In North Carolina, a Southern Baptist church is winning souls for the Lord. Elevation Church and its pastor Steven Furtick have built a reputation as one of the Southern Baptist Convention’s fastest growing and most successful congregations due to the staggering number of people baptized on Sunday mornings. This may not seem significant but the SBC – the largest Protestant denomination in the United States – has seen a steady decline in baptisms over the past decade years. According to a report compiled by Lifeway Christian Resources (an arm of the SBC), 2010 saw a 5% drop in the number of baptisms and a 0.15% decline in membership, a trend all too familiar to many mainline Protestant denominations. Yet Elevation Church in Charlotte, NC reported 3,519 baptisms in the first eight months of 2013 (Huffington Post 2014). That comes out to an average of 440 baptisms every month or 110 every week. Compare this number to the number of baptisms in all Southern Baptist churches in 2012, which came in at just under 315,000 (Baptist Press 2013). One church, in the first 8 months of 2013, has already baptized the equivalent of 1.1% of all 2012 baptisms in the SBC.
As you are probably not surprised to hear, Elevation Church boasts an average of 14,000 worshippers a week at nine campuses in the Charlotte, NC metro area. And yet, more than 3,000 baptisms in less than a year still seems to be an unusually high number. Others questioned this number, leading to an investigation by NBC Charlotte that revealed Elevation Church may be planting the first responders to the altar call – resulting in the “spontaneous” baptisms – in order to attract more people to the baptismal fount (the report also speculates that Elevation has been concealing financial information from donors and church members). If Elevation Church organizes their baptisms, is the message and meaning behind the sacrament diluted?
It’s important to note that Furtick and Elevation Church are certainly not the first to engage in spontaneous baptism. J.D. Greear writes on this very topic in 2012, stating that spontaneous baptism is actually more biblical (Why We Sometimes Baptize on the Spot, 2012). Many pastors and lay people have taken up the issue, debating whether spontaneous baptisms as genuine commitments to God, whether those being baptized realize the implications of their actions.
I think this is one of those issues in Christian churches that will never, ever have an answer. We simply have to believe that the man or woman or youth being baptized is ready and prepared to take that step. It is no different than personal conversion – who are we to decide whether someone has a conversion experience? Yet just like the Puritans in the 17th century, church-goers and clergy in the 21st century attempt to validate a person’s faith before allowing baptism or membership, looking for so-called signs of a true Christian faith.
In the case of Furtick and Elevation Church, it sounds as if they have bigger problems than simply organizing a few baptisms – the administration and clergy have been under fire for financial purchases and disclosures (or lack thereof). Yet can anyone really judge them on their practice of spontaneous baptism? How is anyone, other than the baptizee, to know whether it’s the right decision and time? Isn’t that the point of faith, to believe and trust without complete justification, especially when it’s not your faith we’re talking about? A Christian’s job is not to judge the worthiness or faith of others, or speculate on whether they are genuine in their faith. A Christian’s job is to grow and continue on one’s own journey of faith, supporting those around them wherever they may be.