Friday, April 05, 2019

Too Hot to Handle: Branded

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

They started in 1988 with a 27-year old “senior pastor” named James MacDonald and a couple hundred interested Christians and seekers gathered in a Chicago high school auditorium. Today, they are known as Harvest Bible Chapel, a megachurch with campuses all over the Chicago area and over 100 affiliated fellowships in North America and internationally.

Tom: Today, the mother church is being investigated for alleged financial shenanigans.

In mid-March, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) indefinitely suspended Harvest Chicago for alleged serious violations of the agency’s standards for “biblical and ethical financial stewardship”. MacDonald, now in his late fifties, was fired in February after “glaring improprieties” surfaced, including misappropriation of church funds. Among the more questionable expenditures, an African safari, Florida vacation and expensive cigars. Then in March, Harvest Chicago’s entire elder board resigned. The investigation is ongoing.

A Two-Edged Sword

To be clear, the suspension should not reflect on the financial dealings of the leadership teams of the various affiliated fellowships around the world currently using the Harvest brand. They are, unfortunately, publicly identified with a name that has at least temporarily come into disrepute, but by all accounts are completely separate financial entities.

Branding, Immanuel Can, can be a bit of a two-edged sword.

Immanuel Can: A great many of the former “Harvest” churches have now dropped their branding and gone their own way. It’s almost like that was how it was supposed to be in the first place ...

Tom: I see the Harvest campus in Naperville is renaming itself “Highpoint Church”, though they claim that was just something they wanted to do to be a little more distinct. They do not mention the investigation. On the other hand, the Ashburn campus has kept the name, but its leadership speaks directly to the issues that have become public and says, “That’s NOT us.” There are different approaches to dealing with potentially embarrassing public perceptions. How would you handle something like that?

IC: Well, that’s “shutting the door after the horse has bolted”, to crack an old phrase. The prospect for all the local congregations to end up scandalized and traumatized was settled when they created the Harvest franchise in the first place.

Tom: By the way, when we use the phrases “Harvest brand” and “Harvest franchise”, we’re not passive-aggressively implying our fellow believers are out-of-control corporatists. These are terms used by Harvest leadership to describe their own organization. Draw whatever conclusions you like from that. If we’re going to accuse them of grossly imitating the business world in the organization of their churches, we’re not going to just imply it; we’ll say it flat out.

The Advantages of a Brand

In any case, there’s a perfectly logical reason Harvest put their name, logo and graphic identity on over 100 churches. It didn’t just happen. What was the perceived advantage of the brand back when there was no stigma attached to it?

IC: I haven’t looked at their procedures, and can’t present myself as very knowledgeable on that.

Tom: Neither have I, and I’m entirely speculating here, but I suspect it’s the same reason anything is branded: so that it becomes a known quantity. When you go to McDonald’s and ask for a Big Mac, you get pretty much the same product anywhere in the world. Walk into some restaurant you’ve never heard of before, and it may be terrific or it may be horrible; but a Quarter Pounder with cheese is always a Quarter Pounder with cheese. And it’s always “processed cheese food”, never Asiago or Camembert.

Walk into a Harvest anywhere in the world, and even though it may be financially independent of the Chicago Harvest, there’s a homogeneity of style that gives comfort to people who like that sort of thing, in a much more tightly-focused way than, say, the brand “Baptist” or “Pentecostal”, which can be very, very different from one local church to the next.

IC: Well, I can only tell you what people “on the ground” praise in the Harvest approach. They say it’s predictably programmed, of demanding quality, with efficiently-run programs and with modern music.

Tom: It’s a Big Mac.

IC: Those were the purported advantages: and if true, they would not be trivial advantages. I was at a couple of services, and found them to be — well, the term I would use is “well-organized”. But I didn’t really find the teaching was greatly better than in, say, your average evangelical group. The music was loud, rehearsed, and essentially modern performance-style, not congregational. They were big on media. The logistics were all efficient. It was not possible for me to tell much about the interpersonal dynamics in the congregation.

In sum, I would say if you were going to tightly organize a standard evangelical congregation, yet without making any substantial innovations or advances, a Harvest church is what it would look like.

Tom: So that’s the upside of branding, if you like: consistency and control.

The Downside of Being a Franchise

The downside is this story: you read that “Harvest” is under financial investigation, and it can’t help but taint all the associated fellowships under that name, even if they’ve never had anything to do with James MacDonald and haven’t been within a thousand miles of Chicago. Most people who read about the investigation simply won’t do the necessary due diligence to find out that the other “Harvests” in the fellowship are at financial arm’s length from the Chicago operation. You could hardly expect them to.

The funny thing is that there’s a very easy way to prevent “senior pastors” with a lot of power from dipping into the church treasury and publicly humiliating you: just don’t hire one in the first place. And if you absolutely must have a king to reign over you, then at least don’t give him signing authority on the bank accounts of a multi-million dollar operation. There’s no reason a Bible teacher ever needs to make unilateral withdrawals from donated funds. And treasurers ought to be 100% transparent in their dealings. Most are. You often read about pastors living life large; I have yet to encounter a story about an embezzling treasurer, though I’m sure it’s happened once or twice.

IC: I don’t know. It just makes me sad that yet another leader has betrayed the Lord’s people. But it’s perfectly predictable; make one man the key figure in a church or group of churches, and he will be tempted to corruption. A few may not fall — but many, many do, because without special intervention from the Lord, any man is a corruptible creature. Christians should know this — we believe in objective evil, in the fallen nature of mankind, and in a real Satan. How would we ever imagine one man, standing alone against the three great Christian enemies — the world, the flesh and the devil — while holding a high-target position of spiritual leadership, would be safe? But we keep appointing them.

No Apostles at the Beach

Tom: This is something you never see in the New Testament. Paul is probably the most significant first century Christian leader to which we might compare a James MacDonald, but Paul never put himself in a position where his actions with respect to money could be misinterpreted, or where he could be subject to the kinds of temptations you mention. Rather than take money for luxuries, he worked with his own hands to provide for his own needs and the needs of others, all while preaching and teaching the Word.

Moreover, when he was collecting money for needy believers, he made sure there were no questions about how that money was used: “When I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem.” So the contributors themselves were the ones determining who would administer the money they had given. Nobody could accuse Paul of mishandling funds or vacationing on the beach in the south of France at the expense of the Galatians.

IC: But we keep thinking we know better.

Would You Like a Side Order of Humiliation with That?

Tom: How much of this is just ignorance? I used to think the whole megachurch thing was a product of rejecting the example of the apostles and first century believers. After actually talking to mainstream evangelicals over a number of years, I’ve come to the conclusion that many of them simply have no idea there’s any other way of doing things. They’re pleasant, amiable people who are not so much leaving these sorts of openings deliberately as they are completely uncomprehending that anything like this could ever happen.

IC: Yes, that’s a fair evaluation, I think: amiable, well-intended, caring, but trying to patch up a seriously faulty system. The system of hiring pastors and looking for “great men” (and nowadays, women too) just rolls right along, no matter how many tragedies it produces, not so much out of a refusal to follow scriptural patterns, because of a lack of imagination of alternatives to evangelical standard practices.

The folks who went to Harvest, in my experience, all wanted good things: better teaching, more contemporary music, reliable programs and serving opportunities. To get those things, they believed, they had to buy into the brand: and, at the time, a little McDonaldization of church seemed a small price to pay if the rest was smoothly delivered. But in the wake of these tragedies, many people are discouraged and defiled. The fallout can last for the rest of people’s lives.


  1. "How would we ever imagine one man, standing alone against the three great Christian enemies — the world, the flesh and the devil — while holding a high-target position of spiritual leadership, would be safe? But we keep appointing them."

    How about this way -

    And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

    1. Your reading of the New Testament is that Peter stood alone?

    2. Are you redefining alone then? I might be alone on planet Earth but not in the solar system if there are aliens on Mars. I might be alone in my house if my wife went shopping but am not really alone. Peter the Rock would similarly be alone yet not really be alone depending on what is meant by it and how wide a circle is cast.

    3. Well no, I'm not redefining anything. But it's worth pointing out that at the only church council ever recorded in scripture, it was James who appears to have done the decision-making, not Peter (Acts 15:13-21). Then there's the time Paul opposed "the Rock" to his face, because he "stood condemned" (Gal. 2:11).

      If Peter was indeed standing against the world, the flesh and the devil alone, I'm not sure how exactly these events may be reconciled. I'm not the one who used the word "alone", after all.

    4. You would be redefining alone if you ignore what it can and does really mean. It has shades of meaning and importance that's why we use the term he/she was totally alone (as opposed to what?). Thus Peter (also the current one ;-) is not really alone since there is spernatural help available. The degree and type of that help may depend on certain things but never putting you into a state of total and utter aloneness (which you are actually implying).