Steven Furtick responded to the spontaneous baptisms report in his sermon yesterday, going on offense against WCNC and me for exposing his church’s mass-baptism plans. Furtick paused during the sermon to go on the record with the following statement:
When they started talking this week on the news about our baptisms, I got hot. Yes, sir. I got hot. They were saying that we manipulate our baptisms, that we have people planted in the audience who pretend to go get baptized. For the record, we have never planted anybody in our church to pretend to be baptized. I am too scared of God to do something like that. Please. Please. If you want to pick on my house, OK. But it’s different territory when you start picking on people who made a decision to be baptized for Jesus Christ. And to take the fact that we have volunteers who get up and lead the way so that people know where to go and to act as if they were pretending to be baptized and to negate the sincere faith decision of precious people who had one of the most meaningful experiences of their life, that’s just sick.
I understand that he’s angry, but this response is attacking a straw man, and it really doesn’t contradict anything that I wrote last November. Let’s go through it sentence by sentence:
They were saying that we manipulate our baptisms
Exactly right. The whole point of the document was to teach other churches to achieve similar results. When Steven Furtick told his audience that what they were feeling was not manipulation, he was misleading them. He and his team had taken deliberate steps to manipulate members of his congregation to respond the way that he wanted them to. Whether the motives or the action taken were honorable is beside the point. The leadership of Elevation Church engineered a response that they thought could be replicated in other churches, which is why they offered the guide.
They were saying … that we have people planted in the audience
Actually, Elevation Church said that in their guide. More recently, Furtick’s right-hand man, Chunks Corbett, has acknowledged as much, saying that the baptisms were “not so spontaneous.”
who pretend to go get baptized.
Right. They were pretending to “go” get baptized. If you saw someone stand up when the pastor finished his countdown, what else would they be doing but going outside to get baptized? These volunteers weren’t wearing special shirts or clothing or holding signs telling people to follow them. They blended in with everybody else who was going to get baptized.
For the record, we have never planted anybody in our church to pretend to be baptized. I am too scared of God to do something like that.
This is commendable, and I don’t doubt him. If you read the original post, I actually commended Pastor Furtick for this. To save you a click, here’s what I said back then:
Before the criticism, some words of praise. Furtick rightly tells his congregation that they should not seek to be baptized if they have been baptized before as adults, even if it was in another church and even if they’d prefer a more meaningful experience now.
I assume that by “pretend to be baptized” Furtick means that they actually went through with the baptism and went under the water. Because of Furtick’s correct prohibition on rebaptism, I never assumed nor accused the “Groups of 15” of pretending to baptized by going through the water. I assumed that they were pretending to “go” to get baptized, but withdrew before getting to the tanks. Again, here’s what I wrote:
Elevation has seeded its four auditoriums with 60 shills who pretend to be responding to the call. Their high-visibility movement is designed to manipulate others to follow. If Furtick was confident in his message and in the efficacy of the Holy Spirit’s call, he shouldn’t need fake converts.
This is even more interesting for Furtick’s restriction on re-baptisms. We know these 60 are official volunteers, so it’s almost certain all had already been baptized. That means that if they melted away out of the lines later on, their response in the auditorium was a lie. For good doctrinal reasons that even Steven Furtick understands, they never ought to have responded in the first place. Not only are they lying, they are pretending to sinfully partake in the most important sacrament of their church. That’s serious stuff for a pastor and church to be encouraging.
I admire Furtick’s fear of God on the matter of adult rebaptism, which is why I assumed that the Groups of 15 were only pretending to respond to the invitation, not to actually get baptized.
It’s different territory when you start picking on people who made a decision to be baptized for Jesus Christ.
None of the people who were actually baptized were criticized or picked on. My criticism was of the way that Furtick was cheating his own flock out of a meaningful experience. Instead of making sure that they were acting out of a reasonable confidence in the doctrine of baptism, he engineered an emotional experience designed to elicit his desired response.
And to take the fact that we have volunteers who get up and lead the way so that people know where to go and to act as if they were pretending to be baptized
This is curious phrasing, and it seems to confirm everything that I’ve been saying. The defense that I expected him to make was that all of these people were genuine candidates for baptism. Some are indeed saying this on Twitter, but Pastor Furtick has not said so here.
Note the use of the term volunteer, which is not the same as people, who, in the context of this sentence, are the candidates for baptism. It’s the same term that’s used in the guide, and the 15 walk-down-the-aisle volunteers are listed along with other volunteers who are doing things like lining the hallways and staffing the changing rooms. If Elevation wanted to make clear that these were people who were actually being baptized, they ought to have used a term like candidates to distinguish them from the scores of other volunteers who were there to help but not actually get baptized themselves.
This document was intended as an instruction manual for other churches; it wasn’t just a historical narrative of what happened at Elevation Church. There’s nothing in it to indicate that the 15 walk-down-the-aisle volunteers are different from every other volunteer. If they were, we ought to see a section describing how to recruit and place the baptism candidates ready for their high-profile walks. Chunks Corbett also used the volunteer description to explain that they were needed to show people the way to the pools. Furtick and Corbett agree with me; these were not people going outside to be baptized.
and to negate the sincere faith decision of precious people who had one of the most meaningful experiences of their life
But I didn’t negate that decision; I affirmed it. I criticized Furtick for stripping the baptism of some of its meaning by resorting to emotional manipulation. Furtick and I agree that baptism happens only once, and by participating in Elevation’s mass event, these people are indeed truly baptized. That’s is a good thing. (I probably affirm the meaningfulness of their baptism even more than Pastor Furtick does, though we’re mostly on the same page on this issue.) As a Baptist, Furtick believes that the meaningfulness of the event resides in the hearts of the baptized, and I objected that he was not serving his flock well by replacing meaning with emotion. Here’s what I wrote:
Baptists also emphasize the volitional aspect of the sacrament, so that the participants’ attitude is one of informed obedience in an exercise of a free will. Although Noble allows do-overs, Furtick does not, so his flock only get one chance at a moment that will change their lives. Why not teach the people well and let them think about it and own their decision? How many people will look back at that special moment and regret that they were merely a pit-stop project for a pastor who needed to boost his baptism balance sheet?
Furtick and I agree that baptism is special, which is why he deserves criticism for depriving many in his church of the satisfaction that comes from a decision well made.
Chunks Corbett’s response to the controversy is similar to Furtick’s pulpit statement, though it warrants some attention of its own here, too. In response to my “shills” characterization, the article describes Corbett’s response in the following paragraphs:
Duncan, says Corbett, couldn’t be more wrong.
Baptisms at Elevation Church are a special and important part of the church. So special, he says, the Southern Baptist church’s thriving baptism culture inspired a song ‘Raised to Life‘ on their most recent album released in January 2014 called “Only King Forever.”
This is an assertion in search of an argument. As I’ve detailed above, I agree wholeheartedly that baptism is special and important, so pointing out that it’s special hardly refutes my criticism of Elevation’s techniques to engineer thousands such baptisms. On the contrary, shouldn’t baptisms be so special that they’re off limits for emotional manipulation?
Here, with interjections, is more of the Corbett response:
“In week two we baptized about half of those 3,000 people and if you think we manipulated them in week one then what do you call week two?” asked Corbett.
You call it week two, which presents a little bit of a problem for them. I’ve noticed a lot of discussions over the last few days about figuring out the identity and purpose of the 15, but it’s not 15 people who were involved. It’s 360. At the time, Elevation had three services at four campuses each Sunday. If you assume the best case-scenario — that each person in the groups of 15 is actually getting baptized for the first time — you need 360 people to cover those two weeks. I contemplated that possibility in the original post, but dismissed it as highly unlikely. Tellingly, neither Furtick nor Corbett defend the aisle walkers as part of a group of 360 first-time baptism candidates.
“We told them what we were doing before they even got there. Even in ’13 it wasn’t like some ‘thing’ [that came out of nowhere]. We told people we were doing baptisms. We had set it up leading up to it. We didn’t like make a huge announcement but it’s not so spontaneous,” Corbett explained.
Exactly. Just like I said. Yet Elevation still framed the event as spontaneous, and attached it to the marketing for Furtick’s Sun Stand Still book as an example of a miracle. We know now, contrary to how the document presents itself, that not even Elevation’s leadership thought it was a miracle or spontaneous. On that, we agree.
The use of the volunteers is just good management of a baptism model Elevation church got from a church in Georgia and improved on over time, says Corbett.
Not a model from Acts, in other words. And not Elevation’s fault, either. Blame the Georgians.
(This raises an interesting point of baptism doctrine. Although Corbett hasn’t pointed to Scripture to defend his church, others have, specifically pointing to the 3,000 who were baptized on the Day of Pentecost. That was a truly massive and spontaneous baptism. Here’s the question, though. How did that happen? If Elevation has to spend weeks of planning to baptize approximately that many over two weeks, how did Peter immerse that many people in one afternoon in a city largely devoid of pools of water? I’m not familiar with all elements of Baptist doctrine of course, but I have not heard a good explanation of how that happened. The comments are open for you to teach us, if you wish.)
The volunteers are necessary because baptisms are done outside. They are needed to help people who already acknowledged beforehand that they would be making the life-changing step during the service.
This repeats a point made earlier. These are volunteers, not candidates.
“At elevation when you’ve got 10 campuses and you are making a call [for baptism] via video, some campuses go forward, some campuses go backwards some campuses go sideways … it’s not like there’s a tank in the front. None of our buildings are big enough,” said Corbett.
I understand the logistical problem, but why not have big signs or people in bright orange vests that you tell people to follow? No matter what was in Furtick’s or the aisle walkers’ minds, the effect was that the rest of the people in the congregation would have thought that they were actual candidates for baptism.
The manual, he says, is not an internal document currently used by the church. It was created to share with other churches that wanted to replicate the success of Elevation Church in getting people to the water.
“That document was originally designed for churches so we can pass along to them how we did our baptisms. Hundreds of churches have used it. It’s not some secret internal document,” Corbett explained…
“It was missed that this document was intended to be a blessing for other churches. And it was something that we put out for free and we continue to have it. We are not embarrassed of it. It’s not wrong, it’s just a how-to,” he added.
In other words, we’ve moved on, but we still want to share it with churches that don’t mind being a couple of years behind the curve. What does their current internal document look like, if it’s significantly different from what is available? Why not share that?
I know it’s not a secret document; that’s how I discovered it several years ago. Why, then, the anger at its public distribution? Why work so hard to prevent WCNC from telling people what Elevation boasts about?
The Corbett interview finished with this:
Corbett said Elevation is refusing to engage their critics any more than they have to.
“Everybody’s got critics and especially when you’re being successful. Nobody knows Pastor Steven better than me,” he said.
“I started the church with him. Me and him and our wives. We’ve been together for 12 years and the church is now eight years old. I’ve been here since the beginning. I’ve seen it all. I think you judge somebody by the people closest to them not by some guy in a basement that has a blog (critics),” he noted.
The final argument is ad hominem. Of course it is. Thing is, though, people haven’t been judging Furtick based on a blog, but on the information that a blog brought to light. This blog very slowly (the baptisms post was published last November) brought awareness to the baptism guide, and another blog brought attention to the atrocious pastor-centered indoctrination that Elevation’s children are receiving. In neither case were we spreading rumors or making unfounded accusations. We simply published and critiqued documents that nobody inside Steven Furtick’s world thought was objectionable. As far as I can tell, people’s reactions to the baptism document and the coloring book have little to do with what Matthew Turner or I actually said, and everything to do with the immediate revulsion to what most people find in the documents. People read the documents and immediately know what the basic problem is.
While we’re on the topic, let me say a word or two in defense of bloggers and give you a little background on how the relatively old baptism post became a big deal last week.
It really began, as most scandals do, with a lie.
Back in late October, Stuart Watson, the investigative reporter for WCNC in Charlotte, learned that Steven Furtick was building a lavish new home and hiding it behind a no-name trust managed by Chunks Corbett. Furtick refused to talk to Watson about the house, though pre-empted the story by telling his church that a news story was about to come out about the house.
I’m thinking to myself, first of all, it’s not that great of a house. I’m sure there’s better houses, if you’ve got to fly a chopper over somebody’s house.
“It started to mess with me a little bit because I thought this ain’t right. I didn’t even build that house with money from the church. I built it with money from my books and I gave money to the church from the books and you start getting real defensive and being like this ain’t right. This ain’t right,” Furtick said.
One obvious lie: It’s not that great of a house. It is very grand, and Watson is reporting now that it will be taxed at a valuation of $3,000,000.
The second, less obvious lie, is that he built the house with money from his books. That claim got me thinking. I remembered seeing Furtick’s and Noble’s books on the NY Times best seller lists with a notation that indicated that some of the sales had probably been manipulated. In my day job, I teach about communication and media, and I know a little about how the publishing world works. It seemed to me that there was no way that he could afford his house based on what were relatively unimpressive sales. So I did some digging and wrote about what I found.
In the meantime, Furtick and Corbett gradually clarified their statement, first saying that the downpayment for the house came from book sales, while still asserting to the Charlotte Observer that “It’s not a parsonage or a gift from Elevation, and it’s not tied to the church in any way.” They eventually told Stuart Watson that the church makes a profit on Furtick’s book sales and gives him an allowance for his house. So church money does go to Furtick’s house, which is not an impression that most people would have drawn from Furtick’s original statement.
After writing about the manipulation of the book sales, it seemed relevant to dust off the baptism document that I had found several years before (the blog was in hibernation at the time). The book sales and the baptism manipulation both revealed a pastor for whom appearances were more important than authenticity. That’s how the spontaneous baptism post became relevant, even though it was years after its appearance online.
As far as I know, someone tipped Watson off to my book sales post, and it was from there that he found the baptism post. We talked informally back in November, then more formally on camera a few weeks ago. Watson’s book story appeared on Feb 8, and the baptism one ten days later.
Watson has taken a lot a criticism from Elevation members for his reporting. While my focus was primarily a matter of ethics and church propriety, Watson — as far as I can tell — seems to be motivated by the old-fashioned journalistic desire to keep digging when it’s apparent that powerful people are being deceptive, as well as by the financial ethics and tax implications in the house and book story. Watson sees that Furtick draws a large salary from a non-profit church, then uses that non-profit platform to promote and sell a book for a for-profit corporation. Much of the money that flows to Furtick is tax free, especially the massive housing allowance that he will qualify for with his $3m home. That’s an issue that a local news organization has every right to be interested in.
To Watson’s credit, he knew that the spontaneous baptism document was a good story, and the reaction to it over the last week has proved his news judgment to be sound. It has been a little surreal over the last few days to see how this story has taken wing based on a short report on an NBC affiliate. The Christian blogosphere is appropriately astonished by what they see in that document, and many people are writing and commenting on it now.
But here’s where bloggers shouldn’t be dismissed as pajama-clad basement dwellers (not that there’s anything wrong with that). While traditional media still have the means to amplify information in ways that most blogs can’t, some of the best investigative reporting — in politics, in religion and in almost all spheres of life — is being done on blogs, especially as legacy media cuts reporting staff. The miracle of the blogosphere is that lots of little people who have specialized interests, expertise and motivation write for free about things that interest them. Sometimes, and with increasing frequency, they break good stories.
A couple of other miscellaneous concluding points:
I’ve seen a few commentators wonder why the Southern Baptists aren’t doing or saying anything about what’s happening at Elevation. I’ll explain further in a future post, but this isn’t an SBC issue, and it’s not fair to blame Baptists for Furtick’s antics or to assume that he reflects poorly on the denomination.
In his sermon yesterday, Furtick characterized Stuart Wilson and me as snakes who were fleeing the fire of God’s work at Elevation, and the solution is that we should be thrown back into the fire to make it flame even higher. Elevation even offered #shakethesnake as a Twitter handle for the church’s collective venting. For someone who hates haters, Steven Furtick has a high tolerance for hateful, violent rhetoric against people who disagree with him, though that’s not a characteristic that makes him unique among his ministry friends.
The day after the WCNC video was aired, Steven Furtick was angry, and says he shared his anger with a more senior pastor who called and asked him what he was going to do about it. Furtick told his friend,
I’m not going to go up there [to the pulpit] and defend myself. I’m not going to turn this pulpit into a press conference. That’s not what this pulpit is for. I said, “I don’t know, I can’t be defensive.” And when I hung up the phone with him, I felt like God said, “Then don’t play defense. Play offense.” And I thought about it for a minute. And Holly [my wife] was waiting for me; we were going out to eat for my birthday. Oh, it was a real happy birthday. [Laughter] I’m glad you think it’s funny. And God said, “Shake it back off into the same fire. Feed the fire.” So tonight we’re going to have a special baptism service at Elevation Church. [Cheering and a standing ovation]
Pastor Furtick is angry and mad, yet he’s sure that the idea to hold a truly spontaneous baptism was God’s revealed will.
This is the godly response to criticism that he manipulated his congregation into being baptized? To invite hundreds of unbaptized people to engage in a defiant, offensive [his word] baptism?
That, more than the original spontaneous baptisms, is just awful. He says that baptism is special, yet it’s something that he feels free to manipulate and then use in an angry publicity stunt.
This is not how a good pastor serves his flock.
Which is exactly what I was trying to say four months ago.