Sunday, November 2, 2014

When Mars Hill Was Leveled

Sitting on my bookshelf is an autographed copy of Mark Driscoll's book (written with his wife Grace), Real Marriage. I won it a couple of years ago for tweeting the best caption to a photo posted to Driscoll's Twitter feed. (Don't ask me what the picture or my caption were; I don't remember.)

Real Marriage is the book that came under fire after it was revealed that Mars Hill Church paid a firm to get the title on The New York Times' bestseller list. And that scandal came shortly after it was discovered that Driscoll had plagiarized portions of A Call to Resurgence. There were also lots of Mars Hill staff complaints about Driscoll's behavior, and someone uncovered years' old filthy and profane chatroom comments made under Driscoll's handle, "William Wallace II."

A couple of months back, under tremendous pressure, Mark Driscoll took a six-week break from ministry and then stepped down as senior pastor of Mars Hill Church and its many satellite campuses for good. And then just a few days ago, it was announced that Mars Hill was over and done, closing up its many doors forever. Each satellite campus will be set loose to flounder or relaunch or just cease to be.

I've struggled with Mark Driscoll for many years. On the one hand, here was a guy who was passionate about teaching the Bible and reaching people who had never set foot in a church before. (For a while, I attended an Acts 29 church that was part of the church-planting network he founded.) He was confident, and he sometimes said things that I wished other pastors had the guts to say.

On the other hand, he also said things that made me cringe, and he was arrogant, and it seemed that he was stuck in a cycle similar to the one in the book of Judges: He would be doing well, but then he'd get caught up in his pride and say or do something atrocious. And then God's judgment (read: the media) would rain down upon him. He would repent and the criticism would subside for a while and great ministry would continue, but then he'd get caught up in his pride again, and so on . . .

Now that the unthinkable has happened to him, my hope is that Mark Driscoll will come completely clean, not with the media or the church or the world at large—I really don't care whether Mark Driscoll ever finds himself in the spotlight again—but with Jesus. I don't know if Driscoll is called to be a pastor or if God will use him in that capacity again, but I do know that he is loved by a Father who wants to make him more like His Son.

When it comes to the man himself, I think the lesson to take away is one that I've seen repeated over and over again on Facebook and Twitter days after Driscoll's announcement: No one gets a pass on the fruit of the Spirit.

But when it comes to Mars Hill, I think the lesson is a different one. Like the banks involved in the financial crisis of 2008, Mars Hill seemed "too big to fail." When I read about the church's decision to close up and cease operations, I couldn't help but think of Mark Driscoll's defense of multi-site churches from his book, Vintage Church (although maybe someone else really wrote that one after all, too). He argued passionately that multi-site churches are stronger because they share resources, staff, core values, and common teaching (everyone but folks in the main campus watched Driscoll on a screen). And he made the case that when he was gone, there would be several strong churches ready to flourish on their own.

Well, Driscoll is gone, and flourishing they are not. I've heard people say that Mars Hill's collapse is due to people following a man rather than Jesus. I don't know if that's the case, and I hope it's not. I think instead that Mars Hill's many satellite campuses were weak because they were more like franchise locations than churches. Like new Starbucks shops, the same recipes and best practices were followed to repeat the success of the original. But churches are not retail stores or fast food restaurants. And the Spirit of God does not fit neatly into a proven program for success.

While Mars Hill is dying, the Acts 29 Church Planting Network is stronger than ever. Both were founded by Driscoll to reach the lost, but A29-planted churches are free to find their unique niche in their communities and to follow God wherever He might lead. And A29 churches are led by local pastors who preach to their congregations. These pastors are involved in the lives of the folks in their churches. There is accountability and community and relationship—something that is impossible with a screen.

There is nothing unbiblical about multi-site churches. And I believe God can and will use them. But does that mean the model is terribly wise? Maybe the lesson from Mars Hill's sad story is that church planting, while more difficult, more costly, and more time-consuming than merely adding a new venue and a new screen, is more effective and more sustainable than any shortcut technology might allow.

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