Decline and fall: the slow erosion of Mars Hill

Former senior pastor Mark Driscoll preaching on the stage at Mars Hill prior to his resignation over accusations of bullying and intimidation(Photo: Facebook/Mark Driscoll)

It all started so well. Founded by Mark Driscoll with Lief Moi and Mike Gunn in 1996, Mars Hill church in Seattle  began with a home Bible study group. It  grew rapidly to become a multi-site church with an average weekly attendance of around 12,000 at its 15 locations in five US states.

From the beginning, it was intended to be a different kind of church, one that was intentional about reaching the demographic other churches just didn't. Driscoll wrote on the church website: "I discovered that Washington was one of the least churched states, Seattle was its least churched city, and people under 30 (especially men) were the least of the least churched. So, we decided to take some risks and rethink ministry foundations in light of the new world which had overtaken the old."

That desire to take risks marked the whole of Driscoll's ministry, manifesting itself not only through innovative strategies like live-streaming his preaching to the church's different sites, but in his personal style. He had no qualms about swearing and was aggressively masculine in his delivery.

He became personally popular as a conservative evangelical who took on Seattle's prevailing liberal culture, with an uncompromising stance on issues such as the inerrancy of scripture and the role of women, famously saying that anointing a woman as an Episcopal bishop was a step toward voting in "a fluffy baby bunny rabbit as their next bishop to lead God's men".

His achievements are undeniable. He was named by Preaching magazine in 2010 as one of the 25 most influential pastors of the past 25 years. Around 15 million of his online sermons were accessed each year. He was also a co-founder of the Acts 29 church-planting network, whose influence spread around the globe, and his church was involved in a wide variety of ministries including counselling, education, student and other work.

So where did it all go wrong? The clue is in Driscoll's personal style, which was provocative and abrasive. He once said in a meeting that he would "mow down" those who opposed him: "There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus, and by God's grace, it'll be a mountain by the time we're done. You either get on the bus or you get run over by the bus." For those who got run over, there was always the sense that for the alpha-male church leader, winning was everything.

In keeping with the winner-takes-all mentality, the strictnesss of the church's discipline process, with members told to "shun" those had fallen foul of its leaders, led to accusations that it was run like a cult.

Again, the scandals which have dogged Driscoll's ministry recently – accusations of plagiarism in his books, an ill-judged use of a marketing company to bump one of his titles up the best-seller list, and particularly the treatment of other pastors and elders in the Mars Hill team – have all fed the perception that his personality is narcissistic and controlling, with admirable qualities of intelligence and drive insufficiently restrained by a sense of humility before God and others.

The timeline of the fall of his ministry reads like a description of a slow-motion car crash. Much of it has been documented by psychology professor Warren Throckmorton on his blog, and there is plenty of documentary evidence in the form of emails and statements as well.

1. It can be hard to say when these things begin, but a convenient starting point is 2007, with the reshaping of the church's eldership team in 2007. This was designed to put more power – glossed as 'authority' – into the hands of Driscoll and his trusted lieutenants. It sparked the dismissal of two pastors, Bent Meyer and Paul Petry, who had questioned the process. Petry's website provides a timeline and documentary evidence about the incident. A string of leaders and former leaders involved at the time have come forward to apologise for their roles in the dismissals. What seems to have happened is that arguments about the substantive issues triggered accusations of disloyalty and unfaithfulness.

2. There were indications that Mars Hill was not a happy ship, though as long as it continued to be "successful", Driscoll's position was secure. However, in May 2013, former elder Dave Kraft filed charges against Driscoll accusing him of being "domineering, verbally violent, arrogant and quick-tempered" – charges which were to be amply substantiated by his conduct during the following year.

3. Either Kraft's charges against him or an interview with Janet Mefferd in December 2013 mark the point at which the wheels began to come off. The TV host confronted him with evidence that he had plagiarised parts of his book A Call to Resurgence. Mefferd later apologised for the interview and a part-time producer on her show resigned, claiming that Mefferd had been put under undue pressure. The furore fed perceptions that Driscoll was intolerant of criticism. Further allegations of plagiarism surfaced.

4. In March 2014 it was revealed by World online magazine that Driscoll had paid a marketing company at least $210,000 in 2011 and 2012 to make sure that his book Real Marriage, written with his wife Grace, made the New York Times best-seller list. The church responded that the practice was "not uncommon or illegal" but admitted that the strategy had been "unwise" and pledged not to do it again. Questions remain about whether Driscoll authorised the strategy personally, but again the perception that he felt he was untouchable was fed.

5. Also in March, four former pastors – Kyle Firstenberg, Dave Kraft, Scott Mitchell, and co-founder Lief Moi – created a blog entitled Repentant Pastor devoted to collating stories, letters and apologies from people affected by the Mars Hill culture. The list of those publicly disaffected with his ministry grew longer.

6. In July, a church online discussion board archive surfaced from 14 years ago in which Driscoll had made posts under the alias "William Wallace II". Among his more printable comments were describing America as a nation of "homoerotic worship loving momma's boy sensitive emasculated neutered" men raised by "bitter penis envying burned feministed single mothers". He made other, cruder statements about women. He apologised two days later, saying that the attacks were "wrong".

7. In August, the Acts 29 network terminated the membership of Driscoll and Mars Hill. The network said: "It is our conviction that the nature of the accusations against Mark, most of which have been confirmed by him, make it untenable and unhelpful to keep Mark and Mars Hill in our network."

8. In another blow to Driscoll, major publishing house LifeWay Christian Resources said that it would cease to sell Driscoll's books. Several conferences which had booked him to speak announced that he had been un-invited.

9. Also in August, 21 former Mars Hill pastors filed charges against him with the church's executive committe, saying that he had engaged in abusive and intimidating conduct. The charges include that he "exhibits lack of self-control by his speech and by verbally assaulting others", that he "has created a culture of fear instead of a culture of candor and safety. People are often afraid to ask questions or challenge certain ideas", and that he was "verbally abusive to people who challenge him, disagree with him, or question him".

10. Later in August, nine Mars Hill pastors released a letter to their fellow elders echoing criticisms of Driscoll and criticising the church's response. It said: "We have become masters of spin in how we communicate the transition of a high volume of people off staff. We have taken refuge behind official statements that might not technically be lies on the surface, but in truth are deeply misleading." It called for him to step down from ministry. The letter quoted Paul Tripp, a former member of the church's Board of Advisors and Accountability, who resigned in August, as saying: "This is without a doubt, the most abusive, coercive ministry culture I've ever been involved with." By September 9, eight of those who had signed the letter had had their appointments terminated and one was demoted.

11. Driscoll announced on August 24 that he would take a six-week "extended focus break" from ministry.

12. In September, the church announced that it would close branches and lay off between 30 and 40 per cent of its staff as attendances dropped by a quarter.

13. Driscoll resigned from Mars Hill church on October 14.

14. On November 1, Pastor Dave Bruskas announced that the church would close as a single organisation and that its separate sites would be encouraged to consider continuing as independent churches. He wrote: "This means that each of our locations has an opportunity to become a new church, rooted in the best of what Mars Hill has been in the past, and independently led and run by its own local elder teams." The process is expected to be complete by the end of the year.

Mark Driscoll's decline and fall throws up all sorts of issues. The decision to close the church is a brave one, but recognises the truth that its brand has been irretrievably tarnished by its association with him. However, the real question is, why? Why was he allowed to continue in ministry so long? How was the toxic culture of the church allowed to develop? Why did no one say, "Stop"?

There has been deep and genuine soul-searching among pastors and elders who were involved, and true repentance for their failures, but none that I have read really answers – or even seriously asks – that question. Arguably, though, at the root of the problem is an inadequate understanding of church and ministry, which measures success in numbers. Only when the off-stage voices became unignorable were Mars Hill's leaders forced to take notice. Until then, they – and the rest of the evangelical world – were blinded by the seeming fruitfulness of the ministry and by the force of the minister's personality. Whether Mark Driscoll has a future in ministry is open to question. The object lesson of his life, however, is itself a solemn warning to the Church.