Yesterday, chatter arose over an article surrounding the ecclesiastical tactics of Elevation Church. Among other things, the report responded to a 2011 Elevation document called “Spontaneous Baptisms How-To Guide,” which lays out in elaborate detail how to engineer an explosive, revival-like baptism service in your church. For example, the guide says, “Included in this document is everything that we did to prepare the way for God to show up…So here’s how we activated our faith to pull off our part in God’s miracle.” It also 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.”
Using their engineered approach, Elevation reports to have performed 2158 baptisms in 2011.
Engineered revivals aren’t anything new and neither is pneumatological pump-priming. It’s probably no exaggeration to say that every generation has seen this. And whether 2158 people were genuinely converted or not, or whether at Elevation or elsewhere, the issue is not, “did it work,” but, “is it faithful?” There are fundamental issues that need consideration.
Here are 10 thoughts on the idea of engineered revivals:
1. We must let sovereign God engineer the miracle of conversion.
As mentioned above, engineered revivals are nothing new. Charles Finney, among other things, was known for his innovative assemblies. And not coincidentally, it seems that both Furtick and Finney share a common contempt for the doctrines of grace. The result is what we are seeing.
So much of this issue comes down to asking and answering the question, “Who is God and how does he carry out whatever it is he’s doing?” Briefly: He is sovereign Lord of creation who has decreed all things from the beginning to the end, with the purpose that he receives glory through his plan of redemption to rescue hopeless sinners through the Person and work of Christ.
First, God the Father primed the salvation pump in eternity past when he graciously chose the elect (Eph 1:4-5). Doing so ensured every single miracle of conversion would go down flawlessly. Second, God the Son engineered the miracle of salvation when he redeemed the elect through his substitutionary death on the cross and resurrection. And third, God the Spirit tops off the priming with his effectual call on the elect at the appointed time thus awakening the dead sinner to new life (John 6:63, Eph 1:13). It’s good engineering.
So we have to stay anchored in God’s sovereign grace or the way we approach ministry gets carnal quickly: fleshly methods become canonical, fallen man becomes semi-sovereign, and carnal means become justified.
Bottom line: By his sovereign grace, God alone has engineered a sufficient tactic to overcome man’s unconverted inertia so as to flawlessly convert.
2. We must do ministry in a way that submits to the Holy Spirit.
Finney once said:
There is nothing in religion beyond the ordinary powers of nature. A revival is not a miracle, nor dependent on a miracle, in any sense. It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means—as much so as any other effect produced by the application of means.
Philosophically, Finney’s words coincide with Elevation’s method. The engineered revival depends not on the miracle of the Spirit for regeneration, but the methods of man applying tactical means. Underneath the pages and pages of tactics appears reliance upon the “ordinary powers of nature.” And to be fair, pulling off that many baptisms in such a short time is impressive. But whether the Spirit blew through is another issue.
This reminded me of the time someone attempted to teach a friend how to speak in an angelic prayer language. He was told to prime the pump by repeatedly and rapidly saying, “Eat another watermelon,” until the Spirit kicked in and took over. If this wasn’t a matter involving our majestic God, it might be funny. And, tragically, the engineered conversions in this case do not seem much different.
Caution is needed. Christ likens the Spirit to wind. Wind is something one cannot harness, impel, direct, or engineer. We cannot prime wind to get windy. That’s the point. He doesn’t need a motivational talk. He already has been delegated to regenerate the elect at the appointed time. And nothing will alter that decree.
We start there to do ministry in a way that submits to the Spirit. He will convert his way in his timing. But this brings up a few questions: What is man’s part in conversion? As a church, what will it look like to be filled with the Spirit? And, can we know if we are submitted to the Holy Spirit when it comes to evangelism?
We can. Christ cares too much for his sacred plan of salvation to leave his people groping for subjective, unverifiable tactics on how to make disciples. He hasn’t abandoned us to pneumatological dice-rolling. Fundamentally, we are submitted to the Spirit when greatest effort is given to embrace the Spirit’s prescribed tactic for engineering conversions. Being his word, Scripture prescribes that tactic as the proclamation of the plain old message of Christ crucified (1 Cor 2:2). That’s our part. That’s it. And in doing so, we ensure submission to the Spirit.
Submitting to the Spirit does not mean we prime the pump with elaborate tactical schemes. It means we speak what he has said in Scripture. Trusting in the Spirit does not mean strategically maneuver ourselves to ease man’s carnal resistance, but lovingly speak the message of Christ crucified. It’s really enough.
Bottom line: When we accurately proclaim Christ crucified in the place of sinners, we do ministry in a way that submits to the Spirit.
3. We need to rest in the sufficiency of Scripture.
Similar to the previous point, we can detour from the sufficiency of Scripture when we give so much time to tactical strategy. Scripture is sufficient for all things pertaining to life and godliness (2 Pet 1:3). It’s enough to give us the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Christ (2 Tim 3:15).
Furthermore, by laboring over documents on engineering conversions, we risk the Corinthian error. It’s simply too much tactic. And the reason it’s too much is because it’s piling up so much wisdom of man that there is little room for the wisdom of God. As such, there isn’t enough cross-centered foolishness. Like Gideon’s army, there are too many forces such that we might say, “My own power has engineered this.” Then we might make bumper stickers and shirts to fly our flag. We’ve gone astray. God’s engineering, by design, excludes man’s cleverness, and only includes the foolishness of the cross to save those who will be saved.
Bottom line: The full power to convert and revive comes when we rest on Scripture alone.
4. We do not build the church.
Our sovereign Lord has imbedded a promise into the universe that cures even a church-planter’s insomnia: “I will build My church” (Matt 16:18).
God causes the growth (1 Cor 3:6-7). Through speaking the word, we’re merely the gardeners.
Bottom line: If we are doing the building, we are building something other than God’s church.
5. We mustn’t assume that numbers are heaven’s affirmation.
Elevation’s unashamed documentation and proclamation of numbers is concerning. Yes, Luke records numbers in Acts, but we’re not Luke, this isn’t Acts, and we’re not writing Scripture. And the documented method on how they got all those conversions, was: 1) They just preached the gospel and 2) They didn’t do anything; the Spirit did. Caution is needed.
Jeremiah would’ve never been invited to weigh in on how to engineer revivals.
Furthermore, if it’s all about numbers, then Jesus isn’t the best example of biblical faithfulness. It’s safe to say that the majority of the world is not converted, nor will be (Matt 7:13-14). He’s not doing well even by baseball standards.
But numbers swelling does not equal the church being built. Disciples made by the power of the Holy Spirit through the word of God does. And filled pews is not a gauge for ministerial faithfulness. Reliance on the sufficiency of Scripture is.
Bottom line: Numbers are not an end-all declaration of heaven’s approval.
6. We can remain calm with little growth and small numbers.
The way is still narrow and the gate is still small that leads to life. So if the numbers reflect that, whether with attendance or baptisms, it’s ok. We need not grow anxious and look about. Our first thought need not be, “What is so-and-so-exponentially-growing-church doing that I’m not?” It’s every pastor’s and church-planter’s temptation.
God is sovereign, on the throne, and competent to work in spite of our weaknesses. In fact, that’s all he has to choose from: weakness and flaw. He’ll get the job done. And whatever he does, he’s getting it done.
So if your pastor is faithful to exposit Scripture, ordinary-week after ordinary-week, there are about 53 filled seats, including the band, praise God for him. It’s a battle. He’s being faithful. God reigns.
Bottom line: We can take a deep breath and trust God if numbers are small.
7. We must be slow to conclude that a spontaneous response is fruit of conversion.
Elevation has reported a huge number of conversions in recent years (7699 in 2011). Church Relevance jumped in and also said, “These are the top churches to learn from about how to consistently experience high level growth.”
But the confident assertion of numbers needs caution. It’s possible to show a favorable, spontaneous response to the word and yet be unconverted. In the parable of the sowers Christ gives two scenarios of apparent conversions which prove to be no such thing: one sprouts but dies from pressure of persecution and the other dies from cares of the world (Matt 13:18-23); both are unregenerate. So we need to give conversion-counting time; perhaps until heaven. Bearing 30, 60, or 100-fold takes more than the 5-minute trip from pew to the baptismal.
How are the 2158 who were baptized from 2012 doing? Are they bearing fruit of repentance? Are they broken by their spiritual poverty (Matt 5:3), mourning their sin (Matt 5:4), growing in humility (Matt 5:5), and hungering for personal holiness (Matt 5:6)? Are they growing steadily in the Scriptures, serving actively in the body, repenting continually of their sin, and discipling faithfully another soul?
And once fruit is observed, we can prepare for the sacred celebration of baptism. But baptism should be a time of celebrating Christ and his finished work applied to that individual. Something is wrong when baptism mimics Henry Ford’s approach to efficiency.
Even George Whitefield, who preached to thousands upon thousands and did not count converts, reportedly once was asked after preaching to masses: “How many people were saved?” He replied, “We’ll see 6 months to a year from now.”
Bottom line: Conversion counting should probably be delayed until heaven.
8. We need to simply be faithful.
When God sent Jonah to Nineveh, no volunteers were needed to strategically place themselves throughout the city. The only engineering was God graciously granting repentance to thousands through a rebellious prophet’s preaching of wrath. Jonah just needed to go and be faithful.
When John the Baptist set up his baptism service in the Jordan, we wouldn’t imagine he orchestrated a team of strategically placed volunteers to help the tax collectors and soldiers overcome social-pressure, making it easier to jump in. He just faithfully preached.
And that day the church was born, the young, hazardous Apostles had no engineered plan but to hide in a locked room. The Spirit moved as he was beckoned by the Son. The Apostles’ Spirit-filled instinct was proclaiming Christ crucified, plain and simple. And the result was an explosion of conversions.
Timothy, and every pastor thereafter, is charged to pass on what they’ve heard. The church is the pillar and support of truth, not the engineer and primer of manipulative tactic. Before we ask, “What did that megachurch do?” let’s ask, “What did God say?” Before we think, “Should we adopt their model?” let’s ask, “Are we adhering to our Master?”
Bottom line: God does not need us to engineer anything except faithful obedience.
9. We need to examine our pride.
No one is immune to fleshly methodologies any more than anyone is immune to pride. Pastors, and especially church-planters, are under immense pressure from within and without to produce. Our flesh craves the crowds.
But we have got to beware here. Numbers swelling, crowds moving, and pews filling: it’s intoxicating to the ego; it’s enticing and alluring. And we begin to believe people’s praise as if we engineered something. We’re on a slippery slope. When we’re beefing up methodologies and getting calls to reveal our secret, there’s a chance we need to examine our pride. We’ve made a golden calf out of our tactics.
Bottom line: Especially those of us in positions of church leadership, we have got to search out and smash our idols of position, prominence, and praise.
10. We need to remember what’s at stake.
Eternity. It’s a long time. So long that when 10 or 10 million years have gone by, zero percent of the whole will have been completed. And conscious, living souls will spend it in either heaven or hell.
When it comes to baptisms, revivals, and the church, we’ve got to remember we’re handling souls and matters of eternity, not customers and matters of a smile.
Moving people down aisles with cheers and logo’ed shirts; it can give a false assurance. Because they got up, were praised by the cheerleading squad, and dunked, their ticket to heaven seems sealed. It’s dangerous.
But many will die, stand before the exalted Christ, and hear, “Depart from Me, I never knew you.” We are not endeavoring to slap sanctified mouse ears on people’s head and send them home with a church t-shirt, but solemnly testifying of repentance towards God and faith in Christ. Those of us who tamper with the gospel will give an account for our ecclesiatrics (Heb 13:17, Jas 3:1).
Bottom line: Engineered revivals risk promoting false assurance.
When it comes to the glorious miracle of conversion, God already has to work in spite of us. Let’s not make him have to do so even more. Like Simon the magician, we risk soliciting the Spirit for mammon. But God already sovereignly engineered it all by his grace.
All the ink spilled to produce pages of ecclesiatrics has diluted the saving message of the cross. When the people are saying, “Consult the mediums, spiritists, and ecclesiatrical engineers,” should not a people inquire of their God? Back to the Scriptures we must go. Salvation is from the Lord.