James MacDonald’s Vision of a Vertical Church and Selfish Shepherds

Earlier this fall, Senior Pastor James MacDonald of Harvest Bible Chapel and Walk in the Word ministries embarked on a 40-city promotional book tour of North America.  The goal?  To teach other churches how to get “vertical” and bring down the “glory of God.”

Over the next few days, we will be posting provocative, and sometimes even controversial, excerpts from the accompanying tour book, Vertical Church.

* * * * * * * * * *

Ways Selfish Shepherds Hurt Churches

  • Taking more salary, time, or leisure than is righteously theirs for their labor.
  • Expecting a grace and forgiveness from others they don’t reciprocate and often withhold.
  • Treating ministry as a right to be perpetuated instead of a privilege to be appreciated.
  • Refusing the correction of other elders/leaders while insisting their colleagues be accountable.
  • Leading at a distance by using people to get the work done, but not loving them deeply.
  • Stealing the thoughts of others rather than stoking their own passion for Christ with originality.
  • Demanding privilege appropriate to their position instead of taking the place of a servant. [1]

* * * * * * * * * *

[1]  This book is being read on an iPad using the Kindle app.  Thus, traditional page numbering has been altered.  On a Kindle app, it can be found at location 2176 of 5571 or at 39%. 

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53 Responses to James MacDonald’s Vision of a Vertical Church and Selfish Shepherds

  1. Kevin W. says:

    Interesting that MacDonald writes about the very things he is being heavily criticized for doing himself..

    • There was a certain irony.

      • G Snyder says:

        I eat breakfast every Tuesday with a friend who pastors a church in a nearby town. One week, he seemed a little off…a little down. I asked him about it, and he shared some of the frustrations of being a pastor. He said something to the effect of, “I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and for 25 years–most everyone believes that the message pertains to someone else. That it was an excellent message for (the sinner over there). Few people seem to realize that we’re all pharisees, and the message pertains to each and every one of us, first and foremost.”

        Of interest, that very morning (while reading Luke 7: 36-50), we read about the woman washing Jesus’ feet. *She* got it. We all need to get *that*.

        As a result, I feel confident that there is a direct correlation between authentic Christianity and a state of brokenness.

      • Bill Radford says:

        there certainly is

  2. Richard Armour says:

    Sounds like he is getting it right in his head but doesn’t have it fully implemented in his life. That pretty much describes all of us. Your point does not seem to be that James is preaching error here but that he is not qualified to carry the messege because of the failings in his life. Being the judge of another man is shaky ground to put yourself on even if what you are saying is contains truth. I suggest you read Job again. It might give your critique greater perspective and humility before an unsearchable God who watches over the affairs of men.

    • Richard … You raise a valid point. Any time we put ourselves in the position of judging another person, we walk on dangerous, unstable, ever-shifting ground. Moreover, if we’re honest with ourselves, we know our own failures; and we know the grace that we desperately cling to because we fail time and time again. Even the Apostle Paul talks about repeatedly doing the things he does not want to do. So you’re not wrong in challenging me; and I hope you can hear my heart in receiving your words of caution.

      Having said that, the same Apostle who talked about doing the things he didn’t want to do also laid out a clear prescription as to what qualifies a man to be an elder. It’s found 1 Timothy 3:1-7. I include it here and urge you to consider this passage in light of MacDonald’s writings above.

      “This saying is trustworthy: ‘If someone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a good work.’ The overseer then must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, an able teacher, not a drunkard, not violent, but gentle, not contentious, free from the love of money. He must manage his own household well and keep his children in control without losing his dignity. But if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for the church of God? He must not be a recent convert or he may become arrogant and fall into the punishment that the devil will exact. And he must be well thought of by those outside the faith, so that he may not fall into disgrace and be caught by the devil’s trap.”

  3. Josh says:


    Having a sense of how you think this discussion will go, let me lead into it by saying that in knowing Pastor James a little bit, I would say in virtually no way does he fall into the category of ‘Selfish Shepherd’

    He isn’t perfect, but he is Godly man I am privileged to know.

    • Josh … There is absolutely no expectation of perfection in character. While Wesley thought “Christian Perfectionism” was possible in this life, I do not believe that such a thing is possible. So the question is not about perfection. It’s about regular, consistent patterns of behavior in all of our lives, mine included! Sadly, I stand with the Apostle Paul when he writes in Romans 7:15:

      “For I don’t understand what I am doing. For I do not do what I want – instead, I do what I hate.”

      I know what it means to be broken. And I know what it means to struggle with sin. But I am not an elder in the church; and I have not been called by a congregation to be its shepherd. Such men are indeed worthy of “double honor,” as 1 Timothy 5:17 says, but so too are such men held to a higher standard as per James 3:1.

      “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, because you know that we will be judged more strictly.”

    • Chris Cartney says:

      He isn’t ‘perfect’. No one is expecting a ‘godly man’ to be ‘perfect’. But the post is about the hypocrisy of what Pastor James says and what he does.

      For example, in his last message from John 4, he says HBC is not or has not been focused on numbers, but that is definitely not the case. Many leaders at each plant or campus gleefully report numbers of attendance and baptisms. Do we hear about the christians who are leaving HBC? The hypocrisy is that while we are told about new locations for the fellowship and cathedral, we do not hear about the 3+1 churches (and staff) that are not counted…or subtracted.

      He also mentioned in (his exegesis??? and poor application of) teaching John 4, that he met to resolve conflict regarding ER2. Really? Did he meet with the 4 x-pastors of HBF? Voddie Baucham? Gospel Coalition leaders? Was he on Chris Fabry and WMBI morning show? I think he only met with pastors or leaders who are silent about his ER2 relationships with Jakes, Noble, Furtick.

      Sure seems like he went a long way to get those points out of John 4:1-4.

      It is in a category of ‘selfish shepherd’ when you use teaching from the pulpit or in book form to hypocritically represent what is not, or use those forums to exalt self. That’s not what should be defined as ‘godly’.

  4. Linda LaFianza says:

    What does the term “bring down the “glory of God.”” mean? Isn’t this from Pentecostalism? If when two or more are gathered together, Jesus is in the midst of them, why does the “glory of God” need to be “brought down” to a church separately?

    • Jeff C. says:

      Seems as if he is coming under the influence of Steven Furtick, who gets this statement from the likes of T.D. Jakes, Rod Parsley and Joyce Meyer.

      Kinda of ironic that James also made the statement, “Stealing the thoughts of others rather than stoking their own passion for Christ with originality.”

      This is flat-out Pentacostalism with Dominionism combined.

  5. Jeff C. says:

    “Stealing the thoughts of others rather than stoking their own passion for Christ with originality.”

    James’ statement here is so riddled with irony, it’s hard to know where to begin…

    WOW!! As if through osmosis that we can come up with a truly revelatory original idea. Don’t we borrow from others’ thoughts, analysis and opinions all of the time to help us come to our own conclusions about Jesus Christ? And what if your ideas and conclusions are wrong?

    We humans think too highly of ourselves and try to make our thoughts in par God’s word. So much for original sin and our depraved nature.

  6. Carol says:

    At first I didn’t realize that this was an excerpt from the book. I thought you were listing actually areas of PJ’s character. How ironic….

  7. To put it simply from an outsider POV…”The Cobbler’s children have no shoes?”

    • Kevin W. says:

      For the first time since I have seen your posts on this blog, I actually agree with you. Well said.

  8. Not "All In" says:

    Vertical Church is just another marketing strategy by HBC and JM. A sermon series, a book, a bus tour, a cd, tatoos for the band, etc… To be honest I’m so tired of those two words. We left there after the series ended. It’s all very very sad. Is this what church is about? It seems so distorted.

    • Harvest RM says:

      …and tattoos for himself and others!

      • rom623rom828 says:

        Can someone please elaborate on these “tattoos”, preferably with some proof.

        • Harvest RM says:

          and if you watch the archived video of the vertical church message you can see it. In particular at the 51:16 mark of the video would be one place.


          • When people start to brand their bodies with the marks of a particular ministry or pastor, it makes one wonder how they interpret Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 3:

            “For whenever someone says, ‘I am with Paul,’ or ‘I am with Apollos,’ are you not merely human? What is Apollos, really? Or what is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, and each of us in the ministry the Lord gave us. I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused it to grow. So neither the one who plants counts for anything, nor the one who waters, but God who causes the growth.”

          • Sky Blue says:

            Getting tattoos as a group to show support of a leader and a cause is alarming behavior to say the least. How out of touch with the Bible do you have to be in order to do a stunt like this?

            Leviticus 19:28
            You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the LORD.

            Rev 13:16
            He causes all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hand or on their foreheads…

            Even if they feel they are at liberty to take on tattoos, why not humbly avoid the appearance of mimicking the end-of-the-age rebels? Just asking.

          • rom623rom828 says:

            Thanks for the evidence that JM has a tattoo. Looks like a VC logo (arrow) on his right lower arm on the underside. Any proof that others (i.e. VC band) have gotten tattoos?

            I vaguely remember his teaching in the last few chapters of Revelation a couple years ago that I think he mentioned that Jesus had or would have some kind of tattoo like marking on his body. Will have to reinvestigate this — anyone remember this? Seems like he was saying something like: hey Jesus had a tattoo like marking so don’t be judgemental toward tattoos.

        • James Conway says:

          You said, “I vaguely remember his teaching in the last few chapters of Revelation a couple years ago that I think he mentioned that Jesus had or would have some kind of tattoo like marking on his body….Seems like he was saying something like: hey Jesus had a tattoo like marking so don’t be judgemental toward tattoos.”

          Do you have any proof that James actually said those things? What was your reason for saying that (especially when you are so uncertain if such a teaching occurred)? You first ask for proof about the tattoos and when proof is provided you ask for more proof and bring out a vague memory about a teaching not to be judgmental towards tattoos.

          • rom623rom828 says:

            As for what you call “more proof”, I was asking for proof that his followers (e.g.. VC band members) had similar tattoos. So far, no proof has been given for this.

            Rev 19:16 “And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, “KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.” NASB,

            Trying to find online (so far unsuccessfully), the video/audio of the sermon that included this verse that JM preached a couple of years ago while preaching through the book of Revelation. That would help clarify my recollection of what JM said in regards to Jesus and tattoos.

          • Harvest RM says:

            I am not sure this would be “proof”, but I also saw it with my own eyes. The guitar player raised his arm, and I saw the tattoo. It is troubling to me.

            Are we, as Christians, not supposed to set ourselves apart from the world? Is it really the appropriate thing of a strong biblical pastor and leader to get a tattoo? Maybe I am old school, I don’t know. I have a lot of questions running around inside of me, but my pastor, getting a “vertical church branding tattoo” does not set well with me. Disappointed, to say the least. Somebody said it before on here, but I agree….it seems as if JM is having a midlife crisis. Motorcycles, hip clothes, fancy cars, tattoos, etc…..

            The thing that originally drew me to Harvest was the strong biblical convictions and solid foundation that I felt that it had. I am not sure anymore….

            The other thing that concerns me is to see a lot of the leaders getting the same tattoo. Pastor James in the intro to his sermon at Lusko’s church last week even said, “You have to get the ‘mark’ baby”. Something just feels off here.

        • Sky Blue says:

          Proof that others got tattoos along with James MacDonald is based on a statement posted to James’ Facebook page.


          Day off in Dallas – Vertical Church Tour
          .by James MacDonald – Walk in the Word on Thursday, August 16, 2012 at 8:47am •.Update from Worship Leader, Seth McConkey
          1st Day off Highlights from the Vertical Church Team…

          9. A few guys on our team went out to get Vertical Church tattoos!

          • Rom623Rom828 says:

            Wow. Thanks. I’m impressed with your research. This is indeed troubling.

            As Scott posted :
            “When people start to brand their bodies with the marks of a particular ministry or pastor, it makes one wonder how they interpret Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 3”

          • Linda LaFianza says:

            FWIW, The fellow in the yellow T-shirt is sporting a fresh tattoo-dressing on his left forearm. I don’t see him in any of the subsequent photos.

          • Kevin W. says:

            The blog Do Not Be Surprised has more on the tattoo.

    • Richard Armour says:

      That’s a pretty severe and damning statement. Is this your personal opinion or do you have proof that Vertical Church is just another marketing strategy? If you are going to make such statements you should at least give your name so people can have an idea as to whether you have “inside” knowledge and know what you are talking about, or you are just indulging in conjecture. Fair?

      • X-Harvester says:

        “The phrase ‘Vertical Church’ reflects a movement we’re seeing take shape, not just within our church but around the world. Vertical Church is the brand that will extend and multiply our message through film, music and publishing, beginning with my book and this CD by Vertical Church Band,” shares James MacDonald. “Worship is both mind and emotions and engages the whole-person. Nothing brings glory down in church as quickly and as powerfully as when God’s people unashamedly adore God’s great son, Jesus Christ.”

        What does it mean to bring glory down in church? So we worship and adore God’s great son so that glory will rain down in the church? Isn’t glory always given to God

        Full article is here: http://www.jesusfreakhideout.com/news/2012/06/15.VERTICAL%20CHURCH%20BAND%20DEBUTS%20LIVE%20WORSHIP%20FROM%20VERTICAL%20CHURCH%20JULY%2031.asp

      • Zig says:

        Hey Richard. My name is Ziggy and I can tell you, through my close and personal relationships with several of the elders who have left the past few years, that James does very little that is not driven by his ego or pocketbook. It is possible that the Vertical Church tour is a genuine attempt to spread the word, but based on James past and the details surrounding the tour, I would doubt it. Regardless, James is a gifted speaker who God can use for His purpose even if James motives are wrong. Take care.

  9. Harvest RM says:

    I am especially amused by “point 4” – I guess that is why it is important to maintain 50% control and pick “appropriate” elders.

  10. Mike says:

    Sad. Ironic. Pathetic. Comical. Hypocritical. Bizarre. Prophetic.

  11. Been There says:

    Oh, James wants the blessing of God, or at least something that looks like it. The problem is that God doesn’t work on JM’s “right now” timetable, so he manufactures his own results. He also abhors subordinates who “wait on the Lord”, and deals with them mercilessly. I know….I was one.
    My name is withheld from this discussion but Scott knows who I am.
    As someone else once mentioned, JM can do incredible damage to any and all who openly speak out against him.

    • Kevin W. says:

      Too much emphasis on making converts and getting them baptized. Numbers, numbers, numbers. The people are starving for lack of knowledge. No true discipleship going on. A once strong church has grown weak due to greed.

  12. Justin Facts says:

    The pulpit curriculum for small groups has been suspended in favor of a study of the “Vertical Church” book and all those in the HBF are expected to participate as well as purchase the books needed.
    BTW Has anyone ever seen so many endorsements for a single book as there are for this one, “Vertical Church”?

    • Tom says:

      you can’t reach the goal of NYT Best Seller without endorsements and after all, that’s the ultimate goal right, NYT Best Seller? Remember, it’s all about multiple streams of revenue.

  13. HBC attender says:

    As a mens small group leader, I have not been requested to use the Vertical Church book. In fact we are just starting a new series and chose a Tozier book beginning next week.

  14. Julius Henry says:

    From the VC tour sermon: 75% of what James said was good. The church in North America is in trouble and if we continue as is, we will indeed wind up like the impotent church in Western Europe. We need to be on our face more praying for our local churches and pastors. Jesus Christ needs to be the focus of our worship. However this is my take away on the other 25%. Moses was greater than John the Baptist, despite what Jesus said, because we don’t have many data points on John the Baptist. Traditional Hymns are bad especially ones authored by dead guys like Wesley and Watts. All congregational singing should be at loud, deafening volumes only, oh and you GOTTA raise your hands too. All in all it was ok. My overall reaction however reamins as follows: so for 1900 years the church has been doing “worship” wrong and now, thank goodness, MacDonald has come on the scene to set us straight. I wish I could jump in the way-back machine and bring Whitefield and Edwards, Athansius and Polycarp, Luther and Calvin, Moody, Tozier, and J Vernon McGee to the present so they could see how should have been doing it. I would dearly love to hear the opinions of MacArthur, Lutzer, Piper or Dever on this one!

    • That’s the arrogance of Modernity. It desires autonomy from the past as it rides the myth of progress to nowhere. Modernity privileges the new, and it thinks its newly, culturally and historically grounded insight is universal. He is letting Modern thought categories interpret Psalms, suggesting a new song is required.

      Evangelicalism, inadvertently swallowed the Modern pill, and its been rumbling in our intestines for over one hundred years. Getting it out of our system is just gonna be an ugly process.

    • Waldo says:

      Speaking of McGee, found this interesting comment from him the other day as I was going through 2 Peter 2:

      “The way of Balaam is the covetousness of one who does religious work for personal profit…
      My friend, I believe that you can judge the religious racketeer by his standard of living. A friend of mine heard me make the statement that people should check up on radio broadcasters and see what kind of homes they live in and what cars they drive. He thought I was wrong to make a statement like that, but he decided to check up on one man. He found that man living in a very costly home with two Cadillacs parked in front and an expensive swimming pool behind it. My friend had also heard about certain other excesses in that man’s live, and so he decided that he was supporting the wrong broadcaster. “The way of Balaam” – covetousness. This is one of the ways a false religious teacher can be identified, and God will judge him for it.”

  15. j Crane says:

    I agree with your point about ‘modernity’… but I would emphasize the arrogance. It is James MacDonald’s way of branding. Always over the top hype so that many are saturated with over sensitization emotionally (loud music or touching video) so that many don’t think thru what he is actually saying. It’s like eating so much bread at the dinner table so you don’t realize the entree was slop. He gets away with a style of bullying at the pulpit so that what he says is the only interpretation and he makes it difficult to challenge him because of inaccessibility. ie. waffling on pre vs. mid trib; baptism vs. discipleship.

    It is difficult to lead small groups and relationships at HBC when many are more likely to quote James MacDonald and not quote or reference the Bible.

    His vertical church opinion represents only and mostly his own voice. That’s arrogance.

    • follower of Christ says:

      Even his interim preachers eschew bible teaching for entertainment and bully the congregation. Today we had a “talk” with little exegesis, lots of stories and amusements, and pressure to accept whatever James leads us into. THANK GOD even my pre-teen daughter could identify the problems with this type of “preaching”. I told her that if we don’t get some real teaching soon, we will have to worship our Lord elsewhere. It is, at least, an opportunity to teach discernment.

  16. Had E. Nuff says:

    So I just finished listening to today’s sermon at Harvest by guest “talker” Craig Groeschel. It is a good thing our Lord is long suffering. For a supposed preacher of the Word to get up and deliver this pep talk and call it preaching is bordering on blasphemous. I think this good ole boys club/personality cult of mega church pastors is a judgment on us. The church in America really is in trouble. I wish I could find a small but faithful church to attend, I’d leave the HBF in a flash. So tired of being marketed to as if I were a consumer and the church was Madison Ave.

  17. AlAlias says:

    I just discovered this blog in the last few days. I am a former HBC insider with close ties to a number of former elders and pastors. I have read the posts about Harvest and James. It is bittersweet. There is a sense of satisfaction and relief in seeing that the “secret” about James is finally out. I have set off the word “secret” in quotes because it is not really a secret. The people who are close to James and the staff who serve under him know. I think many justify it based on a Christianized utilitarian ethic which says that the greater good of James’s ministry in souls saved and disciples brought to maturity overshadows his shortcomings (never mind that James is producing legalists who believe that God loves them based on the fact that they worship, walk, and work). Moreover, the Christians who are close to James who know the “secret” also know the process outlined in Matthew 18. Many of them would see an obligation to approach him personally about these issues before discussing them with others. But the fear of James is so great that most people will never go to him. Those who do will be terminated from their positions (if they are staff) or brought under church discipline for failure to submit to authority if they refuse to back down.

    There are a number of James supporters who have questioned why all of the Harvest insiders are not disclosing their identities. I cannot speak for everyone, but for me it is out of fear. James MacDonald is an unkind, callous, and cruel bully to anyone who doesn’t toe the line he draws. He may be funny and he may be very personable in front of a crowd, but he is ruthless in his retaliation.

    Rainbowmn’s comment about how we made James (see under the Scott’s post about Jeff Donaldson’s message) actually brought tears to my eyes. James is our fault. Our fear to stand up to James has led to this very, very sad situation.

    Rainbowmn also nails it when he says that we haven’t even begun to hear the truth about James. The stuff that is coming out here is mild compared to what could come out. I can give examples which are still only a small, small taste. For instance, James fired a student ministries pastor in order to make a place for his son on the staff. He then intimidated the fired pastor into saying that he left in order to go back to school to plant a church. This was patently false. This guy had no intention of going back to seminary. He had a family and couldn’t afford it. In fact, he found another position at another church. What happened to his plan to go to seminary? There was no such plan. It was put forth in order to protect James from the fact that he had fired a beloved youth pastor in order to hire his son.

    James also fired another longtime pastor who has been mentioned elsewhere on this blog and then presented it as though that pastor had made the decision to retire. His retirement was celebrated with a party which he and his wife had to attend, all the while pretending like this was their plan.

    Bob Arosen commented under another post that James has done nothing to disqualify himself. Apart from the other qualifications for eldership which James fails to meet (nicely explained by Scott and others), James is guilty of moral failure. He is a liar who dispenses with the truth in order to advance his agenda. He turned these families’ lives upside down by terminating their employment and intimidating them into keeping their mouths shut by threatening that they would lose continued financial benefits and/or a good references if they spoke about it.

    Again, this is just the tip of the iceberg. James is also guilty of attempting to use church funds to finance personal extravagant purchases (in the tens of thousands of dollars that I know of).

    I suspect that, unless he repents, James will scandalize himself before it’s all finished. He is highly intelligent and a good manipulator, but he is also foolishly arrogant. His arrogance will unfortunately be his downfall.

  18. J Crane says:

    Yes, I have attended and tithed and served at HBC for many years. Reference some old notes from 8-10 years ago and you will see filled pages and bulletin inserts of points and application. Now compare them to whatever notes you may be taking, and it is probably filled with stories and small catch phrases appropriate for a bumper sticker or tweet.

    Any one of us who has attended a recent sales meeting or conference knows how similar the PERFORMANCES (not preaching) are at Harvest. What is sad and alarming is that our church has become more like our business model seminars and conferences and less about worship of Christ alone and discipleship. The advertisements claim to examine the Bible verse by verse, but what is delivered is a ‘Bait and Switch’ and a stretch of an interpretation supported by testimonials like a slick info-mercial. Instead of knowing Christ through the exposition of Scripture and worship, we are suckered and settle for the inspiring personality of our busy (on tour) and personable pastor (from a screen). It is an attempt to “fire us up” with emotion and no substance so that we buy the product (the James MacDonald ministry). We can be part of a satisfied customer base and meet each week to refuel the passion for the product. We can tell our friends how easy it is to listen to our pastor, instead of how we must count the cost of following the Christ. But our efforts to bring more people into the marketing scheme of selling the Harvest ministry in the name of Christ (Matthew 7:15-23) is no more than a pyramid scheme. Whatever happened to the correct interpretation of John 2 regarding consumerism in the church?

    Even as some would argue that the sermon this past week was (partly) fruitful, they would have to admit that Groeschel’s message was laced with verbal endorsements for Pastor James while ignoring his questionable actions and direction. We were exhorted to “laugh” when we are called a MEGA church because we are “really a MICRO church”. First, this is ridiculous. We ARE a mega church and growing. Second, no one is accusing and finding fault by writing articles about us being a megachurch. Many are saddened and confused and angry about the distortion of the true Gospel and the church, and they are writing about THAT. If anyone is referring critically to a megachurch, it is that we are being compared to the Jim and Tammy show of the ’80’s.

    Groeschel summarized the action points of the message to be about loving people and teaching the Word. But it seems the ultimate goal is to bring people to church not intriduce them to the Savior and message of the Gospel. How else can you explain why we listened to 40 minutes about the actions of 4 men and not about their faith or about the Savior/Healer. I would challenge those who want to defend the messages of Pastor James and/or Groeschel as being exalting to Christ to count the number of references to James vs. Jesus and the amount of time spent talking about building the Harvest kingdom vs. God’s. Do the cute stories refer to the ministry and the person instead of our God? The evidence will be lop sided.

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