By now you may have seen the slow-motion video of people being raised up, water streaming in sheets off their faces, lifting their hands in their baby blue “I have decided” shirts. The tears, the joy, the happiness — it’s all very compelling. Unfortunately, it’s nothing more than a compelling blasphemy. Steven Furtick and Elevation Church have been manipulating mass baptisms.
This isn’t a breaking story. James Duncan reported on this last year. However now that Furtick is being subjected to media scrutiny over his Million Dollar Mansion, his sketchy practices are becoming much more public.
I have only two thoughts to add to the milieu of voices already clamoring against this horrific practice. The first is that this is truly blasphemy of the highest order. The second is that it is consistent with mainstream evangelical theology as found in the Church Growth Movement.
“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” When I was growing up it was drilled into me by church culture that this meant saying things like OMG. While I agree, to leave it here would be to oversimplify the issue. Take the Small Catechism’s answer to what this means, for example: “We should fear and love God that we may not curse, swear, use witchcraft, lie, or deceive by His name, but call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.” To lie — to say “thus says the Lord” when the Lord has not thus said — and thereby lead people to believe something that is not true is to break the Second Commandment and blaspheme the Holy Name of God.
Furtick has done this, plain and simple, by saying to the people of his congregation “this is not emotional manipulation, this is the Holy Spirit” (refer here, from about 50 minutes in onward). By accusing the Holy Spirit of what is actually an intentionally and carefully designed experience, Steven Furtick has outright taken the name of God in vain. This kind of manipulation being attributed to the Holy Spirit is unconscionable. This was not a spontaneous move of the Holy Spirit inspiring repentance and faith toward Christ, but an entirely man-made, numbers driven event designed from beginning to end to create a particular emotional response.
In the video I linked to earlier, at 21:10, as Steven is explaining the mode of baptism by immersion, it would not be an entirely absurd assumption that he intentionally plants subconscious cues about how each baptized individual and the church should respond by raising hands, cheering, and celebrating. At least, given the amount of planning and control in other parts of the service, is it that far-fetched to believe that Furtick engineered his sermon toward a specific response as well? This is at least an educated guess.
This is , of course, an incredibly intricate subject that I won’t be able to cover in it’s entirety here, but there are a number of ways in which this event is eerily unsurprising. After all, in the Seeker-Sensitive/Church Growth Movement, everything about the service is engineered around experience. Millions, if not billions, of dollars are invested in making sure that the worship experience generates an emotional response. From the cozy coffee café you walk into, to the stage lighting shifting with the push of a button to a moody blue for the rock ballad about Jesus’ love for us, everything about the modern mega-church is centered on experience. Of course, they won’t say that to your face, but they will call you in to a disciplinary meeting for not raising your hands because you’re viewed as a leader and you’re not helping “make room for an emotional response,” as my ex-church leaders put it. Manipulating a response in regards to baptism is just the logical flow of the rest of Church Growth theology.
This also demonstrates the high view of man and low view of God that Elevation Church (and most mega-churches) takes. Rather than actually trusting in God for the faith of their city and faithfully proclaiming only the Word, they rather fail to trust God and resort to “godly” gimmicks. They appeal to the work and will of men, rather than the supremacy and efficiency of the will of Christ, in order to bolster their ego. In fact, because this is so pervasive in American Evangelicalism, I am half-expecting that this will be glossed over. “So what?” Of course they manipulated the response… that’s how it works. This unfortunate hold-over from American Revivalism and evolution (or natural selection, rather) of Finney’s New Measures is a given in the movement. God knows I was blind to it for most of my life in a Christian environment. As much time as Furtick spent rejecting “traditions” in the video, he seems to be blind to his own!
And lastly on this note, the unfortunately low view of Holy Baptism revealed in this act makes my heart ache. Baptism is a subject very near and dear to my own heart, and to see it treated in such a cavalier manner is heart-wrenching. In the sermon/motivational speech for the big day, rather than actually engaging with any of the texts dealing with Baptism, Furtick simply dismisses “traditions.” In typical Anabaptist style he robs Baptism of all of its great comforts and promises, reducing it in both doctrine and practice, to a decision for God. I do not and cannot deny that anyone Baptized into the Most Holy Trinity at Elevation was indeed granted what Baptism promises, but their conscience will never be stilled by the “decision” they made for Christ. Indeed, unless their faith is fed, they will not be saved but shipwrecked, and all the worse off for this experience. May God have mercy on us all.