Pod people: Continuing the Elevation Church debate

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At this point, I am not sure what the Rev. Steven Furtick was thinking when he declined that interview request from NBC Charlotte, which was researching a report about those mass, quickie baptism services at his Elevation megachurch.

It’s possible that he genuinely distrusted this news outlet and reporter Stuart Watson, even though the station claims it made the following offer:

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.

The church’s leadership team responded with a printed public-relations statement.

It’s possible that the Elevation team genuinely thought that this wall-of-silence approach — a classic religious organization gambit — was the quickest way to make an unwanted story go away. Yeah. Right.

Obviously, that isn’t what happened. Check out this Google search.

Included in that digital wave was 6,000 or so social-media connections to my original GetReligion post on the story, which actually offered a mild, theoretical defense of the church, noting (with a nod to Billy Graham history) what may have been going on those staged baptism services. Click here for a refresher course on that.

So who were those 15 plants in the congregation, those church volunteers whose job was to immediately move forward in response to the altar call, taking the longest, most visible route possible? What does it mean that the instructions for their work told them to join the “celebration team” down front? Were they counselors? Were they mere back slappers who — to newcomers in the crowd — appeared to be ready for baptism?

Are we talking about a megachurch event with careful staging or tactics that were truly deceptive? I am still not sure that we know, at this point. I do know that free-church evangelicals are free to do pretty much whatever they want to do when it comes to doctrine and worship. Instant baptisms? That makes my skin crawl (as a former Southern Baptist deacon who is now Eastern Orthodox), since the ancient church baptized people after long, careful preparation as catechumens.

Meanwhile, the online debates continue and host Todd Wilken and I discussed the fallout from that NBC Charlotte report during this week’s GetReligion “Crossroads” podcast. Click here to listen in.

I am still pondering Furtick’s decision to decline the NBC interview request, under the conditions offered. However, all of this reminded me of a discussion long ago here at GetReligion focusing on a showdown between Archbishop Charles Chaput (a friend of mine for many years) and The New York Times.

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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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