Friday, July 4, 2014

James MacDonald killed my church.

I really don't want to write this. If you believe nothing else in this article please believe that I take no pleasure in this. This morning I resigned my membership at my church, the first church I was ever a member at, the church I was baptized in. This is the story of why I felt I had to do that. I will not be naming any names when it comes to people in my church (although if you really wanted to play internet detective I suppose you could figure it out) because this isn't about any sort of personal grudge on my part, it's about telling what I saw happen to my church, in hopes that maybe others can prevent it from happening to their churches.

When I first started going to church I went to a church called New Song. Unfortunately my scheduel at the time kept me from attending a lot. New Song's leadership believed that churches should split off once they get too big to prevent it from becoming a bloated megachurch where the pastor doesn't know all of his congregation. So New Song planted a couple of churches elsewhere in the county, one of which being Oak Hill, the church I would come to call my church home. By that time my schedule had eased up and I became an official member, joined a small group Bible study, and even ran the computer during some services, running the Power Point during the sermon and recording it. During this time, the church we came from was swallowed up by the megachurch/network of churches called Harvest Bible, lead by a man named James MacDonald. So New Song became Harvest Lancaster. You may have heard MacDonald's radio show called Walk in the Word. I had known of him before this, I can't say I really disliked the man, but I wasn't a fan. I found he tended to fall into legalism in his teachings, plus I never found him all that intellectually challenging, he was certainly no C.S. Lewis, but for the most part I considered him just another harmless Churchianity leader. Many people I knew both in New Song Harvest Lancaster and Oak Hill just adored him. Some however seemed to think MacDonald was from the pit of hell and smelled like smoke, to borrow a phrase from one of my favorite preachers Steve Brown. Through the grape vine I heard of long standing members and Elders leaving New Song over this. At the time I considered that an overreaction. Again, I thought all the fawning of MacDonald was silly, but I figured his organization was harmless. More and more during this time I found Oak Hill was cozying up to Harvest as well. Almost all of our study guides and what not were coming from there.

During this time I found myself growing more and more distant with my church and I wasn't sure why. Something felt wrong, but I wasn't sure, it was just at the edge of my consciousness. I found myself skipping Sunday morning service more and more. I told myself that I was just tired and wanted to sleep in, I was rather busy and working 6 days a week after all, but really I just didn't want to go. Eventually I realized I hadn't been at all in several months. I decided that I needed to start going again, after all don't forsake the gathering of believers and all that, so I emailed my worship leader and told him I had been sorting some stuff out in my life and was going to start attending again and that he could put me on the computer schedule once more. I then got an email back from him saying that he and my pastor wanted to meet with me. I figured they were just going to grill me over not going to church, and I really couldn't even put my finger on what drove me away so I told them I really didn't need to talk about anything but they insisted, pulling rank with the line that "Your brother in Christ and pastor charged with the care of your soul needs to speak with you." Apparently I was being called into the Principal's office. So I agreed and then came the meeting.

It wasn't so much not going to church that they wanted to grill me over, but rather some of the stuff on this blog as well as my Facebook. For example my Church does a Halloween outreach, handing out candy to trick or treaters. I mentioned on my Facebook that I loved that we did this outreach but it bugged me that we didn't call it a Halloween out reach, we called it something generic like "Fall Fest" or something. And I made the point that it seems hypocritical that some of the very people who would get upset when someone says "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" won't say "Happy Halloween" when handing out candy to trick or treaters. I was accused of talking smack about the church for what I think was a rather minor criticism. My pastor, this man I had come to love and respect, this man who baptized me, looked me in the eyes and said "You're either with us or against us."

It was such a ridiculous thing to say to me, especially over a minor criticism like that. I tried to just ignore the whole thing. I still had many close friends in the church and even was attending one of the small group Bible studies again. And then came the news that our church would be making its ties to Harvest much more official, and with that came something of an Elder civil war, with two of the four Elders leaving. Things seemed to be getting worse. People were leaving left and right, and there was just a sense of tension in the air. Then, in a move that smacked to me more of a mid-life crisis than being truly moved of God, our pastor up and announced he was thinking about moving off to Malaysia to be the pastor at a Harvest Church out there. I talked about this some in one of my podcasts, but I frankly think this is a terrible idea and I certainly don't think it's of God. He just started this church, it's still young and frankly it's in turmoil. And besides, what a Malaysian church most likely needs is a Malaysian pastor. Someone who truly speaks their language, both literally and culturally.

It's at this point that I'm really having a hard time ignoring the rapidly deteriorating state of my church. Elders jumping ship, a pastor running off in search of adventure and excitement, and no new member seems to last longer than a month or two. I start asking around in search of just what is happening. Everyone either wants to act like things are fine, or clearly senses a problem but for fear of being a gossip doesn't want to chat about it. But I do get a few people to open up to me in confidence, and it seems things are far worse than I thought. Behind close doors there is a lot of fighting, a lot of power grabbing, and some things that, if indeed true and I cannot confirm them for myself, are well into the realm of unethical if not skirting the borders of illegal.

And all of it starts right at the point that Harvest and its influence came into the picture and it only ramps up the more in bed with Harvest our church got. But what is it about MacDonald and his Borg-like collective of churches that was poisoning the punch bowel so bad? Sure he's kind of legalistic, and carries much of the Churchianity baggage that bogs down modern Evangelicalism, but is his stuff really that bad? I decided it was time to really give him a much harder listen than I had before. It was when I was listening to the June 26th 2014 Walk in the Word episode (Replace a Rebellious Attitude Part 3) that it hit me. In it MacDonald was teaching Numbers 16, the story of Korah and a couple of others trying to usurp power from Moses as the Israelites were being lead through the desert. I have always interpreted that story as showing why you shouldn't be power hungry and attempt to usurp power from others. MacDonald on the other hand seemed to think it shows why you shouldn't even question your leadership. And it began to hit me, there is a very authoritarian streak running through MacDonald's teachings. There is a real vibe of "shut up and fall in line" with him. It's not often all that overt, but it's there. And it trickled down and infected two once great and spirit filled churches in my area here.

When the New Song and Oak Hill invited Harvest Bible into bed with them, they let in something very destructive. Something dark and authoritarian came in and it changed things. You can dismiss all this if you want and think I'm merely a disgruntled ex member of a church, or that I was reading too much into things, or whatever you want to think. But I'll tell you right now if you are a nondenominational Evangelical church there is a pretty good chance Harvest will come to assimilate you. And when they come knocking on your door, I would implore you not to throw your lot in with them. James MacDonald already killed my church, he drove a dagger into its heart and now it's bleeding out. Don't let him kill yours.


  1. Well, you're always welcome here in the Catholic Church, bro. I know you have some scruples with us, *cough*Pope Francis*cough* but, there's many parts of the Church where you can just be you and still be accepted. We have enough spots for right-wingers, libertarians, even hippies and gays. You don't have to like the pope to be Catholic. (Hell, the last pope got a lot of flak from the left, and many popes in history find themselves getting denounced, getting their butt kicked in or deposed by members of their own flock.)

  2. Yeah, you are always welcome in the Catholic Church. Check us out.

  3. hey Chris
    thanks for the mention of your blog post, yes as always we are interested.
    nothing personal of course, but for the sake of dialogue and conversation I will reply a bit.
    without doubt we are in a difficult time at church however, I'm holding out hope that we are not dead. (i.e. "how J. McD. killed my church")
    I'd say you are giving J. McD. more credit than he is due to insinuate that he single handedly killed our church.
    keep praying for us
    hopefully we are a cat - 8 more lives to go
    love your brother
    Dwight (written by Dwight, typed by mel for him:))

    1. Who's Chris? This is the Bechtloff ;)

      And yes Oak Hill may indeed rise from the ashes like a Phoenix, the Lord is in the resurrection business after all, but it has been poisoned by MacDonald's influence, and that needs to be said if for no other reason than a warning to other churches.

  4. I am truly sorry that this has had to happen. But this is the question that paul wrestled with in his epistles that is the difference between being obsessed with the letter of the law and the spirit of the law alot of leftist churches suffer the other condition which is lawlessness. Christ is the perfect example of the spirit of the law in action neither obsessed with the letter of the law nor abolishing it.

  5. Crazy.

    Want a Protestant church with little churchianity? Find a confessionally Reformed or Lutheran church.

  6. "My pastor, this man I had come to love and respect, this man who baptized me, looked me in the eyes and said "You're either with us or against us.""

    The EXACT same thing happened to me at a previous church we attended - the authoritarian, manipulative sickness. We got out and I'm glad you got out as well.