Steven Furtick and the ‘Disneyfication’ of Baptism

A Story About What Slow Church is NOT…

Steven Furtick offers much fodder for critique — the multi-million dollar house, etc. — but this new story of Elevation’s practice of “Spontaneous Baptism” highlighted many of the criticisms of industrialized Christianity that we are raising in the Slow Church book.

I was alerted to this story through a report on the WCNC-TV (Charlotte) website:
How Elevation Church, Pastor Furtick produce ‘spontaneous’ baptisms

The whole article is worth reading, but here are some crucial clips:

  • “Elevation Church keeps an exact count of its thousands of baptisms, all part of its laser like focus on numbers. ” (emphasis added)
  • “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. ”
  • “[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.””
  • [One scholar] “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.” “

James Duncan has blogged about Elevation’s spontaneous baptism guide and has offered a thorough critique of the manipulation going on in this practice. I highly encourage you to read his post…

This story offers a wonderful picture of the sort of McDonaldized Christianity that we critique in the Slow Church book: the obsession with numbers (emphasizing quantity over quality), driven by a focus on speed and efficiency, how-to manuals that dictate every step of the process (a la McDonalds or any other fast food restaurant), the creation of religious spectacle (versus the cultivation of a deep life together), the manipulation that treats individuals as objects, not as creatures in the image of God.  In fact, Elevation has almost gone so far as to make themselves a caricature of McDonaldized faith, but I hope that — like all good caricatures — we don’t just dismiss them as extreme, but rather see through their story the desires in our own hearts and congregations that are driving us in a similar direction, even if we are not so ridiculous and extreme.  Here’s some questions to consider:

  • Are we rushing people to baptism (or, in the case of churches that practice infant baptism, full membership)?  The choice to follow Christ is a huge one, and one that should never be rushed. “When Christ calls a man,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said in The Cost of Discipleship, “he bids him come and die.”  This decision is never one that should be rushed, and especially not for the sake of boosting the brand of our churches (or our pastors).
  • What sacrifices are we willing to make for the sake of the image of our church (and the numbers that give shape to that image)?  The dignity of those who participate in our church? Our own integrity?
  • How much energy do we put into the spectacle of the Sunday service?  And especially, in contrast to the amount of energy we put into cultivating faithfulness to the mission of God in everyday life?
  • To what degree do we seek to meticulously control the Sunday Service or other activities of the church?

  • If we are pastors or church leaders, how do we view the members of our congregations?  As pawns in our self-serving religious system? Or as sisters and brothers and friends that we care deeply about and with whom we desire to share life?
  • What sorts of pressure — either from ourselves or from others –to “get things done,” meeting numerical thresholds, etc. do we live under? If the pressure is coming from outside sources (e.g., denominations), how do we resist it?

————–

I imagine that most of our churches — thankfully — look or act very little like Elevation, but there are many unhelpful desires that, if we’re honest with ourselves, we share in common with this caricature of a church.  In order to grow deeper into the rich life God intends for the church, we need to face these desires and wrestle with them.

  • Tyler M. Tully

    I encountered a very similar situation growing up as a minister’s kid in several Southern Baptist megachurches. Evangelists would encourage “counselors” trained in the arts of “evangelism” to walk down the aisles at strategic points in the final choruses during the altar call. The whole point was to manipulate the masses into perceiving a movement–just like Elevation Church does here with Baptism. Come to think of it, all of these churches also emphasized numbers, printing them each week in the bulletins. While data is important, it isn’t everything, neither is it an indicator of our success in the Kingdom of God. But the point remains, which rubric are we really operating by? And as you point out, are those rubrics any different than Elevation Church?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy

      I encountered a very similar situation growing up as a minister’s kid in several Southern Baptist megachurches. Evangelists would encourage “counselors” trained in the arts of “evangelism” to walk down the aisles at strategic points in the final choruses during the altar call.
      -
      Do you mean using Shills to lure in the Marks?

      • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship Censored

        “It is hard to see how a man who has been given a mandate from on High to spread tidings of joy to all mankind can be seriously interested in taking up a collection to pay his salary; it causes one to suspect that the shaman is on the moral level of any other con man.”

        ~Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

        • Tom (aka Volkmar)

          Ah, the wisdom of Lazarus Long!

        • Headless Unicorn Guy

          Heinlien probably copped that from the Didache — I understand over a third of that book is how to recognize a con man preacher. And that was written when Years AD were well below 200.
          And I don’t remember which saint said this (it was also when years AD were in the low three digits) but “Flee as you would the plague any cleric who has become rich through becoming a cleric.”

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    GREAT stuff here. Thanks, Chris.

    • ToddHiestand

      Zach, you mean “Great” as in “awesome!” or do you mean great as in “i want to punch myself in the face this is so awful”… ?

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    “[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.””
    -
    SHILLS. Like a Flattie at a Carny.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy

      Or a Soviet Commissar of Spontaneous People’s Demonstrations.

  • johnny

    Interesting. So have you or anyone of you commenting that liked this article actually ever BEEN to Elevation? Or do you have any idea what discipleship programs they have in place? When you talk, you sound just like the same old school arguments over “traditional” versus “contemporary” music. Maybe you should see the whole picture in context before just going off of some half cocked reporter who has a political agenda against Elevation.

    • http://www.coffeecuptheology.wordpress.com/ Darryl Willis

      I am not certain that this is traditional versus contemporary issue but rather a manipulation versus integrity issue.

      I’ve never been to Elevation so admittedly, I cannot speak from experience. But if this is their practice–and after reading their own “how-to” guide it certainly appears it is–then the question comes to play: is this ethical?

      Paul says, “For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you,” (1 Thessalonians 2). I think we should seriously ask ourselves how we seek to persuade people.

      Paul also points out in 1 Corinthians 2 that his message was not dominated by what the culture considered eloquence but by the Spirit’s power. I am not saying that we should never seek to use different means, venues, and tools of communication–but we should be concerned when in our zeal to convince we resort to manipulation.

      And even if Elevation has dynamic and powerful discipleship programs for new believers, does that end justify the means?

      • erbks

        Amen, Darryl…
        Following Eugene Peterson’s book THE JESUS WAY, we argue vehemently in the Slow Church book, that part of what Jesus meant when he called himself the way, was that the means do matter, and should never be disconnected from — or justified by — the ends…
        ~Chris Smith

        • http://www.coffeecuptheology.wordpress.com/ Darryl Willis

          Well you already hooked me when you mentioned Eugene Peterson!

          It seems to me, too, that by focusing on technique and outward methodologies we negate (or perhaps ignore) the Spirit’s role and power in all of this. If Paul relied on the Spirit’s power (1 Corinthians 2) then why do we feel the need to use technique (like planted responders)? What is the old saying, “If the Spirit were suddenly removed from our churches and lives, would it make any difference?” If we can accomplish these results by technique, then where does the Spirit come in?

          Again, I don’t mean we ignore the importance of preparation and giving our best efforts to learn the culture where we live and move and to communicate in culturally meaningful ways. That’s part of what Paul did by quoting pagan poets and philosophers. But that is quite a different thing that what we often read in manuals and “how-to” books for church growth.

  • http://nathanrhale.com/ Nathan R. Hale

    I definitely don’t want to rush to judgment on this. Certainly there are well-meaning, devout people at Elevation that are passionate about leading people toward a relationship with Jesus.

    That said, I’m appreciative of these questions, and I think they must be asked as Elevation recommends its model to other churches.

    I think you are right on about not rushing people to baptism. It’s a serious decision that should never be taken lightly–not every person is ready to be baptized immediately. Although some NT converts were baptized immediately, it seems like the early church quickly began to advocate for an instruction period, sometimes up to year. Definitely makes you think.

  • Matt

    Christianity is not a numbers game. It’s sad that the industrialized, mass-production mindset has made inroads in our churches…

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship Censored

    One good dietrich deserves another.

    “God is teaching us that we must live as men who can get along very well without him.” ~Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison

    At any rate, we can certainly get along very well without pastors, if Jesus knew anything about it.

    “Call no man your patre/patron/pastor/boss on the Earth.” ~Jesus

    • Dylan Valliere

      This is an absolutely ridiculous argument, Brian. You’ll need to look outside the Bible to support your rejection of pastors.

      Since the Bible also says that God gave the church pastors (e.g. Ephesians 4:11), Jesus’ point here cannot be that the role and function of pastor is illegitimate. This is especially obvious since Jesus also says, “Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.” Since Jesus was not doing away with fatherhood, the point he’s making isn’t a rejection of function.

      • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship Censored

        It’s not ridiculous, you just want it to appear so.

        Ephesians 4:11), Jesus’ point

        Now that’s ridiculous. Jesus didn’t make any point at all. It was written by Paul. Rather self-serving, isn’t it?

        And yes, Jesus mentioned the only hierarchy he’d allow: just God. That’s it. No pastors, no patrons, no bosses, no hierarchy here on earth.

        Jesus punctuates it with this: “Rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you.” ~Jesus

        • Dylan Valliere

          “Jesus’ point here” was in reference to your Jesus quote. I was indicating that Eph 4:11 clearly teaches that God has given the church pastors. Since all Scripture is God-breathed, it does not contract itself and therefore Jesus’ instruction on not calling anyone by certain labels cannot be an opposition to the role/function of pastor.

          Your quote from Luke 22 in the previous comment neglects the very next sentence where Jesus defines the sort of leadership he requires among his people–servant leadership rather than self-serving power-drunk leadership.

          The New Testament has many instructions on church leadership. (Search for words like elder, pastor, shepherd, overseer. Read through 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, and Acts.) The plethora of such passages indicates that there are both acceptable and unacceptable types of leadership in the church contra no leadership whatsoever.

          You’re one of three things:

          1) Someone who does not pay attention to context when interpreting Scripture and this post serves as notice of the importance of doing so.

          2) You’re someone so radically committed to specific delusions that you are unable or unwilling to have a legitimate, Biblical dialogue.

          3) You’re a troll looking to make trouble.

          In all three instances, there is no valuing in continuing beyond this point. This, therefore, is my last post on this matter. (PS–I’m hoping for option #1.)

          • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship Censored

            Eph 4:11 clearly teaches that God has given the church pastors.

            So? If Paul wants to contradict Jesus, it isn’t the first time.

            Since all Scripture is God-breathed

            Since there was no New Testament at the time, and since that “Scripture’ was referring to the Old Testament, it has nothing to do with Paul’s teachings. It’s just Paul’s opinion of the Tanakh.

            servant leadership

            Actually it reads “servant leadership.” You’re adding words to Jesus, because you want that leadership in there. It simply isn’t there. Naughty, naughty.

            1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, and Acts.

            Jesus never said anything about church hierarchy, right? Only the self-serving imposters and dupes.

            “Of this band of dupes and impostors, Paul was the great Corypheus, and first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus.” ~Thomas Jefferson (Jefferson’s Works, Vol. ii., p. 217)

            no valuing in continuing beyond this point

            Then you’re dismissed, troll-boy.

            Oh, here’s your lesson on (1) context.

            youtube.com/watch?v=PK7P7uZFf5o

  • chrisblackstone

    Obviously no one here has actually read the Spontaneous Baptist How-To doc from Elevation. If you had you would know that the “Fifteen people will sit in the worship experience and be the first ones to move when Pastor gives the call” are part of the Celebration Team, whose purpose is to cheer and support those who are coming up to be baptized. They are NOT intended to be deceptive. Read Page 4

    I don’t particularly agree with the practices of Elevation, but I’ve found very little charity in how people are reading that document.

    • patricklmitchell

      Expecting the best of people is certainly something Evangelicals can improve on. That said, that these 15 people are to take the longest route possible through the highest visibility areas is suspicious.

    • clayton

      I read the document but don’t see how the 15 people’s job is to cheer and support anyone. The only instructions given to them are to sit in the auditorium, to begin moving forward intentionally through the highest visibility area/longest walk when Pastor Steven says to. Others on the celebration team are responsible for manning the doors (4 people), whereas others are assigned to the hallway to “create an atmosphere of celebration” (30 – 60 people). Maybe the 15 eventually join the 30 – 60, but there first job by all appearances is to be the first to respond to the Pastor’s call. I don’t think this is an uncharitable reading.

  • Barbara Spooner Brodowsky

    When Christians attack there own, it’s a sad day in our church. Seriously, go after non Christian churches who are hurting the great commission, not a church that doesn’t do things the way you do. Pharisees.

  • Debbie Hay

    I’m not sure Jesus would be very excited to see these kinds of judgments. These comments sure seems like the Pharisees back in the day. Our job is to watch our heart and our tongue and pray for each other.

    • Nate

      No, that really isn’t our only job. Jesus wouldn’t be excited, why? Because it’s criticism of the religious establishment, and he never did that? Oh wait, yes he did…

  • Susan Adams

    While Chris begins his posting with the Elevation example, his reflection questions should cause each of us to examine the practices and underlying beliefs of our own beloved congregations, rather than simply bash Elevation (as tempting as that is).
    At Englewood, for better and sometimes for worse, those of us who plan and lead Sunday morning worship repented of what we called “The Big Show.” Keep in mind our Show was never very glitzy or elaborate, but what we hoped to let go of was the performance anxiety that worship folks are susceptible to, even in low key settings like ours. I found it very liberating to be content with doing my best each week in the service, to learn to laugh when the inevitable mistakes happen, and to watch in wonder when plans we made weeks ago end up being just what we need on a particular Sunday morning. Our service is deeply flawed, far from perfect and I am told some find it maddening, but we have mostly let go of the fear of failure, thank God.


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