Originally published: April 22, 2009, 8:45 a.m.
Updated: May 2, 2009, 1:18 p.m.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Once revered as the leader of the national evangelical movement, former Colorado Springs, Colo. pastor Ted Haggard and wife Gayle appeared on stage with Elevation Church pastor Steven Furtick on April 26. The appearance on the campus of the Matthews, N.C., Providence High School — videotaped and broadcast at the church’s several other locations and worship times — marks the first time the wildly popular church has publicly dealt with the issue of homosexuality.
Young pastor Steven Furtick said on his blog that Haggard’s appearance would be a chance for “the story of the deception of sin and the forgiveness of God [to] speak for itself” and to “serve as a salient reminder of the devastating results of disobedience, and hopefully, the beginning of a personal healing process for many hurting people.”
After years of publicly chastening LGBT people as pastor of New Life Church, Haggard became the subject of serious allegations from male prostitute Mike Jones in November 2006. Jones claimed Haggard had paid him for sex several times over a three year period. Jones also said he had helped Haggard buy crystal meth.
Haggard, who was also president of the National Association of Evangelicals at the time, later admitted to the allegations, resigned from his position with his church and the association and entered a “restoration” process guided by several evangelical pastors across the country.
Furtick’s invitation for the Haggards to speak at the church captivated the Charlotte community and sparked conversations about the issue of homosexuality and the church.
Before introducing the couple, Furtick addressed his congregation and spoke on the reasons for bringing the couple to Charlotte, warning against condemnation.
“If you came here today looking for a condemnation of a person or a group of people, you are going to be disappointed,” he said. “For far too long the Church of Jesus has been known for what we are against rather than what we are for. We want to be known as a church that’s known for what we’re for, and what we’re for is the redemption of all people and people who are far from God being brought here to Jesus through the Gospel.”
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At the same time, Furtick also said his church would stand up for truth and not take a “soft stance on the issue of sin,” adding that the church believes all sex outside of marriage is sinful. Furtick clumped “homosexual acts” with sins such as adultery and drunkenness.
Furtick told the packed auditorium, “I want you to know we are a church full of truth, which means that if you have come here today wanting me to condone any particular lifestyle that you choose to live, you’ll be disappointed as well.”
On a church website made to answer frequently asked questions about the Haggards’ invitation to speak Elevation said, “We’re not going to condemn Ted Haggard for what he’s done. We’re not going to bash homosexuality. We’re not endorsing homosexuality. We’re not endorsing anything. We’re frankly going to let the story speak for itself.”
The church added that they were committed to being a church that can “talk about everything.”
Furtick’s statements and interview with the Haggards are sure to be a disappointment to Elevation’s many openly gay and lesbian congregants — some of whom have told Q-Notes they started attending the church because of the acceptance and welcome they felt there.
Chad Ellis, one of Elevation’s gay members, has been attending the church for over a year. He attended one of the several worship services where the Haggards’ interview was shown via recorded video.
Ellis told Q-Notes that he was deeply hurt by Furtick’s statements and offended by Ted Haggard’s presence. He said he was disappointed the church decided to bring in such a controversial figure to begin it’s conversation on homosexuality.
Part of what is so painful, he says, is that Elevation was the church he ran to after feeling so rejected by the Catholic Church. He never knew Elevation’s stance on homosexuality until the Sunday of Haggards’ appearance.
“I didn’t know and I didn’t want to ask,” Ellis said passionately. “I didn’t want to be rejected by the church again.”
Ellis said he’d never heard his pastor directly address the subject.
Re-baptized at the church, Ellis said his experiences there were deeply personal and spiritual, rather than social or communal, so he never spoke to many people and never publicly addressed his sexual orientation with other members or church staff. Ellis said it was a relief to find a church where he could feel comfortable and gain personal and spiritual insight and guidance for everyday life.
But now he’s not sure he can ever really enjoy the worship experience at Elevation again.
“I’m hesitant to go now, just thinking that I’d be turned away from that kind of church,” he said.
Ellis said he intended to address his feelings of hurt and anger directly with Furtick.
During the interview with Furtick, Ted Haggard apologized to Evangelical Christians and those who had looked to him for leadership.
“I am deeply sorry,” Haggard said, addressing his sex and drug scandal. “It was a horrible series of events. I was responsible for it and I am so ashamed that I misrepresented the Body of Christ and that I hurt people and caused them pain and that I embarrassed them.”
While on stage, Haggard didn’t apologize to LGBT people.
But, in a January appearance on ABC News’ “Nightline,” Haggard said he understood why some see him as a hypocrite, after his years of anti-gay preaching. He apologized to gays and lesbians.
“I do apologize,” Haggard told the network. “Take all the pain, all the rejection, all the hurt I caused to those men and women, gays and lesbians. I am deeply sorry for that attitude I had, but I think I was partially so vehement because of my own war.”
During the interview, neither the Haggards nor Furtick directly addressed LGBT issues or homosexuality as they concerned the scandal.
Haggard’s appearance was a part of the church’s “Healer” series. Furtick said the “real hero” of the story was Gayle Haggard and praised her for standing by her husband, asking her how she was able to do it.
“I first heard the news of this along with everyone else,” Gayle Haggard said. “It was a very shocking moment in my life. I had to determine, who am I going to be in this?”
She said that while her “heart was broken” she also knew that she had “gotten through every difficulty in my life with the strength of the Scripture and the Holy Spirit.”
She added, “God said to forgive and to love. Those are his instructions always to us when we have been hurt and offended.”
Writing on his blog prior to the Haggards’ appearance at Elevation, Furtick said he had been “deeply affected while following Pastor Ted’s prominent fall from grace over the last two and a half years.”
Furtick wrote, “I have been even more deeply touched by the decision of his wife and family to stand by him through the healing and restoration process.”
In his blog and on stage, Furtick said he was grateful his church would be able to hear the story of grace and healing presented by the Haggards, and especially by Gayle.
Only three years old, Elevation Church has become extremely popular across the city, with its laid-back, modern and open worship styles. The church meets in three locations across Charlotte, including two public high school auditoriums, with several worship times each Sunday. Elevation claims up to 5,000 or more parishioners and was recently named the second-fastest growing church in the nation.