“Why should I apologize because God throws in crystal chandeliers, mahogany floors, and the best construction in the world?”
In the words of the infamous Jimmy Bakker, truer words have never been spoken when describing the megachurch scene in and around Charlotte. From Calvary to Team Church to any one of the 289 Elevation shopping center satellite churches, you couldn’t throw a rock in this city without hitting a baptismal pool full of the saved and a parking lot full of luxury SUVs.
As a lapsed Catholic, like the vast majority of Northerners who moved down here as a kid, this concept of church being a fun, flashy and BIG experience kept me from ever really trying out any of the dozens of churches that pop up in the area every few years. Fortunately for me, my other half happens to be a third-generation Charlottean, and as a result, my Catholic guilt and her Charlottean itch to find herself some Jesus led us to recently start seeking out a church that we could call our own.
Here’s a quick breakdown of some I tried:
Broadcast location: 11701 Elevation Point Drive in Ballantyne. Find other locations here.
Pros: If you like your church-going experience to feel like you’ve just seen that “next-big-thing” band play before they became stars, this is the place to be. Their contemporary Elevation Worship band just got nominated for three top Billboard Music Awards in April. As a result, it’s not too surprising that the band and the charismatic pastors take center stage during the sermon. Also, people just seem to dress cooler at Elevation than anywhere else. Fitted jeans, a variety of piercings, new Jordans….you name it, that crowd was wearing it. Plus, the populist message from Pastor Steven Furtick is…not offensive!
Cons: If you’re concerned that the leader of your church is starting to form a cult of personality or you simply just want a bit more substance in your message, Elevation may not be the best fit for you. Congregants can be seen toting around Furtick’s published books, campus pastors at each location mimic his tone and his style, and the social media backlash for those who criticize the church can be swift and vigilant.
My final take: I felt like I walked into Kanye’s “Flashing Lights” video for an hour so…PASS.
Location: 8015 Ballantyne Commons Pkwy.
Pros: Hey it’s a Catholic church and it’s not too far from home and it’s not even trying to be overly “progressive” or hip and…zzzzz.
Cons: I’ve never slept so well in my life.
My final take: Maybe I’m not quite ready to jump into the old school route just yet; gotta ease my way into the (baptismal) water first. With that being said, Father Hoare does lead a massive congregation that continues to grow, and while the sermon style is more traditional and formal, the church has a history in Charlotte as the primary place to go for Catholic transplants from the Northeast and the Rust Belt during the 1980s and 90s, myself included.
Disclaimer: While Catholic churches are not technically called Megachurches, this is a big Catholic church.
Location: 5301 Sardis Road
Pros: It’s a traditional church with some history in the area and a sizable and diverse congregation. Pastor Livingston appears to have done a strong job building this church into the 21st century, as the Central Church of God has actually been in Charlotte since 1977, with its current primary location off of Sardis having been purchased in 1988. The emphasis on the Bible as the Word and on redemption for the people who visit has been keeping people in the seats at this new location for three decades now.
Cons: While I had planned to attend last month, I got there and suddenly decided that I was definitely going to be the only new person there and, to be fair, the actual church is a bit more consolidated than these other megachurches. I decided to make a run for it like a hero and watched a sermon from them at home online instead.
My final take: Central Church of God seems pretty nice, to be honest, but while I’m quick to critique these more “open” megachurches, I didn’t realize how appealing that sometimes can be for new people in particular. With that said, this church is fine, I am just a coward.
Locations: 2500 Carmel Road and 855 Sam Newell Rd., Suite 100, Matthews, NC
Pros: The emphasis on service was a refreshing change of pace and the church has a much more low-key air about it than some of these other megachurches. It also happens to have a branch in the same office park that I work in, so…convenience! Since visiting, I’ve checked out the social media presence of the church and found that they really focus on connecting with the community and reaching out through service projects in particular — another plus.
Cons: The Matthews location is definitely going to have a growing presence in the community as it continues to turn into a destination neighborhood all its own. With that being said, it’s definitely a family-oriented environment, particularly at its SouthPark location, and for many young adults, this may be a choice to pursue down the road.
My final take: I can vouch that the Matthews location is nice….and did I say convenient for me? It’s both! Wooden-pallet-focused interior design, Edison lights above the seating, and a location right outside of Downtown Matthews make this a location worth checking out.
Location: 8978 Charlotte Hwy., Indian Land, SC
Pros: If you want a pastor who happens to be a former NFL player (Derwin Gray), enjoy seeing Panthers and Hornets players scattered throughout the crowd, and like a friendly but hardly intrusive experience, this may be the church for you! Gray and the other pastors at the church focus on an uplifting message that can apply different passages from the Bible with daily experiences we have in our own lives in a refreshing and candid way.
Cons: No major critiques here. But on a personal note, someone in the seats behind me ate several pounds of chorizo for breakfast beforehand or had recently returned from a trip to a gastrointestinal specialist because a symphony of flatulence and stomach anguish kinda dampened the rest of the experience.
My final take: Cautiously optimistic.
At the end of the day, Transformation checked off all my “church criteria” boxes ranging from not being too pushy for new visitors to having a positive message and even encouraging people to get involved. I’m sure that every one of these churches can probably offer something similar depending on what people are looking for, and it’s always a process, rather than something that happens overnight.
While we may not be quite the holy rollers that Charlotteans once were in the heyday of the Bible Belt, there’s still a lot to gain from the many churches this city has to offer and a sense of identity and history that you just aren’t going to find waiting in line for an hour for brunch instead.
Featured photo: Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer