Friday, February 21, 2014

Steven Furtick, Elevation Church, and Some Words of Caution. . .

In recent days, I've been seeing a growing number of Facebook posts among my Christian friends that question some of the practices of Steven Furtick and his Elevation (mega) Church in North Carolina. Admittedly, I know very little about Furtick and his church. But what I've heard, seen, and been reading has pushed some buttons for me and sparked some thoughts.

What I've seen includes a news report on Furtick, Elevation Church, and the way that baptisms are conducted. . . or even manipulated. As someone from a confessional church background, I'm always concerned about the dumbing down of the sacraments and how quickly we fail to provide adequate education, physical context for their enactment (in the larger body of Christ), and follow-up. Watching the news report (see below) and reading the accompanying written news story (picking the energetic young people to be first to go on stage. . . oh my!) on Elevation Church and baptism certainly raises those issues for me.

But there are other issues and thoughts that the report sparked for me. Then, I saw the posts on the Elevation Church coloring book for the kids. . . and felt even more uneasy and troubled.

Again, I don't know the entire story here, but what I'm seeing and hearing should, I believe, cause us all to step back with concern and take a long, hard, careful look at what we believe, how we do things, and who we are as the church. You see, there is a tendency among us to go beyond communicating an offensive Gospel to the world, to actually being legitimately offensive to the world by portraying a tweaked or even false Gospel. We can cross the line from being "fools for Christ" to actually being fooled and foolish. So, here are some initial thoughts about all of us and how we do things in the church today. . .

  • We can easily cross over into relying on the spirit of the times, rather than on the Holy Spirit when it comes to our communication of the Gospel. The spirit of the times is one that celebrates and relies on marketing technique. When we co-opt that into the church, we tend to trust in our methods rather than on our God. When that happens, we effectively lead people to technique and experience, rather than to Christ. The enemy has got to be loving this.
  • Our theology can easily morph into commandeering God, rather than faithfully following the God who leads us. When Steven Furtick counts to three. . . and when Steven Furtick then issues the imperative, "Do it God" . . . we should cringe. Perhaps there are aspects of our own practical theology that should be cringe-worthy as well?
  • Charismatic leaders can become bigger than life. . . in their own eyes and in the eyes of their followers. They can become so big, in fact, that they eclipse God. Never forget, our culture celebrates and encourages Narcissism. But doesn't the Gospel call us to something different? And isn't that something different actually the kind of fruit by which we will know them?
  • We need accountability. We need it ourselves. We need it in our systems. We need it in our churches. . . desperately. I hear lots of people criticize church government and denominationalism. But when those systems are working well, there is an accountability that keeps us all honest and out of trouble. Recently someone asked me why CPYU is a board-governed non-profit with a board that has full authority over me. There's good reason. I am a broken human being. I need to be held accountable, as does our organization. Sadly, I think that in the church we are quickly moving away from models that embrace and facilitate accountability, to something that looks and functions more like a dictatorship than the Body of Christ.
  • When we're part of a system or institution that gets called out, our tendency is to first become defensive, to then fire back with accusations of judgementalism, to justify and legitimize that which is critiqued by pointing to its effectiveness at getting results (even though those results may be questionable), and to further cloister one's self and one's institution from helpful critique and accountability. It's a kind of "How dare you! We're doing this in the name of Christ!" mentality. What this means is that those of us within the systems might be so blind that we should welcome "seeing-eye" brothers and sisters whose care and concern could rescue us from danger and doom.
  • We need to realize that just because something is being done in the name of Christ, doesn't mean that that something is bringing honor and glory to Christ. Yesterday I started reading my friend Steve Garber's new book, Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good. In the book's Introduction, Steve reminds us of what novelist Walker Percy once famously wrote: "Bad books always lie. They lie most of all about the human condition." In today's world, bad books almost always sell the best. . . . making them seem like good books. Well, the same could be said, I fear, of bad churches. . . they always lie. . . and one of the things they lie about the most is the human condition. Is it possible that a bad church could be one that sells the best? A good church will preach a deep and abiding sense of human brokenness. A good church will answer that brokenness with the Gospel. . . . communicated through carefully evaluated methodologies that never muddy the message, send the wrong message, or become ends in and of themselves. 
  • There's not one of us who isn't immune from sliding away from doing and being our best, into doing and being something much less than our best. Some of the best conversations of my life have been the most uncomfortable. They've occurred when I've been in the midst of doing what I believe are good things that others I trust somehow correctly see as things that maybe I shouldn't be doing. They will lovingly call me out with words like "That's not you at your best, Walt" or "That doesn't put you and God in the best light" or "Have you thought about what you're really doing and communicating here?" None of us are immune. That's another reason for accountability.
It will be interesting to see how we offer and take constructive criticism. For the church to advance in faithfulness to God, we have to willingly seek out and do both. 

In my quest to understand where those who share my German heritage went wrong, I ran across a horrifying and eye-opening quote from Hitler's propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels: "This is the secret of propaganda: Those who are to be persuaded by it should be completely immersed in the ideas of the propaganda, without even noticing that they are being immersed in it." Hmmmmm.

All the chatter about Steven Furtick and Elevation Church is worthy of our time and attention. But let's not stop at our critique of Furtick and Elevation. We need to step out of ourselves and look at ourselves under the same light. What kind of "propaganda" are we swimming in that we don't even notice. . . but should? 


1 comment:

Ben Birdsong said...

Thanks for these thoughts! This is a helpful warning to us all.