Elgin megachurch refuses to compromise beliefs, rises to top of Elgin church scene
By Dave Gathman email@example.com September 18, 2013 8:08PM
Harvest Bible Chapel is getting ready to celebrate its 25th anniversary. | Brian O'Mahoney~For Sun-Times Media
25th anniversary event
Harvest Bible Church will hold its 25th anniversary celebration at Boomers Stadium, just north of the Elgin-O’Hare Expressway in Schaumburg. The day will include various family activities beginning at 2:30 p.m., a mass outdoor worship service with a 500-voice choir from 2 to 4 p.m., and more family events from 6 to 8 p.m. Shuttle buses will run continuously to the stadium from the former Walmart shopping center on Randall Road, across from the Elgin church. To use the stadium parking lot, drivers will have to obtain a pass before the event. For more information, see www.harvestbiblechapel.org.
Updated: October 20, 2013 7:26AM
ELGIN — Twelve thousand people worship there every weekend at seven campuses, most of those people in Elgin and Rolling Meadows.
Auditoriums — what other churches might call “sanctuaries” if they had pews instead of theater-style chairs — seat 2,200 people at a time, serviced by acres of parking where brigades of volunteers direct traffic.
Four hundred paid employees — more employees than most churches have members — include more than 40 ordained pastors.
Ninety similar-but-independent churches are “planted” across the country.
A nationwide radio ministry carries its senior pastor’s voice across America.
A school of its own on its Elgin campus has 700 students age pre-kindergarten through senior high, brought in from all over the northwest suburbs.
And soon, perhaps, it will have a department making Hollywood-style fiction movies with a Christian message.
As it prepares to celebrate its 25th birthday with a mass service on Saturday so big it had to rent a baseball stadium to hold it, Harvest Bible Chapel is a far cry from the intimate little room most think of when they hear the word “chapel.”
Harvest Bible Chapel actually is a megachurch along the lines of its brethren, Willow Creek Community Church of South Barrington and Christ Community Church of St. Charles. And many of Harvest’s approaches to “doing church” parallel theirs:
A Bible- and prayer-oriented theology closely related to the Baptist movement. There are lots of reminders that every single one of us is a sinner and that unless you ask Jesus Christ to take on the punishment you deserve and you make following him the most important thing in your life, you have no hope to avoid going to hell forever.
No attachment to any established denomination.
A charismatic senior pastor — in this case, 53-year-old Canadian-born James MacDonald — who has a gift for preaching, bursts with a contagious vision of what the Holy Spirit can make happen and has been with the church pretty much from the beginning.
An informal worship style — leave your coat and tie at home — oriented around rocky “Christian contemporary music” mixed with some classic hymns. You’ll find more guitars and drums on stage than organs, and song lyrics will be projected on large screens at the front, not printed in a hymnal.
A system of membership that creates a sense of intimacy in the midst of all this giant scale by assigning every member to a “small group” of maybe a dozen people who meet on weekdays in private homes to pray, study the Bible and share each other’s problems and joys. It is these small groups, Assistant Senior Pastor Rick Donald says, that are the key to making members feel at home and training them for more important responsibilities in the church. Each small group becomes in effect a little church within the big church.
Donald, who has been Senior Pastor James MacDonald’s right-hand man since six months after the church started in 1988, says that “each word in our name reflects one of the pillars the church was founded upon.”
“The word ‘Harvest’ comes from John 4:34, the idea of reaching a lot of people and harvesting their souls for Jesus,” Donald said. “The word ‘Bible’ shows that we take the Bible as our central pillar and guide in all we do. And a ‘chapel,’ no matter what its size, is a place of prayer. So that reflects our belief in the power of constant prayer.”
Donald said the story of Harvest Bible Chapel actually begins a few years before it even got that name.
“In the mid-1980s, a group of 18 people in the Arlington Heights and Rolling Meadows area had a vision to plant a new church. These people belonged to different denominations and backgrounds but knew each other through relationships outside the church.”
As their plans coalesced, they searched for a hired pastor to lead them. Their eye fell on MacDonald, who was then a 27-year-old grad student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield. MacDonald had grown up in a Baptist church in Canada and had worked as a youth pastor in Windsor, Ontario, there before coming to the U.S. — temporarily, he thought — to further his education.
The newborn 18-strong church hired MacDonald in 1988. They decided on a church name. And they began growing like topsy as they held worship services inside Rolling Meadows High School.
Six months later, persuaded the church’s “elders,” akin to board members, also to hire Donald, a fellow Trinity student who also had grown up in Canada.
MacDonald lays out his philosophies and his recipe for reviving what he sees as a stagnant, failing Protestant culture in a book published last year called “Vertical Church.” Every Harvest worship attendee got a free copy, and MacDonald plugged the book’s ideas in a monthlong nationwide speaking tour.
Tellingly, he recounts most of the church’s history in a single chapter, near the back of the book, that’s devoted to the power of prayer.
MacDonald reveals that after growing to 400 people in just two years, the newborn congregation hit a major crisis when some members became unhappy with the church’s policies in 2000. MacDonald writes that “promises of loyalty evaporated as former friends withdrew into discord and gossip.” He and his wife Kathy, he writes, “felt abandoned and betrayed” as 40 percent of the members quit within half a year.
MacDonald writes that in 1991, he made plans to take a new job back in Canada, expecting that the church would collapse. But after he spilled his plans to Donald, he writes, he and Donald “knelt together on a postage stamp of rented office space and poured out our hearts together in prayer.” They begged God to let the church survive for two more years.
Rapid growth began again. In 1994, Harvest got the chance to buy a former Home Depot-style “big box” store along Route 53 in Rolling Meadows for $3 million. But the sellers demanded a $300,000 down payment within 40 days.
Thinking it would be impossible to raise that much cash so quickly from a congregation that by then totaled 700 people, MacDonald writes, he threw himself down flat on his face and prayed fervently for God to provide a way. He writes that “as clear as if I was taking dictation,” God gave him the idea of holding 20 fundraising dinners inside a tent set up inside the cavernous empty store.
Forty days later, they had $392,00 and a permanent church home that they converted into a worship center, classrooms and offices.
Jumping to Elgin
Addressing the Elgin Prayer Breakfast a few years ago, MacDonald recalled how what he sees as another prayer-activated miracle made it possible to expand to the second, much-larger campus in Elgin.
MacDonald said that by 2003, Harvest’s leaders realized they had more people and ministries than could fit into the landlocked former store in Rolling Meadows. MacDonald said he became fixated on a piece of vacant land along Interstate 90 in Schaumburg. He was convinced that was where Harvest’s second building ought to be. But the deal fell through at the last moment. He said he felt let down by God.
MacDonald said he prayed for an alternative. And soon he heard about an 80-acre, 300,000-square-foot office building, with a 900-car parking garage, that the sputtering Safety-Kleen company had moved out of along Randall Road in Elgin.
Since that had cost $53 million to build, buying the site seemed far beyond Harvest’s budget, MacDonald said. But the wealthy owners of the Hobby Lobby retail chain, who are evangelical Christians, stepped in. They bought the complex from Safety-Kleen and handed over the keys to Harvest in 2003. Their price: just $1.
The church took the money they had been raising to buy a second site and used that instead to expand and adapt the Safety-Kleen building. They added a 2,200-seat worship center, an athletic center and what is now the home of the pre-K- through-12th grade Harvest Christian Academy.
Just last Sunday, Harvest’s usual services were preceded by a two-minute video announcing that two specific former church elders had been banned from further participation in the congregation because they had disagreed with the other 30 elders over financial issues, such as the level of debt and the (secret) size of MacDonald’s salary, and had tried to recruit other church members to their cause.
MacDonald and the board majority apparently had feared another contagious mass exodus of members akin to the crisis of 1990.
But some of Sunday’s worshippers said later that naming names in so public and critical a fashion felt shockingly judgmental and they might stop attending just because of it.
The church’s website, www.harvestbiblechapel.org, now includes references to Bible passages specifying how leaders of a church should handle rebellious members.
The video is one example of what Donald, who was interviewed for this article before the video was released, describes as “unapologetic preaching.” He said MacDonald and the church leaders base how the church runs on what the Bible orders, and they make no adjustments to accommodate what 21st century Americans think the Almighty ought to be thinking.
Donald said that includes a ban on using women as pastors or elders because the apostle Paul states in some of his New Testament letters that that’s not how women should be used in a Christian church.
“It’s not that women are inferior to men,” Donald said. “We have many women in important leadership positions. It’s just that the Bible tells us they are created for different roles than men.”
Across the country
Besides the main campuses in Elgin and Rolling Meadows, Donald said Harvest now has small “satellite” locations in Aurora, Niles, Crystal Lake, Chicago and the north shore.
As the main worship services begin on Saturday night and Sunday mornings, MacDonald delivers his sermons live in either Elgin or Rolling Meadows. What he says is piped into the other six locations on giant TV screens via a real-time video hookup. Meanwhile, worship leaders such as Donald lead songs and prayers live at the other locations before and after the piped-in sermons.
People who began as Harvest staffers or members and were trained in its ways have gone outside that organization and “planted” 90 new independent churches. One of those, Harvest Bible Chapel of Naperville, now draws 2,000 worshippers a week.
“When we started out 25 years ago, we had no idea that someday we would be this large,” Donald said. “But God had other ideas.
“It’s not that we have been more clever or smart or strategic,” he said. “The Harvest Bible Chapel of today is a story of God’s faithfulness when a group of people depend on him through unashamed adoration, unapologetic preaching, unafraid witness and unceasing prayer.”