Long, long, ago I covered several Billy Graham crusades or other evangelistic efforts linked to his organization. In the days before these giant events, the pros doing press relations went out of their way to explain many of the fine details of what was happening and why.
For example, they noted that after Graham extended his invitation for people to come forward to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior, or to rededicate their lives as Christians, many of the first people who came forward were actually trained counselors who would be greeting these seekers and helping to answer their questions. The counselors sat all over the stadium rather than clogging up the front rows in front of the podium.
Did this give the appearance that many people were streaming forward to make decisions, thus helping "break the ice" for those who might hesitate? That way have been a secondary affect. The key was that the counselors immediately went to work at the front of the stadium doing what they were supposed to do -- work with the seekers who were coming forward. (For example, during the Colorado crusade in 1987, one of my stories focused on the cooperation between the Denver Catholic Archdiocese and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association to find and train Catholic counselors to work with Catholics who came forward to make decisions.)
In other words, it was a valid question to ask about the visual effect of the counselors streaming forward. The Graham people heard the question, validated it and then provided an answer.
So how does my Graham story relate to the NBC Charlotte investigation into the the baptismal practices being used at the massive Elevation Church?
First of all, the story opens -- for some strange reason -- with a piece of news that really isn't news, for anyone who has been following megachurch trends.
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.
So what else is new? Skilled religion-beat specialists have been covering this generic megachurch trend for a decade or more. Can you say Saddleback Community Church? I thought so.
No, the key to this report is the claim that many of the people who rush forward to take part in Elevation Church's trademark mass baptism services are not really newcomers to the faith. They are plants used to create emotional scenes that promote inflated numbers. Readers are told:
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."
So, in the words of one critic, these 15 people are faking people out, they are in fact "shilling" for the church's leaders.
For example, when these 15 people reach the front of the church, do they (a) fake being converts who are asking for baptism or (b) do they openly and honestly join other team members as counselors for the newcomers?
In other words, are we dealing with a honestly practiced system built on volunteer counselors or a kind of staged spiritual "miracle"?
It's clear what the NBC Charlotte team thinks:
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 Southern Baptist studies at Emory University's Candler School of Theology. ... 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."
That's a nice touch, quoting a "Southern Baptist studies" specialist at a liberal Protestant seminary. I am sure that there are mainstream evangelicals and perhaps even Southern Baptist critics who would raise questions about what is going on or even offer other factual insights into these kinds of services. Where are those crucial voices?
The online guide does include many staging details that give me (as a former Southern Baptist deacon turned Eastern Orthodox layman) sweaty palms.
But here is the key: We never find out what happens with those crucial 15 volunteers. Who are they? What do they do once they reach the front of the church?
Did the church have an opportunity to explain its beliefs and practices? It appears so, according to reporter Stuart Watson.
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."
So what is going on here?
It appears that the church was offered plenty of chances to explain its methods. I cannot fault the station's approach and, yes, it sure seems like the Elevation leadership has something to hide.
But here is the bottom line: We still don't know if the 15 volunteers are people who fake decisions and then, even worse, go on to take part in fake baptisms. That appears to be the claim being made in this report.
Are these 15 volunteers actually Graham-crusade-style counselors who walk forward and then openly and honestly face the congregation as members of the church's counseling staff? Did anyone at NBC Charlotte -- in a town where one of the major roads is the Billy Graham Parkway -- think to ask that question?
It would have been wise for Elevation Church leaders to ask that question themselves and then answer it.