(Photo: Screen Grab via Vimeo/Elevation Church)
After enduring months of withering criticism for their 2011 manual on how to get "spontaneous" baptisms, Elevation Church, which has advertised its baptism of thousands of people as a spontaneous miracle, has admitted that the baptisms are "not so spontaneous."
Chunks Corbett, CFO of the 10-campus North Carolina megachurch which boasts more than 15,000 in weekly attendance, explained to The Christian Post in an interview last Friday, however, that the reason they aren't "so spontaneous" has nothing to do with any attempts to deceive, as suggested by some media reports.
A highly critical report by WCNC last Tuesday used the manual, Spontaneous Baptism How-To Guide, as a basis to challenge some of the marketing language used to describe Elevation Church's eventful baptism of thousands of people over short periods as "spontaneous" and miraculous.
One critic in the report pointed to a directive to church volunteers in the manual to be the first ones to respond to a call for baptism as a deceptive tactic to get people to step forward for baptism.
"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 Elevation's pastor, Steven Furtick.
"They were shilling for Steven and the intent was these shills stand up and everybody else follows."
Duncan, says Corbett, couldn't be more wrong.
Baptisms at Elevation Church are a special and important part of the church. So special, he says, the Southern Baptist church's thriving baptism culture inspired a song 'Raised to Life' on their most recent album released in January 2014 called "Only King Forever."
The song is delivered as a musical ode to God's redemptive power in rebirthing converts to a new life. Elevation Church dedicates an entire page to it on its website.
Last August, says Corbett, the church baptized 3,347 people in two weeks. The feat required significant logistics planning and other preparation including preparing people who would be baptized ahead of time for the event.
"In week two we baptized about half of those 3,000 people and if you think we manipulated them in week one then what do you call week two?" asked Corbett.
"We told them what we were doing before they even got there. Even in '13 it wasn't like some 'thing' [that came out of nowhere]. We told people we were doing baptisms. We had set it up leading up to it. We didn't like make a huge announcement but it's not so spontaneous," Corbett explained.
The use of the volunteers is just good management of a baptism model Elevation church got from a church in Georgia and improved on over time, says Corbett.
The volunteers are necessary because baptisms are done outside. They are needed to help people who already acknowledged beforehand that they would be making the life-changing step during the service.
"At elevation when you've got 10 campuses and you are making a call [for baptism] via video, some campuses go forward, some campuses go backwards some campuses go sideways … it's not like there's a tank in the front. None of our buildings are big enough," said Corbett.
"So when we do them (baptisms), the tanks are all outside, the changing areas are all outside, we rent huge tents, people don't know where to go so we've gotta have volunteers to lead the way so that people know which direction to go," he explained.
Corbett, who founded Elevation Church with Pastor Steven Furtick eight years ago, explained that a lot of the information quoted by critics from the manual, has been taken out of context to make it appear as if people are being manipulated into getting baptized at the church.
The manual, he says, is not an internal document currently used by the church. It was created to share with other churches that wanted to replicate the success of Elevation Church in getting people to the water.
"That document was originally designed for churches so we can pass along to them how we did our baptisms. Hundreds of churches have used it. It's not some secret internal document," Corbett explained.
"People are taking things out of context. We don't even use that document [for our baptisms]; that was something we gave to churches so they can kind of see. So it's just a little frustrating when you create something for good and someone tries to throw it back at you," he continued. "The thought that it was manipulative or contrived is [a] very frustrating thing because it is not even close to the truth."
"It was missed that this document was intended to be a blessing for other churches. And it was something that we put out for free and we continue to have it. We are not embarrassed of it. It's not wrong, it's just a how-to," he added.
Critics of Elevation Church's baptism style like the Rev. David Key, who teaches Baptist studies at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, dismissed it as a "'Disneyfication' of religious services."
"Most people would not want to be seen as manipulating a group because then you would have questions of authenticity," he told WCNC. "This church has obviously discovered what we in the industry call the 'Disneyfication' of religious services."
Corbett said Elevation is refusing to engage their critics any more than they have to.
"Everybody's got critics and especially when you're being successful. Nobody knows Pastor Steven better than me," he said.
"I started the church with him. Me and him and our wives. We've been together for 12 years and the church is now eight years old. I've been here since the beginning. I've seen it all. I think you judge somebody by the people closest to them not by some guy in a basement that has a blog (critics)," he noted. "We're just going to keep doing what we do. We exist so the people far from God will be raised to God in Christ."