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North Carolina megachurch exits Southern Baptist Convention after expulsions over women pastors

Delegates hold up their ballots at the Southern Baptist Convention at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans on June 13. Less than a month after finalizing the ouster of one of its largest churches for having women pastors, the Southern Baptist Convention has lost another of its biggest congregations. Elevation Church – a North Carolina-based megachurch that draws thousands of worshippers to its multiple campuses and has wielded a strong influence on contemporary Christian worship music – sent notice to the SBC on June 26 that it was withdrawing its affiliation. (Scott Clause/The Daily Advertiser via AP file).

Less than a month after finalizing the ouster of one of its largest churches for having women pastors, the Southern Baptist Convention has lost another of its biggest congregations.

Elevation Church – a North Carolina-based megachurch that draws thousands of worshippers to its multiple campuses and has wielded a strong influence on contemporary Christian worship music – sent notice to the SBC on June 26 that it was withdrawing its affiliation.

Elevation’s letter didn’t give a reason. Elevation Pastor Steven Furticks wife, Holly Furtick, preaches at Elevation to men and women, and has links to her sermons on her website.

The Baptist Faith and Message – the denomination’s statement of faith – says the office of pastor is limited to qualified men. Influential Southern Baptist leaders have said that preaching is inextricably linked to the role of pastor.

Earlier in June, the SBC representatives overwhelmingly voted at their annual meeting to affirm the expulsion of Saddleback Church, the Southern California megachurch founded by Rick Warren, author of the massive best-seller, “The Purpose Driven Life,” and his wife Kay Warren. The convention also affirmed the ouster of Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. Both churches had appealed the February decision by the SBC’s Executive Committee to remove them for having women pastors, along with three other congregations that didn’t appeal.

The Elevation Church letter, addressed to the Executive Committee and released by Baptist Press, the SBC’s official news service, said it was withdrawing from the convention “effective immediately.”

It maintained that the church’s beliefs are “very much in line” with those of Southern Baptists and has no intention of changing that.

Also at its annual meeting, representatives took a preliminary vote to amend the SBC constitution to require participating churches to have only qualified men as pastor or elder.

Elevation and the Executive Committee did not immediately respond to The Associated Press’ request for comment.

Founded in 2006, the Matthews, North Carolina-based church has multiple campuses in the Charlotte area and elsewhere in North Carolina, neighboring states and even Canada. It drew 26,000 average worshippers per week in 2022, seventh most among Protestant churches and one behind Saddleback, according to the Outreach 100, an annual survey by Outreach magazine.

According to the SBC’s internal records, the church had an average attendance of 10,185 in 2021, the most recent data available. The discrepancy in attendance figures couldn’t immediately be explained but may reflect differences in how post-pandemic online worshippers are counted.

Elevation has also produced an extensive repertoire of worship music that has been widely influential. The church-affiliated Elevation Worship has won six Dove Awards – the top award for contemporary Christian music – including song of the year for “The Blessing.” The song became a viral video hit in the 2020 pandemic lockdown with its reassuring lyrics sung by virtual choirs around the world.

"That makes Elevation not just a large church but having a large influence in the country," said longtime megachurch researcher Scott Thumma of Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

He said Elevation was clearly taking its cue from the overwhelming stance of the SBC to reject Warren’s appeal. Warren had said Baptists should be able to agree to disagree on issues such as women in ministry while cooperating on missions and evangelism.

Thumma wondered how many other churches may follow in its lead.

“They explicitly excluded Saddleback to make a symbolic point that nobody is immune to this more fundamentalist narrowing of this complementarian belief,” he said, referring to the doctrine then men and women have distinct, complementary roles, with men as leaders in churches and families.

That, he said, has had “ripple effects” on other churches

“I could easily see others leaving to make a statement, rather than sitting around waiting for the SBC to remove them.”

The SBC has been in membership decline for nearly two decades but remains the largest Protestant denomination in America. In statistics released earlier this year by Lifeway Research, the denomination fell to 13.2 million members in 2022. That is the lowest level since the late 1970s. Rates of baptisms are also in long-term decline.