More than Mega-church Collapse, 1: On Mark Driscoll, Mars Hill and what we need to learn before it’s too late

This week, Seattle mega-church pastor Mark Driscoll was forced to resign after a investigations into his leadership. I am surprised by how much it affected me.

Driscoll’s downfall should make us all renew our questions about who a Pastor is and what a church should be.In this series, I take a look at what we learned from Driscoll and Mars Hill, and what we need to change before it’s too late.

Looking for Story specifics? Here’s recap of Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill’s rise and Fall.

A New Zealand Sheep Avoided shearing for 7 years by hiding in caves.  Then he was Found, atnd shorn. May Lord temper the wind to the shorn lamb.
A New Zealand Sheep Avoided shearing for 7 years by hiding in caves. Then he was Found, and shorn. May Lord temper the wind to the shorn lamb.

WHY WE CARE ABOUT MARS HILL

What does Driscoll and his church have to do with us small-church Christians in another state? So what if another mega church collapses?

First, any time any church collapses, our brothers and sisters in the family of God will hurt and grieve, and so we “weep with those that weep and mourn with those who mourn.” This isn’t just someone going out of business. It isn’t like watching all Borders Books, or even Tower Records close up shop because the market changes. This is the hearts and souls of people whose world was rocked by widespread hurt, pride, and sin. And because it was so widespread, we got to read about in the news. In Forbes. In the Times. We pray for mercy because we know that no one emerges from this unscathed.

Second, we care about what happens with Mars Hill, because, for better or worse, Driscoll’s brand of Christianity—and I say brand on purpose—ushered the church into the Postmodern era. He shaped church as we know it.  He changed what the church looked and sounded like in a way that was important for evangelizing a culture that was too cynical for Billy Graham miracles. Driscoll’s candor, irreverence, and cultural relevance from the pulpit flung wide the church doors and welcomed people into God’s house who wouldn’t have come or stayed before. This was important work.

His other important work—or rather, that of his team—was ushering the Church into the digital era. His podcasts are still some of the most widely known sermons online (which, reaching back to 2007, is not a thing working in his favor right now, but still…) Mars Hill was at the forefront of modern marketing and took the Church with it.  They were the first church to harness the power of Twitter, facebook, podcasts, websites, and blogging to plant churches and distribute the Gospel. In the church world, this was the “Apple” of digital strategy for church. Mars Hill’s Christianity—the logo, the messaging, the manly, beer-drinking-cigar-smoking-denim-wearing Seattle grunge,  the RE:Lit  publishing house, the high-contrast, black-and-whatever aesthetics—became its own lifestyle brand. A lifestyle brand for twentysomethings like Apple. Like Nike, Ducati, Ray Ban. It was especially for Christians recovering from the stranglehold of ugly, cheesy Christianity.  We wanted something with style, with grit. We found it online at Mars Hill.

Maybe we’re watching all that Social Media grow up now. Since this generation voluntarily makes everything public record, Mars Hill wasn’t absolved from the side-effects I warn my students about today: You can’t take back what you said on public, permanent record. You can’t take back your mistakes. On that record, a twenty & thirtysomething Driscoll has some doozies. (You can look those up on your own).

Cost of Social Media in Ministry

Unfortunately, social-media and branding brilliance aside, this is more than a cliché mega-church collapse. This generation of evangelists—my generation of evangelists—grew up with this instead of Billy Graham. Driscoll and Mars Hill have shown us how to plant churches. How to preach (which is unfortunate—I never actually liked his style). We are watching Driscoll and Mars Hill because we should be concerned that the apples haven’t fallen enough away from the tree.

The Mars Hill ministry model, personality cult, leadership style, conferences—the Mars Hill machine—has been influential and formative for anyone in ministry under the age of 40. It’s possible to say that as goes Driscoll and Mars Hill, so go our churches and our leaders. This may forecast the consequences the rest of us will face who modeled our withdrawn leadership, personality-cult pastors, bombastic preaching, and irreverent Christian culture in our churches after his.

WHERE DRISCOLL ALWAYS HAD IT WRONG (and maybe we do, too)

I am speaking as a repented Driscoll disciple. His online sermons—years and years worth—ministered to me during a time in my faith when I had eschewed church and wondered if the Christian experience was relevant at all to my life. I have read 6 of his books. Low-level writing aside, he wrote and published with an urgency that galvanized my Christian living and answered my immediate questions immediately. I gave away his books as Christmas presents.

All that to say, I grew into my criticism of him. And there’s no vilifying him without doing it to myself, too. The longer I spent in church, loved by and loving people, learning and praying—the more I found the following Driscoll hallmarks intolerable.

#1: MISTAKING CRASS AND CARELESS SPEECH FOR AUTHENTICITY

Part of what attracted me to Driscoll in the first place was his willingness to say things from the pulpit that were edgy and atypical. It felt refreshingly subversive from the hypocritical and flat-out lame Christianity I felt like I knew. This guy would talk about drinking, and sex, and call people “dude” and “morons” and would speak urgently and conversationally. I felt like he “got” me.

The thing is, I wasn’t in a good place when he did that. I was bitter, cynical, ever arguing with something to prove, and certain I was smarter than most people. He should have been taking me to task for that, not getting my attention and stroking my twentysomething senses of entitlement and half-hearted rebellion with some offensive language. We shouldn’t have justified our judgment and rudeness. We shouldn’t have trivialized, with crass language, the serious places of pain and uncertainty that sex and alcohol are. We should have acted like the pulpit meant something special.
Girl rolling sleeves

#2. ADDRESSING THE GENDER GAP IN CHURCH ATTENDANCE WITH CHAUVINIST STEREOTYPES

The number of devoted men we have in church is really a crisis. Worse, even men who are married send their wives and kids, but stay home. Churches can’t grow because they don’t have men to lead in roles of eldership, financial stewardship, and public governance. Driscoll sought to address this by making the Christian life manly, to make church a place where “real men” would want to come.  To do this, he relied on gender stereotypes that were harmful and alienating. He mocked stay-at-home dads, creative or sensitive men, shy and contemplative ones–anyone who didn’t fit the grittiest, most aggressive, brutish formula for manhood. He is famous for his preoccupation with Chuck Palhulnik’s Fight Club, (which asks important intellectual and ethical questions, sure) the premise of which is utterly at odds with what we want men affected by the Gospel to be.

It was debasing to both genders.  It humiliated men who didn’t meet the formula, and alienated women from the Christian living conversation altogether. I am a tough and smart woman—I come from a long line of them—but even at my strongest and boldest, I never, ever want to be the kind of aggressive and belligerent person it seems I was required to be if I was a real Christian. I know that because I tried it out.

His gospel rhetoric was utterly dependent on his gender stereotypes. He combatively sought to change the image—the brand—of Jesus. The “real” Jesus was the temple-thrashing, heretic-condemning offensive lineman in body armor, not a small, quiet Jewish man in a culturally appropriate tunic and beard. You had to be a certain kind of man if you were going to lead in a church. This made men feel smaller and women feel invisible in church leadership.

There was a kind of hypocrisy here that especially wounded me as a woman ministry leader. Women are told they can’t preach or lead a church, regardless of capability, because of some key passages in Paul’s letters and an abstract intellectual understanding of some divine creation order. (Rhetoric, by the way, which has been used to justify some of our worst collective crimes against humanity). Were a hermeneutical challenge to those passages brought to the attention of male church leadership, Driscoll and others would cite a cultural infection in our scriptural understanding. “The Word is the Word. We don’t mold our understanding of the Gospel to cultural ideals.”  The complexity of those Pauline passages notwithstanding, when your formula for qualified Christian leadership is poisoned with this toxic caricature of masculinity, you no longer get to say that your treatment of gender in the church comes wholly from the Bible and isn’t influenced by culture. With this mentality, church leaders’ understanding of male/female roles and identity is absolutely influenced by culture. With these stereotypes in place, you don’t get to take the Biblical high ground when the “culture” has understood and embraced the ability and contributions of women leaders better than the Church has.  Dismissing talented and articulate women to be greeters or nursery workers (because they are banned from the pulpit) doesn’t mean you’re obedient or that you have diligently ministered to the women who want to serve. You don’t get to address gender in church leadership with cultural stereotypes at all and call any of it “biblical.”

WHERE WE GO FROM HERE 

There is more to learn from Driscoll and Mars Hill. Stay tuned for the rest.
In the meantime, how did you respond to the news about Mark Driscoll?

Did his style or gender rhetoric affect you?


Take a look a the rest of the conversation:

How poor relational habits destroy transparency, accountability, and ultimately a church

On theology’s role in it–how we construct our theology and how we use it makes us who we are

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