What We Can Learn from “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill”
In the world of the evangelical church, a hot topic of conversation has been the podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. It chronicles the birth and rapid growth of the former Seattle-based church, its pastor, Mark Driscoll, and the church’s subsequent dissolution. It has outlined strange, questionable, and even abusive practices within Mars Hill and asked other Christians to consider the extent that they exist within their own communities. Some see the podcast as a welcome correction; others see it as weekly entertainment; some call it a misguided hit-piece. One thing that can’t be denied is that The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill has given Christians much to think about.
In mid-August, Pastor Mark Vroegop asked me to facilitate a staff and elder conversation about the podcast and share some summary thoughts. He sensed a need to create a venue for some dialogue about the issues raised in the podcast and for us to consider the lessons/warnings. Over forty of our staff and elders gathered for a wide-ranging discussion.
Our conversation was incredibly helpful, and we thought it might be profitable to share the observations in a blog.
Why Write This Article?
In this article, I’ll do my best to avoid both turning a blind eye to this podcast’s challenges and overcorrecting theologies, philosophies, and Church practices in reaction to it. I do believe that this podcast shows us some real opportunities to grow, but I never want to throw out babies with rancid bathwaters.
One more thing before you read on: if you haven’t yet listened to this podcast, you might want to give it a try to make the most sense of what I write below. For editorial and conscience reasons, I don’t think it’s appropriate to rehash everything the podcast covers. My focus is more on our response to the podcast rather than its content.
That said, here are three lessons that I think the Church can learn from this story.
1. Every Church Needs Accountability
One of the most frustrating things about listening to The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill is realizing how many times harmful things could have been stopped but weren’t. Mark Driscoll, I’m convinced, thought he was doing the right thing most of the time. The only way someone does so much harm while thinking they are doing good is to have no one question, raise a concern, or challenge leaders. Our church structures, our governance, our leaders’ personal lives all need loving, grace-soaked oversight. We need elders who have the authority to see when something is going off the rails and bring needed adjustment. We need pastors who invite that. This podcast shows that we cannot always assume that the mere presence of a council of advisors truly brings wise council.
But I don’t think the lesson here is limited to only pastors, elders, and other church leadership. For those of us who are church members, I believe this podcast reminds us that we need to reckon with the part we play in celebrity-driven church culture. One of the reasons that it is so easy for pastors to fall into the traps of fame and power is because we want them to.
This is the kind of leader we often hope to have. We too-often view the Church as a dopamine-releasing weekly uplift to consume, and therefore judge the merits of our leaders based on their platform skills. We must understand that the Church is a people, a gathered community, a “colony of heaven in the country of death,” as Eugene Peterson calls it. We need to conform our expectations of church to Hebrews 10:25, “. . .encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” A group of people who simply show up for a show every Sunday cannot accomplish this.
Every church needs godly and mutual accountability.
2. Every Church Needs to Fall in Love with Jesus
I once remarked to a pastor that I was impressed with how much Scripture he had memorized. I’ve never forgotten his response: “You know why I do that? Because I know how desperately I need it.” May that be the heart posture of us all! We are so quick to forget how desperately we need Jesus. We take him, his Word, and his Church for granted.
As Jesus commanded the Ephesian church in Revelation 2:5, we need to “remember therefore from where [we] have fallen; repent and do the works [we] did at first.” We need to cherish a real, prayerful, Bible-soaked relationship with our Savior. When we are walking in that kind of relationship, our selfishness, our celebrity worship, and our blindness to our own faults tend to dissipate. I’m calling for no less than a commitment to personal spiritual renewal. Ultimately, this is our best weapon against falling into the traps that the leaders of Mars Hill fell into.
Is that so crazy? Consider the case of Kobe Bryant. I’ve always admired the way the hall-of-famer played basketball. He claimed that his secret to success was what he called the “Mamba Mentality.” Essentially, it meant that he did whatever it took to be the best. Everything else had to come second to basketball: hobbies, diet, downtime, even relationships.
Much can be said about how unhealthy this can be when applied to the incorrect things in life. But there is one thing, and only one thing, that is worth approaching with a Mamba Mentality—and that’s Jesus himself. Let us ask ourselves: are we doing whatever it takes to eliminate distractions and renew our love for Jesus as we enjoy him?? Let us echo King David: “I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken” (Ps. 16:8).
Every church must consider how much we’re in love with Jesus.
3. Every Church Needs Humility
The Mars Hill story is a reminder that gifting and charisma can easily outpace care and character. I am incredibly grateful for the maturity and humble wisdom that I constantly see displayed in my pastors and elders. There are times where I don’t agree with them, but I constantly see evidence of men who take up the task to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (1 Pet. 5:2).
But as we’ve seen, the temptations to make power plays are strong. In contrast to what celebrity-driven megachurches (or ego-driven small churches) offer us, we need more pastors, elders, leaders, and members who will care for, listen to, and disciple the flock. Ultimately, how we measure our church’s success should not be in numbers or the public platform of our pastors, but in how well people are cared for in our midst. That is something to be proud of.
Eugene Peterson’s memoir The Pastor could not be a starker contrast to what we see in The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. When Peterson described how he saw his responsibilities he was to execute as a pastor, he wrote:
“When I looked around me and observed churches in competition with one another for their share in the religious market, hiring pastors to provide religious goods and services for a culture of God consumers, I wanted nothing to do with it” (p.13).
Becoming More Than a Culture of Consumers
Oh, that we would be so much more than a culture of God consumers, looking for the best seller of religious goods and services!
We need to value how well we care for one another much more than how well known we are or the size of our gatherings. This is the kind of community that attracts people seeking a true spiritual home. I pray that we can be humble enough to realize that we all can fall prey to the same temptations that befell Mars Hill.
The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill is creating some helpful conversations and some sober warnings about how a church (any church) and leaders (any leaders) can slip into ungodly and dangerous patterns. Beyond the tragedy of what happened with Mars Hill, the podcast should serve as a helpful caution—an invitation to renew our love for Jesus and to pursue godliness.
May we cling to our true Savior, and may he be glorified in us!