Concerns raised as anti-gay Elevation Church makes inroads at local schools

Special Report: Where does popular Elevation Church stand on LGBT equality? Baptist megachurch refuses to answer publicly whether they believe homosexuality is a sin.

by Matt Comer  Editor  editor@goqnotes.com
Published: December 21, 2012 in Featured Stories, News

An Elevation Church member and mentoring volunteer pictured here with his students attending an Elevation worship service, in a still from a video announcing the church’s mentoring program.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Efforts by a local anti-gay megachurch to commit 1,000 volunteers for school mentoring has raised eyebrows among some concerned with the well-being and safety of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) young people. School officials, meanwhile, said their volunteer engagement policies protect students from unwanted religious promotion.

The Southern Baptist-affiliated Elevation Church, which attracts over 10,000 weekly worshipers at several locations across the Charlotte area, will use its “M1 Initiative” to bring 1,000 mentors into area schools. The church announced the initiative in September and The Charlotte Observer recently reported on the effort.

Originally created as a church plant in 2006 by the North Carolina Baptist State Convention, Elevation has been named one of fastest-growing churches in the nation. Its founding pastor is the youthful Steven Furtick, who has described anti-gay Dallas, Texas, preacher T.D. Jakes as his most “favorite preacher in the world.”

The church made waves in 2009 when it hosted a guest appearance by outed and disgraced pastor Ted Haggard and his wife Gayle. The event, at which Furtick called homosexuality a sin publicly for the first time, spurned some gay members who had been attracted to the church’s more modern, seemingly-inclusive style.

Safety concerns for LGBT youth

Steve Knight, a Gastonia parent and straight ally who has worked for conservative evangelical organizations in the past, said the mentoring initiative is concerning.

“If they are put into contact with LGBT students, coming from a position of authority…then those interactions between students and Elevation volunteers could lead to conversations about sexuality and provide an opportunity for them to share their conservative, anti-gay theology with these kids,” said Knight. “That would concern me, as a parent of three kids who don’t want to be evangelized at school and certainly don’t want to be told that they or their friends who may be LGBT are in some way wrong or deficient.”

School officials should be wary of projects like Elevation’s, Knight said. His past experience in evangelical movements has taught him many of these efforts often have an “ultimate motivation” to “reach the ‘lost’” through evangelism or conversion. The church itself says it wants to use the mentoring initiative to “embrace the truth of God’s power” and “empower one child at a time.”

“I think parents and school officials should be cautious when considering an ‘offer’ such as this one from any religious or faith-based group,” he said. “What is their real agenda?”

Knight said Elevation’s outreach into the schools in combination with its more modern appearance and style could attract unknowing LGBT students into spiritually-hostile situations. He described Elevation as “hipper, cooler packaging on old, tired, conservative, anti-gay theology.”

Fears that LGBT students might be drawn to Elevation by church members’ mentoring volunteerism is real. In a video announcing the M1 Initiative, Charlotte Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon introduces one Elevation member who did bring his students to the church.

“Imagine the impact you could make if you mentored just one child,” Cannon says in the video. “Ryan Frankeny has been mentoring his boys for two years. He started bringing them to church during ‘Soul Detox.’ … There are thousands of students just like these boys who need mentors.”

Once an LGBT student is involved at Elevation, the church’s doctrines could come back to haunt them.

“I think these evangelical mega-churches do attract LGBT and pro-LGBT people,” said Knight, “who are ultimately disappointed when they discover the church’s conservative stance on these issues.”

Rodney Tucker, executive director of Time Out Youth, a local LGBT youth service organization, declined to comment specifically on Elevation’s mentoring program. He did agree that the diversity of all students, including LGBT young people, should be respected by school volunteers.

Elevation partner, CMS responds

Elevation’s M1 Initiative will work with a variety of organizations, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) and Communities in Schools of Charlotte-Mecklenburg (CIS), a local affiliate of a national organization that describes itself  as “the nation’s leading dropout prevention organization.”

CMS Director of Communications Tahira Stalberte told qnotes via email that the district has a variety of partnerships designed to support students including mentoring and tutoring programs and others providing resource for families. Stalberte said efforts are made to ensure partnerships match the needs of students and the district.

“As it relates to our faith-based partners, it is unacceptable for volunteers to use their relationship and interaction with students to promote their religious beliefs,” Stalberte added. “Individuals who violate this practice, will no longer have one-on-one access to students through our partnership program.”

Additionally, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies. LGBT students are also protected from bullying under a statewide law passed in 2009.

Gina Salvati, Communities In Schools’ vice president of development and community affairs, told qnotes her organization’s volunteer policies are consistent with those of CMS.

The group is also committed to diversity, she said.

“We do not allow folks to…impart their specific or particular beliefs because we have to be respectful of our students and their families,” Salvati said.

Salvati also read a portion of her group’s volunteer policy, similar to other groups’, like the YMCA of Greater Charlotte’s, non-discrimination statements: “CIS recognizes that individual families and communities are diverse. CIS values and respects this diversity and chooses to be inclusive through its acceptance of all individuals regardless of age, race, gender, religion or cultural identity. CIS, while not adhering to any doctrine, is committed to diversity. This includes asserting that all individuals, without exception, are intrinsically valuable.”

CIS’ volunteer orientations include exercises exploring cultural diversity. Volunteers discuss examples of student scenarios, factors influencing them and their responses in small group discussions. Sexual orientation, Salvati said, is included in one scenario.

“We serve kids of all shapes and sizes, all backgrounds, ethnicities and all sexual orientations,” she said. “All kids deserve to have a quality education and get what they need to be successful in school. We don’t only say that in world, but we practice that.”

Elevation staffer: We don’t address LGBT issues

Elevation has invested heavily in their support for local schools and mentoring projects. According to The Charlotte Observer, Elevation Church recently donated $7,000 to CIS of Gaston County. The church has also supported CIS of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, giving at the $62,000 to CIS’ Safe Journey program, according to the church’s 2011 annual report.

Tonia Bendickson, Elevation Church’s director of communications, told qnotes via email that the church’s mentoring program  is intended to support all students, regardless of their background.

The church, Bendickson said, has screened all of their volunteers.

“We looked specifically for people who would be warm, and non-judgmental,” she said. “Instead of assuming the worst-case scenario, my hope is that you will soon be hearing from LGBT students who say they have been blessed by a relationship with an Elevation Church mentor.”

Bendickson said the church’s training guide addresses sensitivity, though she admitted they do not specifically address LGBT issues.

“These students come from different backgrounds, societies, cultures, and lifestyles,” the manual reads, according to Bendisckson. “Take time to learn about what is different and honor it. A lack of understanding can result in judgement, from there all doors can be closed to developing a trusting relationship. Remember that you were once the age of the student that you are mentoring. What questions did you have? What interests, anxieties, and what was important to you? This will help nurture a ground of good conversation and growth in the relationship you have with the student.”

“Though we didn’t directly address LGBT students in our training manual, we do want to be a support to ALL our students no matter what background they come from or what challenges they are facing,” Bendickson said. “Our goal is to guide and support, and not to judge.”

The training manual also reminds volunteers to “reflect the heart of the organizations.”

“I believe that if you listen to Pastor Steven’s sermons online, you will hear his heart to love people right where they are,” Bendickson said. “You will never hear him preach a message of condemnation.”

Bendickson also said Elevation wants to be a “life-giving church that is a welcome, safe place for ALL people to come and hear the gospel preached in a powerful, relevant way.”

Is homosexuality a sin?

Bendickson did not reply to several direct questions on whether Elevation considers homosexuality to be a sin.

As an affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention, the church is prohibited from acting to “affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior.” Similar language from the North Carolina Baptist State Convention prohibits churches from acting to “affirm, approve, endorse, promote, support or bless homosexual behavior.” (See our extra coverage below for more on the Southern Baptist’s and North Carolina Baptist’s positions on homosexuality.)

“I can’t imagine Jesus answering your question simply, yes or no — and I can’t do that for you either,” she said. “I love my Jesus and my church too much to boil down a question that is so divisive and painful for so many into black and white. We love Jesus. We love people. All people.

“I was far from God when I found Elevation in 2006,” Bendickson added. “I loved Jesus, but there was sin and brokenness in my life and there still is.”

She said Elevation seeks to “pierce the darknesss with the love of Christ,” saying, “And you will feel welcome here… you will also be challenged, like I am — by the truth of God’s word.”

Jon Repp, an openly gay man who lives in Charlotte, has attended Elevation for some time. Unlike some other gay attendees, Repp has stuck it out with the church.

“I did know and was told that because I was gay and openly gay, I would not be able to be an employee of Elevation and work for them,” said Repp, who also noted one pastor also told him the church does believe homosexuality is a sin.

Repp said the church is the one place where he has felt comfortable worshipping, despite the church’s theological positions on homosexuality.

“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,” Repp said. “I never felt discriminated by it directly. Ultimately, I had to ask myself was this really important?”

Repp added, “At some level, it does bother me that they disagree [and] that I couldn’t be an employee because I’m gay and that the church might believe I am wrong, but then again I’m sure there are many things I believe they are wrong about…I don’t see it as an issue. To me the greater purpose is love. As long as you learn to love yourself and respect yourself, someone else’s opinion shouldn’t bother me.”

Though Repp is comfortable with the church, he said he does recognize some young people might not have the maturity to handle anti-gay views.

“A lot of that depends on their household, their parents, their family,” he said. “I understand the concern, but if I had to choose, I would much rather have someone from Elevation than from one of the gay-affirming churches in Charlotte.”

EXTRA COVERAGE:

Elevation subsidizing anti-gay hate?

Elevation Church’s single-largest contribution in 2011 was a $100,000 gift to the Boone, N.C.-based Samaritan’s Purse, an international Christian charity run by the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of North Carolina evangelist Billy Graham.

Franklin Graham has a number of outspoken, anti-LGBT views and he has used his organization to advocate against LGBT equality.

Samaritan’s Purse contributed $150,200 of the total $272,593.70 cost of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s series of newspaper and TV advertisements supporting an anti-LGBT state constitutional amendment passed by voters on May 8, 2012.

The day after the North Carolina amendment vote, President Barack Obama announced his support for full equality in marriage for same-sex couples. Graham responded by saying the president had “shaken his fist” at God. Graham has also said equality for LGBT people “will be to our peril and to the destruction of this nation.”

Asserting that “[t]here is no room for us to consider gay marriage or same-sex marriage,” Graham has also said that equality for LGBT families “takes the family away and there is no way you can have a family with two females or two males, if you just think biologically how God made us our plumbing is completely different.”

Graham also described his effort to stem LGBT equality as a “religious war” on a Samaritan’s Purse webpage supporting this year’s controversy over Chick-fil-A’s millions-of-dollars-worth of anti-gay funding.

And, in a column originally written for The Washington Post and published on Samaritan’s Purse’s website, Graham said gay “sin” had caused HIV. In response to U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms’ insistence that HIV/AIDS was a “homosexual disease,” Graham related that he “…pointed him to Scripture where Jesus was always full of compassion, even if a person’s sin had caused their circumstances.”

Southern, N.C. Baptists on homosexuality

The Southern Baptist Convention and the North Carolina Baptist State Convention have both issued strong position statements against LGBT equality. Though the word “Baptist” does not appear in its name, Elevation Church is affiliated with both groups and was started as a church plant by the state convention in 2006.

To a large extent, Elevation has depicted itself as more inclusive, but given its association with both religious denominations, decidedly pro-LGBT theological positions from Elevation’s pastor or other leaders are not a likely reality.

The Southern Baptist Convention says homosexuality is “is not a ‘valid alternative lifestyle’” in its official position statement on the topic. They add, “The Bible condemns it as sin.”

In 1993, the Southern Baptist Convention changed its constitution to forbid churches from membership if they ”act to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior.”

A more strict policy was adopted by the North Carolina convention in 2006,  when it voted to adopt a similar policy that also allows state convention officials to investigate individual churches which are suspected of having “knowingly act[ed] to affirm, approve, endorse, promote, support or bless homosexual behavior.”

Southern Baptist and North Carolina Baptist leaders have also routinely reiterated their strong stands against LGBT equality.

In 1988, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution calling homosexuality an “abomination” and “a chosen lifestyle” linked to “moral decline” and that it is ”a manifestation of a depraved nature” and ”a perversion of divine standards.”

In June 2012, Southern Baptists passed another resolution saying gay rights cannot be considered “civil rights.”

North Carolina Baptists unanimously passed a resolution last year supporting the state’s anti-LGBT constitutional amendment. At the same time, First Baptist Church of Charlotte Pastor Mark Harris was elected state convention president.

Harris has a history of anti-gay sentiments.

“I just don’t buy that it’s a natural inclination,” Harris said of LGBT sexual orientations. He added, “We love the person caught in the sin of homosexuality. It’s the sin we hate.”

In an interview with qnotes last year, Harris reiterated his belief that homosexuality is a choice.

“I believe, if you read the book of Romans, the first chapter, you begin to understand homosexuality being a choice,” he explained. “It is a decision a person makes to give up natural relations for unnatural relations.”