Elevation Church and Steven Furtick continue to be in the harsh spotlight of judgment and this time it’s for their spontaneous baptisms that aren’t so spontaneous. It’s an ongoing case study in public relations, but it also raises questions that get to the heart of marketing and whether we’re manufacturing an experience.
You may remember the questions over Elevation’s financial accountability and this week images of a Steven Furtick coloring book were making the rounds (with some pleading say it ain’t so, while others said so what?). People are looking for things to be upset about, and in any church you’re likely to find them. But in a giant megachurch there’s that much more scrutiny.
The spontaneous baptism report comes from NBC Charlotte, the same station that broke the 16,000-square-foot mansion story (see, someone’s digging), and it’s not exactly breaking news. The report is based on a baptism how-to guide posted online in 2011.
Much of the article seems ridiculous. Interviews include a Furtick critic harping on Elevation branding (oh no, bracelets!), a Southern Baptist studies professor complaining about a lack of denominational loyalty (but that’s how we’ve always done it!), and then a truncated statement from the church refusing to be interviewed (the complete statement could be dissected for another post on public relations).
But we’re talking about it because the furor comes down to what’s appropriate in trying to create an experience. It’s a fundamental question for marketing and production professionals.
When Elevation puts on a spontaneous baptism, there’s nothing spontaneous about it. The logistics they put together to allow thousands of people to be baptized in one day are incredible. Wet and dry changing rooms are needed, full sets of clothes to be baptized in are provided (yes, underwear included) and they work hard to capture the entire thing to share later.
I don’t see anything wrong with any of that. It’s not my personal preference, but then again I go to an Episcopal church where we baptize infants (gasp!).
What’s perhaps more questionable is that when the first call goes out for people to be spontaneously baptized, the how-to guide instructs churches to plant 15 people in the audience to respond first:
15 people will sit in the worship experience and be the first ones to move when Pastor gives the call. Sit in the auditorium and begin moving forward when Pastor Steven says go. Move intentionally through the highest visibility areas and the longest walk.
Choreographed spontaneity? Emotional manipulation? Or just a practical reality? No different than soft music, well-timed lighting or good writing, all designed to elicit a response?
Part of marketing is setting the mood, creating an environment where God can move and people can respond (we’ve talked before about the vibe before a service starts). Certainly God can move through planning and preparation as well as spontaneity, but how far do we go to create that moment? When is it good staging and when is it fake?
I think Elevation Church and Steven Furtick are taking it on the chin for a lot of practices that are common among megachurches. Maybe those things are justified and maybe they’re not, but it raises some interesting questions for the church.
What do you think?
- Are we making a spectacle of faith, using marketing and production techniques to “Disney-ify” what should be a profoundly spiritual moment?
- Or is this no different than any other measure to ensure a smooth process, whether it’s coordinating book reviews for a launch or doing proper planning for a big event?
- Elevation Church isn’t the only megachurch to do mass baptisms, nor the only church with a megapastor personality. Why do you think they’re facing so much media scrutiny and what do you think of their response?