Charlotte Observer offers a mega nice gesture to its local megachurch

Is the Charlotte Observer trying to be nice to Elevation Church?

Sure looks that way in two articles: a friendly feature last weekend, with a shorter item this past Saturday.

The first one is 1,500 words of mostly "Huzzah!" on the megachurch's 13-campus expansion, 17,000 attendees, weekly income of $484,000, and explosive growth since its first 121 people in 2006. We get stats a-plenty from chief financial officer "Chunks" Corbett. We learn from Outreach magazine that Elevation is the nation's 11 fastest-growing Protestant church and its 15th largest.

And we get some reasons for the growth, starting with Pastor Steven Furtick:

The main draw is Furtick, whose dynamic preaching style, casual persona and fluency with Bible verses and pop culture references are popular with many people, including teenagers and those in their 20s, who are turned off by more formal and traditional churches. Elevation’s congregation also appears to be more racially diverse than most Charlotte churches.
Other attractions: The Christian rock music, its investment in multimedia messaging, and its history of funneling several million dollars and many volunteers to charities such as Crisis Assistance Ministry.
Plus, like a lot of megachurches, Elevation tries to steer its regulars into small groups that meet and pray in homes. Each site has its own full-time campus pastor, its own live band, and a staff that works with children during the weekend services.

The follow-up column, about 350 words, appears to be what people in the trade call a "Reporter's Notebook": bits and pieces that are interesting but didn't survive trims in the larger story. It has bulleted paragraphs on the symbolism of the church logo, the origin of Corbett's nickname "Chunks," and the fact that the newest site was bought from members of the family that launched the Amway company.

Ah, but something is missing in this lovefest: quotes from Furtick himself. As the Observer acknowledges, he hasn't given the newspaper an interview since 2008.

Thereby hangs a tale.

As GR alumna Sarah Pulliam Bailey reported in 2011, a local TV station reported the removal of a child with cerebral palsy as a "distraction." (The church later said by e-mail that he and his family weren’t thrown out, just moved to another section where they could still follow the service.) Sarah dinged the station for not asking more about the situation and the type of congregation Elevation constituted. But she noted that Furtick wasn't quoted, whether he declined or wasn’t asked.

Three years later, tmatt dissected an expose-style report of Elevation Church by NBC Charlotte. He noted that NBC hinted at some kind of deception because the church doesn't have "Southern Baptist" in its name, as if no other megachurches ever do that. Terry also criticized the station for suggesting that the church uses shills -- placing volunteers in the audience, then having them walk to the front for the altar call -- to make the response seem larger than it is.

But he praised the NBC reporter for offering to let the church tape the interview, and even offered to run a "half-hour unedited interview on television." Furtick still said no.

Terry a took a harder line a week and a half later, condemning the stonewalling by Elevation: "It's possible that the Elevation team genuinely thought that this wall-of-silence approach – a classic religious organization gambit – was the quickest way to make an unwanted story go away. Yeah. Right."

The Observer apparently sat out those scuffles; I found no reference to them in a search of the newspaper website. One piece showed up on a Google search, though: a money story from 2013, on Furtick buying 19 acres in an exclusive neighborhood to build a five-bedroom house. The story reported that the parcel is listed not under Furtick's name but under a trust fund.

In that story, Corbett told the Observer that Furtick was still putting up all the cash and borrowing the rest. The newspaper dutifully added that Elevation Church gives lots to charity and that salaries are a comparatively small percentage of its budget. But you can see where an image-sensitive pastor would take umbrage, right or wrong.

The newspaper ran a tougher article in January 2014 on the church's lack of transparency in management as well as finances.  The 2,900-word piece says that Elevation is run by a board of other megachurch pastors, many from out of town, who also set staff salaries. The story says the governance style is different not only from other Southern Baptist churches, but most other megachurches.

Corbett told the Observer that Elevation does have advisory boards of church members, including a finance team. But he wouldn't let the newspaper interview any of them. Nor, again, did Furtick talk.

And despite Corbett's assertion that "There are no secrets at Elevation Church," the Observer notes: "Volunteers are required to sign one thing: confidentiality agreements forbidding them – at the risk of being taken to court – from divulging any church information."

For some reason, the agreement is available in the Observer's archives, but the story is not. I found it in The State out of Columbia, S.C.

But the Observer referred to the flaps in another story last March, reporting on the first published annual report by Elevation Church. The story cited the big numbers like the $25.2 million operating revenue and "personnel expenses" of $19.3 million. It also quoted Corbett saying the church had joined the respected Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.

"These decisions come after months of questions being raised about the church’s financial transparency, its governing style and some of its worship practices," the Observer said.

And no, Furtick didn't grant an interview for that story, although the Observer didn't say if it asked.

But let's be fair about the "Huzzah" story we started with. After the church-fed stats, the Observer offers a frank look at Elevation's prospects, drawing on two church growth experts: Scott Thumma and Dave Travis. Here are some insights:

What experts have seen across the country suggest that, around age 10, which Elevation will hit next year, megachurches “begin to feel a little more corporate,” Travis said, with more rules, processes and internal controls. Church professionals are often brought in, and church leadership becomes “not just family and friends,” said Thumma.

Also interesting:

“What we tend to see among founder-led churches is that, up until the senior pastor hits 45 or 50 years old, the church continues to truck along,” Travis said. “But often, by then, there’s somebody else who is the hot young guy in town.”

How will Elevation Church face this future? The Observer should have gotten an answer from the leaders. Of course, the best answer would come from the one guy who hasn't talked to the paper since 2008.

Will that change? We'll see if making nice makes a difference.

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