Saturday, May 09, 2015

Franchising the Gospel

It looks more like a brand than a denomination.

Or really, it looks like any corporation with franchises all over the continent. All its churches use common fonts, a common logo and similar website designs. They’ve applied for a Canadian trademark and they’re opening a training centre for church planting in Europe this fall, where they already have a presence.

It ain’t Burger King, but this is a franchise.

A Little History

According to Toronto West’s history tab, its mother church in Illinois currently consists of more than 13,000 people at seven campuses (that’s obsolete; it’s up to eight). Yet Harvest Bible Fellowship began in 1988 with a mere eighteen people.

Now Harvest is all over the U.S. and Canada with footholds in Mexico, Scotland, Liberia, Romania, Nepal, Malaysia and the Caribbean. If the websites I’ve perused are current, there are over 120 churches with the Harvest branding worldwide, more if you count campuses as separate churches. Nearly twenty of these started as something else and rebranded themselves as Harvest churches.

They are big in Ontario: Barrie, Brampton, Toronto West, York, Oakville, London and Waterloo. If you’re in a major population centre in southern Ontario, they’re there or they’re coming.

Full disclosure: I’ve never been to a Harvest church, so this is not an expose or a hard critique. There may be many good things to be said for them and many good people attending one or another of their churches.

Their online presence appears to be diligently and comprehensively maintained. You’ve heard of “organized religion”. This is hyper-organized. Compared to Harvest, any denomination I can name is downright sloppy.

It makes me wonder: in this “fellowship” of churches, how do they manage consistency of faith and practice, and how rigorously do they enforce it?


Now there is a fair bit of latitude in the New Testament as to what is appropriate in church order and practice. Many things that we take as ‘givens’ are simply things Christians did in the first century that we see fit to emulate.

Those believers met on the first day of the week. That would be our Sunday. There’s no command to do so. But it’s what they did, so we do it. No problem, but if we saw fit to do it differently, there’s no reason we should be considered unspiritual or unchristian.

Latitude. It’s certainly there. But an international line of virtually identical churches transparently patterned on the business world?

I work for a major corporation. Trust me, that’s a model we ought to think twice about embracing.

“Bible Chapels” and “Pastors”

When I see the words “Bible” and “chapel” together, I think Plymouth Brethren, though the phrase is too generic to trademark and I doubt anyone has tried. But until recently local churches from that tradition generally steered clear of pastors and tried to observe, if imperfectly, a more New Testament approach to ministry — one that does not involve titles or salaries.

Harvest Bible Chapels are full-bore into pastors. Designated. Recognized. “Pastor Robbie”. “Pastor James”.

Is Harvest an offshoot of the “brethren” tradition? None of their material seems to mention this, and I don’t imagine brethren assemblies will be chasing Harvest about their name anytime soon (they have no head office and no lawyers on retainer even if they wanted to disclaim the association).

Partying With the Pastor

At Harvest you can “party with the pastor”, meaning you can meet up with him and see what he’s all about. Better yet, you can do it whether you’re in Kelowna, Dekalb, Muskoka or Tampa. In fact, it seems you can party at just about any Harvest church, and they all use the same acronym: PWTP.

It’s part of the “plugging process”.

Pardon me. What?

The “plugging process”? Really?

“If you’re new to Harvest, the first step in the plugging process is to attend Party with the Pastor. PWTP is a great way to learn more about our vision, history and priorities while you meet some of the ministry staff and other key leaders from our church. The evening consists of a question and answer period, testimony, fellowship and light refreshments.

Please note: Party with the Pastor is an adult-only event. Childcare is not provided.”
Just what the Church needs: a new buzzword. I’m not sure whether “plugging process” has been trademarked yet.

Growth and Curiosity

No doubt lots of people are getting saved and baptized in Harvest churches. This is not a bad thing. One hesitates to criticize a growing church. The feeling is they must be doing something right. Growth is usually good, though not always.

But unity is one thing. Uniformity is another thing entirely — and it is not necessarily a spiritual thing.

I admit to some curiosity about the movement. With the number of Harvest Bible Chapels springing up, one or more of our regular readers must have a personal connection.

Feel free to enlighten me in the comments ...

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