CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- You wouldn t know it by the name, but Elevation Church is Southern Baptist. Its Pastor Steven Furtick graduated from a Southern Baptist seminary. Elevation was planted with seed money from Southern Baptists. And Elevation gives money to Southern Baptist missions.
But you won t find the Baptist name on Elevation. Instead its campuses are marked with Elevation s trademarked name and brand the orange circle with the up arrow chevron shape inside. There s not even the traditional cross on the outside of Elevation buildings.
But baptism the sacred Christian rite symbolizing being raised to a new life in Jesus Christ is clearly vital to Elevation. Online videos of Elevation s mass baptisms play rising music as they show slow motion shots of people obviously moved by a religious experience meaningful to them.
Elevation Church keeps an exact count of its thousands of baptisms, all part of its laser like focus on numbers.
But those numbers have spiked and dipped from year to year according to a confidential internal report obtained by the NBC Charlotte I-Team from 289 in 2010 to 2,410 in 2011, from 689 in 2012 to 3,519 for the first eight months of last year.
To get those thousands of baptisms takes a lot of planning.
And Elevation produced a document to show other churches how they could do likewise.
It s titled Spontaneous Baptisms A How-To Guide and the church shared it freely on the Sun Stand Still website.
But parts of the mass baptism guide have drawn sharp criticism from other Christians.
Page one shows that the first people instructed to respond to Pastor Steven s call to baptism were not converts suddenly inspired but Elevation volunteers carefully planted in the crowd.
The guide instructs, Fifteen people will sit in the worship experience and be the first ones to move when Pastor gives the call. Move intentionally through the highest visibility areas and the longest walk.
They had people in the crowd stand up who never intended to be baptized, said James Duncan, a communications professor at Anderson University and critic of Furtick. They were shilling for Steven and the intent was these shills stand up and everybody else follows.
Duncan blogged about the baptism guide in a post he titled, How Steven Furtick engineered a miracle.
Although Furtick says this is a miracle, it s not a miracle, Duncan said. It s emotional manipulation.
The spontaneous baptism how-to guide describes its purpose as to pull off our part in God s miracle. Church leaders have repeatedly referred to the mass response as a miracle. But the guide reveals plenty of human staging.
Most people would not want to be seen as manipulating a group because then you would have questions of authenticity, said Rev. David Key, who teaches Baptist studies at Emory University s Candler School of Theology.
Rev. Key compares the mass baptism service to a show at Disneyworld. This church has obviously discovered what we in the industry call the Disneyfication of religious services.
More stage instructions tell volunteers to go to staging rooms outfitted with towels, pre-printed t-shirts, sports bras, boxers, makeup remover, hair-dryers and flip-flops. Volunteers are instructed to pick young energetic people to go on stage first to be baptized and not necessarily those who are there first.
Think of the room in terms of a NASCAR pit stop, the guide reads. Quick in and quick out.
It takes 30 to 45 seconds to baptize each person as church photographers snap photos.
More volunteers are told, You are looking for one or two great stories in your group. When you ID those individuals, place a black wrist band on them so that the video crew can interview them....
The guide then tells the media team to be mining great stories and pushing them up to the video crew.
James Duncan calls it marketing for God and because it s for God it s OK.
The baptisms, the photos, the video marketing all serve to build brand loyalty to Elevation.
Look at how much branding these churches do - the bumper stickers, the T-shirts, the hats, the bracelets everything, Duncan said.
But the brand loyalty is to Elevation and not necessarily to the Southern Baptist Church. Rev. Key says the Southern Baptist church runs a risk investing in Elevation.
A church like his does not create any denominational loyalty, Rev. Key said. Because every member of Elevation Church will not necessarily look for a Southern Baptist church when they move away.
Elevation Pastor Steven Furtick asked me for a face-to-face, off-the-record meeting with me to ask me not to run this report. I spent an hour on the telephone and two more hours in person discussing my reporting, his church and his concerns.
Pastor Steven said I have been unfair and this report in particular would hurt Elevation Church members.
I asked Pastor Steven to consent to an unedited, on-camera interview.
I offered to let Elevation s cameras record the interview. I offered to stream the interview in its entirety online. I offered to air a half-hour unedited interview on television. And WCNC held this report while waiting for Pastor Steven to respond.
Instead Elevation Chief Financial Officer Chunks Corbett e-mailed a statement, saying in part:
We are confident that those who attend Elevation Church know and understand our mission and vision for reaching people for Jesus Christ. As attendees, they are provided, through weekly teachings, biblical context for everything we do and practice, such as baptism, giving, serving and inviting friends to church.
Read complete statement here.