‘Each next risk is the biggest one’: James MacDonald talks with Mark Driscoll

‘Each next risk is the biggest one’: James MacDonald talks with Mark Driscoll

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We are excited to have James MacDonald back as one of our keynote speakers for our 2013 Resurgence Conference in Seattle. Pastor James is the pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel in Illinois, host of the Bible-teaching broadcast, Walk in the Word, founder of Harvest Bible Fellowship, a church-planting ministry that has planted 85 churches across North America, and author of a number of books. 

Mark Driscoll: Thanks for taking some time to answer a few questions, Pastor James. I’m grateful you could join us again for this year’s Resurgence conference. Since our main audience for the event is young leaders, let’s go all the way back to your early days. What was life like for you growing up? How did God start preparing you for the work he had in store, even from childhood? 

James MacDonald: Well, I’m very blessed to be a fourth-generation Christian. I have a picture that I’m very fond of: me standing outside of a church holding my grandfather’s hand, my brother holding my great-grandfather’s hand, and my dad leaning in between his father and grandfather with his arms around their necks. I consider it a great privilege to be a fourth person in that chain. And my sons are now Bible-college graduates and preachers. So they’re the fifth link, and I have five grandsons (no granddaughters) so, it would be an awesome thing if the Lord left me on this earth to see my grandchildren serving the Lord and preaching the gospel he calls them to.

“At my mom’s funeral, there were ladies testifying to how they found Christ because of her.”

My mother was a gifted Bible teacher and had great love for the Lord. She had children over every Tuesday after school, probably 60 or 70 kids, and taught us flannel-graph stories. My mother led our neighbors to Christ, pretty much on all sides of our house. I’d come home frequently and see my mom bowing in prayer at the kitchen table, praying with some woman from our street. Even 30, 40 years after that, at my mom’s funeral, there were ladies there who eulogized her life, and testified to how they found Christ because of her.

Our family was very active in the church and went to church two or three times a week. We went to youth group and summer camp. My dad was a leader in the church. We were deeply steeped in all of those matters of the Lord and serving the Lord from a very, very young age. So I’m kind of like Timothy in that regard, you know, “and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15).


MD: What a phenomenal example of generational faithfulness. So did you know early on that you were called to be a pastor?

JM: Actually, I really struggled with my faith as a high school student. I got in with the wrong crowd at school and spent a long time at school smoking pot and hiding my sin from my parents, who didn’t know anything about it. I mean, I loved them, I would never want to hurt them, but I was pretty good at hiding things. And it wasn’t until I was about 17 years old that a youth pastor in our church really challenged me, that if God could get a hold of my life maybe the whole youth group could turn around and some awesome things could happen.

About the end of my seventeenth year, I started dating the girl who’s now my wife and tried to get my life going on a better course. Kathy, my wife, had gotten to know Christ in our youth group. It really had become a dynamic place, and I started sharing my faith and started bringing my friends from high school to church.

“God’s taught us a lot more through failure than success.”

Then my youth pastor challenged me to go into a youth preaching competition. Nobody could believe that I won, and God used that in my life. I preached that little message I made at our church to maybe 800 or 900 people at a Sunday service, and it was the first time I really saw God use my life. People began to tell me that God could use my life, and I had never really heard that before. He used feedback from people about what I was doing to give me a heart to do more. I went to one-year Bible college and then to a second one.


MD: So you’ve been in ministry with Kathy for 30 years. Has there ever been a point where you just wanted to quit?

JM: There was very, very much a time when I wanted to quit. But it was less I want to quit and more This is too hard, I can’t keep doing this, and How much longer can I do this?

There are definitely down times and down nights and sleepless people and questions about finances and burdens about conflict in the church, but God’s been really faithful to us, and that always seems to supply a season of encouragement just about when we really need it.


MD: With a few decades under your belt, a successful radio ministry, a big church, and lots of stuff going on, it’s easy for young leaders to look at a pastor like you and see only success. What has God taught you through failure over the years?

JM: I would say that God’s taught us a lot more through failure than through success. You have to learn to be humble and give God all the glory for any good thing that happens. Honestly, I haven’t found that as hard as some of the trials that the Lord has allowed.

I think that God sometimes uses a lot of failure in our lives. I have sometimes failed in the way I have handled some of our staff. I think we have failed as well as we could in the way we plan financially. I’ve failed sometimes by allowing outside ministry to distract me from the main responsibility of pastoring our church. Those are examples of areas where the Lord has allowed our church to do better over time.


MD: Now that you’re at a place where you have an established track record to look back on, what moments stand out as especially pivotal? What are some of the risks you’ve taken and how have they paid off—or not? 

JM: Each next risk is the biggest one. I think it was a big risk to go to Bible college when I didn’t even know that God could use my life. I think it was a risk to move two hours away from my family and become a youth pastor while we were still finishing our education. It was a risk to buy a house and stay there for a couple of years. It was a massive risk to put the house up for sale, when my dad probably thought we’d never even own a house in ministry. But we did, and we left Canada and moved to Chicago to go to seminary—another risk. While we were packing the van, someone called and asked if we could interview at a church there. But we didn’t even have a work visa in the States, and we only had enough money for one semester. When we were done with seminary, we’d been praying, “God, we’ll go anywhere you want us to go,” never dreaming that we’d stay in Chicago.

“God has honored every single step of faith beyond our expectations.”

But we launched out and planted a church with 18 people, wondering if we would be meeting around a card table in 15 years. We didn’t even have any idea what the Lord would have in store for us. Every single step of faith has seemed massive at the time, and as we’ve prayed, God has really honored that beyond our expectations.


MD: So what started as an extended road trip from Canada has now continued on to other countries through your radio ministry. You’ve been tremendously effective at connecting to large groups of people through media. How do you establish and cultivate those connections?

JM: First of all, it’s important to have friendship with other people in ministry outside of your church. We have tried to be faithful in our ministry to people. Relationship follows ministry, and when your ministry is focused on impact, God will grow your ministry, and in the growing of your ministry, he’ll provide people to get your message out. I was told a long time ago, “Take care of the depth of your ministry and God will take care of the breadth of it.” We’ve tried to focus on that.


MD: When it comes to mass communication, what principles have you learned that apply specifically to the Internet age?

JM: In this age you have to be very, very careful about what you say. It’s not uncommon for me to tweet or say something that I think is funny or clever and not really grasp what it’s like for tens of thousands of people to read that when they don’t know you. Sometimes I’ve had to delete a few things or make an apology. I think you learn to measure your words more as you get older. I just preached a series from John 8 called Drop the Rock. I found it interesting that as the Pharisees accused the woman caught in adultery, Jesus wrote in the sand and asked the one without sin to cast the first stone. It says that they walked away one by one from the oldest to the youngest.

“God does not call us to be judge and jury over others.”

There’s a lot in that. I think as you get older and you’ve felt the sting of other people’s criticism, you become a lot slower to pick up rocks against other brothers and sisters.


MD: Speaking of criticism, I know you’ve taken fire over the years. What are some lessons you’ve learned from your critics?

JM: I’ve learned to be careful of becoming a critic. Criticism really sours your heart. I think God does not call us to be judge and jury over others. Obviously we need to speak the truth in love. I’m very aware of the passages in Scripture that talk about refuting error. But the error needs to be substantive; it needs to be significant—heaven and hell, eternal, explicitly biblical issues that we take a stand over. Mostly today we have Christians criticizing one another and separating over secondary things. As Paul said, we are “not to go beyond what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6).

In our church we’ve worked on this: “In the majors conviction; in the minors tolerance; in all things love.” I’ve had to grow in my tolerance, I’ve had to grow in my love, I’ve had to grow in my understanding of what the majors really are. I’ve also learned to listen for input from people. In ministry, if you never learn to listen to harsh people, if you don’t learn to listen from people who say things in a mean way, you’re going to miss a lot of good messages.

“Criticism really sours your heart.”

One time David was walking along and some man, Shimei, called out from the crowd and began to ridicule David. One of David’s generals said something like, I’m going to go kill that guy, and David said, “Leave him alone, perhaps he is a messenger from the Lord” (2 Sam. 16:11).

I’ve had to learn that even when it comes to the harshest, most difficult, inaccurate, even unfair things that people say, somewhere in there is a kernel of truth. So through the years I’ve worked on this regarding criticism.

Thank the critic if you interact with them personally. If not, certainly pray for them and take the criticism before the Lord and before the leaders who know you best. Out of that you’ll get any truth that God has for you.


MD: Great words. Thank you for your time, Pastor James.

JM: Glad to do it. Thank you.

Join Mark Driscoll and James MacDonald at the Resurgence Conference

Mark Driscoll

Pastor Mark Driscoll is a Jesus-following, mission-leading, church-serving, people-loving, Bible-preaching pastor. He’s grateful to be a nobody trying to tell everybody about Somebody. Read More