Saturday, January 4, 2020

Open Letter To Julie Roys

I thank God for you.

Your work exposing evangelical corruption is a godsend. May God prosper your ministry. I want all Christians to read your blog and follow your updates and listen with rapt attention to the talk you gave at Restore Chicago.

I know you have paid a heavy price investigating sin in churches like Harvest Bible Chapel and Willow Creek and in institutions like Moody Bible institute, Liberty University, and the Evangelical Counsel for Financial Accountability. And I know that this work came to you unbidden, that it is endless till Christ comes, and that you will need a special measure of grace to endure in tasks that, by the mercy of God, will lead to reform.

So thank you, I thank God for you, and I pray for you.

You have better things to do with your time than read the musings of a pastor-turned-manual-laborer on the evils besetting local expressions of Evangelicalism. But even if this essay never reaches your eyes and is only skimmed by a few friends of mine, it still seemed right to address it to you.

After missionary work in Colombia with Wycliffe I pastored two Chicago-area dying churches that ultimately failed. Many pastors here can tell you that, broadly speaking, when people left our churches in the 1990s they went to Willow Creek, and when they left in the 2000s they went to Harvest Bible Chapel (or to one of those churches’ satellites.) In smaller churches these people taught Sunday School or played the piano or served as deacons, but at Willow Creek and Harvest they typically sat in the audience and watched the show. While that sounds harsh, I’m afraid I know whereof I speak and can cite examples.

Willow Creek and Harvest imploded over the last year or so as the appalling behavior of their celebrity pastors Bill Hybels and James MacDonald became known. But these megachurches had been undermining other churches too for decades. As recently as two years ago a former elder at the small church I attended openly criticized the pastor and left for Willow Creek, and an influential deacon advised the pastor to listen to a message by James MacDonald to know what a good sermon sounded like. That deacon left too. The pastor is a friend of mine, and he is godly, humble, soft-spoken, wise, and theologically astute and orthodox. But as numbers dwindled and offerings declined the church let him go, and now he struggles to find a career. I offered to get him in at the chemical factory where I work, but he said he will need to make more money than that to support his wife and three young children, and I’m sure he’s right.

Church death and ministerial failure (I don’t mean moral failure but just the mundane failure to make a living) are complex phenomena with multiple causes that are all subject to the will of a sovereign God. That said, it can still be fairly observed that anyone who tried to pastor a church in the Chicago area in the past 30 years felt the influence of Willow Creek and Harvest like the manager of a Mom-and-Pop store feels the influence of Walmart and Amazon. Two near-orbiting energy-draining black holes.

I don’t mind the collapse of some churches and the growth of others as long as the gospel is faithfully preached and the spirit of Christ is earnestly manifested in the lives of its proclaimers. But such was not the case at Willow Creek and Harvest. I heard enough of Hybel’s teaching to perceive that the center of it was not Christ crucified but “Leadership” (or, more cynically, “Power and Influence”). With MacDonald it was simple greed and self-promotion.

But even where the preaching of these two men sometimes got it right, their personal lives were hopelessly corrupt. Both men lied, constantly, for years. Hybels seduced or tried to seduce multiple women – even to the point of deliberately alienating them from their husbands, and MacDonald’s hostile aggression makes the word “bullying” seem too mild a term for it. While allegations that MacDonald tried to hire an assassin on two separate occasions have yet to be confirmed by police, the character of MacDonald as revealed by intimate acquaintances renders these charges disturbingly credible. When confronted and exposed, both men denied everything, sought to discredit and destroy their accusers, and to this day have refused to repent, submit to discipline, or even acknowledge wrongdoing in any substantial way.

So let us think the unthinkable. The two largest and most influential churches in the Chicago area were led, for decades, by unregenerate men - damned souls, enemies of the cross of Christ who masqueraded as Christian brothers and in so doing sucked dry legitimate ministries and gave despisers of the faith a reason to scoff.

It may be objected that I dare not judge the hearts of men, and that I cannot set myself up as the arbiter of their eternal destinies. Fair enough. Hybels and MacDonald do not answer to me. To their own Master they stand or fall. Someday they and all other fallen preachers like Ted Haggard and Mark Driscoll and Perry Noble and Tullian Tchividjian – along with the rest of us - will stand before the judgment seat of Christ and render an account of deeds done in the body, whether good or bad. The prospect of standing before Jesus fills me with hope because of his mercy but also with dread because of my sin. Outraged righteously indignant accusers like you and me must ever look first to ourselves.

But Scriptural warnings not to judge lest we be judged (Matthew 7:1), to consider ourselves lest we also be tempted (Galatians 6:1), and to take heed lest we fall (1 Corinthians 10:12) must be weighed against companion Scriptures that say we will know them by their fruits (Matthew 7:16), that we are to test the spirits to see if they are from God (1 John 4:1), and that we must hand wicked professing Christians over to Satan (1 Corinthians 5:5; 1 Timothy 1:20) and refuse to sit at the same table with them (1 Corinthians 5:11). Among the reasons why “reconciliation” with Hybels or MacDonald is wrongheaded is that until these men acknowledge that they are not Christians (as Joshua Harris did), or repent, then fellowship with them is forbidden in the strongest terms. A couple months ago James MacDonald was welcomed into fellowship and allowed to teach at a retreat of New Life Covenant Church. By welcoming MacDonald, New Life Covenant revealed itself to be a fake church, and true Christians must flee it.

New Life Covenant says that it has 17,000 attendees.

In any institution or assembly there are always a few people whose behavior cries out for judgment, and recalcitrant transgressors must be fired, excommunicated, exiled, impeached, imprisoned or what-have-you. No community has ever been free of lethal contaminants. Even Jesus had Judas among his 12 disciples. But it seems that there is a certain point, a critical mass of corruption, beyond which you can no longer pick the few bad apples out of the barrel but have to start over with a new barrel. In 1900 engineers reversed the course of a Chicago River that had made a sewer of Lake Michigan and filled the city with stench and disease – but in 1986 no one could decontaminate Chernobyl. That city had to be abandoned in haste. I wonder: Is the state of evangelicalism today, in the form practiced by its biggest churches, more like Chicago of the 19th century or Chernobyl of the 20th?

I myself am as much a product of Chicago-area evangelicalism as anybody. My parents met and married at Moody Church, and I studied Bible at Wheaton College and ministry at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Though I’m no expert in anything and have never gravitated toward the center of any circle of influence, perhaps I’ve been around long enough to gain some sense of the spiritual landscape in the sector of Christendom with which I have been most closely associated. There is no escaping the conclusion that it’s just bad around here, really really bad, catastrophically bad, and the need for reform is critical. Though Hybels and MacDonald are gone, for example, their infection remains and their stench lingers. Anyone with biblical discernment who reads the Pastoral Search document that Willow Creek put out to find Hybels’ replacement can only shudder and say, “Oh for goodness’ sake, Willow Creekans, didn’t you learn anything?” And though MacDonald has rightly been fired and declared unfit for ministry, we still have not been entirely relieved - as you well know - of greedy belligerents who flourished in his shadow. Reform efforts remain compromised, and we’re still slouching toward Chernobyl.

I conclude my cup-half-empty lament with four items of input. For what they’re worth.

1) Keep slamming corruption. The work seems endless and hopeless, the bailing of a vast sea with one little bucket. But it must be done. For the love of God and for the sake of faithful brothers and sisters in Christ, it must be done. Every variety of ministry has its soul-wearying elements, its temptations to forebear - but it seems that the ministry of prophetic whistle-blowing is especially prone to them. You succeed in cutting out a tumor only to find that it has metastasized. You uncover so much wickedness that you teeter on the edge of cynicism and blanket distrust. You come to doubt yourself and your own worthiness to critique (which is a good thing, but still unsettling to experience and a potential silencer of righteous rebuke.) Your mind becomes so occupied with the muck of corruption that you find yourself gasping for spiritual air – as C. S. Lewis did when he wrote The Screwtape Letters and observed, “It almost smothered me before I was done.” But we’re all glad Lewis persevered through that dark cloud and finished the work. As God so calls you, do likewise. Do not grow weary in well doing.

2) Pray for cleansing and revival and reformation, and push for it in public prayers. Of course, this should go without saying. But I have been to enough evangelical prayer meetings and read through enough evangelical prayer lists to note with despair that they typically contain little more than references to physical ailments (“So-and-so is getting a hip replacement on Thursday”). So the prayers for renewal must be made deliberately. Urge them. By God’s grace I’ll do so myself tomorrow when my Sunday School teacher asks for prayer requests.

3) Do your part to dump the megachurch multisite model. I do not believe that evangelicalism per se is irredeemable. I am, and will remain, an evangelical Christian because I believe that the traditional evangelical understanding of reality is true, and evangelicalism’s interpretation of Scripture is best among the varying traditions of Christendom. I respect but dissent from the decisions of friends who got fed up with evangelicalism as they experienced it and fled to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy.

To me the crisis of Western evangelicalism lies not in its traditional theology but in its de facto ecclesiology. A church is a gathering of God’s people in Christ, not a stadium with a star celebrity whose gifts and charisma attract a crowd. Megachurches of this model are seedbeds of spiritual corruption. Flee them. Never attend a church where the pastor lives lavishly, publishes (that is, has ghostwritten for him) bestsellers, leads cruises, gets interviewed by Oprah, has the ear of a president, or projects his image onto a screen so casual attendees in the attached coffee shop can catch the wave of his spiritual energy. How many of these celebrity shepherds have to be unmasked as frauds before evangelical sheep will realize that the system is unbiblical and corrupt? I will state the matter with unapologetic boldness: All multisite megachurches are spiritual Chernobyls. Evangelicalism is redeemable but megachurches are not. Run away. Attend a church where some humble, unassuming servant of God preaches verse-by-verse through the pages of Holy Scripture.

4) This last one is oddly specific. Go to YouTube and listen to D. A. Carson’s message “Leaning Forward In The Dark: A Failed Reformation. Nehemiah 13.” I do not know any better guide to the perils involved in seeking renewal and reformation among the people of God.

22 comments:

  1. A TEDS guy would recommend DA Carson . . . thank you so much for this.

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    1. Thank you Nathan. My pastor friend Scott Polender had hoped to invite Carson as a guest speaker, and in anticipation of such an event I prepared an introduction I never got to deliver. So here it is. To be read slowly and with all due earnestness:

      Billy Graham told the story of meeting a drunk who said to him, “Your sermons have helped me a lot!” Brother Carson, I am not drunk, and your sermons have helped me a lot. In saying that I do not mean to imply that your messages are as superior to Billy Graham’s as sobriety is to drunkenness, but simply that, in me at least, there have been fulfilled purposes for which you labored and studied and prayed. To the assembled congregation I say, please, when you go home, look up D. A. Carson’s sermons and lectures on YouTube and at the Gospel Coalition website. I’m afraid that of all Brother Carson’s messages there are only four or five hundred good ones. But they’ll keep you busy for a while. Finally, Brother Carson, I thank God that you have not restricted the fruits of your scholarship to wise and learned individuals like yourself, but have labored to make them accessible and understandable to blue-collar common laborers like me.

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    2. Wow, that was incredibly well written, chastising and hopeful at the same time. Thank you!

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  2. Thank you, Mr. Lundquist. Every word of this:

    "You uncover so much wickedness that you teeter on the edge of cynicism and blanket distrust." "Your mind becomes so occupied with the muck of corruption that you find yourself gasping for spiritual air – as C. S. Lewis did when he wrote The Screwtape Letters and observed, “It almost smothered me before I was done.”

    God knows my need of resuscitation. I'm ashamed to even write how many years it's been now (Harvest Bible Chapel-Elgin survivor). Sometimes I wonder if I'll ever breath with a vitality of faith again. Thank you.

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    1. Grace and peace to you Ms. Barnhill. You know that you are not alone, and that Jesus himself blessed the poor in spirit. You will be in my prayers.

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  3. “Attend a church where some humble, unassuming servant of God preaches verse-by-verse through the pages of Holy Scripture.”

    Oh, how I crave this.

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    1. God bless you for craving this, Terri! May he grant the fulfillment of your desire, along with opportunities to uphold faithful ministry of the Word through whatever means he has gifted you.

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    2. Terri - here's the church you crave in the Elgin area . . . http://cccardunal.org/about-us/staff/

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  5. Paul: First, I'm wondering if our paths crossed at TEDS. Your name sounds familiar. Mine is Mark Drinnenberg. Second, you have nailed it with Christ-honoring eloquence. I was at Harvest for four years in the early 90s and thought it must soon come crashing down (didn't think it would take 25 years!). Oh, if only it were a problem limited to one or two churches. It's frustrating and heartbreaking to see these things flourish in Evangelicalism. Where is the desire to glorify Jesus Christ? They all seem mouth it, but it sure seems there's a lot of glory going to man and a lot of men enriching themselves off the gospel. And even as I write that, I think, "Who am I?" So I'll move on. Third, my heart breaks for you and your friend, and I know a little bit of what it's like. I took the pastorate of a dying church in 2012. Seven years later, that church of 30 has become a church of 6. But we press on--verse-by-verse, I might add. I look at the landscape around me and must confess that I feel like a failure. But the Lord nudges me to press on, so I do. It's His church. Finally, I'd just like to add that I took Greek Exegesis and every NT class I could get from D.A. Carson. I still think of things he taught when I'm studying for sermons. God bless you, Brother.

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    1. God bless you Mark! Our paths may indeed have crossed at TEDS - I was there 1993 to 1996 in the MDiv program but I'm afraid my memory of names and faces is embarrassingly and culpably gap-prone. I thank God for your willingness to minister in a small church - you probably know the story of how D. A. Carson's father did the same for many years in Canada before revival finally broke out. Thank you for your encouragement. May this year bring you many new causes for delighting in the Lord.

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  6. Thank you Mr. Lundquist for taking the time to write this letter. I agree with your assessment of how bad the church has become. It is very sad to see what is going on and I pray not to lose heart. I was at Harvest for at least 15 years and have seen much ungodly behavior from those who called themselves pastors there to those who attend. Sadly we experienced other heartache at Willow Creek too. It grieves my heart to know that I can't tell the difference anymore from real Christian's to the unsaved by their actions. This seems to be a huge sign of the times as Jesus told us.I thank you for your encouragement to Julie and God's hurting sheep as there are many of us. I feel our enemy has caused much of this discord to confuse and isolate us. May God protect his real church and those who care for it!

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    1. Thank you for your kind and thoughtful response. I imagine it was a sorrow beyond measure to escape corruption in one church only to find it again in another. I know exactly what you mean when you speak of the grief of not being able to tell the difference between a real Christian and a fake - I myself have been more badly fooled in this regard than just about anybody. But at the same time by God's grace I do have faithful friends who have persevered as humble servants of God for decades and concerning whom there can be no doubt. In Philippians 4:2-4 when Paul refers to Euodia, Syntyche, Clement and other co-workers he does not say "I hope they turn out to be real Christians after all" but rather affirms "their names are in the book of life." May we have good cause for the same confidence with the brothers and sisters with whom we worship God.

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  7. Thank you for your article. My husband and I traveled the loop of Willow to Harvest, and every word you write rings so true. We are now in a small Evangelical Free Church and are finding healing. If nothing else, God is teaching us how to recognize and deal with wolves and false teachers.

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    1. I thank God for your response! May God continue to provide healing and use you both to great effect, as an encouragement and blessing to others in the church where he has you. Peace be with you.

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  8. The Executive Pastor that groomed, sexually abused and tortured me in Texas was from Chicago and idolized Bill Hybels and the Willow Creek “leadership” model. This man was a wolf. The senior pastor had us both resign but sin-leveled and victim-blamed me openly to the entire church. He and his elders protected the abuser. Senior pastor knew of years of abuse by executive pastor. A godly man, a godly leader protects the flock not the wolf. I was on staff for 18 years so I was trauma bonded to this system. After detoxing on the outside, I can clearly see how unhealthy this church is, just like Willow Creek. A few others saw the truth and left, but many stayed and ostracized my husband and I as we began to expose the truth. Thank you, pastor, for speaking truth! It means the world to this survivor when true pastors speak truth and call these guys out. I love the Lord and served diligently in my church to please Him. I trusted these men because they were pastors and elders. And, then, during very trying and vulnerable years, a pastor who should have encouraged me in Christ and helped me, instead took advantage of the opportunity and led me as far from Christ as he could and into darkness. A pastor. No, that’s the very definition of a wolf. God bless you for truly loving the flock!

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    1. My wife Lisa and I will make a special point of praying for you tonight. I am sure that your griefs are more intense than I can imagine. I pray that in your current (or-soon-to-be-realized) circumstances you are surrounded by faithful and sincere brothers and sisters in Christ who can be the means of ministering God's grace to you, and whom you can bless in return. Peace to you.

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  9. Paul,
    You are missing the main point. Please read what I have written the past 10 years over here:
    see My Dream Church https://sites.google.com/site/mydreamchurch/
    Churches should switch to a different model that is biblically aligned.
    The current model for pastor directed churches says that the senior pastor is the priest - this is Old Testament.
    The New Testament model that churches should follow, says Every Believer is a Priest.

    1. Structure: the structure of My Dream Church is based on the New Testament 'Body Of Christ'
    model and not on the Old Testament hierarchical model.
    2. Anointing: Every believer is a priest in the new covenant.
    3. Biblical: submission to the Word in My Dream Church will be at a higher level than submission to leaders
    4. Leaders should have secular jobs:
    5. Finances: Giving not Tithing. Transparency in finances
    6. Praise and Worship is congregational:
    7. Looking sideways (practical love):
    8. Women are not silenced:

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  10. Dining with the Devil: The Megachurch Movement Flirts with Modernity (Hourglass Books) https://www.amazon.com/dp/B009LNM8M0/ref=cm_sw_r_tw_apa_i_-ZTeEb7KJ4VP3


    Publication date: August 1, 1993

    If only this was read and believed then, in the 90s...

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  11. Thank you for this post. I came to Christ in 1972 and promptly was "recruited" on campus by the local "Twig" of the Way Biblical and Teaching Ministry. That "star," Victor Paul Wierwille, taught and wrote that "Jesus Christ is not God" -- what did I know at the time? He lived lavishly, had a jet, was an adulterer and more. I ran from Christ as a result (truth: to pursue my lust for drink) for 35 years before walking into a small evangelical church and then wooed from there to Harvest by MacDonald's radio preaching. I swore I would not fall for "The Way" shenanigans again. Did not heed my spirit wincing at things that went on at HBC until late 2018 when we left "unable to hear the message for the messenger." We are now at a solid, humble, bible-teaching and "no trending ripped designer jeans" EFC today.

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    1. Your testimony is a great encouragement to me! You and I both know the inner frustration of wondering why it takes so long and why we have to get so old before we get some discernment. Very much with you about "trending ripped designer jeans" being a big red flag. So also is pastors who work out a lot and then step into the pulpit wearing a tight t-shirt. Yikes.

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