How a “Seeker-Hostile” Church Became One of the Largest, Fastest-Growing Churches in America

Harvest Bible Chapel, founded in 1988 and led by Senior Pastor James MacDonald, is a non-denominational Bible church of several thousand (sorry, I could not find even a rough estimate online) spread among 7 campuses throughout northern and western Chicagoland.  

Ranked #15 by Outreach Magazine as one of America’s 100 Fastest-Growing churches in 2008, Harvest has proven to be something of an enigma.  At the time I started attending there, in January of 2008, the church and its marquee pastor had not achieved the kind of national and international notoriety that other megachurches such as Saddleback, Willow Creek, and the Mars Hills (Seattle/Driscoll and Grand Rapids/Bell) had attained.

What is remarkable about Harvest Bible Chapel and MacDonald’s approach to ministry was that their stated intention was not to grow large.  In a conversation with Pastor MacDonald, whom I counted as a friend at the time, he explained that Harvest adopted the multi-site growth strategy somewhat reluctantly, as the best known solution to the “problem” of the rapid growth they were experiencing.  Other times, we would hear him from the pulpit refer to the church in terms like “seeker-hostile”.  He used the term somewhat tongue-in-cheek (by no means did I find him or the church to be “hostile” in any way to seekers), but he did have an aversion to the term “seeker-sensitive” because of the connotations it brought with it.  James saw his role as primarily shepherding (leading, overseeing) the church and heralding (teaching, preaching, defending) the gospel.  He believed that it was his responsibility to focus on the “depth” of ministry (discipleship, spiritual maturity, biblical literacy) and that God was responsible for the breadth (numerical growth) of the ministry.

As someone who had visited nearby neighbor Willow Creek Community Church (the largest congregation in Chicagoland) and opted to place my membership at Harvest instead, the differences between the two churches (Harvest was the second largest in the metro area) were pronounced.  And the different ministry philosophies of the two churches and their leaders are the reason for the radically different “flavors” of church experienced at each.

Despite some differences of conviction with Harvest’s ministry philosophy, and an overall skepticism of megachurches in general, there are some aspects of their philosophy that I believe are commendable:

  1. Primary emphasis on spiritual growth, with numerical growth as secondary and consequential of the first.
  2. A God-centered rather than human/felt needs centered approach to worship and discipleship.
  3. A forthrightly biblical approach to teaching-and-preaching: “Proclaiming the authority of God’s Word without apology."
  4. A commitment to worship that is theologically-robust, culturally relevant, emotionally engaging and excellently performed and produced, while avoiding the extremes of “charismatic” worship or the overly-produced, spiritually stale, mere musical performance I have experienced at other megachurches.
  5. A strong commitment to shepherding and fellowship on a small scale via a robust small group ministry.
  6. A high commitment to excellence—without pretense or showiness—in every area of ministry.
  7. Belief in the importance of effective communication, from branding to mass communication to interactive social media.
  8. A commitment to relevance (intelligibility, practicality) without obscuring the gospel or watering down the call to radical discipleship.
There are probably other strengths, but these stand out to me the most.  A few of these strengths (small group ministry, communications) would be shared by churches like Willow Creek, but the rest are distinct from such seeker-centric churches.  I have not followed Willow Creek’s development over the last few years, so I can’t say for sure how much the results of their Reveal study have reshaped their ministry philosophy.  But the way I see it, if Willow Creek achieved their goal of outreach (breadth) but failed in terms of cultivating authentic disciples of Jesus (depth), whereas Harvest attained breadth while focusing on depth, I have to conclude that Harvest had the superior ministry model.

Now, how have things shifted for Harvest in recent years?  They also have not been much on my radar, as I’ve been preoccupied with other things (raising a family, recovering from ministry burnout, reentering the pastorate).  So I can’t speak authoritatively on their fidelity to their “4 Pillars” or the ministry philosophy that once made them so distinctive.  I have observed a shift toward heightened publicity, much greater attention to James’ personal brand and an emphasis on building his media empire.  I have also read criticisms of his leadership, somewhat along the lines of those leveled against Mark Driscoll in recent years.  But while I can’t speak to the current integrity of the leadership, I can still strongly commend those strengths I observed during my roughly four years, between 2008 and 2012, as a member of Harvest.  I can attest that much good fruit was born during the first 20 years of Harvest Bible Chapel’s existence.

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