It could be any big rock show. Strobes are shooting out from behind the band onstage. A crowd of 1,600 sways back and forth, arms outstretched, singing along to every word. The music swells—keyboards, guitars, and vocals intertwining and variously resembling Passion Pit, Coldplay, and U2. Except right now, the soles of my shoes aren’t clinging to a sticky layer of dried beer. And I can still taste coffee at the back of my throat. It’s 9:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, and I’m in a church.
The musicians are leading their faithful in prayer, playing an original called “He Is Lord” as devotional lyrics scroll across three supersized projection screens. As the song reaches its deafening coda, a video camera skids along its track toward the stage for a tighter shot. The spotlights get brighter. Two men in all-black emerge and place a small podium in the center of the stage. The volume begins to ebb, and the band recedes. A hush comes over the crowd. This is a familiar signal at Charlotte, North Carolina’s Elevation Church: It’s time for Pastor Steven Furtick to go to work.
Founded by Furtick in 2006 when he was just 25 years old, Elevation Church is one of the fastest growing evangelical churches in the country and, compared to other multi-location mega-churches, relatively unique in its method of outreach. Befitting its lead pastor, who grew up in a small town outside Charleston, South Carolina listening to U2 as well as less pious acts like Guns N’ Roses, Elevation combines Furtick’s love of preaching with very loud rock music. Earplugs are offered to everyone on the way in.
Each of the nine Charlotte church sites boasts its own full band—referred to as its “worship team”—and a production crew that includes staff members and volunteers who help ensure that the Sunday experience is delivered with utmost technical precision. The church now draws more than 17,000 worshippers in a typical weekend via its brick-and-mortar sites as well as tens of thousands more online, where the it has an active social media presence. Located in the office-park-glutted Charlotte suburb of Ballantyne, the particular Elevation Church I attend several times late last year is yet another impressive milestone: a $24 million dollar, state-of-the-art broadcast location that, with stadium seating and an enormous half-moon stage, more resembles a top-notch live venue than a proper church.
Music has undoubtedly been one of the essential ingredients to Elevation’s remarkable growth and it is at the core of everything the church does. Furtick himself has strong roots as a worship leader and is intimately involved in the songwriting process, often accompanying the full-time band members on retreats to workshop music. But the 36-year-old pastor’s obsession with secular modern rock groups like Pearl Jam pre-dates his religious awakening at 16—and it’s those early influences, rather than traditional gospel or hymns, that are most readily apparent in his church’s original songs.
Chris Brown, an Elevation worship team leader and one of the church’s most public faces, grew up with Furtick and remembers him as a charismatic Green Day disciple who sang in a high school band. Brown even relays a local legend about how Green Day’s frontman, Billie Joe Armstrong, once called Furtick up onstage at a show to play a guitar solo. But to confirm Furtick’s musical obsession, one needs to look no further than the church’s name itself, a nod to U2’s 2001 Elevation Tour. Conveniently, as Furtick himself jokes in one of his bestselling books, Crash the Chatterbox, “There is no more certain route to Christian relevance than mimicking whatever U2 did a few years earlier.”
While Elevation’s music is undoubtedly a unique selling point, it’s not the only thing that sets the church apart. Unlike many other preachers who are televised locally and nationally, Furtick eschews the suit-and-tie look, opting for skinny jeans and a plain button-down or T-shirt on most Sunday mornings. Moreover, his crowd is markedly different from the lily white, Trump-voting stereotype of the typical evangelical church. For the Sunday services I attend, it appears that non-white churchgoers make up a solid third of the crowd, despite the frankly very white rock music that forms the backbone of the church’s sound; you’d be hard-pressed to find that same kind of diversity at an American U2 show. The church’s appeal to the black community in particular isn’t lost on Furtick, who jokes that God might have “dipped me in the wrong color paint” during one sermon.
But Furtick’s casual demeanor and appearance belie an obvious ability to craft messages with incredible care and attention to the minute details of cadence, pause, and pitch. Watching him give his sermons is sort of like watching Steph Curry shoot three pointers: You never forget for a single second that you’re seeing someone with a rare gift performing at a supremely high level. In Elevation’s early years, Furtick was eager to put this gift to use to publicize his church in secular publications; however, following a series of articles that highlighted possible false “spontaneous” baptisms and his lavish $1.8 million Charlotte home, he has grown increasingly weary of the press. (He declined to be interviewed for this article, though he had no issue with members of his worship team participating.)
If you’re anything like me before I started attending Elevation worship experiences—that is, a non-religious person who has attended just a small handful of church services with friends or extended family—you’d probably call Elevation’s music “Christian rock” after a cursory listen. And while that might work broadly-speaking, insofar as it is music made by Christians primarily for a Christian audience, it’s sort of like saying emo is rock’n’roll—it’s technically correct but misses a critical level of specificity that would explain some important distinctions.
Worship music, as opposed to the broader banner of Christian rock, is written specifically with a Sunday service context in mind. It is designed to foster connection to Jesus through communal, collective effervescence. According to London Gatch, a singer who leads worship at Elevation, it really boils down to a matter of accessibility. “If you’re just a Christian artist, you have the liberty to do whatever you want to do musically and your lyrics can be really wordy,” she explains. “But when you’re doing worship music, you need to be sensitive to a whole room of people from different walks of life who need to be able to connect with it at all levels at that moment.”
In some ways, you could say that the music of Elevation inverts the relationship between Christianity and rock. In typical Christian rock, blatant religious signifiers are often absent. The Christian message is there if you’re so inclined, but the lyrics are usually suggestive and purposely vague. It is rock’n’roll music first, Christian second. Elevation Worship’s music, by contrast, is explicitly religious and rooted in the teachings of the gospel. The kind of music Elevation creates—at least in content—is much closer in spirit to traditional hymns than it is to mainstream Christian rock.
Because the lyrics are so critical to the songs’ function, they present a unique challenge to the team’s songwriters. “There’s a part in this U2 documentary where Bono is talking about his lyric writing process, and he refers to it as ‘gobbledygook’—that he can start scatting or singing whatever, and it leads to a place,” says Brown. “I was sort of envious when I heard him talking about that [process] because the lyrics always have to be the driver for us. We’ll revise a song 11 or 12 times just because we’re tweaking lines.”
Elevation’s worship music also has performance elements that greatly differ from Christian rock or modern rock in general. Gatch has performed as a secular artist, even reaching the Hollywood round on “American Idol” in 2008, but she sees a fundamental difference in her role onstage at Elevation. In a non-Christian context, performance is, she says, “about the interaction between you and the audience, but when you’re worshipping, the goal is to take the attention off of yourself and to put it on the Lord. As a worship leader, when I lift my hands, I’m not doing it to say, ‘Hey look at me, I can lift my hands and be cool.’ It’s a way of showing the audience they can lift their hands and surrender everything in this moment to the Lord too.”
Elevation’s worship music may be loud, but the actual performance purposefully lacks the Dionysian, raucous elements of traditional rock’n’roll to ensure that the musicians do not become distractions from the purpose of praise. The band always seems serene when they’re performing, even when the music surges forward. In non-religious contexts, their approach might look like restraint; in church, though, it comes across more like a calmness in the face of a coming storm.
Although its rapid growth has continued unabated, evangelical Christianity has also developed a reputation for instilling a close-mindedness among its followers, chronicled in films and books like Jesus Camp and The Unlikely Disciple. For someone like Jonny Pierce, the frontman for NYC indie pop band the Drums, it was no movie or book—it was his life. Pierce was born into a strict Christian household, his father the pastor of a large evangelical church that believed homosexuality was a sin. Now openly gay, he tells me how he would spend much of his youth praying to God to turn him into a girl so that he could call himself straight. According to Pierce, “When I told [my father] I was gay, he hugged me and said, ‘That’s the last time I’ll hug you.’” Pierce’s dad also believed that to truly embrace Jesus Christ, one must uniformly reject secular art. If he found his son listening to an album not made by a Christian artist, he would force Pierce to break it in front of him.
These are likely the types of images many people have in their minds when they think of devout evangelical churchgoers and those who listen to worship music—rigid, close-minded Bible thumpers who shun the secular world. And it’s fair to say that Elevation has a complicated relationship with the gay community and gay rights more broadly. According to one openly gay Elevation church-goer named Jon Repp, who was interviewed in 2012, “Elevation, for as much as they might ultimately believe this is a sin… the point for me at the end of the day is that I always felt loved at Elevation. I never felt discriminated by it directly.”
So while exactly how far Elevation’s unofficial doctrine extends into thornier political and cultural realms remains somewhat unclear, I am consistently surprised by the open-mindedness of both the Elevation worship leaders and typical service attendees when it comes to popular culture. Almost everyone I speak to listens to secular artists right alongside worship or Christian ones.
Mack Brock, a moderately tattooed worship leader at Elevation with an amiable, boyish grin, names the Stills’ 2003 debut Logic Will Break Your Heart as one of his favorite records, cites Jimmy Eat World as a major influence, and also loves Chance the Rapper. Brown specifically mentions Bon Iver and Ryan Adams as artists he admires. Speaking with several people online outside the church on various weekends, it’s clear that their listening habits run the gamut. Austin Cole, Zachary Hutchinson, and Nicholas Barber, three college-age guys who make treks together to see worship shows at least five times a year, are all fans of fellow church-affiliated artists like Australia’s Hillsong and California’s Bethel, yet they also enjoy listening to Macklemore, Bruno Mars, and Kanye West.
When asked if they see any problems with listening to someone like West, who has made a career of tackling controversial subjects, Barber responds instantly: “I strongly believe in freedom of speech. Whatever you’re feeling, put it out there.” Adds Cole: “All art is an expression of what we’re feeling inside, so no music is bad. It’s all in how you view it.” Meanwhile, 23-year-old Andrew Ramsey, waiting on line in runner’s apparel, balances his love of Elevation’s worship music with a steady diet of Young Thug. “I don’t want to be the kind of Christian that [only] listens to Christian music,” he tells me. “It’s all about moderation.”
London Gatch sums up Elevation’s prevailing philosophy thusly: “We have a principle that goes ‘eat the fish, leave the bone’—eat the good meat and spit out the bones of what you don’t want. It means we can learn from anyone. We believe the Lord calls us to a high standard of excellence with our worship experience and our music, so if a secular artist is doing something really awesome musically, why wouldn’t we want to learn from that and bring God something cool and fresh? He’s the ultimate creator of music. Whether [the artist] is speaking to him or not, [God] still created music.”
The roots of this welcoming philosophy can be found in a telling passage in Furtick’s most recent book, (Un)Qualified, where he discusses his earliest efforts at conversion, trying to convince his brother, Max, that he should turn off the local rock station and “Beavis and Butthead,” and tune into Christian rock and a local preacher instead. The experience apparently had the opposite of its intended effect on his brother, who rebelled.
“We talked for a while, and I apologized to Max,” he writes. “I told him I was sorry for making it look like the starting point of a relationship with God was buying into a list of restrictions. I told him I had learned over time that the gospel isn’t about what God wants from us but what he wants for us… God seems to be saying, ‘Come as you are.’” Given Furtick’s pop culture literacy, as well as the numerous direct quotes from musicians like Leonard Cohen and Prince throughout his books, it’s probably safe to assume the Nirvana reference is not a coincidence.
At every service I attend, Furtick’s approach is relentlessly upbeat, and it’s his desire to unite that’s on display most regularly. Even in the wake of the police shooting of the black Charlotte resident Keith Scott in late September, which resulted in a wave of national headlines about the use of deadly force and sparked rioting in the city center, Furtick was careful to avoid taking sides and used his pulpit to stress the need for empathy and understanding.
“I have friends who pastor all-white churches, and it’s simpler for them; I have friends who pastor all-black churches, and it’s simpler for them,” he said in a sermon the week following the shooting. “And God’s got me here pastoring all kinds of people … and it’s my duty to speak to everybody.”
Elevation Church’s stated mission and reason for existence is “so that people far from God will be raised to a life in Christ.” When I first came across this idea, I thought “far from God” meant reaching people who had never had much use for God, or even religion more generally—agnostics or atheists. However, I’ve come to learn that the phrase is intended to reference an individual’s internal feeling about their relationship with the Lord at a particular moment in time, not a set system of beliefs.
Almost all of the Elevation churchgoers and worship leaders I speak to grew up with religion playing a vital role in their lives, and there’s a distinct pattern among them. None explicitly refer to it by name, but the concept of a faith journey strongly informs their personal outlook and relationship to the world—the idea that finding Christ, often in difficult personal circumstances, is a pivotal moment in helping to set your life on its proper course.
For Gatch, her low point came at the age of 24. At the time, she was fronting a for-hire cover band trying to make it as a performer of secular pop music. “The Lord was shutting door after door,” she tells me. “He was saying to me, ‘Worship is not your fallback; it’s what I have for you.’” So she took a dramatic leap, quitting her job and opting to become a volunteer vocalist at a church in her hometown of Charleston. A year and a half later, Furtick visited the church, heard her sing, and invited her to join the staff at Elevation.
Brock and Brown were on similarly divergent paths when Furtick pitched them on the idea of joining Elevation. Brock had recently interned in L.A., hoping for a career in TV and film music, and Brown had already gotten an apartment in preparation for a move to Nashville to pursue another musical project. And yet each of them ultimately came to Elevation because they felt called by their faith, a realization that this was what they were meant to do.
For others, the faith journeys are less musical in nature, but still follow a familiar arc. One of the more powerful testimonies comes from Andrew Ramsey, the Young Thug fan, who grew up in a deeply Christian household but stopped regularly going to church in high school. “My life fell apart—I had a three year battle with anorexia and depression,” he says. “Finally, I came [to Elevation Church] and it changed my perspective. It made me realize that all those setbacks were just setups. I run cross country now and have a career.”
It’s this idea of reaching those “far from God” that helps explain the strange paradox at the heart of Elevation—using one of the most notoriously profane styles of music to soundtrack weekly services and act as a beacon for faith in God.
Brown understands how easily the Worship team’s intentions might be misunderstood. “There’s conversations I’ve had with other people in the church where I grew up who aren’t quite OK with it—you know, a guitar in church is a bit radical,” he says. And yet it is precisely the radical presence of the guitar and the band each week that gives full voice to Furtick’s message that accepting Jesus as the savior doesn’t require sacrificing one’s identity, that the Lord loves working with seemingly “unqualified and even disqualified people,” as he writes in his book. For Furtick, rock’n’roll underscores the imperfection implicit in the journey to know Christ. Heaven may be the ultimate goal, but, as Brown explains, “It’s not always green pastures while we’re here. We get it, and try to reflect that in our songs. That’s the sort of realness I think all good music shares.”