How N.C.’s Elevation Church is Building a Diverse Congregation; T.D. Jakes to Appear With Pastor Steven Furtick On Monday

As an African-American growing up in New York, Darnell Jonas spent his Sundays in pews at predominantly black churches.

“They were always either 100 percent (black),” he says, “or maybe had one or two white families.”

But when Jonas, now 29, moved to Charlotte about a year ago, he bypassed the city’s mostly black churches in favor of Elevation, a Southern Baptist church whose 37-year-old pastor, Steven Furtick, is white. It’s the city’s fastest-growing house of worship – and, increasingly, one of its most diverse.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote about 11 o’clock Sunday morning being the most segregated hour in America is still the case in most churches dotting the country’s landscape.

But many megachurches, especially those that appeal to millennials like Jonas, are finding ways to build congregations that are multiracial and multicultural.

The leadership and staff at Elevation is still mostly white. But African-Americans now make up about a third of the weekly attendees, according to Chunks Corbett, the church’s chief financial officer.

When asked this week what attracted him, Jonas echoed many of the young white worshipers who flock to Elevation’s nine campuses in and around Charlotte: It’s church, but not churchy, with an orthodox Christian message that comes wrapped in a thoroughly modern package.

“A co-worker friend of mine invited me to go to Elevation,” said Jonas, who works for Avis, the car rental company. “I like the atmosphere – it’s not so rigid. And the (contemporary) music. And the people – the young people. And the way they use technology. When I travel for work, I can stream the sermon online and there are e-groups to keep you involved.”

By downplaying denominational ties and worship traditions, both of which carry some racial overtones, “megachurches are able to present themselves as contemporary, with a connection to modern pop culture,” said Scott Thumma, dean at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. “And that allows for an attraction across races.”

But Jonas and some other African-Americans who go to Elevation also say they appreciate that Furtick, unlike some other white evangelical pastors, has not been afraid to engage racial issues in these often-tense times.

Furtick has even come to rely on Bishop T.D. Jakes – the prominent African-American pastor of The Potter’s House, a megachurch in Dallas, Texas – as a sort of mentor, at least on matters of race.

Last year, when Jakes came to Charlotte in the wake of the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, he and Furtick met with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney and spent time at the site where Scott was shot.

On Monday night, Jakes will return to Charlotte, appearing on stage with Furtick at Elevation’s Ballantyne campus. His trip is partly to sell and sign copies of his new book, “Soar!” But it’s also a sign that Elevation is embracing its growing diversity.

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The Charlotte Observer