07 May 2013

Briefly: pondering James MacDonald's latest outburst

by Dan Phillips

If you haven't seen James MacDonald's latest alternatively chest-thumping/threnodic tantrum/lament, I suppose you should look at it. MacDonald has a history of thumping his chest and bellowing, then kindasorta apologizing, so who knows what's next — besides an ongoing example of Axiom #2? We do know that, despite the title, it wasn't a serious letter of resignation... prompting this trenchant observation from our beloved Trogdor:

MacDonald only first came on my radar screen during the multiple-reputation-ruining Elephant Room fiascoes. Given that he had been a TGC leader, there must have been a time when he had earned a good name. Hadn't he? Or is it just that he had a really big church?

Either way, watching this sad saga has brought me an I-wonder. Memories of my first solo pastoral ministry largely feature regrets. I dreamt about it for years afterwards; I still do on occasion, nearly 30 years later.

There were blessings, there were trials and misfires and mistakes. It did not at all go or end as I would have wished.

But as I see the passive-aggressive, mercurial, petulant tone MacDonald so often strikes, I wonder: is that where I would have gone, if my ministry had been a "success"? Looking back, I see so much immaturity, pride, so many "issues" in myself.  (And don't think it escapes me to wonder what I would think of me-now, should I still be around thirty years from now.)

I longed to see the ministry become "fruitful" in ways it never did. But could I have sustained the burden of popularity? Would I have just made massive shipwreck?

Do you ever wonder that? I speak to you who work hard, positioned well under the radar of the Starmakers and the conference-organizers and the Glitz Factory, those ignored by The Club's lofty doorkeepers? Do you wonder, "Yeah, but look at Furtick, look at Driscoll... look at MacDonald. This is what happens when fame and prominence happen to the unprepared. How would I look if my immaturities and inadequacies were suddenly projected on a 150-foot screen?"

Spurgeon is well-termed a "freak of grace." He could shoot up in prominence while still a teen, and keep his focus on Christ, the Cross, the Gospel. Few of us, I daresay, could have sustained such fame while so young, without buckling badly.

As you ponder, if you do, here are a few related texts — and I'm sure you can add more:
I Tim. 3:6
Psalm 75:6-7
Dan. 4:30
Dan. 5:20
James 4:7-10
1 Peter 5:6
Dan Phillips's signature


Michael Coughlin said...

Funny because I think this could be applied to nearly any discipline or vocation.

Look at so many successful child actors. How many of them really "lose it" even compared to others in that realm?

I often see the patheticness of potential NFL players. Every March and April, young men forfeit millions of dollars due to draft status because they can't not party for a month.

And every year at that time I am reminded that I was no different; only that my mistakes weren't as public.

Cathy M. said...

MacDonald's rant reminds me of my Mother. She sincerely believed she had the spiritual gift of pointing out areas needing improvement. "Thanks Mom, I didn't realize I'd gained a few pounds. I'll get right on that."

So, he's fed up because his golden opinions are unappreciated. Does he expect a public rant about not being appreciated to be appreciated?

I relate to the things he's saying. I've certainly felt the things he's feeling. Learning to distinguish between righteous indignation and wounded pride is tough. Probably tougher when you feel the need to publicly document your learning process.

Webster Hunt (Parts Man) said...

This makes me think about Paul, who seems to often fight against the draw of fame and popularity. A Pharisee of Pharisees by his own admission, he had prominence, fame, "elite" status - yet when Christ submitted him, and he to Christ, he said he counted those things as dung; and in fact I believe that the word he uses is "count" and conveys the sense that he daily counted those things as rubbish in light of knowing Jesus.

When I consider how great it would be to be famous, known, "elite", it would do me well to remember Paul, because he was a man like me - a perfecter man than I am, but still a man at best. He knew his heart was a bomb waiting to explode with swelling pride, but he daily considered it to be rubbish.

Maybe what happened along the way to guys like Driscoll and MacDonald - giving them the benefit of the doubt that where they are is not where they intended to be when they started - is that they confused their own ideas with what truly glorifies Jesus, and slowly decided bit by bit that fame was the means to the end of the success of their ideas?

Unknown said...

McDonald's rant seems more like a tongue and cheek rambling; an imagined cute way to make a point. It doesn't seem like anything to make a dust up over.

Your points are good, and McDonald's history does not help him, but in the end, I wonder if this was just taken the wrong way.

I am no fan of McDonald's. I am not defending his losses or his posse.

I give the post five stars for the verses at the end that smack me clean in the jaw.

huauqui said...

Thank you so much for your candid honesty about past frustrations/failures. My own mirror yours in many ways. Only mine came prior to exiting Bible College at the hands of a loving pastor who I served under for an internship. He simply asked me some questions that lead me to go deep inside looking at motivations and strengths/weaknesses. I stayed out of full time ministry for 10 years simply working and serving in Church while being discipled by some godly elders. It was a real blessing to have those men I served under say it was time for me to enter full time ministry. 17 years of ministry later (7 as a foreign missionary, and now 10 planting a church in rural Nebraska) and I am so thankful God did not allow me to enter when I was younger.

You ask such important questions here about preparedness for ministry, youth/youthfulness, pride, the proper fear of success and its potential pitfalls, motivations etc... Thank you

In the midst of your thoughts and questions I began to wonder. Did someone not see these issues earlier in MacDonald's life? Have we become afraid of truly speaking truth to those who desire full time service? Should we re-evaluate our ideas as to what makes someone qualified for the pulpit? If we are not asking tough questions of men entering this type of service, what are we not asking those who simply attend our Churches?

There was a figure of speech in Ecuador that fit this situation well. Loosely translated it would say this "We need more mules for Pastors and less race horses." The idea being that race horses look flashy, can carry a load a short distance quickly and everyone wants to be one. Mules however are not flashy, not many aspire to be one, and will simply carry the load of ministry faithfully without complaining, wearing out, or falling.

Kathy said...

"And every year at that time I am reminded that I was no different; only that my mistakes weren't as public."

I certainly agree with you, but looking back at my failures as a young pastor's wife 20+ years ago, I'm thankful not only that my mistakes weren't widely publicized (no Internet then, for one thing) but that I wasn't hardened in those mistakes by the trappings of success. For however many years we have left to work, my aim is to be faithful rather than "successful".

DJP said...

All y'all's comments are very much value-added. Thank you.

Danny said...

Two words. Matt Chandler.

DJP said...


Bill said...

JM writes (in bold nonetheless): "No more fixing people-I resign."
Bill asks: Is it not the Holy Spirit's job to change (fix) people?

DJP said...

Danger of combined cop-out and oversimplification. Ultimately, of course. But as so often, God works through means, and the pastor who preaches God's word is one of the chief means (cf. Acts 20:28, 32f.; Col. 1:28-29; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 4:2; Titus 2:1, 15; Heb. 13:17, etc. etc. etc.).

Anonymous said...

Thanks Dan,

Great points here.

Tom Chantry said...

huauqui writes: Did someone not see these issues earlier in MacDonald's life?

Did someone not see these before he entered the ministry? Probably, but today we evaluate men on perceived talent rather than biblical qualifications.

The more interesting question is, “Did someone not see these issues earlier in MacDonald’s ministry? And the answer is, of course they did, but by that time, the survival of the institutional complex built up around his ministry depended on him, so what was anyone to do?

Ever wonder why political campaigns don’t just dry up and go away after the candidate says something stupid about “fake rape” or gets caught emailing pictures of himself in his underwear? You’d think in such obvious lost causes the campaign would just give up, but it never does. The reason is that a campaign is an organization build around one person’s charisma. All the fund-raising, volunteering, and so on are based on that one man. If he goes, the structure crumbles. A campaign can’t just switch candidates; it exists for the candidate.

Now that’s no way to run a church, but it is exactly what happens in the celebrity-driven culture of mega-church evangelicalism. Vast organizations spring into being around a lone man who joins great personal charisma with exceptional administrative skills, and it becomes his church. Sometimes, through grace, they guy who combines that skill set is - say - John Piper, and he manages to get through his ministerial career without embarrassing the entire Kingdom. More often the model fails, because the church isn’t meant to be identified by one great leader.

Harvest Bible Chapel is James MacDonald’s Church in a sense that Copperfield Bible isn’t DJP’s and Christ Reformed Baptist isn’t mine. This isn’t a matter of disloyalty, it’s more a matter of the church being the church - not an organization predicated on the talents of one man. But in the case of Harvest, what do you do when the one whose talent defines you turns out to be - well - not John Piper?

Every arrogant pretention and puerile behavior which is on display in the resignation letter was evident fifteen years ago to people who knew James at an acquaintance level. It had to be known to the leadership at Harvest. It simply had to. But if you’re that elder - that guy who sees the problem and knows something really ought to be said - and if you understand that everything you’ve helped to build all depends on this guy and on his public image, exactly what are you supposed to say?

Bill said...

Agreed. 1 Cor 1:21 is a go to for how it gets done and I praise Him there are still those who are willing to take it seriously. In a Mike Coughlinesque moment, the hypertext to prove I ain't no robot is the word "cross." Am I a full-fledged charasmatic now? Just kidding, no offense meant nor attempt to derail.

Michael Coughlin said...

HA! Glad to see I'm influential.

On a side note, my captcha is "influence."


Bill said...

Tom, you’re spot on. I’d go further and say there are even small churches fall prey to the cult of personality. Founding families consider said small church to be “our church” and any attempt at Biblical input or correction that runs counter to them is rejected out of hand.

nbprov32 said...

Am not sure how literal Mr Mac was trying to be. My first thought was TGHNMP....thank God he's not my pastor!

DJP said...

So thank your pastor! (Turn it to good, IOW)

jmb said...

Since Mark Driscoll has been mentioned in the comments as an example of a celebrity pastor, here's an example of what that kind of pastor can say in a sermon and get away with:

"You can always tell a rebellious Evangelical. They do word studies. They try to go to the Greek and figure out if it perhaps means something else."

http://marshill.com/media/who-do-you-think-you-are/i-am-loved (Click on "Transcript" and go to fifth paragraph.)

donsands said...

I recently heard Alistair Begg say: "As I look back over the past 33 years as a pastor, the biggest problem I see was me."

Good post. Good to know how different pastors are coping in this incredible time of spiritual warfare.

May our sovereign Lord draw him close, and fill him with His Spirit and truth, and so he will love Christ more, and so long to live for Christ alone.

It can be, and may be for the most part, the hardest work in this age to be a pastor of our Lord's sheep, IMHO.

"For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our Warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete."-Paul

"This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good Warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme."-Paul

MikeSnow said...

"Spurgeon...could shoot up in prominence while still a teen, and keep his focus on Christ, the Cross, the Gospel."
Obviously, he also kept that clear focus in later popular years, unlike many evangelical leaders.

Anonymous said...

I very much appreciated McDonald's "Walk in the Word" program some 10 yrs. ago. I think, Dan, that you have hit on the issue. And combined with a gambling issue - it seems he simply no longer feels accountable. But threatening genuine Christians with metaphorical violence when they called him on his issues? Not kosher

Anonymous said...
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Nash Equilibrium said...

Hey, if you don't know better than to pick up your theology at McDonald's, then you deserve this sort of thing!

By the way, is the stage (pulpit) name James Walmart taken, yet?

Neil said...

I used to really appreciate McDonald's sermons and was sad to see pride take him so far off course. Great points about humility. I pray that we only get the level of responsibility that won't ruin us or our ministries.

DJP said...

Neil: "I pray that we only get the level of responsibility that won't ruin us or our ministries."


Kerry James Allen said...

To those of us who pastor smaller churches, I sometimes wonder if the "greats" long for the simpler days when they pastored a smaller church! Kind of like Henry Ford's statement when he was at the helm of a behemoth: "I was happier when I was doing a mechanic's job." So I guess we should be thankful for our smaller churches!

Kyle said...

His teachings on years ago served to awaken me from a mainline denomination stupor that had taken over my life. His changing demeanor over the past few years has been unsettling. Perhaps his cancer has returned (I hope not). Evidence that humility took a hike surfaced a few years ago when Jimmy Mac opted for a vanity web domain. Rough edges, yes. Uneven surface, that too. Yet I pray for him.

[Captcha: unbelief]

DJP said...

See, I never heard about cancer. I hope that's not a current (or future!) issue for him.

Eric said...

The first two lines of the refrain of a song come to my mind:

"Little is much when God is in it!
Labor not for wealth or fame."

Labor not for wealth or fame...sage counsel for all of us, whether we are a pastor or layman.

Peter said...


Thanks for this post, as a young (solo) pastor of a small church, I am always blessed and encouraged when you write honestly about your own experiences in the ministry.

More of it please.


Morris Brooks said...

Even though I am late to this party, a couple of thoughts here.

1. Put your big-boy pastor pants on because this comes with the territory..not just with pastoring, but with ministering, mentoring, discipling, and yes, even teaching SS. This is why we are to not grow weary in doing good, are to preach the word with mega patience, and to do all things without grumbling or disputing.

2. Loved your "This is what happens when fame and prominence happen to the unprepared." Humility is a hard lesson for us all, but to really be prepared for "ministry success" it is a prerequisite. Humility is the quality that seems to be most lacking in many of the well known pastoral personalities, but is a quality that God says is necessary to walk with Him (Micah 6:8.)

Unknown said...

Wow, very good article Dan.
I grow tired of all the discernment ministries that simply pile on on top of each other a never ending barrage of criticism.
To take his rant and the history before it and not rant also and simply "ponder" and look inward and self examine is refreshing.
Thank you!

Bill said...

James macdonald was at one point solid enough to be invited to speak at TMS....