CHARLOTTE, N.C. – A North Carolina megachurch minister remains under fire for his alleged practice of instructing volunteers to strategically respond to salvation calls in order to bolster baptism numbers.
Steven Furtick leads Elevation Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, one of the largest megachurches in the United States, with weekly attendance above 14,000. According to reports, Furtick performed 3,519 baptisms in the first eight months of 2013 alone, and baptized 400 attendees during a ceremony just last month.
In addition to those taking note of the large number of baptisms, Furtick recently drew controversy when Elevation Church published a document entitled Spontaneous Baptisms How To Guide. The nine-page document outlines the baptism policy followed during one of its previous outreach events.
The baptism how-to guide features detailed instructions for volunteers, including directions on how strategically-placed members are to sit in the auditorium and “be the first ones to move” toward the baptism area “when pastor gives the call.”
“Sit in the auditorium and begin moving forward when Pastor Steven says go,” the church document instructs. “Move intentionally through the highest visibility areas and the longest walk.”
Speed and efficiency are important to the baptism process, according to the Elevation Church guide.
“The first people going into the changing rooms have got to be people who move quickly, they must be changed and out on stage in a few minutes,” the document states. “Pick young energetic people, not necessarily those who are there first. Think of the room in terms of a NASCAR pit stop, it has to be a quick in and quick out.”
According to the baptism guide, volunteers should also be placed in hallways to “create critical mass as people are moving through the hallway toward [the baptism area].”
As allegations of stimulating baptisms have drawn criticism from other Christians, many continue to question the practices of Furtick and Elevation Church. James Duncan, a blogger and professor at Anderson University, accused Furtick of seeding the auditorium with “shills who pretend to be responding to the call.”
“[The volunteers’] high-visibility movement is designed to manipulate others to follow,” Duncan contended in a blog post. “If Furtick was confident in his message and in the efficacy of the Holy Spirit’s call, he shouldn’t need fake converts.”
“For good doctrinal reasons that even Steven Furtick understands, [the church volunteers] never ought to have responded in the first place,” Duncan argued. “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.”
But in a recent sermon, Furtick publicly addressed the baptism controversy, denying that the baptisms are manufactured. According to the Christian Post, Furtick declared that he is “too scared of God to do something like that.”
“If you want to pick on my house, okay,” Furtick stated. “But it’s a different territory when you start picking on people who made a decision to be baptized for Jesus Christ.”
“To take the fact that we have volunteers that lead the way so people will 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!” he stated.
The same day, Furtick performed a reported 400 baptisms in the auditorium.
Reports of Elevation Church’s questionable baptism policy came soon after Warren Cole Smith of WORLD Magazine revealed that Furtick lives in a recently-constructed, $1.7 million mansion.
“People were willing to excuse [Furtick’s] flamboyance and extravagant lifestyle by saying, ‘But, he’s doing such great work,’” Smith told The Huffington Post. “Now, this [baptism] controversy calls into serious question the legitimacy of conversion rates the church has been claiming.”
“This is one of the byproducts of an evangelical movement that favors emotionalism and personal experience over doctrine, theology and biblical teaching,” Smith stated.