In the heart of the Bible belt, Steven Furtick’s new-school Southern Baptist Elevation Church continues to boom – and make media waves.
The latest hits have come in the form of a leaked infographic from the church listing 30 reasons why it’s the best place to work, and yet another local news story about Furtick’s million dollar home and how that connects to his salary and book sales.
To be honest, none of this is surprising in the least, as it smacks of Southern prosperity theology and leader worship. But as is the case with the Celebrity Christianity trend that I’ve tracked here on the blog, it is a new kind of package where the prosperity practices are not put on display as blatantly as, say, the 80’s and 90’s TBN preachers were wont to do. Now, the image is less telethon-esque sow-a-seed-and-reap-money/healings/jobs/cars and more live-like-a-celebrity-for-Jesus-because-he-wants-you-blessed! Pastors are less money-grubbing and mercenary and more laid-back examples of the good life, archetypes of positive, happy, wealthy living for the congregations and fans to aspire to. Plus they are all pumped about “living for others” and “reaching the least and the lost” (and documenting all of it on Instagram while wearing a trendy leather/denim jacket).
I want to suggest, however, that Furtick’s recent hits might mean something even more than the continued flourishing of the prosperity gospel or the Celebrity Christianity trend. They might put on display the growing reality of controlling, cult-like tendencies among these younger organizations and leaders. Tendencies that are setting a trajectory for massive levels of hurt and destruction which may only be uncovered years down the road.
The book/home/money controversy indicates the kind of unethical, if not illicit, mishandling of finances that cult leaders think is completely valid and justified because of their special, important, amazing call from God. In fact, Steven’s entire ministry seems based on this self-aggrandizing self-promotion (though he seems sincerely oblivious to it). He is uniquely called to build a spectacular movement for his generation, haters be damned. Thus, he deserves the first-class perks.
But perhaps the “Best Place to Work” infographic is really the most alarming (click to enlarge). Here we see repeated, over and over again, the idea that the best thing about working at this church is the super-specialness of “serving the lead pastor.” One immediately notices the contrast with Jesus’s own words about himself – “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve,” – and the logical extension of that command to us – “the servant is not above his master”, etc.
But even beyond that, the tone is just creepily cultish:
1. We serve a Lead Pastor who seeks and hears from God. The image here is a one-man, top-down leadership hierarchy claiming to have a direct line to God. This is recipe for all kinds of power abuse, and historically has led to disaster.
3. We serve a Lead Pastor we can trust. Really? If that’s true, do you have to say it? Methinks thou protesteth too much. And the subtext here is: you better not question the Lead Pastor.
7. We serve a Lead Pastor who pours into us spiritually and professionally. This reinforces the hero/guru/celebrity myth where receiving any attention from the Lead Pastor is some kind of magic and the highest privilege.
16. We serve a Lead Pastor who goes first. This means that Pastor Steven is the one who takes the risks and takes the hits. But it should become obvious that what’s really happening is that the Lead Pastor is going first in financial profit and power over people. And the celebrity life he leads sets a (mostly unreachable) standard for his staff and congregation to aspire to.
As we are seeing more and more evangelical movements outed as actual cults (IHOP, Bill Gothard, etc.), we ought to take notice of the mega-shiny-seeker church too.
Cults of power, personality, and profit can be cults nonetheless.
What do you think? Are there signs of cultish activity here? Does Pastor Steven have too much money and power, and does he need to step back and take stock of where this is all heading? Or am I missing the boat on this? Would love to hear your thoughts.