Megachurch pastor Steven Furtick’s ‘spontaneous baptisms’ not so spontaneous

Steven Furtick, lead pastor of Elevation Church.
Pastor Steven Furtick, lead Pastor of Elevation Church.

Photo courtesy of Christy Collins, via Wikimedia Commons

Pastor Steven Furtick, lead Pastor of Elevation Church.

(RNS) A Southern Baptist megachurch pastor in North Carolina, already under fire for buying a $1.6 million house, is in the spotlight again for “spontaneous baptisms” that turn out to be not nearly so spontaneous.

Steven Furtick, 34, routinely draws about 14,000 worshippers to several campuses of Elevation Church in and around Charlotte. The church, launched in 2006, have been listed by Outreach magazine as one of the top 100 fastest-growing churches in the country.

Part of that growth has been attributed to Elevation’s flashy baptism ceremonies, particularly as the Southern Baptist Convention grows increasingly concerned about declining baptism rates as a key measure of evangelism and church vitality.

But a new report from NBC Charlotte suggests that Elevation’s supposedly spontaneous baptisms are carefully planned ahead of time, with people planted in the congregation to start the walk down the aisle.

“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,” a guide posted on a webpage for Furtick’s book says.

The elaborate staging, the guide explains, is “how we activated our faith to pull off our part in God’s miracle.” The “spontaneous baptisms” are to be done quickly, “on average between 30 to 45 seconds,” to keep things flowing, the guide suggests.

“Think of the (changing) room in terms of a NASCAR pit stop,” the “how-to” guide explains. “It has to be quick in and quick out.”

The church provides everything a new convert could need to get ready for baptism, from dark-colored T-shirts and shorts in various sizes to sports bras, hair ties, deodorant, flip-flops and make-up remover. Cheering volunteers man the doors to usher the “traffic” of new believers toward the front, and another set preps the converts for a dip in the baptismal pool.

“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,” it says. “Pick young energetic people, not necessarily those who are there first.”

Elevation’s baptism numbers have fluctuated, according to an internal report obtained by NBC, from 289 in 2010 to 2,410 in 2011, from 689 in 2012 to 3,519 for the first eight months of 2013. Overall, the SBC experienced a decline of 5.5 percent of baptisms between 2011 and 2012, according to the latest reported numbers.

Baptisms in the SBC — the nation’s largest Protestant denomination — have declined during six of the last eight years, with 2012 experiencing the lowest rates since 1948.

A spokesman for the Southern Baptists’ North American Mission Board, the agency that assists with planting churches like Elevation and that tracks baptism rates, declined to comment on Elevation’s method of mass baptism, citing each church’s autonomy.

Elevation received training, consultation and financial support in its first two years, according to Brian Davis, associate executive director-treasurer of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. However, the church grew so quickly that the leadership no longer needed start-up help, he said.

Calls and emails sent to staff at Elevation Church were not returned.

Furtick’s salary is set by a board of overseers made up of other megachurch pastors, some of whom have been invited to speak at Elevation, according to Warren Cole Smith, who lives in Charlotte and has written about Furtick for World magazine.

“People were willing to excuse his flamboyance and extravagant lifestyle by saying but ‘He’s doing such great work.’” Smith said. “Now, this new controversy calls into serious question the legitimacy of conversion rates the church have been claiming.”

Furtick has associated himself with other megachurch pastors like Joel Osteen, James MacDonald, Ed Young Jr., Perry Noble and T.D. Jakes, some of whom are criticized for promoting a prosperity gospel.

“This is one of the byproducts of an evangelical movement that favors emotionalism and personal experience over doctrine, theology and biblical teaching,” Smith said.

Mass baptisms are not unheard of in Christian churches, but some pastors are wary of the practice since some people might not understand what it means, said Tony Merida, pastor of Imago Dei Church in Raleigh, N.C.

“I wasn’t as surprised by (the baptisms) because we have a history in a lot of revivalism and evangelicalism in that type of planning to get numbers,” said Merida, who is also a preaching professor of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. “I can’t imagine (the Apostle) Peter saying, ‘Hey, 15 of you get up and we’ll see if 1,000 will join.’”

Merida points to the New Testament book of 2 Corinthians to explain why he’d be uncomfortable with a baptism that might appear to be manufactured, where the Apostle Paul writes: “Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception.”

What bothers Merida more, however, are images from coloring books that children are apparently using in Elevation classrooms that include a picture of Furtick.

“We are united under the visionary,” one page says. “Elevation Church is built on the vision God gave Pastor Steven. We will protect our unity in supporting his vision.”

“You could start a cult this way,” Merida said. “You could do so many crazy things with this ideology.”

Spontaneous Baptisms How-to Guide


About the author

Sarah Pulliam Bailey

Sarah Pulliam Bailey is a national correspondent for RNS, covering how faith intersects with politics, culture and other news. She previously served as online editor for Christianity Today where she remains an editor-at-large.


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  • Excellent report, Sarah, getting right to the heart of the matter: Steven Furtick makes things up to suit his agenda. He plants people to make it look like they’re responding to his altar call, and his church publishes a coloring book to indoctrinate children to follow his alleged “vision” without question.

    His church is well-named, because the one being elevated is Mr. Furtick himself. That coloring book even elevates his vision above the authority of Scripture, as noted here.


  • It figures that leaders in the SBC would be the ones to criticize him. He’s reaching people, no doubt. I have personally grown in my relationship with God tremendously by using the Elevation Church App.

    The interesting thing is that I found this article because it was retweeted by Al Mohler. He has no problem in highlighting this pastor’s $1.6 million salary, but I noticed when I visited SBTS as a seminary student…. that Dr. Mohler’s President’s home is a mansion. Add that to his 6 figure salary and he doesn’t look too much better. Paige Patterson, President of SWBTS has a wife with a room just for her furs. The President’s home was rebuilt shortly after he got there and somehow it wound up being added. I wonder how that happened.

    SBC leaders are wondering why their churches aren’t baptizing people. The way they handle it? They attack someone who is getting it done! If the leaders in the SBC would spend half as much time praying, studying the Scriptures, and getting out of their offices in Nashville, then they may reach some people too.

  • These “pastors” are all rip-off artists and their “megachurches” are all rip-off institutions. Anyone who attends such churches is an illiterate fool in need of psychological therapy, not that phony “pastor” or phony religion.

  • How would you know about your “growth” compared to “God?” Wouldn’t that presume that you are quite “divine” yourself to be able to know the “Divine” so well to even measure such presumed growth?

  • If the spiritual leaders of Elevation Church do not act with discernment, and soon, young Mr. Furtick will move further and further away from SBC, evangelical, and historical Christian tenets. The signs are all there for this pastor to move his group in a spurious direction. Dig down and watch him closely. Teaching abject loyalty to the leader versus loyalty to the Lord, and accepting what the leader says without challenge, is inappropriate and cultic. This sort of thing is in fact one of the clear characteristics of a cult of Christianity. If it is true Furtick elevates his “vision” above Scripture, and if he teaches even inadvertently that he is the primary source of sound doctrine and guidance rather than the Bible, this can–and without correction will–lead this church out the door of true Christianity and away from the Kingdom. He may be a sincere young man, but it may also be true he is not mature enough, or bright enough, to know what possible damage he is doing.

  • Wayne:

    If people are planted to make it look like they are getting baptized, that is not correct. It doesn’t matter whether the SBC says so or someone else.

    Also, the homes occupied by the Presidents of those 2 seminaries are owned by the seminaries. They have been occupied by other Presidents before the current occupants, and they will be occupied by people after the current Presidents. I don’t know about the furs in Dr. Patterson’s home. I have never been in that home. I would make sure that such a story isn’t just a rumor, however. There are lots of rumors like that. Too bad there’s no Snopes for seminaries!

    Also, from what little I know about Elevation (and I mean that is very little) it seems to me that the congregation and some elders within the congregation should be in control of assets donated by the congregation, including the money that is given to pay the pastor’s salary. The salary seems excessive to be, but the major problem is that it is set by people are not in the church. I cannot see a NT pattern here. It seems that NT churches had elders who would function in that role. Having pastors from other churches in other states being the ones who really help govern the church is not good.

    You seem very sincere. I hope that you and others like you will help your congregation see that a good biblical organizational model would only enhance the good things that are happening at Elevation. That, also, would help to protect your pastor by providing him with some local, loving accountability.

  • Pastor Steven is an author of several books which gave him the money to buy the house. People need to stop reading false scripted articles like this, most of these accusations are assumptions based on how other people have acted. I go to Elevation, no one is standing up to do a fake baptism, who are you all to judge him like this and the church? Elevation church members put in more volunteer hours and invest more money into local ministries and the communities around the world than any church I’ve ever seen or heard of. look up Love Week and why don’t you go to a service before you criticize Elevation or the pastor. Everyone I’ve talked to who has regurgitated this fabricated news story has never been to Elevation. Believe every lie that comes out of a news story from NBC, that will get you real far in life and not close to God.

  • ELEVATION BAPTISM CONTROVERSY: I am thrilled to report that I downloaded the How to Guide for Spontaneous Baptisms, and I am seeing things in a different context. The 15 volunteers in the audience are under the heading of “Celebration Team” and those volunteers are identified as “tank people, wet changing area people, media people” and not as people faking going forward for baptism – this is the same as Billy Graham counselors going forward to get in position to assist those who are coming forward — READ IT HERE..,,,

    Celebration Team
    The team made up of the tank people, wet changing area people, media people and other volunteers on campus that day.
    General Info:
    The call for baptisms will happen approx 60 minutes into the worship experience and Pastor Steven will give the call week 1…tbd week 2.

    Audience (15) 15 people will sit in the worship experience and be the first ones to move when Pastor gives the call.
    1. Sit in the auditorium and begin moving forward when Pastor Steven says go.
    2. Move intentionally through the highest visibility areas and the longest walk.

  • I would appreciate it if you would report that the Furticks are the third largest donor to Elevation Church. They contribute financially well beyond what they take out in salary and housing allowance. The Furticks purchased the land and built their home with book advances. They contribute the proceeds from the sell of the books to the church.

    Secondly, i think that any person who opines on Furtick’s doctrine should first represent that they have listened in entireity to at least 3 sermons. I have been a Christian since i was 8, and i am now 54. I have been in churches with sound doctrinal teaching including First Baptist Church of Dallas and bible churches with teaching pastors degreed from Dallas Theological Seminary. Dr jack graham of Prestonwood Baptidt is on the Board of Elevation Church.

    Elevation is at the powerful intersection of sound doctrinal teaching and cultural relevance and the impact for the kingdom of God has been phenominal.

    There is no prosperity teaching. I would appreciate it if you or anyone else would point out to me Furtick’s doctrinal error. I will listen with humility

    Thanks for listening , and i look foward to your reply rbrucebenton

    Bruce Benton

  • Seriously, shame on you all…I have listened to a quite a few of Pastor Furtick’s sermons on Elevation Network. I live in NJ and I am 50 years old. I love Jesus and have taught women new to the faith and many who have been believers in Christ years longer than myself. From what I have read and learned from the Bible, both in the OT and NT, there were many God fearing men that the Lord blessed with prosperity. I am not rich, but I do not envy those who are and by His grace my family has a roof over our heads and food in our bellies. I too was suspicious of a church growing so large so quickly, but honestly, everything I have heard of of Pastor Furtick’s mouth has been “right-on”. He does not preach a prosperity gospel like the “Smiling One”. Pastor Furtick tells it like it is, maybe using a more contemporary approach (which I know many stoic legalistic churches despise) but we need to lead our young adults to the Truth, and Jesus Christ is a pretty cool person after all. We need outreach, not in-reach. These young adults are the future of our faith so, again, shame on you. It seems pretty spelled out how his baptism services go. It’s written plainly that the helpers go first. I don’t know where this is all coming from….well yes, I guess I do…

  • I do not think that Jesus, the one that also, was baptized while here on earth is not pleased with this baptism approach.

  • If the Lord is prodding me to be baptized and I am frozen by self-consciousness, I seriously doubt 15 people getting up in a room of over 2,000 is really going to suddenly get me moving. Baptism is an act of obedience to a direct command from Christ. You’re right, it’s a good thing, especially for people who have already made the bigger decision to put their lives in His capable hands….

  • I have listened to many of Mr. Furtick’s messages and one of the things that bother me with many of the new young preachers is they don’t exegete scripture. Either they feel they don’t need to, or they simply don’t know how. When scripture is preached proper context is a must, otherwise we bring our own interpretation and that not of scripture. This happened with Mr.Furtick’s coloring book. He used Romans 13:1-2 to call for unity under his vision, which also a violation of proper authority in the church. Romans 13:1-2 is referring to government authority not church authority, again taken out of context and used to bring about his agenda, this is wrong!

  • This should not surprise anyone. The great Rev. Billy Graham used plants for years in his crusades when extending an invitation to those who attended. These people were tasked with moving those attending to feel less threatened due to the several people who were already moving forward. Supposedly, it made it easier for those considered “white-knuckle” attendees who would not under normal circumstances move forward.

    The memorable, “If you are up in the top of the bleachers, you will want to begin making your way forward,” was the specific cue for those who worked on planning the event to go forward so they could assist those who actually did come forth to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. Is it scriptural? Well, that is an entirely different story. Much of what we do in the modern day church is considered to be lacking scriptural precedent. A good work written on this very topic is titled; The Pagan Church.

    While startling in its title, the reality is Barna and his associate point to several aspects of the worship event which have their roots in paganism. People really took issue when this book was published but if one truly does the research one quickly finds just how spot on the writer’s analysis is regarding the practices in the modern-day church.

  • I live in Australia, have never heard of Mr Furtick or his church, but have attended several “megachurches” in my time. I don’t agree with some of their doctrines, nor do I agree with the apparent “cult status” that we now give our spiritual leaders. BUT ….

    If you read the document carefully… Bruce Benton is correct. The 15 people in question are not plants, but merely part of the Celebration team. Their role is to encourage, not to deceive.

    If I was Mr Furtick, I’d be talking seriously with my lawyers about this article.

  • Believe every lie that is fed to you and you wind up believing the impossible. Like everything you just said, or everything in the Bible

  • I grew up in church and I have always followed my heart amd what i felt god wanted for me. I cant comment on any of the controversy behind Steven nor is it my place to judge him, but I was just introduced to Steven by a friend via his book crash the chatterbox. First of this guy gives up dirt on himself and portrays himself as a avergae Joe going through normal struggles like the rest of us. He isnt stating at all he’s a super Christian claiming to speaking for god himself. This book is speaking to me and I am convinced put in my path by god himself it has given me so many revelations amd insight into god and what his plan is for me. God speaks to us through others and none of us are perfect not even evangelists or other siritual leaders. But crazy cult nut job? I am gonna go with far from it. Bottom line is pray and ask god whats right for you if this is it try reading this book and make and intelligent and informed opion on your own not what everyone is ranting about on the internet. Have a blessed day everyone.

  • People are suprised that a member of a pedophile terrorist cult is spreading delusion? Big suprise!

  • “I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee…” (Gen. 12:3, KJV): I do not hate you: I love you as I am commanded to love the world. I would, however, like to mention that what you are doing here is only hurting your own argument. If you call us a pedophile terrorist cult, the world around you will think that you are the one who is delusional. If you disagree, then by all means do not be antagonistic of those who don’t. That is just wasting your own time. If you are arguing someone with true faith, then they won’t be moved, hence their firm faith. “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, and lean not unto your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.” (Proverbs 3:5-6, KJV) provides an example of how firm our faith should be.

  • Maybe the reason why Hillsong and Elevation are reaching so many people for Christ is because instead of blogging negativity, The church is going out throughout the world being the hands of feet. You should be ashamed of speaking lies about people. The real people I feel sorry for is your parents for not showing you in the bible where it says you should not gossip. The truth of the gospel is every knee shall bow and every tounge shall confess one day. It’s all about Jesus! Don’t worry if you can’t preach as good as Furtick, we all have different talents.

  • I have never seen such judgement as you see with religion, faith, and spirituality. You so called Christians cant stand the fact that someone else my have a different God gifted talent. “He baptised too many people too quickly”.Who the heck are you? Im sorry could someone please show me the bibles policies and procedures on baptism? Like famous Christian comic Mike Lowry says… “It doesnt matter if you’ve been dunked or sprinkled, if you don’t have Christ in your heart, You just got wet.” Just because he is leading people to Christ differently than how you CLAIM you got to Christ… this is not about you! This is about someone out there that is bringing people to christ like y’all complainers should be doing right now but instead you complain because God has blessed him with riches. Is it so hard for y’all to believe that God would grant riches to Job but not to Steven or Joel Osteen?

  • I appreciate your the time you took to comment Bruce and it’s been a while now so I’m unsure as to whether you’ll receive this.

    I am concerned with your statement regarding ‘cultural relevance’ – as any church in this day professing the name of Christ can never be relevant. We are called by Jesus to be in the world and not of it – so how then can a church be on the cusp of both. You are either in the the world or not in the world and its ways. This pursuit of relevance tickles the ears of the masses whom attend but Jesus made it clear that we are to pursue lives of humility and to sell that which we have to follow Him.

    Not acquire properties, houses worth millions and create infographics highlighting 30 reasons why it’s great to work at Elevation with 4 of them being directly related to the ‘Lead Pastor’.

    At best it’s unhealthy and when people start being persecuted for their faith and their comforts erode, I pray Steven has prepared his flock accordingly…

  • So long as what you mean by “catholic” is “universal,” and NOT the Roman Catholic Church… then I am in agreement. Should you mean the latter, then your opinion is of no significance.