My Visit to Mars Hill Church 2012: Theological Reflection in Action

27 Mar

 Introduction

I wrote the article below back in 2012, when I had just returned from a visit to friends and family in the Seattle area. Upon returning home to the UK, I reflected upon my experience, after attending one of the Seattle-area Mars Hill church campuses. It’s perhaps ironic now, nearly 5 years after the fact, that the whole Mars Hill/Mark Driscoll movement ended up the way it did. While there had been deeper problems brewing within the organization for a while, things finally came to a head in 2014.

In August of 2014, the church planting network, Acts 29, officially removed Driscoll as the head of the organization that he had started years earlier. Then, on the 1st of October, 2014, Mark formally resigned as the head pastor of Mars Hill Church. Although I don’t agree with every conclusion this author reaches about the situation regarding Driscoll’s propensity to be a “false teacher,” you can read the entire text of Mark’s resignation letter here.

At the time, the elders of Mars Hill were apparently caught off guard, and were surprised by Driscoll’s seemingly sudden decision to quit the church. Although they had not asked for his resignation, once he tendered the notification, they did release a statement, quoted in this Christianity Today article. The elders admitted that Driscoll had “been guilty of arrogance, responding to conflict with a quick temper and harsh speech, and leading the staff and elders in a domineering manner,” but had “never been charged with any immorality, illegality or heresy. Most of the charges involved attitudes and behaviors reflected by a domineering style of leadership.”

Since his departure from the Mars Hill Seattle organization in 2014, Driscoll announced in 2016 that he was starting a new church plant called Trinity Church, located in Scottsdale, Arizona. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the negative situation when he left his Seattle-based megachurch, Driscoll (and several staff members of the new church plant also) conveniently omitted the fact that they had worked for Mars Hill Seattle in the past. Perhaps surprisingly, many high-profile evangelical Christians, such as John Piper and the Gospel Coalition among others, announced they were supporting Driscoll’s new church plant.

Another charge, levelled at the entire Mars Hill organization at the time, was that it seemed they were following a “business model” way of doing church. Following the official shutdown of the Mars Hill enterprise, Ben Tertin wrote an article in 2014 in Christianity Today called “The Painful Lessons of Mars Hill.” Commenting on the failure of the church, Tertin notes: “The Mars Hill empire has collapsed, under the weight of business principles gone wrong and the lie of celebrity ministry. But the key rot in the Mars Hill roots wasn’t just the structure; it was the source of dependence.”

In other words, according to Tertin’s assessment, the failure of the organization wasn’t just the various scandals associated with Driscoll’s treatment of people within the church, or its alleged bullying of members. It wasn’t just the use of church funds to promote Driscoll’s books, or adopting various business principles to escalate its growth (both numerical and financial). It ultimately came down to the fact that the entire church rose or fell on the fortunes—and foibles—of one man: Mark Driscoll. The cult of celebrity that surrounded him flamed brightly for a long time (some 18 years) but ultimately burned itself out, and sadly caused a lot of damage in the process. People within the organization were hurt, and the overall credibility and integrity of the church took a hit also in the eyes of society at large.

In my reflection piece, when I visited the church, this issue of “celebrity preacher status” was one of the major elements I picked up on, and I deal with it in the article below. I also touch on the business-model aspect of how the church ran also. The final aspect, as you’ll read about, concerns the communication model of preaching used by Mars Hill, and what that meant in terms of the potential relevance to a postmodern culture. All in all, this article is a demonstration of engaging in “theological reflection,” which essentially is reflecting on established (or past) practices from a theological point of view. Theological reflection also looks to the future, and charts how we can and should respond in non-reactionary ways as we move to engage our culture missionally.

Unfortunately for the church, however, situations like this one have once again damaged the credibility of the church overall. Here in Britain, many of my students who have read up on the way the Mars Hill saga unfolded, and finally ended, feel that the whole thing is “a particularly American phenomenon.” While we have our “celebrity pastors” here across the pond, the fact that an entire movement could be built such as Mars Hill may, in fact, be a uniquely American thing.

My Visit to Mars Hill, 2012

Mars Hill, Federal Way Campus

In October of 2012, I had the opportunity to visit one of the many Mars Hill church plants that are dotted around the Pacific Northwest of the United States. I specifically wanted to go to this centre, located in Federal Way, Washington, because it is one of the Mars Hill “satellite churches” that stem from the original Mars Hill in downtown Seattle, Washington.

The purpose of the visit was to do some hands-on field research, and experience personally what is in effect a satellite church that broadcasts one of Mark Driscoll’s sermons on the big screen, rather than having a preacher at each satellite venue give the message. This article, then, is an example of engaging in theological reflection that critically evaluates current practice.

More than ten years previously, I had visited the main Seattle campus, and had heard Mark Driscoll preach in person. I think at the time, they may have had one or two church plants. But now there are some fifteen Mars Hill churches, most located in the Pacific NorthWest, but also as far afield as Orange County California and Albuquerque, New Mexico. At the service in Federal Way, a staff pastor announced plans to implement at least three more church plants in 2013.

This unique “Mars Hill Experience,” in many ways, echoed experiences I have had at other large churches. While the greeters at the door were friendly and helpful (sporting “I Can Help” badges on lanyards), once we were shown to our seats, not a single person spoke to us. Arriving for the service some thirty minutes early, we observed that the place was initially fairly empty. I later discovered that most attendees rush in virtually right as the service times begin, or filter in late, and then the building fills up. Such a situation was, and is, sadly consistent with so many churches. Billing themselves as “friendly, welcoming places,” the reality is that one can feel totally lost in a crowd. Upon leaving, it’s oftentimes the case the many feel that virtually no personal connection has been made at all.

A typical “Mars Hill satellite church” apparently consists of a local worship band and a local pastoral team. Worship was typical of what one would expect from a church like Mars Hill—contemporary music with drums, bass and guitar. Following the worship set, one of the local pastors exhorted the congregation to pay careful attention to their tithing, since the church had fallen below the expected budget so far in the month. A statistical breakdown on the screen displayed the number of “giving units,” and even broke down how much every single person had averaged in terms of giving over the previous two months. The local pastor stated that each person attending the church should aim to give roughly thirty dollars a week; if that goal were achieved, said the pastor, this will “further the work of the kingdom by helping us to make budget and plant more churches.”

I wondered about this direct connection between finances and the kingdom, and what message this pastor was (perhaps unconsciously) sending to the congregation. Often churches create their own budgetary problems, which must then be maintained at all costs: salaries, expenses, building maintenance and building expansion programs. People create a church, that in turn becomes a machine, which must be continually fed so it can keep moving forward; thus the whole operation literally rises or falls on finances. The simple reality is that for churches in America, since there is no financial “safety net” of the government supporting a state church, each church is in direct competition with the church across the street. If a church fails to make its budget, it will have to close….or in the case of Mars Hill, if it continues to make budget, more churches will be planted!

Another element of this observation relates to the charges, made by many, that Mars Hill operates according to a business model. Treating people as “giving units” depersonalized them, I felt, and turned the whole thing into little more than feeling like a number. Mars Hill could be characterized as “a corporate machine that is always seeking to expand its influence by flexing its financial muscle.”

Sermon Analysis: What Communication Model?

(NOTE: In the original article, I gave the link to the sermon so that it could be listened to in its entirety. Since that time, that sermon is no longer available online).

The sermon, preached by Mark Driscoll, was the one shown on the big screen. Based on the text of Esther 5.1-14, it was entitled “Jesus Gives a Better Identity,” and is one of the sermons taken from a series on the book of Esther that Driscoll was apparently working through.

One thing that immediately struck me, even before the sermon began, was its title: “Jesus Gives a Better Identity.” I had noticed, prior to the sermon beginning, as I mentioned that the series was from the book of Esther. It struck me: how was Driscoll able to find such an immediate, and direct, application from the Old Testament book of Esther to a New Testament Jesus, who apparently gives one a better sense of identity? It seemed strange to me how he was able to link the two concepts so seamlessly, and it clearly reveals something about his operative theological understanding of the connections between the Old and New Testaments.

In essence, Driscoll set up a comparison and contrast between two major characters from the book: Esther and Haman, all taken from the context of the Israelites’ exile during the Persian empire period. On the one hand, Esther, he claimed, “struggled with her identity”: was she a Jewess, with all the implications that entailed, regarding her people and position? Or was she to be known instead as a “Persian princess”?

Comparatively, on the other hand, Driscoll asserted that Haman’s identity was clearly seen to be a “monster ego.” Promoted to second-in-command by the Persian king Xerxes, Esther’s new husband, and invited to a private dinner twice by Esther, Haman was full of himself. Thus, said Driscoll, Haman’s nefarious plot not only to kill his enemy Mordecai, Esther’s cousin and mentor—and the entire Jewish nation in Persia—made perfect sense in light of his identity.

This contrast between the main characters allowed Driscoll to spend quite some length of time discussing the struggle that people currently have with their sense of identity. It also also enabled him to apply the sermon title as the answer to people’s identity crises.

The following observation points are not meant to be dismissive of the sermon, but rather to serve as a critical analysis.

  1. Negotiating the journey from text to sermon—although the biblical text from which the sermon was drawn (Esther 5.1-14) is a narrative genre, Driscoll’s sermon form was didactic and propositional. Homiletician Fred B. Craddock, in his excellent work on preaching entitled Overhearing the Gospel, makes a telling point. When preachers make this move from narrative text to propositional sermon form, they are changing the nature of communication from indirect (narrative) to direct (propositional and didactic). This, in turn, moves the reader from a position of overhearing the biblical narrative, to that of hearing the direct statements made by the preacher (112, 113). Moreover, this is confrontational, since it allows the listener only two choices: either to agree with, or disagree with, the preacher’s point (116). While most would term Driscoll’s message “biblical preaching,” since he based it upon a text of Scripture, the question raised by Craddock is this: “How does the Bible itself preach?” (65). Since the Bible tells its own story admirably well in its narrative texts, why do preachers continue to “do violence to the text” on some level? This violence is done when preachers abandon the original form of the biblical text in favour of a more direct form of propositional preaching.
  2. Monologic versus dialogic preaching—not to overuse Craddock again, but what he argued over four decades ago in his influential book on preaching As One Without Authority is simply too accurate a critique of this sermon style. While its form was nothing out of the ordinary, Driscoll’s sermon followed traditional lines: propositional, direct communication. The main problem with this, however, is that it subtly reinforces the authoritarian nature of the Bible, the church as an organization, and himself as an expert preacher who alone can handle the text aright in both interpretation and application. Craddock pointed out that the downward and monologic nature of this type of sermon merely presupposes passive listeners who agree with the preacher (46). In addition to this critique, Driscoll’s sermon “on the big screen” consciously moves away from the current trend in homiletics, that is moving toward more open-ended and dialogical preaching modes. Even if the listener had a question, he or she could not discuss it with Mark Driscoll after the sermon, because he is physically not present at that satellite church. In contrast, Lucy Atkinson Rose offers a refreshing approach to contemporary preaching in her work Sharing the Word. She advocates a preaching style that is “communal, heuristic, and non-hierarchical” (1). This is important, she argues, because we all need to hear the perspectives from the often-marginalized and often-unheard voices from around the church table.
  3. Application—looking closely at the text of Ester 5.1-14, this literary unit is actually open-ended since it is part of the larger narrative of Esther’s “coming out” as a Jewess. Despite the associated risks, her bravely doing so subsequently foiled Haman’s plot to destroy her people. The unit ends with Esther’s invitation to King Xerxes and Haman to a second dinner, and Haman’s construction of the scaffold (upon which ostensibly) to hang the hated Mordecai. As noted above, the meat of the sermon for Driscoll revolved around the contrast of the two characters and their identities. From this distinction, he was then able to plug in the answer to the problem: should you be suffering a crisis of identity, as apparently Esther did, Jesus gives you a better identity–as opposed to that of the secular world. Upon reflection, my overall feeling regarding this move was that in a sense it was almost too easy—Jesus can be the answer for anything, especially in a sermon based upon the Old Testament. What Driscoll said was perhaps objectively true—I would, for example, argue that Jesus can and does give a better identity—my thought was that he didn’t derive that point from this text in Esther. It reminded me of the hermeneutic of some of the Reformers. In their eagerness to find Christ in the Old Testament, indeed they did—sometimes in the most unlikely of places!

Church Plants, or Franchises?

Finally, in light of the above assessment, I have to wonder about the overall dynamic of what Mars Hill describes as “planting churches,” but which are little more than satellites from the mother church in Seattle. Every Mars Hill church listens to the same sermon by Mark Driscoll, broadcast up on the big screen, week in and week out. But I have to pose the question: if people aren’t coming on a Sunday for the community experience—which I saw little evidence of—why not just sit at home and watch the same sermon online weekly? I also have to ask how the Mars Hill philosophy of ministry correlates to passages such as Ephesians 4 and 1 Corinthians 12, both of which envision leaders who empower the church members to minister in light of their gifts, and to function as a healthy body that grows in love and unity. While there are local leadership teams on the ground in each satellite, one has to ask: would the Mars Hill expansion be as rapid numerically, if not for the “Mark Driscoll celebrity factor?”

Is he truly such an exceptional preacher that everybody within the “Mars Hill empire” has to experience him on a weekly basis, regardless of location? According to a recent survey by LeadNet, 79% of megachurches continue to be led by the same pastor under whose tenure the most dramatic growth occurred. Further, what exactly are the demographics of the typical Mars Hill attendee? One suspects, based again on megachurch growth rate statistics, that many are growing more by transfer than conversion growth. In a sense Mars Hill churches may be more akin to McDonalds or Starbucks franchises that one encounters all over the world–what John Drane, in his book, called “The McDonaldization of the Church.” While these franchises certainly experience massive financial success wherever they spring up, and provide predictable service worldwide, at the same time the typical “mom and pop” local businesses are often forced to close down. Oftentimes, smaller local churches, located near a megachurch, struggle to  compete with its range of ministries, facilities and services. In the end, the comparison is much like that of a small store, forced to close its doors whenever a Wal-Mart is built nearby.

Conclusion

Once Driscoll’s sermon concluded, I noticed a curious phenomenon: as the big screen ascended, quite a large group of people (about 50-70) immediately arose from their seats and exited the building, even before the final worship set started. Whatever their reasons for leaving were, I obviously cannot speculate; we elected to stay through the worship to the very end. But it makes me wonder about the rather impersonal nature of the entire communication model that I described above. Come to a franchise, or satellite church, on a Sunday, sing a few songs and watch a sermon on the big screen. Exit quickly before the actual service is concluded, and you won’t have to speak with anybody. The entire thing seemed disconnected on so many levels, and seems counter to what I believe the purpose of the church is to be: to foster and build authentic community.

As we left the building, just as when we had entered, once again nobody spoke to us except for the local pastor, and the same greeter who had helped us find our seats at the beginning. This could have been merely arbitrary, however, since both were stationed at the rear door, and were busily shaking hands with people as they exited the facility.

In the final analysis, I attended Mars Hill Federal Way mainly because I wanted to find out what profile of person fits into the Mars Hill philosophy of ministry. Speaking for myself, personally I couldn’t do engage in such a model, since my personal philosophy of ministry and values-based homiletic would be too much at odds with what they are about. In speaking with a close friend, who is involved in leadership at this church, he defended the model. He stated to the contrary that the Mars Hill Community Groups, that meet in homes throughout the week, make up for the lack of direct community at the weekly gatherings. While this is certainly commendable, again I would argue that this is no different than any large church, which oftentimes relies on its home groups to provide the very thing that, ironically, they seem unable to provide on any given Sunday.

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