The real wonder workers …

I can’t remember the last time I went to a circus … until we recently decided to check out the latest edition of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s “Greatest Show on Earth” on its Raleigh stop. 

Expand the picture and look closely: you’ll see five roustabouts in the foreground, preparing a giant airbag beneath the high wire as the elephants take center stage.What I found most fascinating about the show was not the elephants or the trapeze artists (and certainly not the raucous music), but the way the high-energy show was so carefully choreographed so that one act segued seamlessly into the next — and the key to that was the roustabouts, men and women in black jumpsuits who stayed in constant motion as they set up or took down equipment and staging to keep the show moving along. 

It wasn’t a “three-ring circus,” but was often set up as two rings, and while the spotlight was on one, the dark-clad workers were hustling to assemble props or set up safety pads in the other. When all the clowns, dancers, and performers paraded around the arena to close the show, I wished they had allowed the real wonder workers a chance to take a bow. The circus wouldn’t work without them. 

While watching the out-of-the-spotlight activity, I couldn’t help but think of a report I’d seen earlier in the day about a church plan for a service culminating in mass “Spontaneous Baptisms” — a plan that has nothing spontaneous about it. 

Elevation Church, a Southern Baptist mega-church in Charlotte, reported 689 baptisms in 2012, but more than 3,500 last year, many of them gained through carefully choreographed “spontaneous baptisms” that have been so successful that the church has posted instructions on its website for other churches seeking to orchestrate a baptism spectacuar. The attention to detail is impressive, including supply lists and percentages for each size of preprinted baptism T-shirts, shorts and underwear needed for clothing kits. Instructions are also provided for all the behind-the-scenes folk who act as crowd movers, cheerleaders, wardrobe handlers, story-collectors, picture-takers, and enthusiasm builders. 

A report by a local TV station found it surprising that the detailed strategy calls for fake converts to be planted in the crowd and to move quickly forward — by the longest and most visible routes — when the invitation is given. There’s nothing new about planting people to be “moved to respond” on cue, however. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has used the same strategy with great success for years, appointing multiple waves of people to respond at various points during the closing appeal. 

I am confident that the folks who script services to fabricate miraculous responses do so with sincere hearts and a desire to serve Christ, but one has to wonder if the sketchy integrity of manipulating people is good for the kingdom. The plan includes detailed instructions for every stage of mass baptisms, with special attention given to preparing name tags with tracking numbers and a media team to record each person’s 30-45 second experience of baptism (the time is also in the script). 

What the instructions do not include is anything relative to follow-up, church membership, or discipleship for those who have been run through the water. One has to hope that the tracking numbers and registration materials will support some effort to involve the freshly immersed folk in a local congregation, but one also fears that many will assume their souls are now safe so they can go back to business as usual. 

Whatever the show, it’s the people behind the scenes who make it go. Let’s hope they’re going someplace good.  


  1. All that glitters is not always gold. Just like the planted worshipers in the audience are fake, so is the glitter on the circus animals. This circus has been fined so many times for animal abuse. What you see is phony. The animals are not having fun, and they are not enjoying their tricks….they do them to survive, to keep from being beaten and whipped. I wish everyone would go behind the scenes, and see the real goings on at this circus, which the last I read the UK was not allowing animals in the circus. It amazes me that people continue to support this circus, given the reputation that it has.

  2. There is nothing spontaneous about this. It is all for show.

  3. "The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has used the same strategy with great success for years, appointing multiple waves of people to respond at various points during the closing appeal. "

    I never in my life had heard the above. It greatly disappoints me that Billy Graham and his organization also manipulated people into "conversions."

  4. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has used the same strategy with great success for years, appointing multiple waves of people to respond at various points during the closing appeal.

    I remember Graham ending sermons by telling the counselors to come forward, but accusing him of charlatanry pushes the envelope. Graham was never liked, and isn't to this day, by modernists, who also can't stand Franklin (mostly out of jealousy, I suspect) because he puts his faith to tangible works very successfully and has the guts to speak the truth about a lot of things.

  5. I certainly will let God sort out the believers and nonbelievers, but anyone who manipulates conversions is wrong in doing this. People too often get carried away by their emotions in "church" settings.

  6. I didn't accuse Billy Graham or his evangelistic teams of being charlatans, Jim, just pointing out that they used the same strategy. If you've every attended any of their pre-crusade counselors' meetings, as I and many friends have, you'd know this. They're very open about it: counselors and recruits are scattered in the crowd and instructed to come forward at different times during the invitation. They do not see it as manipulation, but a way of encouraging people who are hesitant to blend with the crowd and come forward.
    Along with a heart-wrenching evangelistic message, it certainly proved to be quite successful.

  7. Tony:

    I did not know that Billy Graham or his evangelistic teams used this technique. It seems manipulative to me.

  8. I never attended any pre-crusade meetings or any BG crusade, for that matter, only watched them on TV. I led the congregation for “invitation” hymns for many years, though I don't like that feature of a service. I would not have lasted as a preacher because I would not have had an “invitation” at the end of services, at least for an initial public expression of faith. Jumping through the hoops is not my idea of “proving” faith. I believe Graham's services would have produced converts with or without the invitation or any prodding. Inviting believers to share their conversion in a service seems appropriate but only after a conference with the pastor or other person had been held to ascertain the new believer's understanding of what he/she is doing. This has nothing to do with the convert's standing before God because God takes care of that. In a long life, I've revised a number of beliefs about methodology and biblical interpretation, though the issues that are patently black or white have not been subject to any change. While filling in for the pastor once, I gave the invitation and a respondent came to the front for membership and flashed his Social Security card. Turns out he had been hitting on the ushers or deacons or somebody for panhandling purposes, a method he had used elsewhere. Church membership has been cheapened, with churches full of useless members, because of the glib “invitation” angle. I know the main reason for the pressure—saving people from hell, as if establishing a routine for that matter is valid. I don't fault fervent believers for that, but I believe God can take care of it.

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