Conservative evangelical bloggers are discussing what I believe is a first: a megachurch pastor is suing not only bloggers who are publishing criticisms of him and his work, but the wives of those bloggers, as well as a news reporter who is working on a story about him but hasn’t even published it yet.
So . . . of course I’m intrigued.
The pastor is James MacDonald of Harvest Bible Chapel in the Chicago area and head of a church planting enterprise.
Two years ago in the post “What does it mean to serve the church?” I addressed a certain kind of spiritual abuse effected by churches. In that post I didn’t mention any church by name, but that post had originally been prompted by some very specific spiritual abuse I had learned about in a church that operated under what was James MacDonald’s Harvest Bible Fellowship (now called Great Commission Collective). Here’s an excerpt from that post:
In churches that manipulate and control, a person’s spiritual maturity is measured by his “faithfulness” or “loyalty,” which is defined as “serving the church,” which is defined as advancing the organization that meets on a certain physical piece of property, with a certain important person at the helm.
“Leadership” in a good husband can become being taught to simply deliver orders to the family, since he is seldom home, being so busy “serving the church,” which if he doesn’t do will become a source of shame and guilt.
In some church organizations, a person’s spiritual merits are determined by such things, and his qualifications as a future leader may hang in the balance of his performance.
So, this past week, in the spirit of keeping up with a pastor who sues bloggers’ wives, I listened for the first time to a full sermon from James MacDonald. It was his Vision Sermon from last December. Here is the sermon in full, for you to watch:
The three parts of the sermon
Whenever an audience is listening to a sermon, especially a sermon in which the speaker isn’t working his way through a biblical passage with an outline the audience can follow either on the screen or in their hands, they can be subject to being carried along by the speaker, phrase by phrase, line by line, without seeing the big picture of what’s happening.
So I’d like to make sure right up front that we have an overview of this sermon.
The 58-minute sermon on this one verse is divided like this:
Part 1: What does the “vision” of Proverbs 29:18 mean? For 10+ minutes MacDonald tells how Proverbs 29:18 (the “vision verse”) has been misinterpreted, how the correct vision is the vision of the Great Commission, and how he, James MacDonald, is going to explain how that works at Harvest Bible Chapel.
Part 2: “Maybe Nots” for the people in the pews For 20+ minutes he details explicitly what the people of HBC should be willing to give up for the sake of this vision. This is followed by a visually impressive warning about how, when the leader doesn’t have a vision or the people aren’t willing to follow him in his vision, the people will run amok.
Part 3: How the Vision will be worked out For 25+ minutes he explains exactly how this vision will work out at Harvest. In Parts 1 and 2 he has set up the people to accept that this is the only possible way the vision of the Great Commission will work at Harvest.
Part 1: What does the “vision” of Proverbs 29:18 mean?
Proverbs 29:18 (ESV) says,
Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law.
What he said this meant is “a clear goal and a clear plan for how to get to the goal.”
The vision of Harvest Bible Chapel—the clear goal—he said, is “To glorify God through the fulfillment of the Great Commission” (that Jesus gave at the end of Matthew) to make disciples.
He mocked those who “sit around with a white board saying, ‘What’s going to be the mission of our church?’” because the mission is to make disciples. This is what he came back to over and over as he addressed troublesome issues in the church.
Not a quantity of disciples but a quality of discipleship. . . . We will challenge the people to a deeper relationship with Christ, and the “more” will take care of itself.
I love that.
But I didn’t understand, I have to admit, why it is that—when he wants to focus on quality of discipleship rather than quantity of disciples—one of the big reasons he’s suing the bloggers (and their wives) is that HBC is losing members.
Part Two: “Maybe Nots” for the people in the pews
It was fascinating, actually, to see the way this sermon unfolded and the way the audience received it.
You will like your church more, you will enjoy your church more, if you keep in mind what it is we’re trying to accomplish.
This sounded to me like an admonishing of children to trust their parents, rather than adults all working equally for a common cause, in whatever way the Lord has called them. MacDonald makes hierarchy distinctions clear when he then says,
In meetings you don’t go to, decisions are made . . .
Okay, we have it straight from the outset who’s supposed to make the decisions and who’s supposed to simply accept the decisions that are made.
So the following instructions, cautions, and restrictions (14:00) appear to be for the people on the lower echelons of Harvest Bible Chapel. The non-decision-makers.
I have here 5 “maybe nots.” You may want this, but maybe not. Come on now, say, “Maybe not.” [“Maybe not,” the many audience members obediently repeat.]
Notice here . . . he was eliciting obedience and agreement from his audience before they even knew what it was they were obeying and agreeing to. They said “maybe not” before they even knew what the “maybe nots” were about. These “repeat after me” lines kept occurring throughout the sermon, so apparently they’re commonplace. A former member of Harvest Bible Chapel told me,
I used to love that [the “repeat after me” lines]. It felt like “an alive church.” It felt so “real.”
I can’t comment on the aliveness or realness factors of HBC, but I do know that this kind of interaction is used by speakers who want to try to control the thinking of their audience.
So here are the 5 “maybe nots.” These are the things that the lower echelon people of Harvest Bible Chapel should understand they may not get:
- My comfort protected.
- My questions answered.
- My expectations met.
- My needs fulfilled.
- My ministry happening.
He says “my,” but he really means “your,” the people in the audience. That becomes increasingly obvious as he goes along.
My comfort protected.
When you have a king and you have a commission, you’re not allowed to bring everything to Western world “I’m the chairman of the board of ME.” We have to go after that. We’re trying to do it in a good way. We’re trying to do it with love.
I have no argument with this one. If James MacDonald himself is not a hypocrite and not living a lavish lifestyle, but is turning from the siren call of comfort to pour out his life to make disciples for Jesus Christ from all nations by a “quality of discipleship,” which would include loving others the way Jesus loves them, I’m cheering him on.
I’ve often said to pastors in training, with reference to John 6, if you don’t have people walking away from your ministry saying “this is a hard saying, who can accept it,” then you don’t have a ministry like Jesus had.
I’ve blogged about this Scripture before and very much agree with this thought. If James MacDonald is preaching Jesus only, refusing to build up his own kingdom but choosing to lose disciples because of his eternal perspective, then I admire him for his Christ-focused perseverance.
But again, it’s troubling that from what he himself has said, it appears that the main reason he’s suing is that he is losing disciples.
My questions answered.
So the audience members’ questions may not get answered. But . . . he doesn’t distinguish any legitimate question that are appropriate for members to get answers to. It seems that the people in the pews should be satisfied with unanswered questions about any subject regarding the church, in light of James MacDonald’s big vision.
From an ex-Harvest member: “The way HBC leaders advertised the Q&A sessions last fall was meant to deter people from coming, calling them boring budget meetings for those of you who like numbers and stuff.”
Though they are not to ask questions at church or in small group, he said, they can at specific periodic meetings. But he was “grateful” that at recent question-answer meetings only 150 people total showed up (out of a church of about 10-12 thousand) because—and it was very important that he get this across—the congregation members were not to be asking questions about how this multi-million dollar church was run. He spent quite a while (17:00) explaining that they were not to bother with that, because the financial people, the HR team, the elders and deacons, and perhaps others, were in charge of that, and the rest of the people in the church should just spend their time making disciples. He became so adamant about this that I transcribed it with double exclamation points.
We’re over here making disciples!! We’re getting the mass of people involved in making disciples! And if you came from a church where it was all about getting on a committee and getting your sleeves rolled up so you could count something or measure something or decide what color something should be—here at our church we don’t aspire to participation in running the organization—that’s like a really bad assignment. Thank God for the people in our church—everyone say, “Thank God” [“Thank God”]—who took the lame assignment of running the thing. That’s the worst thing, okay? The front line thing is making disciples, like the man we saw on the screen this morning. And he’s out doing the ministry and leading somebody to Christ—come on, come on, somebody say, “That’s what we do!” [“That’s what we do.”]
But it seems that “Maybe not my questions answered” might apply to far more than the lower-echelon church attenders. For example, three elders—elders of Harvest Bible Chapel—have said that they wanted among other things to see a line-item budget statement so they could know where the millions of dollars were going. (“We approved a $30,000,000 annual budget with a pie chart in thirty seconds. As Elders we requested a line-item budget, and that request was denied.”) These men were eventually excommunicated, and the congregation was told not to associate with them lest they incur great detriment to their souls. (“Publicizing viewpoints rejected by the elder majority for any reason is Satanic to the core.”) You can see that excommunication message to the church members here:
My expectation met.
Here James outlined three groups of people (19:00).
The Grateful Millions: James gave some truly impressive statistics about how his various James MacDonald / Harvest Bible Chapel enterprises have spread around the globe. Those enterprises would include Walk in the Word (more than 3 million people a week watching and listening to James MacDonald), Vertical Church worship (more than 500 thousand people a month streaming Harvest Bible Chapel’s music), and over 200 churches planted by Harvest Bible Chapel in James MacDonald’s Vertical Church Network. They are Grateful.
I’m duly impressed by these impressive huge numbers.
But wait a minute. There was something out of alignment, something that didn’t fit. What was it . . .
I scrolled back to the Introduction, where he talked about what the Great Commission meant at Harvest Bible Chapel. Here it is. . . .
. . . Our commission is to make disciples. “Not a quantity of disciples but a quality of discipleship.” . . . Not a quantity. We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how we can get more people into more seats. We’re about not a quantity of disciples but a quality of discipleship. . . .
So . . . I would have thought from this statement that if someone had a small but quality discipleship ministry, it would be just as valuable to James MacDonald as the massive ones he himself heads.
But . . . maybe not, really.
The Contented Thousands: Those were the people sitting in front of him, repeating after him. They are Contented.
The Cantankerous Ten: These were the people, apparently, who weren’t getting their expectations met, though he didn’t say how. (Maybe it was those elders who wanted to see the line-item budget.)
I want to caution the rest of you about giving up your joy, be careful what you choose to hear, be careful who you give your joy to. A lot of us have spent a lot of months and a lot of years in our adult life being very unhappy at our church. And when you find a place where you’re loved and you find a place where you’re fed and you find a place where you’re challenged and you find a place where you’re engaged, take care of that. Take care of that and protect that.
So . . . listening to those with complaints about the church is “giving up your joy” instead of simply trying to be discerning. And also, remember, there are only Ten Cantankerous people . . . who are overwhelmed by James MacDonald’s Grateful Millions and Contented Thousands. No use checking to see if they have anything of importance to say. You might lose your joy.
My need fulfilled.
This part (22:00) was a little confusing. You know, there are legitimate needs and non-legitimate “needs.”
Like say, trips to Las Vegas to go gambling are not legitimate needs. Multi-million dollar mansions are not legitimate needs.
Like say, basic food and shelter are legitimate needs. Compassion and care and patience for those who have been greatly harmed through domestic abuse or child sex trafficking (for example) are legitimate needs. These legitimate needs should be met in the church, at the very least. What are we for if not for meeting needs in order to help meet the ultimate need—the soul’s need of Jesus? Wasn’t this why the apostles worked the miracles they worked in the book of Acts? Isn’t this why the people around them marveled, “Behold, how they love one another”? The strong are to meet the needs of the weak, and then the weak will become strong and will help meet the needs of the weak around them (because there will always be needy people, poor people, and people who are desperate for Jesus without understanding that’s who they’re desperate for).
This is the church.
In all of this, in all of these, we always want to point people to Jesus Christ, the one who will meet their most important, eternal, spiritual needs. The Living Bread. The Living Water.
This is the church.
But James MacDonald made a separation here, into “hospital” and “army.” Only the “army” was in the work of making disciples. So he told the people to “get healthy and pick up a gun and man a post . . . and help us make disciples.”
Jesus Christ did not say upon this rock I will build my hospital. And Jesus Christ did not say upon this rock I will build my Christian college. And Jesus Christ did not say upon this rock I will build my social concern of varying importance. He said upon this rock I will build, say it, come on, say it! [“My church.”] My church! Jesus Christ is about the church again today and will be every day until he returns for his perfect bride, and if you’re about the church, you’re about what he’s about in this world. Never apologize for being about your church. This thing, our thing, is the thing that we will account together to Jesus Christ for. . . .
And your faithful attendance, and your open Bible, and your commitment to the mission, and your serving with us in it—worshiping weekly, walking with Christ and in fellowship with others, working for Christ, shouldering weekly kingdom responsibilities like disciples do—that matters. A lot. . . .
I couldn’t help but wonder . . . he didn’t explain there what their “commitment to the mission” would look like, or how they were to “serve with us in it,” or how their “working for Christ” was supposed to play out in the context of this church, Harvest Bible Chapel, which it seemed very clear he was saying was the only context truly to make disciples. He didn’t explain how “shouldering weekly kingdom responsibilities” was supposed to work.
Would it be by plugging in as an army of volunteers so that Harvest Bible Chapel would run like a well-oiled machine? Put your needs to the side and work to build this empire?
Maybe, but I’m just guessing.
Then he goes on.
Well, what about MY ministry?
My ministry happening.
In this section (24:00), I have to say, I was appalled at what appeared to me to be a mocking, demeaning tone MacDonald used when referencing any possible ministries his church members may have outside of the operation of Harvest Bible Chapel. The only example of a “ministry” was ludicrous, so of course he used air quotes around the word “ministry.”
I confess that when people approach me and lead with, “Can I talk to you about my ministry,” I get nervous. And some people do have wonderful disciple-making ministries, but we don’t get to pick what our ministry is.
“Some people do have wonderful disciple-making ministries.” Certainly. But the only one he describes in this long sermon is himself. Even the disciple-making ministry of missionaries, he will indicate later in the sermon, is to be rejected in favor of his own.
“We don’t get to pick our ministries.” Oh? James MacDonald indicated in this very sermon that he picked his ministry. Does he mean that the people of HBC don’t get to pick their ministries, because the leaders of HBC will tell them what they should be doing?
And I have to confess that more often than not, when someone says, “Can I talk to you about my ministry,” I’m like . . . “Sure, tell me about it.” And fairly quickly it goes to something like, “My ministry is . . . Pillows for Puppies.” [Large photo of a puppy here, and audience laughter.] . . . And by the way, by the way, I’m a big fan of pillows for puppies; I have a puppy and it has more than one pillow . . . and if I didn’t already have a pillow for my puppy, I would buy one of the pillows you make for your Puppy Pillow “ministry.” [This is where he did the air quotes.] But listen up now. That’s a passion, y’all, that’s a passion, that’s not a ministry. Your ministry is not your favorite thing to do. We have a ministry from the King. It’s make disciples. “Upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” [Audience applause.]
The impression I’m left with is that his audience was set up for mockery of small but legitimate ministries (since Pillows for Puppies was the only one presented) if the ministry wasn’t approved by and advancing the cause of Harvest Bible Chapel.
It’s all about the church! It’s all about the church! And we are a franchise in the big game. You’re a part of a church. Someday we will stand before Jesus Christ and I believe we will account with our community of believers for what we have done with what we were given. . . .
There’s a word there . . . did you notice it?
It’s the word franchise.
Maybe it was a slip of the tongue?
It’s no secret that ever since churches had to become 501(c)3 nonprofits in order to keep their tax-exempt status, they have been run more and more like businesses. There are other factors pushing for churches to become more and more like businesses too, which means the CEO, which might be the preaching pastor, might be head of a very profitable nonprofit.
But maybe it was a slip of the tongue. Maybe he didn’t mean to say, “we are a franchise in the big game.” Maybe he meant to say “we as a local church are part of the body of Christ all over the world.” Maybe that’s what he meant.
He went on to further emphasize the importance of the church, the local church—that specific church, Harvest Bible Chapel, and its church plants (or “franchises”)—as he brought this “maybe not” section to a close.
What do these “maybe nots” indicate?
James MacDonald just spent a quarter of his sermon telling people what they would not be able to do in the context of completing Harvest Bible Chapel’s (James MacDonald’s) vision. He emphasized how HE was making disciples. And he admonished them that they were to suppress their own desires in order to work for his vision. HIS vision, HIS goals, which are very specific and which he is leading up to.
What happens when there is no vision
At minute 29:00 or so
We’re not trying to look awesome; we’re trying to make Jesus look awesome. And where we’re failing, please forgive us and pray for us and let’s redouble our efforts to show how awesome He is, because the older I get there just isn’t anything else that matters very much, is there?
Did you notice what he did not say to do in areas where he’s failing? Biblical confrontation. Just forgive and pray, he says.
Where there is no vision, no seeing to the end or the means to the end, people, say it, come on, Proverbs 29:18, they perish, they “cast off restraint.” [“Cast off restraint.”] It really means they go every which way. . . . This needs to be a renewed emphasis in our church because where the Lord’s people . . . don’t have clearly in mind what we’re doing, what we’re about, what we’re spending our life for—
Most of you won’t have any responsibility to preach, many of you won’t be responsible to lead a worship service, but don’t make any mistake about it, you’ve been given gifts! You’ve been given abilities! You’ve been given time! You’ve been given resources! You’re on the team!! And you have a role to play!! And all of us have a job to do!!
The double exclamation points are because he was yelling.
And my job isn’t even to do the job!! My job is to get you to do your job!! My job is to get the pastors together and the elders together and challenge the people to do their jobs! That’s my job, to get you to do your job. And us to do our job.
Three months earlier the executive committee of the massive Harvest Bible Chapel had “released” James from executive leadership so he could “focus on preaching and training.” This is how he interprets that job? But all the James-MacDonald-overseen ministries put together do have hundreds and hundreds of employees, so getting people to do their jobs does seem like it could be a full-time job.
Now, to glorify God through the fulfillment of the Great Commission. When that doesn’t happen, when people don’t see the end and don’t see the way to the end, what do they do? What do they do? What do they do? They do whatever they want to do!!! They cast off restraint!!! What are you doing?!! Whatever I want!!!
For that part, he was running around the stage like a maniac.
It’s the mission we sacrifice for!! It’s the mission we work for!! It’s the mission we give to!! It’s the mission we come back to!! It’s the mission we won’t give up on!! [Applause from the audience.]
The mission of the people of HBC, it seems quite clear, is to fulfill James MacDonald’s vision. He is the only one, apparently, who sees the appropriate goal and the appropriate way to get to the goal. Everyone else is so foolish that if they don’t fall in line behind him they’ll end up acting like maniacs.
Part Three: How the Vision will be worked out
Now a little bit of detail about our mission. Because the mission isn’t changing but the method is changing and I want you to know why.
This was actually brilliant, I thought. He spent 35 minutes making anyone who dared to disagree with him look supremely foolish (chairman of the board of ME, Cantankerous Ten, Pillows for Puppies, running around like a maniac). THEN he began to explain the new vision for Harvest Bible Chapel’s church planting enterprise.
It was set up to be received with no questions asked. But there’s more lead-in to this big transition.
He explained (35:00) how they had transitioned in the 1990s from adult Sunday school to small group, which I imagine the majority of people there would agree with.
He mentioned their 1999 transition from supporting any foreign missionaries in any country (a work that is actually in the Bible), to planting churches (a model for which is arguably not in the Bible). This rejection of those who take the gospel around the world would be a bit more controversial than rejecting Sunday school, I’m sure, but who’s going to challenge him, when he has such numeric success, with his Grateful Millions?
Then he began (37:00) to explain that all of Harvest Bible Chapel’s 200 church plants were looking to Harvest, to James MacDonald and his employees, to see how to do church (how to have Good Friday services like theirs, for example).
That’s not healthy. When we allow that in our marketplace, it’s called a monopoly, where everything is coming from one place. . . .
We need to put our focus now again on reproducing ourselves. In the work of Christ’s kingdom, we are called to replication, not monopoly.
But for some reason the solution is not to tell people to join or start churches that are unrelated to Harvest Bible Chapel and James MacDonald, or to tell the church leaders to look to Jesus Christ as to how to lead their churches instead of looking to James MacDonald.
No. That is apparently not the solution.
And here is the new vision in his nutshell:
We must move our focus from addition through planting to multiplication through resourcing proven church planters. . . . Old school one-at-a-time church plant, church plant, church plant had to die organizationally in order for us to move to a true multiplying church planting organization. . . .
So if you feel like you’re at a seminar at work, sorry, but every so often the leaders of the company need to get the entire staff together and say “We’re making a big change.”
And . . . once again he compares it to a business, this time to the CEO holding a vision meeting with his employees.
His actual plan involved making his church planting enterprise more sustainable and replicatable, complete with details and charts and maps and numbers on the huge screen. At the beginning of the sermon he had mocked white boards, but maybe that was just because they were too low-tech.
Even though he had said he wanted to focus on “not the quantity of disciples, but the quality of the discipleship,” still the numbers he used focused on the quantity of disciples, with “Level 1” churches having under 200 people and his mega-church being the only one that ranked as a “Level 5.”
The goal is by 2030 to have 20 multiplying churches, churches that plant not 1s and 2s but tens and twenties and hundreds of churches. . . . We’re going to focus on resourcing and training our most successful 2s and 3s and 4s to advance them into more powerful multiplying organizations.
Now when you tell your 1s and 2s that they’re going to have to use their non-preferred shipping company, they’re not always thrilled. But we’re going to get through that and everyone is going to come to see that we’re doing what’s best in terms of the command given by the King, which is multiplication, multiplication, multiplication. All in favor of not being a sick, cultic church-planting organization. We don’t just plant churches, we teach other people how to be what we are, amen?
The “preferred shipping company” of the church plants, he had made clear, was Harvest Bible Chapel itself. Again, the comparison to how a business works.
It does seem, though, that James MacDonald has a vision for more efficient operation of what look to be very profitable enterprises. If the “team members” to which he was giving his “vision message” weren’t on board, it could definitely be detrimental to future growth of the enterprises.
Pondering the vision
The misused Bible verse
Back at the beginning of the sermon MacDonald said Proverbs 29:18 is . . .
The. Most. Frequently. Misquoted and misunderstood verse in the whole Bible. . . . The most misused verse in the whole Bible. . . . Every single list of misquoted misunderstood Bible verses has Proverbs 29:18 on the list. . . . And because I want to use it, I have to rescue it from two extremes.
I looked at many lists of frequently misused verses, but found Proverbs 29:18 cited in only 3 of them (two websites, here and here, and a book, here). All three of them gave the same misunderstanding and all three of them agreed in what they believe is the correct understanding. They say that the “vision” is actually referring to the revealed Word of God, which at the time of the book of Proverbs would have been only the first few books of the Bible and the voices of a few prophets.
All of them say the most common MISUSE of this verse is . . .
. . . pastors using it as support to convince his congregation that they should support him in his “vision” for how the church he pastors should move forward in the future.
But that’s exactly what James MacDonald was doing. Back in the introduction (8:00), he said that on the one hand, this verse wasn’t about Option A, “Some ideal future you have in mind for your family, for your business, for your organization, for your church.”
But on the other hand, he said, this verse was not about Option B, the revealed Word of God.
Instead, he emphasized, it was about a “commonly understood goal and means to accomplish the goal” which he then outlined for the people, his employees and volunteers.
But his idea of what the “vision” means sounds a whole lot like Option A. And his statement about “being at a seminar at work” seemed to emphasize that.
Why did he so off-handedly dismiss the possibility that this Scripture was referring to the revealed Word of God? Was it because that didn’t fit with his “mission vision”?
What the Great Commission of Jesus really is all about
When Jesus Christ gave his Great Commission to his disciples at the end of Matthew, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature,” it does not appear to have been about the James-MacDonald type of strategic top-down planning for “church multiplication” as copies of a mother church, but was about a truly organic multiplication, as disciples spread out over the globe according to life circumstances and the call of the Holy Spirit, and as they overflowed with the love and joy and power of Jesus Christ and the truly “good news” of HIS gospel.
If there are any models to copy at all, they would look as diverse as the saints of Hebrews 11, following God in whatever way He has specifically called each individual. They would look like the disciples of the book of Acts. They would look like the some of the foreign missionaries through the ages whose work James MacDonald has apparently scorned.
It might look like educating Christians about child sexual abuse in the church (here’s another one of those) or developing a nonprofit to help survivors of domestic abuse in the church (here’s another one of those and another and another and another) or helping young women recover from patriarchy or helping others understand spiritual abuse or having an independent music ministry or meeting one on one with lonely people in a coffee shop . . . or yes, even, publicly calling unaccountable leaders to account.
All with an ultimate goal of spreading the wonderful good news of the love of Jesus Christ for the world, and His rescue of those who acknowledge their desperate need of Him.
The problem facing James MacDonald now
When I listen to him, I get the impression that James MacDonald is on a track of building a church planting empire. And then some little-known bloggers with no mega-ministry get in the way. . . .
That must be a hard thing for a man with a mega-ministry enterprise—when two men with zero followers start blogging about problems within the church, and heaven forbid, financial problems, when even the elders aren’t allowed to see a line-item budget. It’s a hard thing when people actually start reading the blog, people in his church and in his church plants, and it’s a very hard thing when they start asking questions.
I can see why he’d want to sue them.
Maybe if Jesus were the head of a large multi-million dollar multi-site network nonprofit franchise of franchises, then maybe that’s what Jesus would do too.
James MacDonald, your comfort might not be protected. Your questions might not be answered. Your expectations might not be met. Your “needs” might not be fulfilled. Your ministry might not happen.
But make no mistake, the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ will indeed move forward.
There are those who have “served the ministry/mission/vision” of various Harvest Bible Fellowship or Vertical Church Network churches until they’re spent and worn and even afraid, only to come to the independent conclusion that they’re actually serving the kingdom of man. So yes, in light of that, some of them will “retreat into unbelief,” as James himself said.
But there are those will move forward to come to a renewed vision of who Jesus Christ truly is, outside of the influence of James MacDonald or other mega-ministry leaders. Many of them, through His written Word and possibly even through other means, will find a new relationship with Him.
And in spite of lawsuits against bloggers and their wives and a reporter who hasn’t reported yet, that’s still a vision that’s cause for rejoicing.
Go here to download your free Guide, How to Enjoy the Bible Again (when you’re ready) After Spiritual Abuse (without feeling guilty or getting triggered out of your mind). You’ll receive access to both print and audio versions of the Guide (audio read by me). I’m praying it will be helpful.
Wow, Rebecca! That’s quite the exposé! As I read and listened to the elders’ defense of James M., I was blown away by the lack of humility and the lack of faithfulness to God’s Word. For the man to have spent 58 minutes convincing his audience (certainly not a congregation) that HE IS RIGHT, that HE HAS THE VISION, etc., instead of humbly presenting the Word of God to them shows clearly that he is a man filled with pride. I shudder to think what the Lord Jesus will say to him one day.
Way to go. Keep telling the truth! Any organization that refuses to open the books and share line by line where the money’s going is suspect. People attending those churches ought to flee to a place where Christ is honoured, relationships are built, and service to one another, including the downtrodden, is commonplace.
Thank you, Janet. I actually know so much more about James MacDonald than I put into this blog post. Here I used only material that was readily available online, with one brief quote from a former member. But several people have talked to me, “off the record.” They aren’t simply Cantankerous–they’re pointing out serious, serious problems.
Excellent article, Rebecca. This is the first that I have read about his ministry. Very disturbing.
I became familiar with it two years ago when someone first spoke to me and I wrote the article about “serving the church.” Now several more people have spoken to me about it, and now this lawsuit . . .
“James MacDonald, your comfort might not be protected. Your questions might not be answered. Your expectations might not be met. Your “needs” might not be fulfilled. Your ministry might not happen.”
I thought this paragraph was excellent. Somehow, MacDonald seems to think that everyone else should give up their pet ministry to fulfill his vision, but him give up HIS vision because some pesky writers called him out on some stuff? No way!
How he thinks he can prove a defamation suit against someone who hasn’t even published yet is beyond me…
Yes, it’s really quite breath-taking.
This sermon, his behaviors, they are not that of a man of God, but of a narcissistic person who seeks to control the people he appears to think are below him and to play Holy Spirit in their lives. When I read about leaders like him, I always wonder what they are hiding, why they feel the need to control what people believe.
His methods are apparently pretty common. Someone wrote to me to tell me that Jack Hyles, a cult leader of a mega-cult that was/is also in the Chicago area, also used the tactics of degrading people, talking about “my ministry,” and having them repeat lines. This sermon reminded her of her former cult leader.
Thank you for your upfront words. Several points you made confirm my decision to leave a local body – audience manipulation and inconsistent use of Scripture to name two. Keep up the good work. Now to pray you don’t get sued since it seems truth-tellers are on his radar.
Yes, well, that did blip through my mind, but I’m only commenting on what is already exposed, primarily his own presentation of himself and his vision. I’m not exposing anything new.
Another post about James MacDonald came out today, focusing more on the finances of Harvest Bible Chapel. https://wonderingeagle.wordpress.com/2018/11/19/walk-in-the-word-a-black-budget-at-harvest-bible-chapel-and-finances-that-resemble-a-criminal-syndicate-more-than-a-ministry/
Join the discussion…https://warhornmedia.com/2018/12/10/christians-suing-christians-examining-james-macdonalds-reasoning/
Join the discussion…JULIE ROYS
Yes, I did comment on that post and shared it on FB and Twitter.
Another comment from a friend: “Church teaches me, teaches my children, teaches my friends and their children, that none of us have value to God unless we can somehow find a way to offer something. Some want money. Some want fame. Some want connections to powerful people. Some want to be praised and adored. Still others want things that are twisted and horrible. But all want something in exchange for the services they offer.
“If I think of churches as being connected with God, then life seems hopeless and meaningless, as I am just not one of the ‘valuable’ people. If I simply see churches as private businesses, then it seems there would be hope of seeing God and churches as two separate, unrelated entities. Churches would not be so empowered to destroy.”
Of course, it also depends on how we define “church.” James MacDonald definitely has a specific definition in mind when he preaches. But I don’t believe it’s the Biblical one.
I come from a background of spiritual abuse. I see almost verbatim in this video of MacDonald that same words, phrases and outright sentences that the cult I left used. Its all controlling.
“The Pastor has the vision!”
“You accept this vision!”
“You dont question the vision!”
“Ok, since Im hearing rumors of you questioning me, let me give you scriptural evidence that Im right! This is what the scripture ACTUALLY means!”
Its outright heresy on lots of level.
He separates leaders from the body.
He doesnt allow God-given critical thinking in membership.
It’s abusive – “shut up and serve”
Its unhealthy on a natural level and leads to actual psychological trauma.
Its straight up cult talk guised in modern Western Christianity. Follow the man on the soapbox as he tells you “he really does love you…………………..he does……………..but…..”
You encapsulated it so succinctly.
I’m sure it must have been somewhat triggering to hear it, when you come from such a background. the cultishness in my background has been minimal., but it was disturbing to me to hear.
This was a stunning read, Rebecca. Thank you.
I’m currently exposing/ speaking up about abuse and deceit in church leadership/ family of origin and am finding such solace and strength in you and others who are confronting these topics.
Again, thank you.
Thank you, Stephanie.
Wow, you have done an incredible job here of exposing James. Forgive me for not watching the “message” but I can no longer stand to hear his smug, mocking voice manipulating his “congregation” as I sat under his teaching for 18 years. I did not need to hear it to “hear” it and appreciate your writing. You have hit the nail on the head over and over again. Please continue to follow this story.
Thanks for the encouragement, jalfirevic, and I hope you’re finding the healing you need.
Thank you, thank you so much for processing through this terrible exposition of God’s Word. This was honestly one of the most painful sermons I had ever listened to in my life. I wept last year hearing this, as I wept again today. This is spiritual abuse, and you’ve exposed it perfectly. Thank you. I am so grateful that I have had years of experience before and after Harvest that demonstrate there are Christians everywhere doing the work of Christ, and that demanding loyalty to one church and one pastor is idolatrous. James robs Christ of His glory.
I actually was at the church that day of this sermon. And I thought the same thing about this is our job? However, I came home got out my bible and found out that Pastor James is correct. It is our job to spread the word and IT IS the job of the church to make disciples and send us out into the world to save lost souls for Christ. I think everyone is so busy pointing fingers that they forget what we are to be doing for Christ. This is so sad that we are coming against each other and forgetting who we are in Christ.
“It is our job to spread the word and IT IS the job of the church to make disciples and send us out into the world to save lost souls for Christ.”
I couldn’t agree more, Debbie. I take very seriously my responsibility of spreading the Word of God, in one-on-one interactions with people, in my opportunities to speak, and on my blog. And I love it when churches joyfully encourage their people to make disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ (I think it’s important to add who the disciples are for).
That is not the problem here. The problem is James’s mockery of people in several ways, including his insistence that HBC people don’t need to know about the financial workings of the church, his anger against anyone with a different idea of how to carry out a ministry vision, and his denigration of any ministry that is not HIS.
Just as an observation, in a city the size of Chicago, James should be happy if many churches are started by former Harvest people. But he does something I’ve never heard of anywhere–insisting that they sign a non-compete agreement, as if HBC is a business with customers rather than the church on a mission to win lost souls for Christ. And when those former leaders don’t sign such a document, they are punished and publicly shamed.
I trust that in spite of what James MacDonald says that his listeners can truly remember who they are in Christ–His beloved sons and daughters, warriors in a battle against spiritual forces of evil, and His missionaries to a world that desperately needs the love of God as is shown in the face of Jesus Christ.
Just a quick comment that “franchise” is a sports term – you probably missed that. James is a sports fan and that’s common language meaning a team in the league. Like the Yankees in Major League Baseball. So like 1 physical church among Christ’s overall church.
Thank you, and yes I had missed that, since it’s also a business term (such as a fast-food franchise).
Outstanding article and insightful analysis of a manipulative message. I attended Harvest for two years, during the time that TheElephantsDebt began posting, and initially dismissed their criticisms, but began to see their merit more and more. Ultimately, I saw in the celebrations of Harvest’s 25th anniversary and James MacDonald’s 25th anniversary as pastor (these events were celebrated separately for unknown reasons) that Harvest strives to lift high the name of Jesus, but not far behind are the names of James MacDonald, Vertical Church/Worship, and Harvest itself.
The most manipulative message that I saw delivered at Harvest was actually not by James MacDonald, but by guest speaker Steven Furtick. I had not heard of this up-and-comer at that time, but quickly understood his importance (at least in his own eyes) as he literally sang & danced on stage. Coincidentally or not, his was also a “vision-casting” message. It is sad but not surprising to see Harvest follow this path as it continues its downward spiral.
Yes . . . so interesting that MacDonald connected with Furtick when his church was young. There’s quite a network in the megachurch and soon-to-be-megachurch world.