Two Charlotte churches are expanding, defying decline of religion

Two Charlotte churches are expanding, defying decline of religion

Two Charlotte churches are expanding, defying decline of religion


by MICHAEL GORDON / Charlotte Observer

Posted on December 17, 2012 at 8:29 AM

Updated Monday, Dec 17 at 8:36 AM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Two of Charlotte’s largest and fastest-growing suburban congregations have taken steps to get even bigger.

The churches, Elevation and St. Matthew Catholic, have launched major expansions to find new worship space.

Both serve booming south Charlotte, and both defy a longstanding national trend in which fewer Americans attend church every year.

Elevation, one of the country’s fastest-growing evangelical congregations, plans to build a $20 million facility in Ballantyne to house its administrative staff, along with a 1,500-seat sanctuary.

Elevation also is considering two sites in Huntersville for a campus there. In all, the projects will cost more than $30 million.

This month, Elevation hopes its new “Banner Years” campaign will raise the up-front money needed so the church can pay cash for the sites – $3.5 million for 20 acres off U.S. 521 in Ballantyne, and another $2.5 million for the Huntersville tract of its choice.

“We are not building a church for our own benefit. We are designing a movement for the glory of God,” Pastor Steven Furtick said in announcing the campaign.

“Which means we can’t stop or back down ... We want to be available and ready to launch new Elevation locations anytime and anywhere God leads.”

Catholic migration

St. Matthew, home to some 30,000 members, is one of the country’s largest Catholic parishes.

Last month, it notified the congregation that the church is negotiating for the Diocese of Charlotte to buy 34 acres in Waxhaw.

Almost 30 percent of the church’s 9,000 families live near the new site, which is 10 miles south of the home church at Waxhaw-Marvin Road and Kensington Drive.

David Hains, spokesman for the Diocese of Charlotte, said a sale price for the land is not being disclosed.

According to the Catholic News Herald, Food Lion paid $3 million for the site in 2009. The church hopes to build there in the next 5 to 10 years.

Currently, St. Matthew’s 2,000-seat sanctuary on Ballantyne Commons Parkway is filled for services. To handle the overflow, masses also are held in the church gym as well as a nearby Episcopal church, the News Herald said.

Both church expansions challenge recent studies that indicate a shrinking role for religion in modern American life.

An October report by the Pew Foundation on Religion and Public Life said 20 percent of Americans have no religious affiliation. For adults younger than 30, it’s one-third. Both figures are the highest ever recorded.

Yet both Elevation and St. Matthew benefit from being based in the fastest-growing part of one of America’s fastest growing cities.

Elevation, from its young, jeans-wearing pastor to its worship bands and light shows, also attracts young people, the supposed spiritual indifferents.

Likewise, St. Matthew has become a magnet for Catholic families that have flocked to the city for the past 20 years. Many of them moved to south Charlotte for upscale neighborhoods and some of the city’s best public schools.

Other of the region’s fastest-growing churches are similarly tied to boom areas.

Mecklenburg Community Church in north Charlotte recently added satellites near Lake Norman and Mountain Island Lake.

And on Sunday, Forest Hill Church, which also has a Ballantyne site, held its first service at its new Fort Mill facility near sprawling Baxter Village on Interstate 77.

Satellite sites are a popular strategy among Protestant megachurches. A 2008 survey found that 37 percent of such churches had two or more satellite campuses.

Elevation, a Southern Baptist congregation that is only 7 years old, already has seven Charlotte-area campuses plus an extension church in Toronto.

In 2008-09, the congregation raised $4.6 million to build Elevation Matthews. Its 2010 “Kingdom Come” campaign funneled $5.1 million toward its Blakeney location.

Church leaders say they have pre-approval for a loan to pay the estimated $25 million needed to build and equip the Ballantyne and Huntersville projects. Plans call for the work be completed by 2014.

As of Saturday night, and a little more than a week into its “Banner Years” campaign, Elevation had already raised $5 million, most of which will go toward buying the land, spokeswoman Tonia Bendickson said.

The pledges from Sunday, she said, were still being counted.