Steven Furtick and the Case of the Spontaneous Baptisms

Steven Furtick and the Case of the Spontaneous Baptisms

February 24, 2014 by

Elevation Church and Steven Furtick continue to be in the harsh spotlight of judgment and this time it’s for their spontaneous baptisms that aren’t so spontaneous. It’s an ongoing case study in public relations, but it also raises questions that get to the heart of marketing and whether we’re manufacturing an experience.

You may remember the questions over Elevation’s financial accountability and this week images of a Steven Furtick coloring book were making the rounds (with some pleading say it ain’t so, while others said so what?). People are looking for things to be upset about, and in any church you’re likely to find them. But in a giant megachurch there’s that much more scrutiny.

The spontaneous baptism report comes from NBC Charlotte, the same station that broke the 16,000-square-foot mansion story (see, someone’s digging), and it’s not exactly breaking news. The report is based on a baptism how-to guide posted online in 2011.

Much of the article seems ridiculous. Interviews include a Furtick critic harping on Elevation branding (oh no, bracelets!), a Southern Baptist studies professor complaining about a lack of denominational loyalty (but that’s how we’ve always done it!), and then a truncated statement from the church refusing to be interviewed (the complete statement could be dissected for another post on public relations).

But we’re talking about it because the furor comes down to what’s appropriate in trying to create an experience. It’s a fundamental question for marketing and production professionals.

When Elevation puts on a spontaneous baptism, there’s nothing spontaneous about it. The logistics they put together to allow thousands of people to be baptized in one day are incredible. Wet and dry changing rooms are needed, full sets of clothes to be baptized in are provided (yes, underwear included) and they work hard to capture the entire thing to share later.

I don’t see anything wrong with any of that. It’s not my personal preference, but then again I go to an Episcopal church where we baptize infants (gasp!).

What’s perhaps more questionable is that when the first call goes out for people to be spontaneously baptized, the how-to guide instructs churches to plant 15 people in the audience to respond first:

15 people will sit in the worship experience and be the first ones to move when Pastor gives the call. Sit in the auditorium and begin moving forward when Pastor Steven says go. Move intentionally through the highest visibility areas and the longest walk.

Choreographed spontaneity? Emotional manipulation? Or just a practical reality? No different than soft music, well-timed lighting or good writing, all designed to elicit a response?

Part of marketing is setting the mood, creating an environment where God can move and people can respond (we’ve talked before about the vibe before a service starts). Certainly God can move through planning and preparation as well as spontaneity, but how far do we go to create that moment? When is it good staging and when is it fake?

I think Elevation Church and Steven Furtick are taking it on the chin for a lot of practices that are common among megachurches. Maybe those things are justified and maybe they’re not, but it raises some interesting questions for the church.

What do you think?

  • Are we making a spectacle of faith, using marketing and production techniques to “Disney-ify” what should be a profoundly spiritual moment?
  • Or is this no different than any other measure to ensure a smooth process, whether it’s coordinating book reviews for a launch or doing proper planning for a big event?
  • Elevation Church isn’t the only megachurch to do mass baptisms, nor the only church with a megapastor personality. Why do you think they’re facing so much media scrutiny and what do you think of their response?
Post By:

Kevin D. Hendricks

When Kevin isn't busy as the editor of Church Marketing Sucks, he runs his own writing and editing company, Monkey Outta Nowhere. Kevin has been blogging since 1998, runs the hyperlocal site West St. Paul Reader, and has published several books, including 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading, The Stephanies and all of our church communication books.
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12 Responses to “Steven Furtick and the Case of the Spontaneous Baptisms”

  • Ryan L
    February 24, 2014

    This reminds me of Charles Finney and the Second Great Awakening. Finney did all sorts of things to urge (manipulate) people into walking the aisle. He essentially created the altar call. Now the interesting thing is that some people think Finney did an amazing thing in America, while others think it was all manipulation and question if the Second Great Awakening had nearly the same authentic fruit as the first. Perhaps in 100 years we will be asking these same questions of the mega-church boom.

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    • Kevin D. Hendricks
      February 24, 2014

      Yes! One thing our modern minds tend to lack is a sense of historical perspective (that’s why I really champion our heroes ebook series). It seems like we could probably learn a lot from what Charles Finney did and the reaction he faced in his own time.

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  • Matt
    February 24, 2014

    Praise God for churches that preach the gospel, and desire to see the lives of individuals brought into relationship with Christ.

    As the “experience architect” at the church where I am paid to do ministry, I make the decision on many of these environmental cues designed to place emphasis on a moment. For me the guideline is the second half of Philippians 2:12 “…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling” Lighting, soft music, etc create an environment for contemplation and introspection. I’m not sure that creating an environment where response is” easy” or “joining the crowd” pair well with “fear & trembling.”

    Ultimately, the burden is on the individual. It is their salvation & their relationship with the Father that is being reconciled. But as stewards of that process we must must always question and keep our motives in check.

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    • Kevin D. Hendricks
      February 24, 2014

      “Always question and keep our motives in check.” Yes. And in the case of Steven Furtick and Elevation, I’ll suggest we place the emphasis on our motives. We can’t be the judge of what the church down the road is doing. Let’s learn from them, let’s allow their experience to bring up helpful questions, but let’s not throw them under the bus because we don’t like their style.

      “Fear and trembling” is also a good guideline. Crafting these spiritual experiences is powerful, eternal work, hopefully guided by the Holy Spirit. Fear, trembling and a dose of humility are definitely important, and have been so throughout time, whether we’re talking about Thomas Cramner writing the Book of Common Prayer centuries ago (more history!) or an experience architect like yourself.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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  • Ryan
    February 24, 2014

    I am a creative and understand the power of elements like lighting and the key of a song. Deliberately planting people in a crowd is something entirely different. When you talk of the emotion of a song there is something real that transcends. You can tell when music is faked because it loses its soul. Placing people with fake intentions is just thought out manipulation and it is much harder to hide the facade of someone acting spontaneous in that manner.

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  • Russell LLoyd
    February 25, 2014

    I lead a lot of station based creative worship components at services and conferences and have come to recognise that whenever you ask people to do anything in a church, even if it is merely when to stand to sing, those people look for cues from others. I’ve been at countless events where I’ve seen people sit waiting for someone to move, and I personally have found myself waiting for cues from other people in spite of a burning desire to respond.

    I always make a point now to ask a few people before the service to respond when I get up to explain what’s happening. It’s a way of nonverbally giving permission for people to act.

    I honestly can’t see an issue with having a few people move to take the pressure off everyone else to go first and taking that element of distraction away from what God might be doing in peoples hearts, but only so long as they are not just pretending to get baptised or there are so many of them that it swings the other way and people feel uncomfortable not getting baptised.

    Now i’m not sure if they pedal these as a last minute decision to offer baptism while clearly having planned very well to hold the baptisms, but from what I’ve read, the majority of people getting baptised are making a spontaneous decision to do so. So the issue is not so much whether it’s spontaneous, but whether its manipulative, and that question is (and always has been) a difficult one…

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    • Kevin D. Hendricks
      February 26, 2014

      I think that’s a good distinction, Russell. Is it manipulative? I think that’s what people are responding to so strongly in this case.

      And that’s what everyone needs to answer for themselves.

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  • David
    March 4, 2014

    A couple of things jump out at me right away:

    1. Lighting and mood music can be corny for some, but at least it’s honest. “We want you to feel [x].” It’s a bit manipulative, but so is tone of voice, tempo — entire classes are taught in seminaries about how to best present the word of God and prompt a response. But this is not an honest manipulation; this is a lie. Those fifteen people are already believers; they are not intending to be baptized. They’re telling the congregation “God has moved my heart to action”, which is blatantly untrue. What happens after they go to the front? Do they play out the whole charade and get baptized, or do they get shuffled off to another area where they can wait for a little bit and do it again? What if a new convert meets one of the “walkers” at a community group or church dinner and tries to engage them in conversation about their shared newfound faith? And where does this sort of lying end for them? Is it OK to rob a bank if the money goes to the presentation of the Gospel?

    2. Does Elevation Church have no trust for the Holy Spirit? Do they not believe that God can work without their manipulation? Does the Gospel of Jesus need their help to be presented? If people’s hearts are really changed, the Lord will move them to come forward.

    3. Is peer pressure the best way to get followers? The Bible says that we will be held accountable for those we teach. If people profess faith like the seed on the path as a result of peer pressure but without heart change, then reject God when the heat of trials beats down on them, what happens to their baptism?

    4. I’m a bit shocked that they would write it all down. I’m sure there are many churches who do this sort of thing unconsciously or by word-of-mouth — “Hey, stand back there and walk up during the altar call” — but none so brazen as to write it down. And to promote it as a good idea! Oh, I hope that God does not allow this to go on to other churches!

    As a church, shouldn’t we be called to a higher standard than this?

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    • Kevin D. Hendricks
      March 5, 2014


      1. It’s unclear if the people they pre-position to be baptized actually get baptized. It’s entirely possible that they find people who want to get baptized and put them in these roles, as opposed to finding already baptized folks to pretend. So it might not be as devious as you’re presenting it. It’s hard for us to know without asking them.

      2. And they typical response to your point is that God can work through a planned event just as well as he can work through an unplanned one. Sometimes people need to be prodded to respond, just as you argue in #1.

      3. One commentary on this issue I read pointed to Philippians 1:15-18 when Paul is talking about people who preach the gospel for the wrong reasons, yet he rejoices as long as Christ is preached. I’m no theologian and I don’t know what to think of that, but it’s worth considering.

      4. Clearly they wrote it down because they believe it and think it’s worth passing on. They’re not hiding anything. They’re not ashamed of anything. It would be helpful for you to remember that the folks at Elevation Church think this practice is just fine, regardless of what you think, so why wouldn’t they talk about it? From their perspective, they’re sharing a best practices for how to get a whole bunch of people baptized. It’s only shocking to you because you don’t agree with it. If you agreed with it, sharing it like they are would be perfectly rationale.

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  • michelle
    March 13, 2014

    Have any of you criticizing the spontaneous baptism effort ever been to a Franklin Graham or Billy Graham event training? I have, and at those events were all trained to come forward at the altar call along with those responding to the call. Seems to me that is the exact same kind of “priming the pump” of respondents. Those who went forward to help with prayer did not look any different than the general crowd. Nobody questioned Billy or Franklin.

    What business is it for those outside the event to question the motive of the heart of those folks who choose to help in this way? Isn’t God the one who judges the motives of the heart? Surely you have all been in situations where you’d like to speak up, stand up, respond somehow, but nobody else in the room was doing it and you feared being first. Its human nature for many not to want to be “the one.” I see nothing wrong with helping the timid to feel comfortable by giving them opportunity to respond without fearing the eyes of an entire crowd focused on him/her. Nobody is forcing folks to be baptized. It breaks my heart to hear Christ followers berating one another over a non-issue like this. I would at least be able to have an intelligent conversation arguing the scriptural integrity of baptizing babies who have no choice in the matter.

    For all we know, Jesus might have asked one of his guys to step into the water first.

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  • Howard Major
    May 13, 2014

    As a mainline Reformed/Presbyterian pastor, I was appalled by even the idea of “spontaneous baptisms”. Not just the stage managing aspect, but that people could be baptized without lengthy prior thought and preparation astounded me.

    Yet as I thought about it further, I had to allow for the case of the Ethiopian eunuch, the jailor’s household at Philippi and, of course, Pentecost. My question is, when in the early church did lengthy preparation become a requirement for baptism?

    And as for the planned ‘spontaneity’, our periodic Healing Services come to mind at which people are invited to come forward for prayer and blessing. I always arrange for several ‘plants’ go forward first to prime the pump. The plants always understand and never object.

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  • Red
    January 5, 2016

    I’ve attended Elevation church several times within the Charlotte, NC area. Steven Furtick has even visited our work place and I’ve spoken with him several times over the past couple of years. I still don’t know what to think about this church. They do a lot of good. The pastor is gifted in teaching but what worries me is the almost cult like status that Furtick has brought upon himself through his followers. Most people I have had contact with who attend there regularly speak about Steven Furtick as though he were Jesus himself. They go on and on about the man and I rarely hear them talk about the things that God is doing. I was at service once at the Matthews location and recall a young lady sitting beside me who after Furtick spoke his message and dismissed everyone she looked at me and said, “My pastor is so hot! Isn’t he great?” That was one of the most awkward and bizarre moments I have ever felt in a church. I haven’t been back since 2013. I can’t take all the fanaticism and forgive my use of words to describe this, but butt-kissing, that goes on there. Though Steven may be a good guy, he has built Elevation Church to revolve around him. Jesus is not the center of that church, Steven Furtick is. God forbid anything happen to him because if it did, that place would fall apart and the people there would not know where to turn to.

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