James MacDonald Reflects on 30 Years in Ministry, #MeToo, Millennials and Future of Faith in the US

James MacDonald
Pastor James MacDonald preaches at Harvest Bible Chapel. |

Christians must return to the hard work of making disciples, abandon the less-is-more approach to church, and examine our own failures when considering the ongoing #MeToo fallout, says Pastor James MacDonald.

In an interview with The Christian Post, the longtime pastor of the multicampus Harvest Bible Chapel in Illinois, candidly shared what he's learned and continues to learn about the heart of Jesus, and where he sees the Body of Christ going amid profound cultural changes.

With three decades now behind him, MacDonald is already visioncasting and planning for the next 30 years, alongside his three children who are also active in ministry.

MacDonald founded HBC in 1988 with 18 people and today hosts 13,000 at their seven Chicago-area campuses every week.

Below is a lightly edited transcript of James MacDonald's interview with The Christian Post. 

CP: In 30 years of ministry, what is the greatest difference you see in terms of doing ministry in Chicagoland, and, more generally, in America, when you started versus 2018? Broadly speaking, what did American evangelical Christianity look like then, in your view, and what does it look like now?

JM: Back in the late '80s I think we were kind of enamored with the idea that if we would make less of the message and strip it down to essentials that we could reach more people. That less would reach more. And now I don't know anyone who isn't convinced that that actually isn't the case.

Less is more does not reach more people, it doesn't make better disciples. Only more [substance] makes better disciples. And it's really hard work. Jesus was more gifted than any person on Earth and He spent three-and-a-half full years on 12 people and didn't get all of them to the finish line.

So it's really a time consuming, exhausting thing making disciples, and I think I've seen the church swing back toward a focus on quality. We've said for years in our church "not a quantity of disciples, but quality of discipleship." And more and more, I hear pastors leaning in that direction.

CP: What has contributed to the breakdown such that some churches operated in such a way that they did not effectively couple evangelism with substantive discipleship?

JM: The primary type of evangelism that we see in the Scriptures is one-on-one. Jesus with Nicodemus, Jesus with the woman at the well, Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch.

And that does not in any way negate mass evangelism. In Acts Chapter 2 we see a mass evangelism situation with the coming of the Holy Spirit. But was that normative or an exception? I think typically we see one-on-one evangelism and to subjugate the Sunday morning, which is so needed for infusion of spiritual strength through proclamation [of the Word], through worship, through fellowship, from giving and serving.

All of those things stoke the fire of a Christ follower's vertical relationship [with God]. And to subjugate Sunday morning to passive participation in drawing out the net horizontally [to other people] is, I think, increasingly seen as not adequate to sustain in a strong, growing church. That's the reason why in 2012 I wrote the book Vertical Church. We have to come back to that as our primary focus.

CP: Since the fall of 2017 we've seen the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements take off with credible allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse appearing in influential places. What do you make of this, particularly when it's happening within churches and Christian ministries? And how ought churches respond in light of these harrowing developments?

JM: The first thing to say is that we shouldn't be sharing our opinions on this subject when that question has a biblical answer. And because it has a biblical answer it's the only answer that matters. If you and I were in a conversation and Jesus was sitting beside us, He wouldn't be asking what I thought very often. And so the Scripture says "He who sins in the presence of all, rebuke in the presence of all that others may fear."

And you look in the book of Acts when they lied about their tithe, Annanias and Sapphira were taken, "and great fear came upon the Church." The only response to public exposure of private failure should be to look in the mirror, even when disaster strikes.

Remember the tower of Siloam that fell on those people and Jesus says [in Luke 13] "You don't think something worse could happen to you? Do you think they are worse people than you because this happened to them?"

And so in every instance when calamity strikes, when personal failure is exposed, we should be looking in the mirror. We should be saying: "There but for the grace of God go I." We should be deepening our own reflection and repentance. And most of all, we should not be piling on and shaming others but we should be responding with grace and with genuine reflection upon the needs of our own heart. Because none of us are all that we have articulated to be important. And I'm not saying leaders shouldn't be an example. Of course, leaders need to be an example, and if they are not an example of the believer then they should step down. But example of the believer does not mean example of perfection.

That's why we're all worshiping Jesus again this Sunday morning.

CP: Many narratives exist as to why we are seeing the rise of the "nones," growing numbers of those who do not affiliate with any particular denomination. There is also significant statistical data showing that millennials are abandoning their faith and exiting the church. What is your take on why this is happening as one who has been at this in the trenches for all these years? And what can pastors and leaders do to recapture the hearts and minds of this disillusioned generation?

JM: To me, that whole paragraph is in some ways problematic. Just as watching every night on television cars floating down the street and people in rowboats with their houses underwater kind of makes me a little numb to the pain of that.

I think in the same way, hearing these broad statistics about trends in the Church can make me numb to the millennials that I know. And I think that our church is not seeing that trend (No. 1). All three of our children are millennials, have strong and growing faith, and are serving the Lord. I think authenticity is the key. And I don't mean that in any way as a buzzword. I mean legitimate, self-reflective, nonsuperior, non self-righteous way of viewing others.

And you know, Jesus told that story about the two men who went up the temple to pray. And the one man prayed in his heart "God, I thank you that I am not like other men." And to me, that is so much of the evangelical church. Faux-superiority, a misplaced sense of the fact that Jesus Christ died of the cross for my sins says nothing about me, but it says something about Him. That's why it's called grace.

But we always want to draw a dotted line from the finished work of Christ and to me, and add some personal significance. And the problem with that is it causes Christians to act superior. And Jesus said let the man who said "God be merciful to me, a sinner," is the man who went down to his house justified, not the self-righteous person.

I'm not saying this in judgement of anyone. This is what we teach our people, and I wrestle with these things myself, and I think the big turnoff in the Church today is this sense of condemning the gays, the social issues — and I know what the Bible says about the these things and we wouldn't compromise on any of them.

But holding to the Scripture versus punishing the sinner, those are different aren't they? And Jesus Christ said [in John 8 when speaking to the woman caught in adultery] "where are your condemners" and then he said "Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more."

I was just having a conversation this morning with a pretty well-known Christian leader who had kind of sounded off on Twitter about what he thought another Christian leader should be doing. And I just privately appealed to him that we don't do that. We are under very direct orders about how we can speak about other people in the family [of God.] But then people jump in and say, "Oh but Jesus, He called them blind guides."

Well, but that's false teachers, unregenerate people. And you can't apply the prophetic portion of Christ's ministry to our brothers and sisters in Christ with whom we're going to spend eternity. And in regard to them, we need to absorb disappointment rather than expose it to the eyes of people who don't know Christ.

And the constant bickering between Christians is really what grieves the heart of God and causes people to be disillusioned. Even a surface reading of the New Testament would lead any literate person to the conclusion that love is the summa cum laude. All failures are a failure to love. This is something that I have come to with heartfelt conviction too late, and I can look back after 30 years of ministry on a loudmouthed version of myself with great regret and grief.

CP: What is next for Harvest Bible Chapel in the next five to 10 years?

JM: You're going to hear a lot more about Vertical Church, our Vertical Worship is going all over the world, our latest was nominated for two Dove Awards. We're all about leading people back to the substantive Christian message and we've had four pillars for 30 years: Unapologetic Preaching, Unashamed Adoration, Unceasing Prayer, and Unafraid Witness.

And we're taking an unprecedented step as we launch what we're calling "next 30." We're adding a fifth pillar, which is Unconditional Love. And at the end of the day, that is the main thing. And we're talking a lot in our church right now about what we call "love 2 live 2 love." You're not living until you're loving God. That's the first great commandment, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength."

And then "live 2 love." You're not really loving God unless you're loving others. And Jesus said the second is like the first. And not like it because they are both great, and not like it because they are both about love. But like it because he was only asked for one and he gave two because they are inseparable.

I wish I'd learned that a lot earlier in my ministry.

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