US megachurch Elevation has formally left America’s largest denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). The announcement follows the SBC’s decision to limit women in church leadership, and the expulsion of five other churches, including Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church. Kathleen Durham explores
What is Elevation Church?
Elevation is one of the largest churches in the United States. It was founded by Steven and Holly Furtick in 2006 and according to their website, now has an average weekly attendance of 26,000 people across 21 campuses with an additional 65,000 people joining online.
It is also one of four megachurches whose songs dominate the Christian Music market in the US. Its worship band, Elevation Worship, has won six Dove Awards, including song of the year for ‘The blessing’, which went viral during the 2020 Pandemic.
Furtick himself is a Grammy award-winning songwriter and producer, as well as a New York Times best-selling author.
Why did they leave the SBC?
Although no reason was given in the letter submitted to the SBC executive committee, and the church itself has not commented, many have speculated that the move comes in response to two major votes at the SBC’s annual meeting last month.
The first saw an overwhelming majority vote to finalise the expulsion of two churches with female pastors: Saddleback, the Californian megachurch founded by Rick Warren, ordained three women along with a husband and wife team in 2021. Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, have had a female lead pastor for over 30 years. Three other churches were also expelled earlier this year but did not appeal.
The second vote approved a constitutional amendment to further limit women in leadership by requiring SBC churches to affirm, appoint or employ “only men as any kind of pastor or elder as qualified by scripture.” A further vote to ratify this amendment will take place in 2024.
Although the 2000 document Baptist Faith and Message already states that “the office of pastor is limited to men”, Dr Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said further “doctrinal clarity was needed…precisely because it’s one of the issues that has been a sign of creeping liberalism.”
More than 2,000 male pastors and professors signed a letter in support of the amendment before the convention began. A non-exhaustive list of more than 170 female pastors in the SBC was also published. The list, which was 218 pages long and included names, photos and addresses, has since been taken down, after individuals and churches on the list reported that they had been harrassed as a result.
Another list published by American Reformer, estimates that the current number of female pastors in the SBC is likely to be nearer to 2,000. SBC president, Brett Barber, acknowledged that those pushing for the amendment were poised to file complaints against every church in violation of it.
Although Steven Furtick’s wife, Holly, is not explicitly listed as a pastor on the church’s website, text on the homepage reads: “Meet the lead Pastors who set the vision of Elevation Church” and links to a biography of the couple. Holly also preaches regularly at the church, along with other women.
What does this mean for Elevation Church?
The impact on Elevation Church is likely to be negligible, given its already outsized influence in the larger evangelical world. Many, in fact, were not even aware it was affiliated with the SBC in the first place.
A widely circulated tweet by Denny Burk, president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary stated: “I was today years old when I learned that Steven Furtick’s Elevation Church was a part of the SBC. They are SBC no more.”
The church is also no stranger to controversy. It has frequently been the subject of criticism due to Furtick’s apparently lavish lifestyle and teachings, including multiple accusations of heresy. Despite this, it has continued to grow exponentially in both numbers and influence.
What does this mean for the SBC?
Financially, the impact on the SBC will likewise be negligible. For a church with an annual budget of more than $100 million, Elevation Church only gave $10,000 to the SBC in 2022.
Nevertheless, it has considerable impact on the SBC’s membership, which has seen continued decline. In 2022, the SBC - which is the largest denomination in the US with a membership of 40,000 churches - reported 13.2 million members, down from 16.3 million in 2006. It has lost an estimated 1.5 million members in the last three years alone.
Against this backdrop, the departure of two of the denomination’s largest churches - who, according to political scientist Ryan Burge, accounted for about 2.5 per cent of all baptisms in the SBC in 2021 - is a real blow.
If Elevation Church’s exit from the denomination is linked to the recent votes, it points to the “ripple effect” from Saddleback’s expulsion, as previously predicted by Scott Thumma of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research: “I could easily see others leaving to make a statement, rather than sitting around waiting for the SBC to remove them.”
What does it mean for American evangelicalism?
For many, this is exactly the purge that is needed for the SBC to continue to be a biblically-faithful denomination. Christian blogger, Michelle Lesley, recently tweeted: “Since Furtick refuses to repent, this is the next best possible outcome. It is right and good to praise God that a Scripture-twisting, egalitarian wolf of a false teacher has left the building. That’s one of the major goals and instructions of the [New Testament].”
But for others, it reflects a dramatic shift in Baptist polity as a whole, which has historically given priority to the autonomy of individual churches, functioning as an association rather than a hierarchical organisation.
At the core may be what The New York Times has described as an “ultraconservative populist uprising of pastors” who, only a few years ago, were considered fringe elements. Some of these, including Allen Nelson, pastor of Perryville Second Baptist Church in Arkansas, have compared themselves to pirates who want to “take the ship”, charting a new course for a Church that is “drifting unmistakably leftward on issues of race, gender and the strict authority of the Bible.”
Referring to the SBC’s recent sex abuse scandal, Rick Warren said in a recent interview: “It is not an accident that the same voices that said we cannot protect women from abuse because of the autonomy of the local church are the same voices that are saying ‘But we can prevent them from being called pastors’ in the autonomy of the local church…It’s nonsense.”