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Mars Hill Church May Be a Question We Don't Want Answered
Why building institutions is not what we think it is.
If you’re interested in evangelicalism in all its precarious history and culture—which I assume you are since you are reading this newsletter—then I recommend to you a recent podcast, produced by Christianity Today’s Mike Cosper, titled “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.” The Mars Hill in question is, of course, the church that Mark Driscoll co-founded in Seattle, which became one of the biggest and most successful examples of the “New Calvinism.” Driscoll resigned in 2014 after a series of scandals involving his leadership and past statements, and the church—which not long before had averaged about 10,000 weekly attendees—closed its doors a few weeks later.
Driscoll and Mars Hill’s downfall was a massive story within evangelicalism, partially because Mars Hill was more than a church. It had become a kind of organizational epicenter for Reformed evangelical momentum, a dynamic the podcast’s first episode outlines helpfully. Driscoll himself was more than an unusually effective preacher. He was a kind of symbol, a polarizing totem to represent the conservative evangelical contention that watered-down, non-threatening, and least common denominator Christianity was incapable of making courageous men.
One thing Cosper’s podcast does well, at least in the first episode (the only one available until next week), is allow the reasons for Driscoll’s success to be legitimate. Whatever the oppressive, manipulative ethos at Mars Hill became, its preaching and teaching drew audiences because they resonated with it. It would be easy to rewrite the history of Mars Hill and evangelicalism so that the real reason the church flourished was by gaming the PR system (though there was indeed some of that!) or because conservative evangelicals just loved listening to Driscoll punish effeminate or gay men with his rhetoric. But this would be revisionism. Mars Hill succeeded because, as the podcast’s interviewees point out, thousands of people really did experience radical change for the good under its ministry. The church’s vision of a theology-drenched, mission-oriented masculinity was compelling.
This is worth taking very seriously, and not just to vindicate the Calvinism that smoldered when Mars Hill collapsed.
When people talk about institutions and leaders that make shipwreck of their ministry, we tend to look for repeated patterns and point them out so that there can be a coherent, predictable cause for the disaster. But this exercise is tainted. For example, we look at Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll and say, “The problem here is obviously a celebrity spirit around a senior pastor, a lack of accountability, and a corporate sense of pragmatism. No wonder the church imploded!” We follow this analysis by reminding ourselves and others that pastors need accountability, leaders need to be hemmed in by people who can’t be threatened, and institutions have to keep their mission at the center rather than their success. It makes for good articles and intuitive social media posts.
But it’s easy talk about accountability and mission when we are not vulnerable to its power. Out of one side of our mouth we talk about the good of institutions and the need to invest our identity in something bigger than us, and out of the other side we shake our head sadly at places like Mars Hill where nobody was apparently self-aware enough to make it stop. We forget that accountability, limits, and oversight are effective ballasts precisely because they have the power to cripple institutions and handcuff leaders. To ask for a more robust culture of accountability within evangelical institutions is to ask that those institutions be deeply vulnerable, able to be stopped and countered and thwarted. To ask for leaders who are willing to submit to the demands of others is to ask for leaders who can pull the plug on the very things that offer light and life in a hyper-individualized society. To ask for the conditions that make the fall of Mars Hill less possible is to ask for conditions that make the good of Mars Hill—lives changed, worldviews awakened, addictions broken, hearts revived—less likely.
It’s good that we talk openly about the need to build new institutions, to relocate the center of public life away from the tyrannical isolation of the Internet and the expressive individualism of consumer culture. It’s good that we read books like A Time to Build and invest in new political movements and think in terms of planting what we will not live to reap. But we handicap these efforts by not embracing the painful realities that will inevitably arise if and when they succeed.
You want an institution of partnerships rather than a collective of social media personalities? Well, the Southern Baptist Convention is what you’re asking for. You want churches that forgo pragmatism and leaders that let money and power pass them by? You’re asking for obscure ministries that annoy you with donation requests, and preachers that might make you cringe. You want an evangelicalism that engages culture from ahead rather than behind? You’re probably asking for people you’ve never heard of and institutions that will not change “the world.”
Perhaps one of the important lessons from Mars Hill is that building something that lasts is always more complex than it looks. Not many people can look at something genuinely good and say, “This should have more weaknesses,” or at a leader who is genuinely dynamic and say, “He should have more accountability.” To believe in something at all is to believe, in at least some sense, that more power and fewer restraints on it it would be an altogether good thing. Is it possible to believe in something like this anymore? That’s the question we need to be asking, even if we don’t love the answer.