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.

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Daily Mail: Welby ‘casts out sin’ in new baptismal rite — not

In my opinion, looking to London’s Daily Mail for religion news coverage is rather like looking to People magazine for peer-reviewed medical studies. Once in a great while there might just be a People article that accurately references some startling medical development — and the studies behind same — but that’s not the publication’s stock-in-trade.

So when the celebrity-saturated British tabloid — “Buffy The Vampire Player: Sarah Michelle Gellar has a blast with daughter Charlotte and her pal as they enjoy day at the beach” is a typical headline — dips into the Godbeat, you know something’s up. How thoroughly accurate that something will be is, well, another matter.

The Church of England, like many communions, practices pedobaptism — the baptism of infants and very young children. Its ceremony has, for years, required both parents and godparents to express their dedication to God and a repudiation of sin and Satan alike. Now, the Daily Mail revealed in a January 5 story that sparked global headlines, the CofE wants to change the script, something with which traditionalists are allegedly none-too-happy.

The report starts with a typical Mail-style headline, this time referencing a popular British soap opera: “Welby casts out ‘sin’ from christenings: Centuries-old rite rewritten in ‘language of EastEnders’ for modern congregation” is the top line. After that, the news:

Parents and godparents no longer have to ‘repent sins’ and ‘reject the devil’ during christenings after the Church of England rewrote the solemn ceremony.

The new wording is designed to be easier to understand – but critics are stunned at such a fundamental change to a cornerstone of their faith, saying the new ‘dumbed-down’ version ‘strikes at the heart’ of what baptism means.

In the original version, the vicar asks: ‘Do you reject the devil and all rebellion against God?’

Prompting the reply: ‘I reject them.’ They then ask: ‘Do you repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour?’, with the answer: ‘I repent of them.’

But under the divisive reforms, backed by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and already being practised in 1,000 parishes, parents and godparents are asked to ‘reject evil, and all its many forms, and all its empty promises’ – with no mention of the devil or sin.

The new text, to be tested in a trial lasting until Easter, also drops the word ‘submit’ in the phrase ‘Do you submit to Christ as Lord?’ because it is thought to have become ‘problematical’, especially among women who object to the idea of submission.

Apart from the rather odd sight of a newspaper that trumpets the sins of A-list and D-list celebs with great fervor now discoursing on “no mention of the devil of sin,” the story’s superheated explanation for the trial change is another fun bit:

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(Almost) everything you wanted to know about baptism

LINDSEY ASKS: All Protestants practice baptism by immersion — true or false?

THE GUY ANSWERS: False. Protestants are divided over many tenets and that includes baptism.

Churches that rarely or never fully immerse candidates’ bodies in water include the Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican (or Episcopal), Presbyterian, Reformed, etc.

On the opposite side, immersion is mandatory with Baptists and many others. Also, churches in the second category believe candidates must be able to profess personal faith, ruling out infant baptism which they say was not Christianity’s original practice, and often hold an infant “dedication” ceremony instead. There’s also disagreement on the theology of baptism and whether it’s a “sacrament.”

U.S. Catholic, Presbyterian and Reformed delegates recently affirmed two baptism rules dating from Christianity’s earliest doctrinal manual, the Didache (A.D. 120 or before): To be valid, baptism is performed “with flowing water” as the names of the three persons in the Trinity are pronounced. Note that the water is poured rather than “sprinkled” as these churches used to say.

The invocation of the divine Trinity is taken verbatim from Jesus’ “great commission” in the New Testament: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).
Surprisingly, the Catholic Church is so favorable toward immersion it sounds almost Baptist, even though it rarely practices that mode. The Orthodox Church requires immersion for infants, who account for most of its baptisms.

In Catholicism, the Catechism calls immersion “the original and full sign of” baptism and says the rite is “performed in the most expressive way by triple immersion in the baptismal water.” However, the text adds that “from ancient times” baptism has also been “conferred by pouring the water three times over the candidate’s head.” So Catholicism allows either immersion or pouring, depending on personal preference, tradition and circumstances.

A statement from the U.S. Catholic bishops says the Greek word for baptism means “immersion” or “bath” so that “immersion in water is a sign of death, and emersion out of the water means new life. To bathe is also to undergo cleansing.” The bishops further note that Jesus himself underwent immersion by John the Baptist.

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Could Prince George’s baptism rekindle rite among British?

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It would be impossible to compare coverage among major news outlets, so plentiful have been the stories this week hailing His Royal Highness Prince George of Cambridge’s baptism into the Church of England.

The event, as with all activities attended by several senior members of the royal family, was well publicized in advance and blanketed with coverage. Bets were placed on the colors the ladies would wear, which family members would carry the infant in and out of the chapel and who would be selected as Godparents. The usual questions, I suppose, for most who only care to scratch the surface.

Significant stories, however, went beyond the royal family hype, the fashion and the newly added fourth generation to the line of succession to give us a glimpse at the bigger picture: Could the christening of a 3-month-old cause a surge in the number of baptisms, recommittals and overall interest in the Church of England?

The Spectator says it already has:

In 1950, nearly 70 per cent of the population was baptised into the (Church of England), with most of the remainder christened into other denominations; in 2010 it was fewer than 20 per cent, and falling. Perhaps Kate Middleton can do for baptism what she does for Reiss dresses – bring it back into fashion.

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, gave a splendid little pep talk on video about the event, saying that he hoped it would inspire others to get their babies christened; at the same time he warned against thinking that it was something just for ‘special people’ as opposed to everyone.

Not among our usual lineup of religion reads, granted, but the Spectator’s story was interesting enough that I wanted to put it out there for discussion.

Back to our usual circle of coverage, Godbeat pro Elizabeth Tenety of The Washington Post does an excellent job of leveling things a bit, contrasting Prince George’s baptism with that of any baby:

George’s baptism and future role in the church make him both a typical British boy, as well as a historic figure in the Church of England.

And Tenety provides a good primer for infant baptism, a partial list of the faith groups that subscribe to the practice and the subtle differences:

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