Monday, December 15, 2014

What Downgrade Looks Like

Early 2008, we had just moved to the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Once we realized that it wouldn't be feasible to stay with our church downtown, we decided to check out the large church about three blocks away, Harvest Bible Chapel, pastored by James MacDonald, whose teaching I was somewhat familiar with from the Walk in the Word radio broadcasts and some small group material. Long story short, we stayed for a few years, until the pachyderms moved in.

Around that time, the local "Christian" TV station started broadcasting Walk in the Word, just some simple video recordings of his sermons. Maybe a few months later, the station put up a bunch of billboards around town advertising their lineup. Imagine my surprise when I was driving past O'Hare airport to see my pastor looking over I-90, sandwiched between Joyce Meyer and (I think) Kenneth Copeland! Other billboards around town featured the likes of Creflo Dollar, Joseph Prince, and someone you may have heard of named TD Jakes.

That Sunday during the sermon, there was a brief aside about the billboards. Essentially, James said that we were pulling Walk in the Word off that station immediately. He said that he and the elders had agreed to go on that station because they had determined to preach the gospel anytime, anywhere - but they had a condition for the station. They were not supposed to use him or the church to make it look like we endorsed the other preachers. Why? He made it very clear that they all - everyone featured on those billboards except Greg Laurie - preached a false, damnable heresy called the prosperity gospel, or some other heresy such as antinomianism. And he wanted nothing to do with that sort of preaching, or even looking like he endorsed its adherents.

Fast-forward to 2014, and we get this:

(Or see it here if the embed didn't work)

Fun fact: that TV studio was acquired shortly before we left (without our catapult ride, unfortunately). When it was announced, aside from lying to us about our financial status, James claimed the purpose was to make movies/shows/broadcasts to counter the poison that typically fills supposedly-Christian TV. Now he's handed it over to the chief distributor of spiritual ricin.

All that to say, this is another knife twist, and it's gut-wrenching to see someone fall so far so fast dive headfirst into the abyss.


Tom Chantry said...

It is tragic. Do you have a theory that explains it? Asking because I'm curious about your perspective from within. I know what it looks like from outside.

Anonymous said...

So, James MacDonald is simply a bald-faced liar.

trogdor said...

If had a nickel for every time I've wondered how this could happen, I'd have nearly enough to pay off Harvest's elephantine debt...

I can't fully decide between a few possibilities:
1) He genuinely (if loosely) held these convictions, but his poor character and increasing financial pressure and pride caused him to change - a slow decline at first, then over the cliff
2) He was always a prosperity wolf, spent decades building a respectable fa├žade, and once it started to crumble he's just come out, fangs bared
If pressed I would probably lean towards option 1. But ultimately right now we're in the same spot - he's incredibly dangerous, and must be warned against.

Really, after we left and started seeing more stuff come out about how things had been behind the scenes for so long, it made us re-evaluate a whole lot. There were small things along the way that raised eyebrows, but nothing that made this look totally inevitable. It was more isolated "things that make you go hmmmm..." than "this guy is clearly a wolf waiting to pounce".

The turning point, to me, was when he had cancer and took some time off for treatment. After, and even during, those few months, the oddities seemed to come more frequently and with greater oddness. For example, control of the pulpit. When we started, there was a good preacher rotation of Harvest pastors (him, Joseph Stowell, various campus pastors and ministry leaders), even working in pastors in training and seminary students. During his treatment though, he continued to preach - from Greg Laurie's church in California. That was... odd.

After he returned, the rotation was basically shortened to him, his son Luke, and long-time friend Rick Donald - as well as big-name guest speakers. No more entrusting the pulpit to just any old pastor! It was around this time that the pastor overseeing our small group, an excellent preacher and author named Gerald Hiestand, left for another church where he would actually get to preach.

Anyway, that was when we started wasting tons of money on HD cameras and screens, ridiculous stages that would change every month, and other fluff. The elder board was re-organized for some reasons that were never really explained. The sermons slowly drifted, becoming less Bibley and more "life of James". Sermon series switched from being almost entirely straight through a book (Genesis, 1 John) to more topical. Nothing drastic, just subtle shifts, a little at a time - but enough that "things seem to be changing" discussions were had in my home and small groups.

Then ER2 was announced. I think there's still a dent in the floor of a delivery recovery room at Northwest Community Hospital, from my jaw hitting it when I saw the TD Jakes announcement (that was just what my wife needed at the time, I'm sure). Six months of fighting the inevitable later, we were gone.

So all that to say, why things changed is probably the inevitable result of a prideful man of poor character with increasing wealth and power. What kicked it into high gear was probably the cancer scare, time off, and becoming too close to semi-prosperity wolves like Noble, Furtick, and Driscoll.

Tom Chantry said...

I'm not sure it's necessary to reach the conclusion of a bald-faced liar, which suggests that he was conscious of his own trajectory. As I read your account, it sounded as though he honestly thought in the early days that he would serve God in his theology. Yet the ambition for size was there - the ambition to be the next big church and to build the big kingdom, maybe even to make the big money. Maybe he thought he could build a TBN-sized ministry and even make TBN-style money while remaining biblically faithful. He wouldn't be the first to lust after wealth and think that he could have it without selling his soul.

But it was Jesus who said, "No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money." And in the end, it was the doctrine and principles that went out the window, and he has thrown in his lot with the wolves who worship money. He is devoted to the one, and has despised the other.

deborah said...

We were at Harvest for 14 years and saw the downgrade up close and personal. I remember everything you talked about in your post. We finally left right before the infamous Elder video came out. I know a lot of people left... I am hearing anywhere from 2000 to 3000. Why do you think some chose to stay? By the way, I took classes from G. Hiestand. Excellent teacher.