I’ve been captivated by an ongoing podcast series called The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, centered on pastor Mark Driscoll and the Seattle based, now defunct megachurch called Mars Hill. The creator and host, Mike Cosper said that there would be 12 episodes in total; I’m writing this after the 6th.
I found myself in this story in unexpected ways – not as much in the wild ride that is Mark Driscoll – but more in the surrounding context that allow churches like Mars Hill to thrive and quietly ignore warning signs. If you haven’t heard the podcast, skip these posts because I won’t make much effort to summarize. Rather than simply “review” the podcast I decided to incorporate some of my personal church journey as well – and ask a few questions along the way.
What was your experience listening to this podcast series?
What parts of your story connected to this one?
If taken properly, this podcast is an invitation to see that while working to convey timeless truths, our churches – and each church in its time – are always influenced by the time and place in which they exist. Mars Hill existed in a particular cultural moment and might not have existed in another.
It gets bad quickly enough, but the podcast’s first point is that good and bad usually exist together. While exposing so many of the crazy things that happened over the years at Mars Hill Church, the podcast also makes a point of recounting the good things that came out of it.
Founded in 1996, one church member talked about the feeling in the early years of a “late 90’s freewheeling spirit that anything can happen – that we could make this church what we wanted it to be.” Part of their brand was to set aside church-formalities, instead mixing ancient and post-modern in a way that seemed to meet the disaffected GenerationX in the Seattle area. Seminary requirements for pastors were non-existent, and leadership opportunities abounded, and in the beginning at least, shared: early sermon recordings capture Mark Driscoll saying the elders were in charge and could fire him at any time.
I too joined a church in the mid-ninety’s full of opportunity for growth, creativity, and an open door to try nearly anything. I thrived. Together we were building something, and it felt different (better?) than other churches. Perhaps formality and rigidity were the cultural elements my church was responding to when it was founded 15 years prior. Things were held loosely – it still felt new and there wasn’t much to lose. We were all invited to lead – I was given chances to bring music into a fledgling children’s ministry, create long-play worship nights simply called “Space”, wacky children’s musicals parodying the likes of Bohemian Rhapsody, and more – and people around me were doing the same. It felt un-churchy, which is to say it kept “the main thing, the main thing.” My wife and I started a young family and raised them almost literally in the church – if we were not at church then church members were at our house. And like so many twenty-something men mentioned in the Mars Hill podcast, I was mentored by older men to “step up” and make something of my life – it was a message I needed and am grateful for it.
In short, I experienced rich community, and this all-in life together created good fruit, loving memories, and lasting friendships. The fact that the same church would feel very different twenty years later does not take away the goodness that existed – a point the podcast makes about Mars Hill church, especially at first.
As the episodes continue though, bigger and deeper problems are revealed to the point where it becomes difficult to listen to. The trouble caused by Driscoll’s outsized power and undersized masculinity (as rated on a scale of how afraid a man is to learn from women) has lasting consequences, with many interviewees struggling to discern a faith apart from the leader who brought that faith to life for them.
I struggle with sharing my own reflections in the face of something so tacitly awful, lest the reader think that I am equating my small church experiences with the largeness of the Mars Hill fiasco. Driscoll was clearly off the rails.
Why are so many people from my church years captivated by this story?
Why is Christianity Today investigating and reporting on this 15-year-old dumpster fire?
What’s unique about this podcast is that it’s not made by outsiders exposing church insiders. No less than Christianity Today has opened this closet of church history, ostensibly to learn from the past and avoid repeating mistakes. And while Driscoll’s abuse is the protagonist on the podcast’s stage, the historical setting and surrounding church culture is the character that I learn the most from.
We too often keep quiet about misdirected missions or past mistakes and thus carry them into the future. We protect leaders and organizations as if loyalty is a higher value than honesty, as if the count of souls saved is worth the collateral of souls lost. Driscoll’s resignation opens the door for less fearful discussion on the matter, but how many are still protecting the pastors that, in their humanness, represent more of God than they set out to?
Somewhere in those now-nostalgic years of goodness, my personal journey into doubt intensified, much of it triggered by the over-certainty of religious circles I have lived in. Few of my doubts centered on God’s existence or love, but rather on our increasingly specific and sure definitions of God. It seems many of the Mars Hill faithful are in the same boat now. But the power of belonging is strong, and when all my belonging seemed to hang on my beliefs, I found it hard to be honest with myself and others, lest I lose my belonging.
When Mike Cosper, the host, was asked in an outside interview about his personal experiences, he reflected on his own church change, after 15 years of pastoring: “You have these incredible seasons of ministry and you have these deep and powerful powerful nostalgic memories that power you thru a lot. You’re kind of sitting there thinking maybe we can tweak things and correct course and kind of get back there. And that lasts a long, long time.”
And sometimes, we just need to make a change in order to keep growing. Even if the road is good, we can get stuck in a rote rut, and we need grace to try a new path. As I began separating from the church that had meant so much to me, one of the greatest healers during that process was simply knowing that was not alone. At first it was a few trusted friends. Then a flurry of books and podcasts. Then sharing notes with people from my past. This podcast is but one more confirmation that I was not alone – a widening of the circle that lessens my acute antagonism in favor of an understanding that we are all products of our environment.
I grew up in the church and adulted in a different church, moving around the country a few times. From this podcast series and many others, it’s revealing find out that specific messages and emphases from my “non-denominational” church or camp closely matched the stories from church camp kids in other parts of the U.S. Indeed, the timeless message of Christianity seems to vary by decade and geography – you might call it “Gospel+”, with the “+” being a magnifying glass that could focus on this or that bible verse, depending on the cultural corrections of the day. What I take away from that discovery is that despite all our protestations about separating ourselves from “the world”, Christians are influenced by culture – indeed are a culture – and the side story of this podcast is but one more confirmation of that.
In the coming posts I’m going to dig deeper into a few aspects of that culture, using the Mars Hill saga as a springboard. The next post will reflect on the podcast’s report of historical context into which Mars Hill – and other churches – were born. The following will try to recover from Mars Hill’s attitudes on gender roles. And more. Along the way I’ll be asking the question: What would we need to learn to make digging into our collective past worth it?
♦ weekendswell ♦
If you just can’t wait til the next post for more, see what I found that Sunday I nervously set foot in a new church: The Common Table.
Seattle Photo by weekendswell