Harvest Bible Chapel celebrating 25 years of ministry, growth

In the fall of 1988, Lesli and Mark Hopwood were just two years into their marriage and already headed for divorce.

They were new to the Chicago suburbs, and Lesli asked her boss if he knew any marriage counselors in the area.

That's when the Hopwoods were introduced to James MacDonald.

The Hopwoods didn't know MacDonald was a pastor, or that only a few weeks earlier he and his wife, Kathy, had launched their own church, called Harvest Bible Chapel. Small groups of parishioners were meeting in their home and holding Sunday services at Rolling Meadows High School.

The Hopwoods weren't actively religious. But they soon became the church's first converts.

Twenty-five years later, the Hopwoods are happily married and counseling other couples in the church.

“He talked to us about Jesus dying for our sins and that the closer we got to Him the better our marriage would be with each other,” Lesli recalled.

Mark said their marriage completely turned around when “we began to understand that things work best according to His design.”

As for Pastor MacDonald, the dynamic face of Harvest Bible Chapel is now the leader of one of the largest churches in the United States, with 13,000 members in seven locations in the Chicago region and nearly 100 more churches planted and growing around the world.

Thousands of members will gather Saturday, Sept. 21, at Boomers Stadium in Schaumburg for a service and celebration of the church's 25th anniversary. It will also be a time to look back at the church's beginnings, MacDonald said.

“Like most things that are built over a long period of time, people think it just appeared overnight, but this has been a long journey filled with victories and defeats and challenges,” he said Sunday, resting in the Elgin campus's “green room” between services.

“(My wife and I) were just two kids from Canada who wanted to stay in one church for most of our lives and we wanted it to be a bold church,” he said.

Boldness is evident in how MacDonald approaches his Sunday messages. Last Sunday he talked about coming through difficult times without bitterness, peppering his sermon with real-life examples, jokes and personal stories. His rapt audience listened intently, some taking notes, others raising their hands in affirmation.

Clarity, urgency and simplicity — these are the keys MacDonald uses to reach Harvest's throng, said his longtime friend, Associate Pastor Rick Donald. The two met at Bible college in Canada.

“He shows people how God's word applies to your life,” Donald said. “God's been at work here. He clearly wanted to do something amazing through us.”

Lesli Hopwood believes people are hungry for truth.

“Pastor James makes it all make sense,” she said. “He gets up every weekend and preaches the truth. He's not watering it down, he's not giving his own opinion. He takes the word of God and preaches it with authority and without apology.”

Before he had such an influence on so many, MacDonald was just a young man studying the Bible.

Growing up in Ontario, he never even heard of a church with more than 1,000 people.

His first ministry post in the Chicago area was on the staff of the Arlington Heights Free Church, now Orchard Evangelical Free Church. He struck out on his own at 27 to form Harvest.

MacDonald, now 52, said it was never his plan to build an empire, or even to start his own church, but that people urged him on.

“Eighteen people from five different churches had heard me at Orchard and seen my tapes, and they asked me to lead them,” he said.

“It was a big step, and everything has just grown from there,” he said.

Still, MacDonald had doubts early on whether his bold venture could survive.

“One week we had about 137 people,” he recalled, “and I was afraid that the week after it would just be my kids in the audience.

“A lot of good things have happened by just not giving up.”

MacDonald isn't quite sure when the tipping point was, but the church's growth came slow and steady, never more than 1,000 new members in a year.

By 1995 the church had outgrown Rolling Meadows High School. The 500 church members raised nearly $400,000 in six weeks and bought a former warehouse at 800 Rohlwing Road, in Rolling Meadows, where today more than 5,000 members attend services each week.

The church branched out again in 2003, obtaining the Elgin campus along Randall Road for $1 as part of a deal with Hobby Lobby, whose owners contribute to Christian ministries all over the country.

The Elgin campus is now home to Harvest Christian Academy, a K-12 school with more than 700 students; a worship center that seats 6,000; a training center for pastors; and the administrative offices for the church.

Today, Harvest Bible Chapel also has locations in Niles, Crystal Lake, Aurora, Winnetka and the Chicago Loop.

In 2002, MacDonald started the Harvest Bible Fellowship, a church planting mission that has started churches all over the world. Pastors attend Harvest Training Center in Elgin to learn the pillars of thought behind Harvest Bible Chapel, and then head out to open their own churches.

MacDonald is passionate about the church-planting project, saying it is the future of Harvest and what he hopes will be its legacy. There are Harvest churches in Texas, Mexico, Australia, India and Liberia, among dozens of other places.

“Healthy things multiply,” he said, simply.

MacDonald moves around each week, but wherever he is preaching the services are beamed to thousands of congregants at the other Harvest Bible churches in the region. Thousands more listen in through Walk in the Word, a radio ministry started in 1997.

“None of what we see today was in our heads” back when Harvest Bible Chapel first started, Rick Donald said.

“We knew the kind of church we wanted to be a part of, but we didn't realize how many other people would want to be a part of that church with us,” he said.

“It's overwhelming and humbling.”

Harvest Bible Chapel has its detractors, including two former members who run a website called The Elephant's Debt. The website is generally critical of MacDonald and questions the church's financial health and organization, claiming nobody knows how much money MacDonald makes.

Also, three of the 33 elders recently left the church, which the administration addressed in a video shown to parishioners last week.

“With growth there's pain. It's just a matter of readjusting to be flexible with the growth,” said Mark Hopwood, one of the remaining 30 elders.

“Like anything else, when you're dealing with people and opinions, there are differing opinions,” he said.

He said the remaining elders are in unity on the way forward for the church.

“The elders that left the church are men I respect very much, but they had a difference in how they saw the organization of a large church,” Hopwood said.

MacDonald said only that many people have come and gone over the years.

“I'm thankful for anyone who had a part in building Harvest over the past 25 years,” he said.

As Harvest celebrates this milestone, MacDonald makes it clear that both he and the church are not done growing.

“At every plateau of growth there have been important lessons to learn,” he said.

“At every stage I've had to reinvent myself to be the kind of leader that the church needed at that time.

“I continue to be amazed at what God has chosen to do through our church every day.”

  Pastor James MacDonald, center, welcomes Bob Heck of Algonquin and his son Tyler, 16, left, to the Harvest Bible Chapel in Elgin. Bev Horne/
Pastor James MacDonald at the Elgin pulpit. MacDonald speaks from a different Harvest Bible house of worship each week, while his message is beamed to the other churches.
  Pastor James MacDonald, top, speaks at the pulpit in the Elgin branch of Harvest Bible Church, which also hosted the Vertical Church Band, above, at a recent Sunday service. MacDonald speaks from a different Harvest Bible house of worship each week, while his message is beamed to the other churches. Photos by Bev Horne/
  You may not always get what you want, Pastor James MacDonald tells the congregation, but that doesn’t mean God isn’t listening. Bev Horne/

Harvest Bible network

<b>Main locations</b>:

Elgin: 1000 N. Randall Road.

Rolling Meadows: 800 Rohlwing Road.

Niles: Worship services currently at Culver School, 6901 W. Oakton St.

Crystal Lake: 580 Tracy Trail.

Aurora: 2880 Vision Court.

Winnetka: 620 Lincoln Ave.

Chicago Loop: 935 N. Dearborn St.

'Planted' churches in Illinois that are part of the network but have their own pastors:

Lake Zurich: 255 Quentin Road.

Naperville: 1805 High Point Drive.

Plus churches in Decatur, DeKalb, Joliet, Palos Hills, Peoria, Rockford and Woodhull.

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