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I can’t remember the last time I went to a circus … until we recently decided to check out the latest edition of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s “Greatest Show on Earth” on its Raleigh stop. 

Expand the picture and look closely: you’ll see five roustabouts in the foreground, preparing a giant airbag beneath the high wire as the elephants take center stage.What I found most fascinating about the show was not the elephants or the trapeze artists (and certainly not the raucous music), but the way the high-energy show was so carefully choreographed so that one act segued seamlessly into the next — and the key to that was the roustabouts, men and women in black jumpsuits who stayed in constant motion as they set up or took down equipment and staging to keep the show moving along. 

It wasn’t a “three-ring circus,” but was often set up as two rings, and while the spotlight was on one, the dark-clad workers were hustling to assemble props or set up safety pads in the other. When all the clowns, dancers, and performers paraded around the arena to close the show, I wished they had allowed the real wonder workers a chance to take a bow. The circus wouldn’t work without them. 

While watching the out-of-the-spotlight activity, I couldn’t help but think of a report I’d seen earlier in the day about a church plan for a service culminating in mass “Spontaneous Baptisms” — a plan that has nothing spontaneous about it. 

Elevation Church, a Southern Baptist mega-church in Charlotte, reported 689 baptisms in 2012, but more than 3,500 last year, many of them gained through carefully choreographed “spontaneous baptisms” that have been so successful that the church has posted instructions on its website for other churches seeking to orchestrate a baptism spectacuar. The attention to detail is impressive, including supply lists and percentages for each size of preprinted baptism T-shirts, shorts and underwear needed for clothing kits. Instructions are also provided for all the behind-the-scenes folk who act as crowd movers, cheerleaders, wardrobe handlers, story-collectors, picture-takers, and enthusiasm builders. 

A report by a local TV station found it surprising that the detailed strategy calls for fake converts to be planted in the crowd and to move quickly forward — by the longest and most visible routes — when the invitation is given. There’s nothing new about planting people to be “moved to respond” on cue, however. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has used the same strategy with great success for years, appointing multiple waves of people to respond at various points during the closing appeal. 

I am confident that the folks who script services to fabricate miraculous responses do so with sincere hearts and a desire to serve Christ, but one has to wonder if the sketchy integrity of manipulating people is good for the kingdom. The plan includes detailed instructions for every stage of mass baptisms, with special attention given to preparing name tags with tracking numbers and a media team to record each person’s 30-45 second experience of baptism (the time is also in the script). 

What the instructions do not include is anything relative to follow-up, church membership, or discipleship for those who have been run through the water. One has to hope that the tracking numbers and registration materials will support some effort to involve the freshly immersed folk in a local congregation, but one also fears that many will assume their souls are now safe so they can go back to business as usual. 

Whatever the show, it’s the people behind the scenes who make it go. Let’s hope they’re going someplace good.  

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