In keeping with the conservative, right-wing tendency to make use of Orwellian doublethink in naming institutions or organizations (e.g. compassionate conservatism), the founders and leaders of a modern, warehouse-style church here in Charlotte, North Carolina named their church Elevation. When I first started seeing Elevation stickers stuck to SUVs all over Charlotte, their name alone gave me a precise picture of the style of church they are. Having grown up in the evangelical Christian culture, the word elevation connotes to me that rush of elation constructed by the merging of music crafted to elicit strong human emotions and the use of lyrics that feature heavy repetition (chant-like phrases that repeat things like “Oh Lord!” and “Jesus!”), till a trance-like state of sinner-wallowing is achieved by the congregation. I imagined they would have a large projector screen (it turns out they have several), a live rock band to play modern worship music that sounds suspiciously like the worst of popular soft rock, country and alternative radio music, and a congregation full of people who like to “feel” their God through a near-orgasmic experience of arm waving, closed eyes, open mouths, and other signs typically connected to sexual arousal. In other words, they like to chastely fuck Jesus in a crowd of several hundred other mystical Christ lovers. Here is a taste of what their worship services are like:
Although the name Elevation does a good job of communicating the format of the service you’ll encounter, it turns out it is also an indicator that they are capable of little else besides rousing, musical love-making to Christ. See, these folks like to “rock out” to Jesus, but they don’t like what they term “distractions.” And just what are these “distractions” that will get you removed from the fellowship of worshiping brothers and sisters in Christ? Well, worshiping while having cerebral palsy is a no-no. That’s right, these Christ-like folks at Elevation Church removed a boy with cerebral palsy for becoming a distraction when he said “Amen!” Here is the printed story, as told by the local Charlotte news, Special Needs Boy Removed from Church Service (click on the video link on the left-hand side to see the news report).
Really it goes without saying, but being a Christian doesn’t make you any more empathetic than anyone else. In fact, as I have argued on numerous occasions on this blog, being a Christian typically has the opposite effect: it makes you think you know absolute Truth and are an authority to declare what is universally good or evil. Regardless of what various passages in the NT say about reserving judgment, knowing Absolute Truth means you can’t help but judge people and behaviors based on criteria that are eternal and holy. Also, the Christian faith teaches that suffering exists due to sin, so it is inevitable that believers will connect human suffering (in the form of disabilities, disease, etc.) with sin. This boy with cerebral palsy thus becomes connected to the concept of sin in a Christian’s mind, and who wants to be reminded of evil on the holy ground of a worship service?
What I found most interesting about this scandal is the church’s defensive reaction to this news story. You’d think that people used to asking for forgiveness from God wouldn’t have a problem asking the mother of this boy to forgive them. Wrong! Instead, church spokespeople told the local news they “focus on worship, not ministries,” and they issued a press release saying, among other things, “It is our goal at Elevation Church to offer a distraction-free environment for all our guests.” Yes, this church is totally free from the “distraction” of humans with disabilities. How nice. Their lack of a focus on ministries is the clue to unlocking their missing empathy towards others different from themselves. On the “About Elevation Outreach” page of their website (which you have to get to by clicking on a tiny little “outreach” link at the bottom of the main page — the location of the link and size of the font is a hint to their lack of interest in community service) the church includes a paltry excuse for why their church doesn’t care about human suffering in the community:
Many churches have people who are passionate about feeding the hungry in their city, and they feel the need to start a food pantry. So they do. The youth group adopts a neighborhood, the seniors read to kids at school, the women’s ministry serves food at Thanksgiving, the men start a remodeling ministry and on and on it goes. All of these things are wonderful, but there is a problem: spreading out the leaders, resources and manpower results in maximized exertion but minimized impact.
At Elevation, we have decided to flip this model of church outreach on its head. Rather than spread everything out, we’re focusing! We concentrate all of our efforts on strategic outreach partners who are already having tremendous impact in our city and across the world. Currently, Elevation is partnering with 26 different organizations. Our goal is to continue to reach out through partnerships that are making a difference in our community and beyond.
Note how they list all of the good things other churches are doing as if it’s not that helpful to the community. They dismiss those things with the phrase “these things are wonderful, but there is a problem.” This is followed by the unsubstantiated claim that this community service work leads to: “spreading out the leaders, resources and manpower” resulting in “maximized exertion but minimized impact.” Essentially, this statement claims that the way community service work is being done by churches today is seriously flawed. Their solution to a problem they claim exists without evidence? Well, “Rather than spread everything out, we’re focusing!” they claim, by forming “partnerships” with 26 community service organizations. I looked at the list of organizations they are “partnered” with, one of which I work with (Urban Ministry Center), and I can tell you that this whole page of their website is smoke and mirrors. They want to give you the impression that they actually work closely in conjunction with these organizations and provide them with funds. However, note how careful they are to avoid saying precisely what role they play in these partnerships.
Let me explain what the reality of these partnerships is. When I worked on a grant for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, I had to obtain numerous letters of partnership from various local groups, such as colleges, non-profits, individuals with expertise related to the grant’s focus, etc. In order to obtain a letter of partnership, I would simply say to an organization, “I am applying for a U.S. government grant, and your organization has expertise we need. We’re not looking for any involved obligation from you or your organization, we are just looking for a letter from you stating that you support our efforts and will be available to answer questions or give advice should we feel like calling you up to get it.” My guess, based on Elevation’s blanket dismissal of other churches’ community service work, and their deliberate lack of information about the extent of their involvement in the 26 organizations they list, is that they called up these organizations and said the following: “We are a large church with four locations in the Charlotte area, and we have thousands of congregants we can point towards your organizations. We’d like permission to list you as partners on our website, and we’ll be sure to tell our congregants to go to you, if they’re looking for a place to volunteer for or give funds to.” Based on their webpage, there is no reason to believe their link to these groups go any deeper than that. My overall point is this: all the clues you need to recognize the self-centered nature of this “church” is right there on their website. Since they are all about getting their self-centered Jesus fix for the week, it’s not surprising they would immediately remove any “distraction” that might keep them from focusing intensely on themselves.
(Thanks to Stephanie at Stuff Christian Culture Likes for bringing this story to my attention.)