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

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

Elevation’s letter did not state why. Elevation Pastor Steven Furtick’s 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 that the office of pastor is limited to qualified men. Influential Southern Baptist leaders have said that preaching is inextricably linked to the role of the pastor.

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

Elevation Church’s letter, addressed to the Executive Committee and published by Baptist Press, the official news service of the SBC, said it was withdrawing from the convention «effective immediately.»

He maintained that the church’s beliefs are «very much in line» with those of Southern Baptists and he has no intention of changing that.

Also at their annual meeting, representatives preliminarily voted to amend the SBC constitution to require that participating churches have only qualified men as pastors or elders.

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

Founded in 2006, the Matthews, North Carolina-based church has multiple campuses in the Charlotte area and in other parts of North Carolina, neighboring states, and even Canada. It drew an average of 26,000 worshipers 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 internal SBC records, the church had an average attendance of 10,185 in 2021, the most recent data available. The discrepancy in attendance figures could not be immediately explained, but may reflect post-pandemic differences in how the online faithful are counted.

Elevation has also produced an extensive worship music repertoire which has been very influential. Church-affiliated Elevation Worship has won six Dove Awards, the highest award for contemporary Christian music, including song of the year for «The Blessing.» The song went viral during the 2020 pandemic lockdown with its calming lyrics sung by virtual choirs from around the world.

“That makes Elevation not only a big church, but a big influence in the country,” said megachurch researcher Scott Thumma of Hartford’s Institute for Religious Research.

He said Elevation was clearly taking a cue from the SBC’s overwhelming stance to reject Warren’s appeal. Warren had said that Baptists should be able to agree to disagree on issues like women in ministry as they cooperate in missions and evangelism.

Thumma wondered how many other churches could follow suit.

“They explicitly excluded Saddleback to symbolically signal that no one is immune from this more fundamentalist narrowing of this complementary belief,” he said, referring to the doctrine that men and women have distinct and complementary roles, with men as leaders in churches. and families. .

That, he said, has had «ripple effects» in other churches.

“I could easily see others leaving to make a statement, instead of sitting back and waiting for the SBC to take them down.”

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