Why I’m jealous of Steve Furtick’s Baptism Miracles

The Miracle Faker Maker

All over the news in the past week was a story about Steve Furtick, pastor of the Elevation megachurch, and his methods to “spontaneously” create massive Baptismal services. From a news report about his methods kit:

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…Although Furtick says this is a miracle, it’s not a miracle,” Duncan said. “It’s emotional manipulation.”

No kidding it sounds manipulative. While GetReligion points out that Billy Graham did something similar in his crusades to encourage people to come down and accept Christ, the comparison doesn’t do Furtick any favors. As SlowChurch points out, this “Disneyfication of Baptism” puts more energy into the spectacle of this event than in perhaps the rest of the Christian life (the polar opposite of Slow Church’s tenets).

But it’s precisely all of the above that I’m jealous of.

To Furtick, he is so sure of what a baptism means (it’s a miracle!) that he’s willing to do everything possible to make it happen. He’s willing to make baptism into a formula, into a mechanistic process, and turn a Sacrament into a spectacle. The ends justify the means.

Here’s what I’m jealous of in a sentence: Furtick and his leadership and the entire arena know exactly what baptism means to them.

Methodist Moist Muddle

I cannot say that sentence about my own United Methodist Church.

Dan Dick used to be a researcher at one of our denominational agencies and one of his areas of study that was never published was a survey on United Methodist beliefs towards Baptism (scroll to the bottom). His results showed that clergy are almost evenly divided into three main understandings of Christian baptism, two of which (66% of responses) define baptism as an act done for an individual, with only 34% seeing it as a Sacrament of a community. And laity? Only 8% see it as a community Sacrament.

Dan reflects:

What does it mean when only one-in-twelve of our lay leaders see the sacrament of baptism as a corporate (rather than an individual) experience?  Our baptismal services are very clear that there is a mutual vow made before God and with one another.  Both the newly baptized and the community of faith bear responsibility, each to the other.  The lack of understanding appears simply explained:  less than ten percent of active church members remember any teaching being offered to the congregation about the sacrament of baptism.  (Compare this to 27.8% of clergy who claim that they teach the congregation about baptism on a regular basis)…

76% of pastors report that they will baptize any child, whether the family has ties to the church or not; 96% will baptize any child related to an existing church member (though the child and his or her family may have no direct ties); only 14% place any kind of expectation on the family of the child to be baptized that they should become active or involved in the community of faith.

Count me among the 14%. This blog has regularly championed the communal aspect of Baptism:

So I admit I am grieved when research shows that so few laity (and pastors!) emphasize the communal nature of the Sacrament.  That so few pastors take the time to educate what baptism means.

And it is for that reason that I’m jealous of Furtick and his leadership team. They know. They know. They know. And they are willing to manipulate and automate a Sacrament to increase numbers, and obfuscate the mystery of the Holy Spirit to get to their goal.

And yet the research shows that Methodists (generally) do not do engagement as to what Baptism means, and why they (as communities of faith) should link their identity with the child being baptized. We just don’t know at the same level.

Muted Mystery

But it’s not too late.

It’s not too late to preach about Baptism. It’s not too late to require sessions with the pastor before a baptism. It’s not too late for pastors to write up what they believe. It’s not too late to reverse the course and have baptisms mean more than individual spiritual scotch-guarding.

After every baptism that we have at my church, I remind the church that we are now no longer the same. We have changed. We have a new member of the Body of Christ, and we are a new people. This new Body of bodies will not react or live the way it has in the past.

With every baptism, we set ourselves into an unknown future, uncertain, and yet full of hope in the mystery of God.

That’s a sentence that can never be uttered in Furtick’s church. And it is my prayer that it can be uttered in yours. And that the people know what it means every time they are reminded.


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  1. says

    These stats on UMCers are astonishing, especially considering our supposed liturgical revival. The revised common lectionary and liturgical year provide at least two opportunities per year to study the sacrament of baptism in worship: Baptism of the Lord Sunday and during Advent with the proclamations of John the Baptist. Ugh. And our understanding of our call to ministry through baptism is soooo important to the UMC.

  2. Clay says

    Disappointing but not surprising that so many folks have weird ideas about baptism. I’ve been one of those pastors who has said ‘no’ to baptisms – both to barely-connected families and to active members. The best thing I’ve found in navigating the conversation is our own service of Thanksgiving After the Birth or Adoption of a Child (BOW, p 585). I’ve found that most of the folks who have come asking for baptism are looking for the opportunity for a special, holy(ish) moment for this beautiful new life in their midst. (Grandmas also want the photo op!) I wonder if using this thanksgiving service more regularly would help us to keep from watering down baptism (ha!) and still mark these occasions in a sacred way.

  3. Patrick says

    The under-reported aspects of Furtick’s event:
    – this was at the end of a three-week sermon series on baptism, spelling out what baptism is and why. To me, that’s evangelism, not manipulation.
    – the majority of people who participated were people who had made the decision to be a Christian, but had not been baptized, either by immersion, or ever. The invitations in the sermons (which you can view on Elevation Church’s website) were clear about that.
    – the “shills” were people who, during the series, had come to the church asking to be baptized (according to comments on the news story site) so yes, they were asked to move first, but they were not people who “never intended to be baptized.”
    – the logistical undertaking was important to make the experience personal for each candidate, and not have logjams (funny how that word seems appropriate) or problems, or even injuries, because things weren’t planned.

    There’s probably a hack in here about relying on news reports for observations about what goes on in the church.

    So, I’m a little confused when you say that “With every baptism, we set ourselves into an unknown future, uncertain, and yet full of hope in the mystery of God,” couldn’t be said in Furtick’s church. Did they go about it in a very unorthodox way? Yes. Was it ideal? No. Would they rephrase their “how-to” guide in a way that might be less mechanistic? Probably. But did they perform baptisms in a way that compromised the spiritual integrity of the believer and the body of Christ? Probably not.

    • says

      Patrick, thanks for your comments!

      While other media outlets erroneously focused on the “fake baptizers” if you read the above, I made no mention of them. In fact, I linked to the followup article by a blogger that clearly outlines that neither he nor I saw those “shills” as actually being baptized.

      A sentence that couldn’t be said in Furtick’s church is because it focuses on mystery and unknowing, whereas the mechanistic process of Furtick’s baptisms leave very little to chance and very much on emotional appeals and group herd mentality. That’s why I wrote it the way I did–not a reflection on the spiritual integrity of the believer, but on the officiants to create space for mystery and the unknown (which is what a Sacrament is all about).

  4. Bruce Case says

    I think the data is suspect on what clergy and laity believe. One can manufacture “confusion” by simply asking the question a certain way. “done for the individual”? “Sacrament of the community”? These two phrases beg unpacking. I’m firmly in the camp of this writer– and I aggressively teach baptism every time someone is baptized in my church– whether infant or adult. While I agree with the message of this blog– I don’t give the research of Dan Dick much weight if this is how the questions were phrased.

  5. says

    I think this is a place where the size and structure of The Episcopal Church have helped us to not be in the same place, as has our making changes just before the UMC did to our authorized ritual (more on that later). When I was United Methodist, my campus ministry used to joke that I could eisegete baptism into any text, or at least the Baptismal Covenant. Through time, however, we shifted that joke; I wasn’t eisegeting. Christians understand biblical texts and their regular proclamation to be about forming disciples and making them into the image of Christ. In our baptisms we are incorporated into Christ’s body the Church, so they do all relate to the Baptismal Covenant. We are reminded of the Baptismal Covenant in some way in many sermons, and the Prayer Book strongly encourages four/five times a year for baptisms — Baptism of the Lord, the Great Vigil of Easter, Pentecost, and All Saints Day (and Sunday following). When we do not have a baptism many of our congregations will celebrate reaffirmations of baptismal vows, complete with getting splashed by a branch.

    Our baptismal liturgy was approved and finalized in 1979, which was 10 years before UMH was released. We’ve had another decade of scholars writing about it, we’ve had another decade of educating clergy about it, and we’ve had another decade of exploring the impact of baptismal ministry on the fullness of the Church. We’re just starting to really make some changes based on that last part. Because we are Episcopalian we take our forms very seriously. I appreciate the United Methodist concept of freedom within the form, but saw too many times the freedom being abused so that the form was not recognizable…and now see that The Episcopal Church has a lot more freedom than I realized but that the form is so heavily relied on that the freedom is often overlooked or unknown. I’ve written about that here and here.

    While you quoted Taylor Burton-Edwards in your post on membership vows, the UMC isn’t structured so that people are either aware of that portion of the Disciple or they just don’t care. One of the largest obstacles to the realization of full communion between The United Methodist Church and The Episcopal Church will be that disregard for common prayer in general (from baptismal/membership vows to eucharistic form) and an ecclesiology/theology of ordination/presidency/conference membership. All of our clergy do not have to go to seminary, but they do have to be appropriately trained and examined in seven canonical areas required by the Prayer Book, and one of them is liturgy…and most liturgy examination has an expectation that the starting point will be from the font in some way or another.

    The practice of licensing local pastors to preside at sacramental celebrations — before they have finished the Course of Study, and the evaluation of which I’m unsure — will be a big part of that road block. The road block is partly related to ordination (actually hugely) but there will always be people like me who have seen the benefits of having an ordained elder relative to having a local pastor. Many, many people have stressed the need of the UMC to unlink conference membership from ordination (as in laying on of hands), but it falls on deaf ears…and ordination isn’t a safeguard in any tradition against some wacky things happening.

    I served as youth director under a local pastor who regularly “re-baptized” those who had been baptized as infants or at an earlier point in their adult lives and wished to be baptized again. I watched him do a baby dedication that involved water from the Jordan River, but was definitely not a baptism. This local pastor was really not a big fan of my trying to teach the Apostle’s Creed to the youth group either.

    I’ve shared with you, I think, the video of the Skype “baptism” from a UMC in Alabama. There are places in The Episcopal Church where private baptisms unfortunately still happen…but we don’t monkey with the rite, and this would not be okay. The person presiding doesn’t touch the water or the person and omits a baptismal vow. The presider, as best I remember from the conference website is an Elder in Full Connection, which means he got through DCoM, BoOM, paperwork, and BoOM again.

    My watching others’ experiences of Boards of Ordained Ministry (largely in the Southeastern Jurisdiction) is that the balance of lay and ordained is fine, but there isn’t much of an emphasis on Wesleyan or United Methodist understanding of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, nor is there much regard for the teachings or expectations of the Church/General Conference (from the Social Principles to the official ritual, which TBE points out only GC can modify) — aside from not doing anything too gay.

    In our ordination rites we promise to “conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church.” I feel like there is a similar vow in the UM ordinal. What preparation are those preparing for ordination given at the seminary or local training level to help them be able to keep the vow? How much expectation do Boards of Ordained Ministry have that the person to be ordained is truly called to be ordained in The United Methodist Church as it understands itself at this point in history (rather than say, in a Baptist church that will let the wear a robe and stole)? What accountability is there for those who violate their ordination vows about worship, not that more trials are the answer, but is baptism and a baptismal ecclesiology really a priority? How much formal training for ordinands and those to be commissioned is there about how to teach, live, and experience a baptismal-based ecclesiology (such as preparing a Lenten series on Baptism, both for those to be baptized and those who will be remembering their vows at Easter — the more historic basing of the fast itself)?

    I’d love to hear Jeremy’s thoughts and others answers to the questions of a former insider now looking in from the outside.

    • says

      Thanks for the novel, Joseph. I thought it was a previous commenter for a moment…;-)

      I think our ecclesiology is a perpetual stumbling block between our denominations, as it was at the beginning of Methodism. There will always be a tension between anti-intellectual forces, conforming forces, and mushy middle forces…tension between Peter Cartwright and Francis Asbury, in other words. If we believe God uses untested and unforged people to bring the Gospel, then our ecclesiology and training reflects that. Without that perpetual focus on education, refinement, and such, we run into these types of issues with variety of expressions like your former senior pastor and some of my colleagues.

      I think the structure is there to be compatible with the level of structure that the TEC has (I really do!), but the practice and the permissiveness in “fudging” parts of that training and accountability has gotten away from us. While there are ways in which I appreciate the structural nuances (such as the Western Jurisdiction being able to find freedom to marry and ordain within the Discipline), such is a consequent of our polity:practice divide.

  6. says

    Well I live in Charlotte & so have some jealousy over Steven Furtick . . . but not so much over this issue.

    I believe the reason Elevation & other “Baptist-like” churches like it have such certainty around baptism and why even the best-intentioned Methodists do not is fairly simple: for the Baptists, the works of Scripture are the primary focus of baptismal teaching while we Methodists need to rely on later writings from church history.

    Baptism IS simple when you limit the conversation to the New Testament: it’s what people do AFTER an encounter with Jesus and it’s the acting out of forgiveness, of Spirit-filling, and, most powerfully, of death to the old life and resurrection to the new.

    We in the Methodist world have to nuance all the above with meanings and interpretations that are subsequent to the NT canon. And most people don’t have a leather-bound edition of the early church fathers around the house, much less the most recent edition of “By Water And The Spirit.”

    We have an inherently hard sell. Even as lovely as your language sounds — in particular, how we should “link [our] identity to the one being baptized” — I’m not sure what that means. It’s elusive & elliptical and lacks the force of “dead to sin and alive to Christ.”

    This is one case where the problem is not the quality of communication. It’s the content. Elevation knows because Elevation KNOWS. We nuance because we think it sounds more erudite.

    Is it time to simplify and to clarify? As I have written elsewhere to much Metho-consternation:

    [Baptism is not] complicated, it’s not a spiritual birthmark, it’s not a naming ceremony, it’s not even the New Testament equivalent of circumcision. It’s death to the old life and resurrection to the new.

    Pastor Steven just takes that simplicity and adds some steroids to it.

    • says

      Talbot, I agree with much of what you say. But whenever we simplify things, we wonder what to do with those left out. Since Baptists don’t do infant baptism, their understanding of baptism IS simpler whereas ours is more complex.

      So let me ask: if Baptism is simply “death to old life and resurrection to the new” what does that mean for infants? Are they shunning their old 8 day or 2 year old life? Do the sponsors renounce their old lives and that counts as “death…resurrection?” Original Sin isn’t addressed until Justification, though we understand Prevenient Grace covers children until they are older…so they aren’t “saved” by infant baptism (in my understanding) in the same way a person of age is “saved” by Baptism. So what is “dying and resurrecting” for a child?

      I guess I would say complexity is important for those who have been convicted that the Spirit moves through the pages of Scripture as much as it moves through human history and human ability.

      Thanks for considering the question!

  7. says

    A good counter-question.
    Limiting the conversation to the NT, I believe you can say the dying & resurrecting motif from Romans 6:3-5 is not applicable to a child. That issue was not on Paul’s mind when he wrote those words.
    I’ve often wondered if our linkage of prevenient grace to infant baptism is “Right theology / Wrong ritual.” Is not prevenient grace — and community involvement & congregational identity — just as much a part of dedicating/celebrating a baby as is infant baptism?
    Of course, I think Elevation probably has too many babies to spend time dedicating them as part of weekend worship!

  8. Taylor Burton-Edwards says

    By Water and the Spirit itself is here, for free download:

    Gayle wrote the study book linked above, but the document itself is this Church’s GC-approved official doctrinal statement on baptism, developed by a committee from across the global church with global input and reaffirmed twice by subsequent GC’s (2004 and 2012).

    Re: ordination and ecumenical relationships. Our full communion agreement with ELCA simply recognizes the ministry of both of our clergy who are ordained and for ELCA rostered. ELCA does not recognize UM local pastors or “commissioned” persons. They also have no generalized equivalent for our ordained deacon.

    It is common in full communion agreements for both churches to seek to affirm what each can in the other, and to let points of agreement guide the terms of “transferability” and “interchangeability” among clergy.


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