sit back and do nothing while singing "Kumbaya," Furtick called the church to love the city.
"We want the city ... to be a much better place because we were here," he stressed. "We believe we offer through Jesus the greatest gift that the world could ever know and we're here to transform our city for the glory of God."
So far, thousands of Elevation members have packed more than 10,000 sandwiches for the homeless, helped single mothers get their cars serviced, donated blood, cleaned up parks and streets, and built a soccer field for Jackson Park Ministries, among other things. This weekend the church will take on larger projects such as renovating buildings. Over 80 projects have been organized for Love Week.
"We don't give because people need it, and people do need it," Furtick reminded the church. "Ultimately, we give back because God first gave to us."