Concerning all those ‘fake baptisms’ at Elevation Church

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Long, long, ago I covered several Billy Graham crusades or other evangelistic efforts linked to his organization. In the days before these giant events, the pros doing press relations went out of their way to explain many of the fine details of what was happening and why.

For example, they noted that after Graham extended his invitation for people to come forward to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior, or to rededicate their lives as Christians, many of the first people who came forward were actually trained counselors who would be greeting these seekers and helping to answer their questions. The counselors sat all over the stadium rather than clogging up the front rows in front of the podium.

Did this give the appearance that many people were streaming forward to make decisions, thus helping “break the ice” for those who might hesitate? That way have been a secondary affect. The key was that the counselors immediately went to work at the front of the stadium doing what they were supposed to do — work with the seekers who were coming forward. (For example, during the Colorado crusade in 1987, one of my stories focused on the cooperation between the Denver Catholic Archdiocese and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association to find and train Catholic counselors to work with Catholics who came forward to make decisions.)

In other words, it was a valid question to ask about the visual effect of the counselors streaming forward. The Graham people heard the question, validated it and then provided an answer.

So how does my Graham story relate to the NBC Charlotte investigation into the the baptismal practices being used at the massive Elevation Church?

First of all, the story opens — for some strange reason — with a piece of news that really isn’t news, for anyone who has been following megachurch trends.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – You wouldn’t know it by the name, but Elevation Church is Southern Baptist. Its Pastor Steven Furtick graduated from a Southern Baptist seminary. Elevation was planted with seed money from Southern Baptists. And Elevation gives money to Southern Baptist missions.

But you won’t find the Baptist name on Elevation. Instead its campuses are marked with Elevation’s trademarked name and brand — the orange circle with the “up arrow” chevron shape inside. There’s not even the traditional cross on the outside of Elevation buildings.

So what else is new? Skilled religion-beat specialists have been covering this generic megachurch trend for a decade or more. Can you say Saddleback Community Church? I thought so.

No, the key to this report is the claim that many of the people who rush forward to take part in Elevation Church’s trademark mass baptism services are not really newcomers to the faith. They are plants used to create emotional scenes that promote inflated numbers. Readers are told:

Elevation Church keeps an exact count of its thousands of baptisms, all part of its laser like focus on numbers. But those numbers have spiked and dipped from year to year according to a confidential internal report obtained by the NBC Charlotte I-Team — from 289 in 2010 to 2,410 in 2011, from 689 in 2012 to 3,519 for the first eight months of last year.

To get those thousands of baptisms takes a lot of planning.

And Elevation produced a document to show other churches how they could do likewise. It’s titled “Spontaneous Baptisms — A How-To Guide” and the church
shared it freely on the Sun Stand Still website.

But parts of the mass baptism guide have drawn sharp criticism — from other Christians. Page one shows that the first people instructed to respond to Pastor
Steven’s call to baptism were not converts suddenly inspired but Elevation volunteers carefully planted in the crowd.

The guide instructs, “Fifteen people will sit in the worship experience and be the first ones to move when Pastor gives the call. Move intentionally through the highest visibility areas and the longest walk.”

So, in the words of one critic, these 15 people are faking people out, they are in fact “shilling” for the church’s leaders.

So what do the church leaders say in response to these questions?

For example, when these 15 people reach the front of the church, do they (a) fake being converts who are asking for baptism or (b) do they openly and honestly join other team members as counselors for the newcomers?

In other words, are we dealing with a honestly practiced system built on volunteer counselors or a kind of staged spiritual “miracle”?

It’s clear what the NBC Charlotte team thinks:

The spontaneous baptism how-to guide describes its purpose as to “pull off our part in God’s miracle.” Church leaders have repeatedly referred to the mass response as a “miracle.” But the guide reveals plenty of human staging.

“Most people would not want to be seen as manipulating a group because then you would have questions of authenticity,” said Rev. David Key, who teaches Southern Baptist studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. … Key compares the mass baptism service to a show at Disneyworld. “This church has obviously discovered what we in the industry call the ‘Disneyfication’ of religious services.”

That’s a nice touch, quoting a “Southern Baptist studies” specialist at a liberal Protestant seminary. I am sure that there are mainstream evangelicals and perhaps even Southern Baptist critics who would raise questions about what is going on or even offer other factual insights into these kinds of services. Where are those crucial voices?

The online guide does include many staging details that give me (as a former Southern Baptist deacon turned Eastern Orthodox layman) sweaty palms.

But here is the key: We never find out what happens with those crucial 15 volunteers. Who are they? What do they do once they reach the front of the church?

Did the church have an opportunity to explain its beliefs and practices? It appears so, according to reporter Stuart Watson.

Elevation Pastor Steven Furtick asked me for a face-to-face, off-the-record meeting with me to ask me not to run this report. I spent an hour on the telephone and two more hours in person discussing my reporting, his church and his concerns. Pastor Steven said I have been unfair and this report in particular would hurt Elevation Church members.

I asked Pastor Steven to consent to an unedited, on-camera interview.

I offered to let Elevation’s cameras record the interview. I offered to stream the interview in its entirety online. I offered to air a half-hour unedited interview on television. And WCNC held this report while waiting for Pastor Steven to respond.

Instead Elevation Chief Financial Officer Chunks Corbett e-mailed a statement, saying in part: “We are confident that those who attend Elevation Church know and understand our mission and vision for reaching people for Jesus Christ. As attendees, they are provided, through weekly teachings, biblical context for everything we do and practice, such as baptism, giving, serving and inviting friends to church.”

So what is going on here?

It appears that the church was offered plenty of chances to explain its methods. I cannot fault the station’s approach and, yes, it sure seems like the Elevation leadership has something to hide.

But here is the bottom line: We still don’t know if the 15 volunteers are people who fake decisions and then, even worse, go on to take part in fake baptisms. That appears to be the claim being made in this report.

Are these 15 volunteers actually Graham-crusade-style counselors who walk forward and then openly and honestly face the congregation as members of the church’s counseling staff? Did anyone at NBC Charlotte — in a town where one of the major roads is the Billy Graham Parkway — think to ask that question?

It would have been wise for Elevation Church leaders to ask that question themselves and then answer it.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • chrisblackstone

    It’s clear from the “Spontaneous Baptism How-To” guide available here

    http://www.sunstandstill.org/baptismkit

    that the 15 people are intended to be part of the “Celebration Team”. Look at Page 4

    The 15 are intended to be cheerleaders for those who are actually coming forward to be baptized.

    I’m not a big fan of Elevation’s methods, but the reading in the WCNC article is less than charitable.

    • jason mitchell

      While I agree that it is not necessarily a fair article and I celebrate all God is doing at Elevation, I have read the “How To” guide a few times in that section and only see a vague reference as “part of the celebration team.” I see it says: 1. Sit in the
      auditorium and begin moving forward when Pastor Steven says go. 2. Move intentionally through the highest
      visibility areas and the longest walk.

      How does that become part of the “celebration team”? It takes a lot of the benefit of the doubt to assume that,” moving through the highest visibility ares and longest walk,” is not simply a ploy to make others in the audience see that they are not the only ones responding to baptism. That is not fake baptisms as some would allude, but it would certainly be deception that is designed to encourage others to respond to the call.

      Again, I celebrate what God is doing there, but this does not look good and I’m not sure what part of the guide (that is beneficial for lots of logistical things) actually supports your claim that they are part of the celebration team and not just staged volunteers designed to be displayed to the rest of the audience.

      • http://pajamapages.com Pajama Pages

        “Celebration team” is used generically to describe the entire phalanx of cheerleaders and pit-stop attendants. It’s not a reference to the musicians, who were all busy on stage at the time.

        • tmatt

          But you are describing them as people who are greeting and assisting the converts, not pretending to be among them. Right?

          But again, the source of your info is?

          • http://pajamapages.com Pajama Pages

            My source is the guide. Since SF isn’t talking, it’s the best source we’ve got. The 15 are listed in addition to sets of other workers (4 at the doors, 30 in the hallway, for example). The 15 are only described from their starting point and their action (walk out and lead), though it doesn’t say what happened to them afterwards. I see three options:

            1) There were 360 first-time baptism candidates who were silently recruited and were baptized only once during this event. The essence of these events is that the baptism is a secret until you get to church, at least for the first week.

            2) There were 360 Elevation old-timers who agreed to get baptized again and do their part to do the walking. The problem is that SF preaches against rebaptism, so if we’re to take his preaching seriously, this can’t be so.

            3) There were 60 people (4 campuses x 15) who got up when called, then melted away and reprised their roles in the next services.

            #1 is unlikely, and the guide doesn’t explain how this difficult task would be accomplished.

            #2 makes SF a liar.

            #3 is consistent with the guide.

          • jason mitchell

            I think #3 is the most likely and the most consistent with the idea of “celebration team” volunteers. It also gives them the most benefit of the doubt (something we should make standard practice with things we don’t understand.

            However, I still don’t like the idea, especially the showmanship of “taking the longest path possible.” It is deceptive at best and emotional manipulation designed to get a crowd to respond.

            While I am excited about what God is genuinely doing there, even as a believer, this is concerning. For the reporter who does not have to give the benefit of the doubt, I certainly see the room to interpret this in a negative way, particularly when Elevation chose not to clearly respond.

  • http://pajamapages.com Pajama Pages

    You’re looking for 360 people, not 15. At the time, Elevation had four campuses meeting three times each Sunday over two weeks. 15 x 4 x 3 x 2 = 360. For context, Elevation baptized only 289 the previous year.

    These were not counselors, either. They had to sit where they’d be seen (the front) then walk the longest route to the exit. The volunteers lining the hallways were supposed to keep people walking, so there was no point where counseling was even offered. If they were counselors, don’t you think Elevation would have said so already? And not even the few people on Twitter who have acknowledged being part of the groups of 15 have suggested that this was their role.

    • tmatt

      ” … so there was no point where counseling was even offered.”

      And your source for this precise info?

      • http://pajamapages.com Pajama Pages

        As noted below, the guide itself.

  • Rory Tyer

    It is clear that this is written by someone who has it in for Furtick and the church- and I think this journalist has written other pieces along similar lines- but it’s not clear that even erasing that spin can stop this from looking very unfortunate.

  • Ron Calhoun

    Have you ever attended a dance where no one danced for the first 20 minutes. No body wanted to be first.

    All these folks are doing is supplying a cople of folks to break the ice and be the first to dance.

    No one is forced to get out on the dance floor. But if you want to dance and feel a little shy, you don’t feel like all of the eyes are on you if some one is already dancing.

  • http://almostreadytogoamish.blogspot.com/ Johnny

    Wonder if Furtick can read Greek, let alone translate “baptizo” correctly?

  • cestusdei

    This is actually an old practice among fundamentalist churches. And yes it is manipulative. Being baptized is a huge commitment and should not be undertaken lightly or out of spur of the moment emotion. I am equally concerned about the lack of a cross and the use of an arrow. Truth in advertizing. We should never be ashamed of the cross.

  • newgirl

    I’d like to know if someone goes through with baptism without being properly taught about what it means, does it make the baptism invalid or only partly invalid or is it actually ok since only God knows the true intentions of a person’s heart in going forward for baptism? Strange tho’ for Terry Mattingly not to recognize that by the same standard, all the infant baptisms are also “fake”.


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