This is a post from Dr. Dale Harris a former Harvest Bible Fellowship pastor who planted a Harvest church in the Midwest. In this post he reflects on the issues with James MacDonald, Harvest Chicago and what it was like to discover The Elephant’s Debt blog. This blog thanks Dale for his courage and hopes other people from Harvest speak up.
“A little learning is a dangerous thing.”
“A moment’s insight is sometimes worth a life’s experience.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes
When hard pressed, I cried to the Lord;
he brought me into a spacious place.
6 The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me?
Psalm 118:5-6 NIV
Harvest Bible Chapel is an incredibly complex organization and as I have worked with sources in researching and writing about it, I am struck by what some people say. Many often point to James MacDonald as being the source of the problems. That it is MacDonald’s behavior alone that is creating the problems and that many people look the other way and thus enable him. Some people have expressed to me how they have loved individual people in Harvest or certain pastors. To leave has been hard and difficult.
There is a lot going in at Harvest behind the scenes. When you peek behind the curtain you get a perspective that many who sit in the pew do not see. Today’s post comes from a former Harvest Bible Fellowship pastor, Dr. Dale Harris who planted a Harvest Bible Chapel in the Midwest. This pastor wants to communicate his feelings about James MacDonald and hopes that other people will start to speak up and share their concerns about what is happening at ground zero of Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago. If you were involved in Harvest Bible Chapel or Harvest Bible Fellowship and you would like to publish your story this blog is happy to do so. Dr. Dale Harris is courageous and I hope that this inspires other people to speak up. Thanks Dale!
I was a Harvest Bible Fellowship pastor, back when there was a Harvest Bible Fellowship. I was a proud member of the Harvest Bible Fellowship Training Center in 2013. I would not trade that Training Center experience or the relationships formed there. This is my story.
I was a freshman at Moody Bible Institute in the 1999-2000 school year. That spring semester, some friends invited me to attend a Saturday night service. They drove me 35 minutes from campus, to a church that looked like a big box store. The music reminded me of the best youth conferences I had attended in high school. My spirit soared as I sang. The preaching spoke directly to my heart. The message, based on Daniel 4-5, was titled ‘Pride + Time = Judgment.’ That seems incredibly ironic today, but it spoke powerfully to my heart that night.
I walked out of that service and declared, ‘I just found my church.’ I didn’t miss a weekend service during the rest of my time at Moody. I threw myself into the high school youth ministry. I made the long drive to Harvest Sunday mornings, Sunday nights and Wednesdays to lead a high school small group. My only regret when I graduated from Moody was that I hadn’t gotten even more involved.
After seminary, I became a pastor and church planter. In 2008, I was privileged to lead a team of 30 people to plant a church near Dayton, Ohio. After five years of ministry, we entered 2013 knowing that the church needed an outside boost to fully get where we wanted to be. As I considered how to take the church to the next level, I decided to look outside my then-current context of ministry relationships. I thought back to the incredible church I had attended in college. A quick online search told me that Harvest was now in the church planting and church re-planting business. I ran to my elders. With great joy, we applied to transition our church to become Harvest Bible Chapel Dayton.
We had a series of interviews that culminated with my wife and I traveling for a day-long interview in Chicago with Harvest Bible Fellowship leaders. I immediately knew that this was the big leagues. I wanted to be an effective pastor, and everything about Harvest screamed effective. I wanted to do things as top notch as possible. Everything about Harvest screamed top notch. When we left, the Harvest leaders told us they’d call us in about a week to let us know if we’d been accepted to attend the Training Center. My wife and I prayed hard and hoped that week. I remember the day Bill Molinari called to tell us we’d be accepted into the Training Center. We literally jumped up and down. I might have cried. Ok, fine. I cried. I just remember thinking how God had provided the solution to take my church to the next level.
Later that summer, as I was counting the days until my family moved to Chicago for four months of training, I Googled something about Harvest, hoping to find more sermons from James MacDonald. It had always troubled me that James was about the only pastor I knew who charged money to listen to his archived sermons, but I figured the money went toward getting Walk in the Word on more radio stations, so I let it go. Anyway, the search brought up this website called The Elephant’s Debt. I literally did not sleep that night. I stayed up until 6 a.m. reading every word of every page. I was horrified. How could this great church, with the greatest preacher I’d ever heard, be guilty of these accusations? I had a meeting with another Harvest leader, and I asked him what I thought were pointed questions about the accusations. I’ll be honest. I wanted to go to the Training Center. I wanted to believe these things weren’t true. The people speaking out weren’t the people I had known well in my time at Harvest. I’d never really had reason to question James MacDonald’s character. I knew him mostly from the pulpit ministry, of course. But nobody I knew had said anything terrible. So I chose to reject The Elephant’s Debt. I didn’t really question their facts. I just wanted desperately to believe they were exaggerating the importance of them. And I convinced myself that was the reality of the situation. I was wrong.
I knew in my heart this blog was probably telling the truth. My sophomore year at Moody, James spoke at our Spiritual Emphasis Week (chapel every day for a week). On Wednesdays, the faculty attended chapel. My preaching professor, a well-respected black man, was sitting toward the front. He would regularly respond to good preaching by calling out things like ‘Preach it, brother!’ and ‘Good exegesis!’ We loved it in class. It was very different for us stoic, white, suburban guys. Anyway, as James was preaching, my prof called out ‘Preach it, brother!’ James stopped preaching. He must have thought a rude student was mocking him. ‘SHUT UP!’ he yelled from the stage. A few of us, knowing he was calling out a respected professor, gasped. I understood his frustration, but the reaction was so rude and over the top.
Unfortunately, that brief public glimpse was pretty much how I found James to be behind the scenes a decade later. I saw a side of James MacDonald that shocked me. He sat in the Training Center room and described his own sermon idea as ‘kick-ass.’ He exuded arrogance and a ‘bigger and better than you’ vibe. He had an ‘in-group’ that got his attention (check his social media – it’s obvious who they are). We were told that sarcasm was the official love language of Harvest. Yet the words we heard from James were not sarcastic in a fun way. They were cruel and grating.
Let me give you an example of James speaking harshly. Everyone involved with the Harvest situation remembers the unfortunate church discipline video. I sat in the congregation and watched it. Early that next week James came bursting into the Training Center room. ‘I’m going to let you guys watch and observe how you handle a church crisis,’ James bellowed. He gathered a couple leaders with him, and they sat in front of us, discussing how the church should respond to the blowback from the video. Kent Shaw, then the director of Harvest Bible Fellowship, wisely suggested that the church apologize and reverse course. I do not remember the exact words that James spoke in response to Kent. What I remember is the condescension and the arrogance. James dressed down this highly accomplished, well-respected man right in front of us. We talked later about how disgusting that display was. I was shocked Kent didn’t stand up and resign on the spot. I have wondered to this day if James ever apologized to Kent and told him he was right when James backtracked and publicly apologized a year later. I also wonder what pain could have been averted if James had humbled himself and listened to Kent’s good advice.
Midway through my residency, the Strange Fire conference happened, when James MacDonald and Mark Driscoll crashed John MacArthur’s conference. We were sitting in Harvest Elgin live streaming the conference, and we were not impressed by the antics. I remember justifying myself in not walking out of the Training Center by talking about how Harvest Bible Fellowship was thriving in spite of James, not because of him. James wasn’t one of the main people who led our group, and everyone else was wonderful.
The most upsetting thing for me involved the house controversy. I think James was trying out his explanation on us Training Center guys. He had a real heart-to-heart with us one day, explaining how his large house was harming the gospel, and even though it wasn’t sinful for him to own it, he was going to voluntarily downsize so as not to unnecessarily offend and harm the gospel. After all the other nonsense, this one act caused me to stop and re-think how I was assessing James’ character. I spoke publicly of that day, extolling James’ sacrifice as an example for how we should surrender our rights and privileges for the gospel. And then, years later, I found out it was all a lie. I found out he had secretly built a bigger, better house than the one he sold. I felt used, betrayed and guilty for publicly praising someone for an act that wasn’t genuine. Just last Sunday, I corrected the facts with my church (I’d used James as a positive sermon illustration previously). That was not fun to do from the pulpit. But truth matters. I didn’t even care that he lived in a big house. Good for him. I only cared that he lied about it while feigning sincerity. Realizing the house was a sham and the unnecessary, ugly blowup of HBF were the two reasons I finally stopped publicly supporting James MacDonald.
Before I close, let me also mention that Harvest Bible Fellowship and the Training Center were wonderful to my family. I am a much better pastor today because of the world class training Harvest Bible Fellowship gave me. It was an incredible gift, for which I am eternally grateful. However, the people who so deeply impacted my life are almost all gone from Harvest. I hope I will not hurt my relationship with them by speaking out. I consider them ministry partners and friends, and I would certainly love to be in partnership with many of them again (especially the GCC, which I consider a great organization). But it is a risk I must take for the sake of the truth.
For the sake of the truth, I have to speak and affirm that the character concerns referenced are real. I’ve seen them with my own eyes. And I cannot support church leaders that apply radically revolutionary re-interpretations of Bible verses to justify unjustifiable behavior like suing people. I remembered sitting in the training center when Bill Molinari, our training center leader, said, ‘We might threaten a lawsuit, but we’d never actually sue. That would be unbiblical.’ I believed him. He is no longer part of Harvest. Apart from the lawsuit, I don’t think I would have ever said anything. I have moved on from Harvest (another story for another time, and I’m happy to accept my own shortcomings as an HBF church re-planter), well before HBF dissolved. I’ve been thankful for how Harvest helped me and thankful that God spared me from the drama of Harvest’s implosion. I am in a good church, with good people, accomplishing good ministry for God’s Kingdom. I am not angry or bitter with Harvest or James MacDonald. The sins and issues I mentioned (other than my being part of a group lied to) were not directly against me. I have never personally been the object of James’ wrath. I just feel the obligation to affirm those speaking out.
Ultimately, I wish Harvest well. I hope God works powerful acts of repentance, reconciliation and restitution. That probably involves resignation, and I support those calling for it. However, I don’t want James to forever step out of the pulpit. He’s the most gifted preacher I’ve ever heard. I don’t think his bad behavior nullifies the truth he’s spoken in the pulpit. I hope people can be discerning enough to celebrate the good things he has said and done, while realizing that the issues are significant enough that intervention is needed. I hope also that calling for necessary repentance from one church and its senior leadership is not used as an excuse for dismissing or demeaning every church. I’d love to see a restitution story. But the next time I listen to James MacDonald preach, I hope I can listen without feeling like the man on the stage isn’t the same man I saw behind the scenes.