Recently, Steven Furtick and his church, Elevation, have been on the news because of a document called “Spontaneous Baptisms How-To Guide.” In the summer of 2011, his church baptized 2,158 people in two weekends. This guide contains detailed behind-the-scenes information regarding the logistics of baptizing hundreds of people in a short span of time who did not come to church anticipating being dunked in a tank of water. [here is a dropbox’d PDF if that former link isn’t working; the highlights are my own]
There are many people who are already skeptical of Furtick’s ministry, and so this story, coming as it does in a line of other similar “exposé” stories, fuels that cynicism. I understand that reaction, being somewhat cynical and skeptical myself. This post is not about that. It’s about the discomfort I have with what this document says about church practice and baptism.
In short, I think this document is a well-intentioned, misguided, and damaging attempt to make spiritual revival programmable and marketable.
It is hard to imagine why other Christians wouldn’t be excited about 2,000+ people making a public profession of faith through baptism. That seems like a great work of the Spirit, and I understand some who would rather celebrate the good than attack or question. I also appreciate Elevation’s desire to help other ministries facilitate such large movements. Having watched one of the sermons, I also can appreciate that it seems Furtick and I both take following Jesus very seriously. He preached about baptism emphasizing that it’s one way we concretely follow, rather than “following” someone on, say, twitter.
Elevation Church does a great deal of good, both in money and volunteer hours, in and around Charlotte. Ultimately I don’t think anybody is in a position to know whether, on the whole, this ministry is more harmful than not because of disagreements with the way Furtick does church. We all have our opinions.
It is, however, unbiblical to approach ministry from the perspective of “the end justifies the means.” We follow Jesus, which means we follow his ways as well as his ends.
I question how much about this baptism event was, in fact, “spontaneous.” What Furtick means by “spontaneous” is that those who were baptized hadn’t been planning on it when they got in the car to come to service that morning. I don’t think “spontaneous” is a good word for this; in fact I don’t really think these baptisms were spontaneous at all.
1. The atmosphere was emotionally pitch-perfect. Furtick is a magnetic speaker whose congregation loves him and vocally responds to him. When he surprises churchgoers, four minutes into his sermon, with the information that it is they who will be getting baptized, the response is cheers, not genuine surprise. In other words, those who are genuinely on the fence begin being primed to respond from very early in the sermon, in the context of a supportive and enthusiastic crowd. In this immediate context there is nothing counter-cultural about baptism at all. Steven makes a point in this sermon about baptism being counter-cultural in the first century in a way that ironically reinforces the dominant culture of the service: we want to be counter-cultural, because it's awesome, it's Jesus, and so can you!, and look at these people who are being counter-cultural, join them!
2. The church had been planning the logistics for weeks. The document makes this clear: thousands of dollars worth of supplies were purchased, including clothing, feminine hygiene products, towels, clipboards, and hair products. Various ministry teams were prepared and trained, including a team of fifteen individuals whose sole responsibility it was to be the first to respond publicly to the baptism call. Here is the exact quote:
Audience (15) 15 people will sit in the worship experience and be the first ones to move when Pastor gives the call.
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.
Some have suggested that these people were to turn around and act as counselors. This is not in the document, and there are other teams of dozens of people who are already waiting in the hallways outside. The sole function of these people is to create a psychologically supportive atmosphere for people who are on the fence or nervous about being baptized, with the ultimate purpose of raising the numbers as high as possible. This makes me wonder if the focus at this point is more on the atmosphere of celebration than on genuine belief and conviction.
Interestingly enough, none of the volunteers on this guide are counselors. There is one line in the whole guide referencing the possibility that someone being baptized is a new believer who might require additional counseling:
Some of them may have given their life to Christ, have them stop by the Next Level area.This event is entirely facilitated by, essentially, hype men and women designed to foster an atmosphere of psychological acceptance and celebration. The emphasis is, again, on numbers rather than in-depth counseling or understanding of baptism.
3. It was pulled off as a marketing stunt. The document contains specific guidelines on having the baptized use hashtags to tweet their stories. Furthermore, special media teams select “1 or 2 great stories,” give those wristbands, and those are the ones who are interviewed / broadcast to the whole church. What constitutes a “great story”? I’m not sure, but I imagine it involves something “radical,” “awesome,” or “Sun Stand Still-sized.” At this point, these decisions are about building and reinforcing the ministry’s brand, prioritizing content on the basis of whether or not it helps ensure a good ROI.
I work as a content developer in a marketing office, so I understand how this works. From a marketing perspective these are really smart decisions. You don’t give air time to the awkward or too-normal people; you pick the ones who have the really sexy stories that throw hard emotional punches and really drive home your message, and your audience eats it up and can’t wait to come back for more. I think this can only be destructive in the long run because it privileges the parts of the faith and the kinds of stories that are actually not representative of what it looks like, on average, to live and grow as a follower of Jesus.
If you win them with hype, you have to keep them with hype. It doesn’t take long to figure out that there are large parts of the Christian life that you just can’t hype. At that point, you fold, walk away angry and bitter, or press on being dishonest with yourself, and none of these things are healthy for the church.
I am ultimately afraid that this baptism guide reveals that Elevation Church has faith not in Jesus but in its own carefully well-oiled mechanisms. I am also afraid that they are unable to see the difference or imagine that they could be on the wrong side of that line.
There is New Testament precedent for thousands of people being baptized in a relatively short span of time after listening to a powerful preacher: Peter’s sermon in Acts 2. Two important differences between Acts 2 and the Elevation baptisms stand out to me:
First, Peter’s sermon, and these baptisms, were genuinely spontaneous. There was no prior organizational framework in place that could have helped engineer the overwhelming response of those Jews who heard and repented. It’s important to point out here that the church needs structures, that planning and logistics and forecasting and buildings and budgeting can be very good and kingdom-oriented things, and that Acts 2 is not presented as a model or a blueprint; it’s history that points forward to what the church’s role is now, with many similarities and many differences. But the powerful work of the Spirit here, and at other revivals in church history, should make us wonder: Why the need to engineer so many aspects of this service? You prepared, you hyped it, you surrounded people with a supportive and psychologically warm crowd; why did this “spontaneous baptism miracle” only happen in the context of so much careful management and planning? Why didn’t it happen before, and what’s so deficient about other pastors’ faith or preaching that God doesn’t do something similar in response to their desperate prayers for revival?
Second, Peter’s sermon was simply the narrative of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, all aimed at indicting those listening as those who actually helped crucify Jesus. Furtick’s sermon was all about baptism, so it’s not surprising that was the result. Do you see the difference? The content of Peter’s sermon cut his listeners to the bone because the truth of the Gospel led them to ask the critical question: What should we do? Peter’s response: Repent and be baptized. Furtick’s listeners never had the chance to ask what to do because everything about the event – his sermon, the atmosphere, the planning, the facilitation – was shouting baptism as loudly as could be.
Hope and the end
I am not trying to deny that people’s lives have been changed by Elevation. I’m sure many of those who were baptized were genuinely repentant and have continued to move forward in discipleship.
I am, however, skeptical of celebrity pastors because celebrity is most difficult to see by those who are affected by it, and only slightly less difficult to see by those who love the celebrity. This skepticism on my part is reinforced when I see church practices adopting marketing and execution techniques that present what I take to be a faulty, incomplete, and over-hyped version of what it means to follow Jesus.
Great movements of the Spirit cannot be engineered, and the Church needs to be wary of mistaking "making room for God's movement" for "engineering emotional groupthink through hype and slick marketing." Furtick would no doubt say they did the former; the document I linked to above makes me think that a good bit of the latter is actually at work.
My fear is that the model of the Spirit’s work, and of ministry generally, presented by this baptism guide is ultimately unsustainable and will implode. My hope is that that does not happen, and that an increase in Elevation’s helpful presence in Charlotte can also be accompanied by an increase of wisdom, discernment, and humility in ministry practice on Steven’s part.