Pod people: Continuing the Elevation Church debate

Pod people: Continuing the Elevation Church debate March 2, 2014

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.

Frankly, it seems to me that NBC Charlotte offered Furtick precisely the arrangement that I once recommended to religious leaders who were facing a potentially hostile or uncomfortable media interview. Here is what I wrote a decade ago:

During my days at the Charlotte Observer, I had quite a few tense interviews with Southern Baptists. This in not surprising in a major New South city in the early years of the great Southern Baptist Civil War.

While in Denver, I had many tense interviews with United Methodists, Presbyterians and other oldline Protestants. This is not surprising in a progressive Western city during the era of oldline Protestant decline, in terms of numbers and social clout.

I learned a lesson in both settings. When facing hostile sources, urge them to tape the interview for themselves. That way, you have a tape and they have a tape. Everyone knows that everyone else knows what everyone said during the interview. In effect, you are saying: I am doing everything I can to be accurate and fair. If you feel I have misquoted you, then you can play this tape to my editor. Now can we talk?

The bottom line: Tape unto others as you would want them to tape unto you.

I wrote that post after The New York Times ran a piece that Chaput thought turned his discussions of Catholic doctrine and public life into blunt pro-GOP talking points.

The archbishop — then in Denver, now in Philadelphia — responded by posting a full transcript of the interview (.pdf here), complete with the reporter’s comments and questions — on his own website. He urged readers to read the Times report and then read the transcript before making up their own minds about whether his words had been twisted or, at the very least, yanked out of context. In other words, he added verbatim information to the debate.

The powers that be at the Times were not amused.

Chaput also decided to stop granting interviews with the Times, a decision that I have questioned. I think he should continue to talk to selected Times reporters, with his own digital recorder running. Then he can post the results. The goal is to keep adding information to the marketplace of ideas.

The connection to the Elevation Church story is obvious. Why did Furtick decline the unedited, posted interview? There is no question that this makes it appear that he had something to hide.

So here is my question to GetReligion readers: How do you think religious leaders should handle these kinds of interviews? I am especially interested in knowing what working journalists think of this tape-and-transcribe (or YouTube) option.

EDITOR’S NOTE: I realize that many GetReligion readers — especially working journalists — despise or at the very least distrust the Disqus comments system that Patheos attaches to all weblogs that operate on this platform. At this point there is nothing I can do about that. So journalists, if you oppose the digital ties that bind in Disqus, please send me your comment through our COMMENT link and I will add your remarks to the discussion that I hope takes place.

Enjoy the podcast.

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  • Martha O’Keeffe

    I still have no idea what exactly went on, or goes on, with these baptisms and as you say, that’s the core of the story.

    If the volunteers are there as part of a team to encourage people to come forward, it’s a bit slick marketing technique but yes, I can see that in a huge crowd everyone will be sitting there waiting for someone else to make the first move, so you can have a place for people making their way forward.
    The big question is: are these volunteers undergoing some form of baptism, maybe even multiple times? That moves it from “encouragement” to “deception”. Maybe the pastor and church in this instance do feel that the story is being blown up specifically by someone out to get them, but refusing to explain what went on does, as you point out, make it sound like there is something to hide. Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t, how can we know?

    As for how religious leaders should handle this kind of interview? My uninformed opinion is that:

    (a) if the first you know about the topic is some newspaper or local radio or TV station ringing up asking for your immediate response, ask them to let you get back to them when you’ve had a chance to investigate whatever it is. Don’t give them an answer straight off the top of your head. Don’t let yourself be pressured by “We’re going to press/on air in the next hour or so, if you don’t give us a statement we’re running the story as is”. Ask for a named person and a time you can guarantee to talk with them.

    (b) Don’t provide a boilerplate piece of PR release but do prepare an answer. Then go through it twice more and strip out everything that can be made to sound political. If it’s on a point of doctrine, then explain the doctrine and don’t give any hostages to fortune by making any points that could possibly be linked in with the national or local political party position on emigration, gay rights, or the shape of bananas.

    (c) Don’t fall for the “blind three-legged puppy” question. The reporter is going to try to put a human-interest angle on it by tying the story to cute little eight year old blonde Trixie who doesn’t understand why the teacher in her First Communion class said her two mommies were going to Hell. They’ll make you sound as if you are personally a big meanie who hates gays/emigrants/blind three-legged puppies/square bananas and that it’s your own decision and nothing more that means the big bad teacher is telling her class that gay marriage is wrong. Hammer home that this is a universal point of historic doctrine and it’s not about Trixie or her mommies – don’t fall into the trap of getting bogged down in the details of a particular case, because when it comes to two tearful mommies and a blonde moppet sobbing on camera, there is no way you can win.

    • wlinden

      Do you really think that there is ANYTHING that can not be “made to sound political” (especially when, as often complained on this blog, you are dealing with people who already assume that politics is All), or that can’t “possibly be linked) to political talking points?

      I have repeatedly said this is response to commenters who think it is the Pope’s/TheVatican’s/theCatholicChurch’s fault that something is misinterpreted, and and there is some magic formula that can’t be twisted.

      • Martha O’Keeffe

        Taking what Thinkling posted about Archbishop Chaput’s answer – that’s a “Danger, danger, Will Robinson!” question when you’re asked “X and you are natural allies” – it doesn’t matter who X is, if it’s the Ladies’ Flower Arranging Gala or the Imperial Stormtroopers, you never say “We might be”.

        Because once you’ve said that, the reporter has got the answer he or she wanted for their article, and your considered response about what issues you and X have in common will not be used at all. You’ve given the one line that will be used in the article (and possibly splashed in the headline if you’re particularly unlucky). This is not to say that the reporter has an agenda, or is out to get you – the reporter’s job is to get the attention-grabbing headline and boil the topic down to the ‘six easily digestible facts’. If you hand them your head on a plate with an answer of that nature, they are not going to refuse.

        The safest answer – and I personally think it’s the truest – is to remind the questioner of “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s”. And throw in how the Church has been accused of being everything from practically Communist to ‘Hitler’s Pope’ because it never fits exactly with any political philosophy.

        Also that the Church is global and universal; what’s described as “Republican” in a political context in America has a very different meaning in Ireland, and I have no doubt every country has their own twist on the idea; same with “socialist”, “democrat”, “liberal”, etc.

  • Thinkling

    Mmm after reading Archbishop Chaput’s interview and the article the paper of record somehow extracted from it, the questions Terry raises about interviews and protection of both parties really seems pertinent. An excerpt from the actual interview:

    NYT: You [RCC and Rebublican party -Th] are natural allies.

    AB: We might be. It depends on where the Republican Party goes. If it goes in the wrong way, we won’t be natural allies. Political parties change their positions, Churches don’t and shouldn’t. If the Republican Party would stay with us on these issues, I think there would be sympathy there. If the Democratic Party would be with us on these issues, there would be sympathy there. If they both were, it would be a non-issue in the election perhaps. So, it’s not like we’re with Republicans, it’s that they’re with us.


    The reporter actually came back later and asked about the last line later in the interview. But read the story…I can understand why the NYT is not amused…and why I can imagine the archbishop wasn’t either.

  • Jettboy

    Rule number one, never ever talk to a reporter about anything. Rule number two, if you must say something then say it in your own venue with your own questions put out in your own way. Rule number three, if they twist your words do not be afraid to sue for libel (and often) with a lawyer in retainer. The point is to harass reporters as much as they harass others.

  • I wrote a blog about what I think us Christians should do when people bring up the Elevation controversy. It all comes back to pointing the attention off of ourselves and onto Christ. Take a look.. http://culturistaperspective.blogspot.com/2014_02_27_archive.html