Mark Driscoll, Mars Hill and the lessons still being learned
There is a surprising new podcast which is storming the podcast charts throughout the English-speaking Christian world. Like all new 'you have to listen to this' podcasts I was sceptical. But for once the hype is accurate.
Christianity Today in the US has produced a high-quality podcast called The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill that is well-researched, well-made, informative, challenging and disturbing. We are only four episodes in, but I would regard it as almost compulsory listening for any contemporary Western pastor – and indeed any Christian interested in the Church.
Many others are already writing about this, but given that I wrote seven years ago on Christian Today about Mark Driscoll and his 'fall' in 2014, I thought it might be worthwhile reflecting a little more.
From the four episodes so far, the following is clear. Mark Driscoll had a remarkable ministry in some areas. His preaching and to some degree his pastoral care and generosity, are well portrayed in 'The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill'. Here was a church which challenged men especially to live 'heroically' for Jesus. As the podcast intro states Mars Hill "had a promising start. But the perils of power, conflict, and Christian celebrity eroded and eventually shipwrecked both the preacher and his multimillion-dollar platform."
If Mark had been a fraud from the start, it would be a horrific story – but it is evident that this was not the case, and that he and Mars Hill were for real. Which makes the fall of Mars Hill an even sadder story – so many good people have been hurt. Let he who thinks he stands beware in case he falls! (1 Corinthians 10:12)
Celebrity culture, the lure of money and fame, and the love of power are all difficult enough challenges to hurdle on their own. But put them all together in a successful church where the pastor is really like a pope and the crash becomes almost inevitable. Perhaps if, as the Bible states, there had been collective leadership within the church, some of these factors might have been defeated? Mark was an excellent communicator, who had studied stand-up comedians and knew how to connect with an audience. But his character was not developed enough.
Episode three of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill tells the story of a woman who recognised this. Mark's executive assistant suggested to him that he needed to have some older and more spiritually mature men in the leadership, who would be prepared to stand up to him. She was then called into a meeting with Mark and another leader, accused of heresy and fired. The account of the bullying, temper and dictatorial meeting is disturbing and typical of what was to happen.
Driscoll spoke a lot about the need for godly men, but the emphasis in his love seemed more on the 'man' aspect than the godly bit – the fruit of the Spirit were distinctly lacking.
His tweets as 'William Wallace' were crude, crass and ungodly. He boasted and lied about his intellectual abilities, often ending with 'true story'. For example, stating that he read a book every day. Or the plagiarism scandal discovered by Janet Mefferd.
He succeeded in getting on the NYT bestsellers list but only by getting his church to buy thousands of his books at a cost of over $211,000. He espoused 'Reformed theology' but was far from the devotional heart of the great Puritan writers. Mars Hill was built around Driscoll, not Christ. The hubris and the hypocrisy guaranteed the fall.
Yet it would be a mistake just to blame this on one person. The fact is that there was a culture, to be honest several cultures, which contributed to this situation. The podcast is an opportunity for many of us to reflect upon where we went wrong – as much as observing where Mark went wrong.
Sadly, those mistakes seem to be being repeated in Driscoll's new venture in Phoenix, Arizona. The church is doing well, numerically, with reports of up to a thousand people attending. But the same fault lines are evident. Mark has no elders - just a director's board that has no spiritual authority. There are no financial records available to the members of the church. When I interviewed Mark in 2008, he asked me repeatedly about what I thought about Tim Keller's Redeemer Church charging for recorded sermons (note: this money goes to support the mercy ministries and church planting). It was clear he wanted to do so as well, and in his new ministry he is now selling his sermon notes online – as I found out when I was offered them. I politely declined.
There is, however, a significant difference with his past ministry – he has abandoned his former Reformed theology and apologised for criticising Joel Osteen. He scornfully declared, "I don't hold with the five points of Calvinism – I think it's garbage. Reformed theology is 'I have a dad who is powerful, in charge, not relational, he lives far away, and don't get him mad because he can hurt you.' Then they pick dead mentors, Spurgeon, Calvin and Luther – these are little boys with father wounds who are looking for spiritual fathers, so they pick dead guys who are not going to get to know them or correct them."
It's deeply saddening to read such language from any Christian pastor, let alone one who considers himself to be a teacher of others and a father figure.
Driscoll's crass disavowal of his previous theology and his bitter language cause a great deal of personal distress and even doubt. How can someone who sounds at times so humble and is such a good communicator, and seems to have such a love for Jesus, be so wrong?
John the Baptist said, "I must decrease, He must increase." Leaving aside Pastor Mark, I find that for myself, the biggest problem in Christianity is precisely that – myself. I am naturally inclined to be 'me' centred. For it to be 'all about Jesus', I have to get out of the way – but I keep getting in the way.
The Lord does not need us to fulfil his ministry. We need Him. It is a privilege and joy to serve Him, not his joy and privilege to serve us. Let us never forget that it is really all about Jesus. Otherwise it is just 'garbage' (Philippians 3:8).
David Robertson works as an evangelist with churches in Sydney, Australia. He blogs at The Wee Flea.