Is Harvest Christian Fellowship a good fit for the SBC?

Soon after the close of the 2017 annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Phoenix, various voices were signaling either concern or delight. The chatter was not so much about the annual meeting, but instead about the entrance into the SBC family of one of the nation’s largest churches, Harvest Christian Fellowship of Riverside, Calif., led by its very popular pastor, Greg Laurie.

The questions whirling around this new relationship touch on the conservative positions of both bodies, but also on the differences, including Harvest’s historical ties to the Charismatic Movement. Will the SBC change Harvest? Will Harvest change the SBC? Will nothing change? Is this a good fit?

Since 1990, Laurie has led “Harvest Crusades” in large venues across the country. Nearly 8 million people have attended these events, with even more watching on television and other media platforms. Laurie has been compared to Billy Graham, and he has served on the board of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

Laurie led the recent Phoenix crusade in partnership with the North American Mission Board and the SBC. More than 38,000 people attended, and approximately 3,000 professions of faith were reported. At next year’s SBC meeting in Dallas, another crusade with Laurie is planned.

Gary Hollingsworth, executive director-treasurer of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, attended the Phoenix crusade and was impressed with the number of young people who attended. “I was encouraged with the clear, simple, compelling gospel message,” he said. “The invitation lasted over 20 minutes, as people kept coming forward.”

During worship at Harvest America June 11 at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., thousands of attendees heard the gospel message by California pastor Greg Laurie of Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, Calif.

Regarding the entry of Laurie’s church into the SBC, Hollingsworth said, “I would respect the autonomy of his local church. It was encouraging that someone with such an evangelistic commitment would lead his church to join the Southern Baptist Convention.”

Christianity Today magazine quoted Richard Flory, senior director of research and evaluation at the University of Southern California Center for Religion and Culture: “I am really curious about a move from a Charismatic affiliation (Calvary Chapel) to being a member of a non-Charismatic denomination,” said Flory. “Certainly both Calvary Chapel and the Southern Baptists are committed to a pretty conservative religious/cultural/social/political perspective, but there are enough differences between the two that it raises questions as to why this move.”

Laurie’s church is part of the Calvary Chapel fellowship of churches. “Harvest Christian Fellowship is an independent congregation that will continue fellowship with the Calvary Chapel family of churches,” said Laurie. “This decision does not change our theology, philosophy of ministry or our history.”

“I believe that the time is right to reach across the church and to lock hands in total support of the rapid advance of the gospel in our nation and in our world,” he said. “I appreciate the SBC’s focus on evangelism as well as their outreach in missions and relief ministries that touch our world every day in a significant way. I look forward to partnering with [the SBC] and all believers who have a passion for evangelism.”

The original Calvary Chapel, in Costa Mesa, Calif., was founded in the early 1960s by Chuck Smith. Both the Jesus Movement and the Charismatic Movement were spreading across the country, and Smith reached out to the young people involved in those movements as well as to hippies, drug addicts and other counterculture youth. The church exploded with growth, and Smith formed Maranatha Music to help the gifted artists who came to his church to produce their work. Greg Laurie was one of the people saved during that time, and he attended Calvary Chapel. He was sent by Smith to start a Bible study in Riverside, Calif., when he was 19. That Bible study grew into Harvest Christian Fellowship.

Calvary Chapel has planted many churches across the nation and throughout the world. Today, even though an internal struggle in the movement threatens to divide the churches, the fellowship of churches numbers more than 1,600.

Is Harvest a Charismatic church? It comes from that background. Smith was a Foursquare pastor for 17 years before staring Calvary Chapel, and he mentored Laurie. They do believe that all the spiritual gifts are available to Christians today. Laurie defines the gift of tongues as “the ability to speak in a foreign language that you do not have knowledge of, in order to communicate with someone who speaks that language.”

There is an emphasis on the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which they believe may occur at the moment of conversion, or later. Harvest’s website states: “When a person accepts Jesus Christ as his or her Lord and Savior, the Holy Spirit dwells inside him or her. But believers also need the baptism of the Holy Spirit.” In fact, they state that the baptism of the Holy Spirit qualifies one for service in the body of Christ.

Southern Baptists almost universally believe that the baptism of the Spirit occurs at conversion. By and large, Southern Baptists have not embraced Charismatic teachings, and churches have been disfellowshipped in the past by their local associations for Charismatic practices, including speaking in tongues. Also, Southern Baptists have historically practiced congregational government, but Harvest and Calvary Chapel fellowship do not. They follow the “Moses model,” which gives the senior pastor and the pastoral staff significant authority in leading the church.

While the glossolalia (speaking in tongues) policies of the International Mission Board and the North American Mission Board no longer automatically disqualify someone for service who practices tongues, the SBC website, in its “Frequently Asked Questions” section, states: “There is no official stance on the issue. If you polled SBC churches across the nation on the topic of ‘Charismatic’ practices, you would likely find a variety of perspectives. Probably, most believe that the ‘gift of tongues’ as described in the Bible ceased upon the completion of the Bible.”

Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said that the affiliation of Greg Laurie’s church with the SBC “is something that I welcome to the degree that Laurie represents determined evangelism and an unapologetic advocacy of the use of the invitation.”

“I certainly pray that it does not portend a change in Southern Baptists on the Charismatic Movement,” Patterson added. “We have always had in the life of the denomination those who were practitioners of the Charismatic position. That has not been the normal practice and is certainly not codified in our confession.”

Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said he admires Greg Laurie and has enjoyed getting to know him over the last several years. He said the entrance of Harvest into the SBC is “an interesting development” and added that the SBC is in “a new time, just in terms of a newly secular age with cultural headwinds in our face.”

“I think that has led to an understanding that evangelism is a good deal more difficult in this time than Southern Baptists have experienced in the past,” Mohler said. “I think there’s a very positive sense in which Southern Baptists want to be hand in hand with Great Commission partners all over the world, and we want to be a fellowship of evangelistic, innovative, faithful, gospel-preaching churches. This is going to raise a host of questions, long-term, for the Southern Baptist Convention, in terms of doctrinal commitments that we share together and expect of one another.”

Frank Page, president and CEO of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, shared Mohler’s concern. “We are having a large number of churches wanting to join the SBC because we are standing true to the Scriptures,” he said. “We need to make sure we stay true to our conservative past.”

While affirming that many churches who “practice the Charismatic gifts” are “completely orthodox in terms of their theology,” Mohler said that any church joining the SBC should not only be willing to affirm everything in the Baptist Faith and Message, but should “eagerly affirm” all that is within it. “We have learned through decades of theological conflict, and especially during the Conservative Resurgence, that the Baptist Faith and Message is tremendously important,” he said.

Harvest Christian Fellowship posted the Baptist Faith and Message on its website along with the statement that “It is compatible and complementary to the beliefs that Harvest Christian Fellowship has always held and taught.”

Laurie’s church will be a unique church in our convention, and one of the largest. Will it become a Baptist church? Is this a good fit? Will the SBC change? Will Harvest change? Will nothing change?

Time will tell. For now, the excitement among many Southern Baptist leaders is the addition of a strong evangelistic ministry that they hope can aid in reigniting the flames of evangelism and help turn around our declining numbers — especially baptisms.