Vertical Church, What Every Heart Longs for, What Every Church Can Be, by James MacDonald (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2012), 320 pp., Hard, $22.99

James MacDonald is the well-known pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel, a megachurch near Chicago. Harvest’s church planting ministry has founded numerous Harvest Bible Chapel churches throughout the United States and Canada. MacDonald writes this book to encourage churches to return to a vertical focus on Christ and His glory which he thinks most churches have abandoned. The author believes the local church should be built on four pillars: proclaiming the authority of God’s Word without apology, lifting high the name of Jesus through worship, believing firmly in the power of prayer, and sharing the good news of Jesus with boldness.

Concerning worship MacDonald mocks what he calls “shoulder-up” worship and calls for “whole-person,” enthusiastic, loud worship (p. 173). He often claims Harvest’s worship services are “window-rattling, earth-shaking, life-altering experiences” (pp. 112, 186, 303), and that people line up outside and run down aisles because God is going to meet them (pp. 23-24, 192-193). MacDonald’s style of worship, which he believes is the only acceptable one, has been greatly influenced by the charismatic movement, including the Calvary Chapels and the Brooklyn Tabernacle (pp. 174, 216, 285). It is important to understand what MacDonald means by people coming to meet God. Drawing from the Old Testament the author is looking for the “manifest presence” of the Lord to fall upon the congregation (see pp. 30, 69, 75-76, 78, 89-92, 106, 112, 132, 270, 302). MacDonald assures us that “church is supposed to be a tsunami of glory every Sunday” (p. 21). He rightly teaches that at our services God should be the main attraction (pp. 27, 52, 56, 59) but, based on selective events found in the Old Testament and numerous out-of-context Scriptures, MacDonald is looking for God to “show up” much as He did on a few occasions at the Tabernacle and Temple (pp. 75, 270). At Harvest, the prototype of the vertical church, “People line up at the doors long before the service starts and rush to the front to get the best seats for passionate, expressive worship where voices are loud, hands are raised, tears are flowing, minds are expanded, and hearts are moved as Christ is adored by everyone in every corner of the room from the very first note” (p. 90) (emphasis mine). Such exaggerated claims are so commonplace throughout the book as to render much of what MacDonald says questionable at best. On this point, such behavior can be duplicated at rock concerts, but the manifest presence of God is certainly not there. And claiming everyone in every corner of the building is entering into this passionate worship is either naïve or fabricated. And MacDonald is touting an experience for the gathered church which is not taught in the New Testament, although this model was common during the life of John Wimber and the early days of the Vineyard movement. That God should be central and that He should be worshipped in truth and spirit is right and appreciated. That MacDonald’s method holds exclusive claim on how to worship is arrogant at best. That the Lord must show up, much as the Shekinah glory did on a handful of occasions in the Old Testament, is simply bad exegesis.

On a collateral note, for a pastor who talks much about expository preaching, and rightly so, he does not carefully examine biblical texts on the church as found in the epistles. Rather he commonly draws from the Old Testament, and rips verses from both Testaments out-of-context (for example: pp. 23, 26, 71, 73, 79, 80-82, 132, 161, 169, 175, 187, 241, 261, 278, 295, 300). A book on the purpose and practice of the church should be drawn from careful analysis of the appropriate New Testament texts, not from out-of-context proof-texts and supposed experiences of the presence of God. This has been the method used by charismatics and cults for decades to support whatever claims they choose, and should be rejected by those who say they are promoting biblical Christianity.

Of a more positive nature, MacDonald’s chapter six on preaching is good and his approach to evangelism worth consideration. While being highly critical of any other method, the author believes evangelism works best when we witness to those ripe for the gospel, who he calls “red apples” (pp. 247-254). Yet his claim that Harvest baptizes hundreds of people some weekends, giving each person time for a testimony (p. 256), is suspect. If, for example, 300 people were baptized, taking only two minutes each it would take ten hours for the baptisms alone. Add in an hour of music and an hour sermon at each service and mathematically something just doesn’t add up.

MacDonald’s enthusiasm for prayer is commendable, but his boast that “he has prayed great prayers that literally shook the foundations of our church” (p. 270) is another exaggeration and prideful, if taken literally. And MacDonald is big on volume—not only in music (pp. 180-182) but also in prayer (pp. 285-289, 293). He claims loud public praying was always true in Scripture and should be true in our private and public prayers today. But this is forcing his assumptions on thousands of biblical prayers. I find it hard to believe that Jesus shouted through John 17.

The author believes that worship music should reach our culture (p. 148) but not be dictated by culture (p. 185), yet he allows this very thing. For example, he rejects hymns as being too complex (p. 176), even calling them cheesy medieval music (p. 258). MacDonald touts simple, repetitious modern songs (p. 178), and minimizes the clear New Testament teaching that the purpose of music is to teach and admonish one another (Col 3:16), opting instead for simplistic worship (p. 178). He claims that Scripture shows that this is the kind of music God prefers and offers Psalms 119 and 136 (p. 178) as proof. By doing so he ignores the vast majority of the Psalms which are complex and rich in detailed theology.

Finally, MacDonald is a bundle of contradictions:

· He strongly criticizes the seeker sensitive church paradigm (p. 24), but is endorsed by both Bill Hybels and Rick Warren, the architects of the movement (p. 215 and in opening endorsements of the book).

· He does not want to be seen as having arrived or promising success (p. 25), yet constantly promotes himself and his methods as the way to success (see pp. 61, 89, 294, 300). For example, even as MacDonald admits that numerical growth proves nothing and can be a trick of the devil (pp. 142-143), at the end of each chapter a short story of a Harvest church plant is given complete with phenomenal growth statistics.

· He criticizes selfish pastors who take too much salary and are not accountable (p. 138), yet he lives in a $2 million house and has an income estimated to be close to $1 million per year. Harvest is also presently in turmoil largely due to MacDonald’s lack of accountability.

· He is ruthless regarding leaders of his own spiritual heritage which he calls “old-school fundamentalists” (pp. 128, 271. 274), yet admits God was at work through those fundamentalists in his own life (p. 271).

· His stories are questionable. The pastor of the church in Crystal Lake ran into some problems and seemingly made an amiable choice to move to Orlando and grow a church from 30 to 900. But MacDonald does not mention that the former church faced bankruptcy and had to be rescued by Harvest, bringing great financial strain on that church. Harvest’s own financial woes are treated as success stories. When facing bankruptcy MacDonald proudly threatened a steel company with a lawsuit (p. 294). Even if legal action was warranted MacDonald’s approach hardly represents the glory of Christ.

In a book in which general themes are on target it is sad that so much is distorted, unbiblical personal opinion. Many church members who read this book naïvely will no doubt be dissatisfied with their own churches. Undiscerning pastors and church leaders who read the book will promote pragmatic methods, many of which lack biblical foundation. Discerning church leaders may find parts that are of value if they can filter the hype from reality.

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor, Southern View Chapel

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