This will probably be the last time you see me being complimentary or defensive about Mars Hill Church, but it’s happening.
It’s been a busy month for Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Churches, and bloggers spent countless hours deconstructing Driscoll’s new book “Real Marriage” and the deliciously self-destructive interview with Justin Brierly of UK’s Premiere Radio. And just this week this blog post from Matthew Turner detailing the events leading to ex-Mars Hill member Andrew’s departure from the congregation hit the web; in terms of bad press, this latest situation may be the worst for the Seattle-based megachurch.
I’m not interested in discussing the rightness or wrongness of what happened, for several reasons. First, and most obviously, we have one side of a story that has more perspectives that have not been made public. I don’t want to dismiss Andrew’s experience or his understanding of what happened, but that’s not good enough for me to make a judgment about what occurred. Second, the voyeuristic part of this story strikes me as crass; I felt the same way about the wikileaks-style takedown of Sovereign Grace ministries last year. Gently (ahem) mocking Mark Driscoll’s writing and teachings are fair game; they’re made for public consumption and public engagement. Scrutininzing church documents without context or jumping on a church based on the blog post of a disaffected member is less appropriate, I believe. Third, just as someone who’s studied religious groups I recommend critical skepticism of ex-member’s accounts of their old religion; they tend to be exaggerated in descriptions of grievances, and their accounts are overwhelmingly and inaccurately negative (naturally, otherwise they wouldn’t have left). All to say, there’s not enough solid ground to make me want to wade into that swamp.
What I can offer is another perspective that I hope will be valuable. I want to turn something of a sociological eye on this situation: what reactions did we see? Why did we see the reactions that we saw? I think I’m in a unique position to understand some of the social dynamics of this fiasco. As a native of Seattle, and someone who attended Mars Hill (briefly) in college, I’m familiar with the church and its organization. I still have dozens of friends who attend there. On the other hand, I have a broad internet-based social network of theologically-minded individuals who are decidedly not on the same page as Mark Driscoll. The confluence of these social networks causes my Facebook feed to explode with contradicting opinions whenever these situations come up. In this latest example, I had many people more than willing to castigate Mars Hill for their handling of Andrew’s sin and many others who were defensive about the attention their church home was getting. So for the last week I’ve had box seats for a flame war between two groups of Christians who most decidedly did not understand each other.
I do think that the most interesting reactions have come from two groups, although there are certainly a variety of observers who could be organized in any number of ways. One group is the general anti-Driscoll crowd, the ones who dislike his teachings and behavior, not to mention the influence he wields. The second group are pro-Driscoll/Mars Hill, often members but necessarily so, who are puzzled by the harsh reaction to Andrew’s story. The anti-Driscoll crowd is just that: anti-Driscoll. That is, they often have no idea what life at Mars Hill Church is like, and their only exposure to the Mars Hill empire is through the sermons, interviews and writings of Driscoll.
From these sources they have an impression of Mark Driscoll as a person: brash, controlling, angry, etc. Since Driscoll, and their conception of him, are all they know about Mars Hill, when events like Andrew’s story hit the internet they tend to jump on it: it confirms what they think a church run by Mark Driscoll would look like. Driscoll is suddenly entangled in a story in which he’s not even really a character. The problem is that this situation is not at all representative of life at Mars Hill Church, which looks a lot like any average Evangelical megachurch. But one event turns into a rallying point, and all of a sudden Mars Hill is a cult. Members recoil at this characterization, get defensive and close ranks around their leaders, which of course only serves to embolden the detractors. And then before we know it there’s two angry groups who can’t understand why the other are so hostile.
So, I want to share with both groups some admonishments, using the God-given authority granted unto me in my status as a semi-anonymous blogger on the internet:
To the Anti-Driscoll crowd:
1. No, Mars Hill Church is not a cult. To say so is sloppy and sensationalistic, and laughable to people actually familiar with the church. IF we were to judge the Andrew’s situation based on his side of the story alone, we could surmise that Mars Hill Church’s attempt at church discipline was heavyhanded, although I suspect most of the controversy stems from miscommunication between all parties. But I think people familiar with the church should take umbrage at the accusation that Mars Hill is a cult-the daily life at Mars Hill Church is not different from what you would see at any Evangelical congregation, the people are genuinely seeking God’s glory and a lot of good things happen there. In short, don’t judge what you can’t see.
2. Secondly, Mark Driscoll should be separated from Mars Hill. We should recognize how unfair it is to project our feelings about Mark Driscoll onto his church; it makes it too easy to rush to judgment when we come across stories of behaviors that confirm our assumptions about what Mars Hill is about. Driscoll’s statements are worth engaging because they’re meant to be engaged- but the kind of information we’re dealing with here is tabloid-worthy at best. Its entirely possible (even probable) that this is a case of a church messing up, but if so that’s all it is.
To Mars Hill associates:
1. Understand that Mark Driscoll IS Mars Hill Church to the majority of people out there. The things he says and the way he conducts himself are the only exposure that they have to Mars Hill Church. It’s unfair, but it’s the price of having a celebrity pastor. And Driscoll’s charisma is really what drives Mars Hill’s growth. But understanding this point is essential: people target Mars Hill, but they have really strong feelings about Driscoll. They don’t know what life is like at Mars Hill. They just know how they feel about your pastor. And your pastor is brash and unapologetic; you love him for it, but others are put off by it, and find it dangerous. But these impressions are not acknowledged by members of Mars Hill: you love your pastor, but this often means entrenching around him when criticism flies. I have yet to hear any criticism of Driscoll come from inside Mars Hill, and that is precisely what worries outsiders. Driscoll certainly earns his criticism, and should hear correction, but when it never comes from his own congregation it looks cult-like to outsiders. Face the fact that your pastor is controversial, and don’t deflect that he’s controversial because he preaches truth boldly or whatever the company line is, and work from the inside to change the perception people have of Mars Hill Church. Show that there is a distinction to be made between the personality of Mark Driscoll and the church he runs.
2. There’s a growing population of angry ex-members of Mars Hill Church, and they are vocal. Now, this population is possibly just the natural outcome of church growth; as members increase dramatically so do the number of ex-members and people who had bad experiences. But its also possible that these people are symptomatic of structural and cultural issues that have arisen from within the Mars Hill community. Acknowledge these people and try to understand their disenchantment with their Mars Hill experience. Excommunication and ignorance are not the appropriate response to a more and more visible population- this only serves to strengthen the perception outsiders have of your church family.