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.