Elevation Church Excels at Water Sports

At Elevation Church, in Charlotte, N.C. they have their brand marketing down pat. They have figured out what their Big Hairy Audacious Goal is, which is to baptize as many people as they can. They can tell you exactly how many people they dunked each year- and they number in the thousands.

But not only do the in-service baptisms take planning, they take a lot of crowd manipulation. What has been discovered by a local TV station is that Pastor Steven Furtick plants volunteers in the various locations in the crowd to get the momentum going when he calls for 'spontaneous' baptisms.

While most churches have a stage, what many members don't realize is that some things that their church leaders attribute to the 'moving of the Spirit' has actually been staged. 

Here is an excerpt of a story from the NBC affiliate in Charlotte, 

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.

“They had people in the crowd stand up who never intended to be baptized,” said James Duncan, a communications professor at Anderson University and critic of Furtick. “They were shilling for Steven and the intent was these shills stand up and everybody else follows.”

Duncan blogged about the baptism guide in a post he titled, “How Steven Furtick engineered a miracle.”

“Although Furtick says this is a miracle, it’s not a miracle,” Duncan said. “It’s emotional manipulation.”

The spontaneous baptism how-to guide describes its purpose as to “pull off our part in God’s miracle.” Church leaders have repeatedly referred to the mass response as a “miracle.” But the guide reveals plenty of human staging.

“Most people would not want to be seen as manipulating a group because then you would have questions of authenticity,” said Rev. David Key, who teaches Baptist studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.

Rev. Key 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.”

More stage instructions tell volunteers to go to staging rooms outfitted with towels, pre-printed t-shirts, sports bras, boxers, makeup remover, hair-dryers and flip-flops. Volunteers are instructed to “pick young energetic people” to go on stage first to be baptized and “not necessarily those who are there first.”

“Think of the room in terms of a NASCAR pit stop,” the guide reads. “Quick in and quick out.”

It takes “30 to 45 seconds” to baptize each person as church photographers snap photos.

More volunteers are told, “You are looking for one or two great stories in your group. When you ID those individuals, place a ‘black wrist band’ on them so that the video crew can interview them….”

The guide then tells the “media team” to be “mining great stories and pushing them up to the video crew.”

James Duncan calls it “marketing for God and because it’s for God it’s OK.”

The baptisms, the photos, the video marketing all serve to build brand loyalty to Elevation.

“Look at how much branding these churches do - the bumper stickers, the T-shirts, the hats, the bracelets – everything,” Duncan said.
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.”

Hype... It isn't the same thing as the Holy Spirit. Learn to tell the difference.