Elevation Church of Charlotte often posts impressive baptism numbers, but some of the North Carolina church’s techniques for persuading people to walk the aisle are sparking questions and criticisms.
The church advises other churches on hosting large “spontaneous baptism” services like the ones at Elevation where thousands come forward and immediately get baptized.
Yet, their documents explaining the logistics of such a service are leading some Christians to question the church’s ethics regarding the sacred ordinance that gives Baptists their name.
Elevation posted a free “how-to guide” on leading a “spontaneous baptism” service online to encourage other churches to try these services. A two-weekend effort at Elevation saw 2,158 people baptized at the four campuses.
The meticulous guide includes details on ordering clothing materials, how to estimate the number of people who will respond and their demographic breakdown, where to post volunteers, how to time the event, and how to produce media images and stories from it.
“The first people going into the changing rooms have got to be people who move quickly, they must be changed and out in stage in a few minutes,” the guide advises. “Pick young energetic people, not necessarily those who are there first. … Think of the room in terms of a NASCAR pit stop, it has to be a quick in and quick out.”
The most controversial part of the guide includes the recommendation that a church plant people to be the first to respond to the call to be baptized.
“15 people will sit in the worship experience and be the first ones to move when Pastor gives the call,” the guide notes, adding that the group has two jobs. “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.”
The guide does not indicate if these individuals, which would likely be more than 15 total since Elevation has four separate campuses and multiple services, actually get baptized or just slip out of line after moving with high visibility as a way of encouraging others.
The suggestion of planting people quickly sparked criticism on Christian blogs after a local television station reported about it this week.
Some defenders of Elevation note that Billy Graham Crusades often used the strategy of having counselors sitting throughout the stadium and then walking down during the altar call, at which point they would then meet with those walking down to make a commitment.
Yet, the language about high visibility and long walk suggests that the individuals are not merely moving forward to serve as counselors and the detailed guide never instructs those volunteers to serve that function.
Additionally, the job of meeting with people to talk about the decision is given to a different team in the guide’s list of volunteers.
EthicsDaily.com requested a comment from Elevation Church regarding this practice and its ethics, but did not receive a response.
Elevation Church officials declined an on-the-record interview on the topic with WCNC-TV in Charlotte (a local NBC affiliate that broke the baptism practices story), but issued a statement.
That statement, however, did not address the issue of planting people in the congregation to act as the first to respond to the call to be baptized.
The Southern Baptist megachurch, a multi-campus congregation often noted as one of the fastest growing churches in the U.S., was founded by Steven Furtick in 2006. A graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Furtick is a New York Times bestselling author.
Over the past year, Furtick and Elevation have sparked criticism for various financial issues, such as Furtick buying a 16,000-square-foot home valued at $1.7 million, Elevation buying copies of Furtick’s books to sell to members, and Elevation not disclosing financial data (like staff salaries and benefits) to its members.
The church also garnered criticism for a children’s coloring book promoting Furtick.
Elevation Church’s list of core values includes the declaration, “We are all about the numbers. Tracking metrics measures effectiveness. We unapologetically set goals and measure progress through all available quantitative means.”
Their numbers-packed “how-to guide” for “spontaneous baptism” services demonstrates this value.
Perhaps this quantitative focus of turning baptisms and other parts of church life into a science helps explain the use of planted volunteers ready to walk the aisle while the band plays “I have decided to follow Jesus.”
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.