In Search of Better Stories

The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill

Mars Hill was a church in Seattle that was wildly successful for a few years and then flamed out almost overnight. Its pastor, Mark Driscoll, was an edgy angry, macho man who could spellbind audiences with his words. He was sick of “soft” feminized evangelicalism, and so he went after men. Driscoll’s church became a chest-thumping, “man-up” testosterone zone. It was Christianity’s version of the movie Fightclub. Mark inspired a generation of men to leave off being video game-playing, porno-addicted, basement-dwelling losers. His strong leadership motivated them to become responsible men. He emphasized getting married young, having big families and getting good jobs. His aggressive, in your face, combative approach worked! And loads of men experienced massive changes in their life for the better.  

Why then did the church die?

A church dies when it’s all in on the numbers game — Results are the key to becoming rotten. In church, success means numbers, but we come by the habit honestly enough. Jesus fed 5,000 people, and 3,000 were baptized on the day of Pentecost. The gospel writers want us to see how we are doing from the start, so they counted heads. Driscoll is no different, and neither are you or I. It’s just that in the numbers game, Driscoll won. His church went from a dozen people in a living from to over 15,000 in multi-site campuses all over the place. His online audience went from zero to hundreds of thousands. His baptism stats are mind-boggling. All this growth happened in the span of a few short years. When Mark started to experience internal strife and external criticism for his anger and acrimonious speech, he quoted statistics. Numbers don’t lie. He was successful. Why listen to critics so entirely less successful than him? The attendance column was his magic justification for his questionable behaviour. He bullishly said one time, “I can’t learn anything from a pastor with a church of less than 10,000.”

A church dies when its pastor becomes a rock star — In the early days of Mars Hill, there was shared leadership, collaboration and teamwork, but as the Mars Hill rocket shot into the stratosphere, all these structures needed to be stripped away. Higher and farther would only be possible with one man in the driver’s seat. To use Driscoll’s own words: “I’m driving a bus, you either get on the bus, get out of the way of the bus or get run over by the bus. By God’s grace, there will be a pile of bodies outback of the bus when this is all over.”

Driscoll went from meekly saying, “Jesus is the pastor of this church” to “In case you haven’t noticed, I’m kind of a big deal” (Yes, he actually said that, and he wasn’t kidding around). He was the reason for Mars Hill’s unprecedented success. Therefore he is the one who should be calling all the shots. To disagree for any reason was to guarantee your spot among the bodies outback of the bus.

A church dies when women are provided for and protected but also pushed aside – Mark helped women. There were many times when he cared for single women in need. His home was always open for women in duress. He berated men to do a better job protecting and providing for the women in their lives. What could be wrong with that? Nothing, but there was a shady side to this righteousness. Mark also believed that women should not be leaders in the church or home. He took seriously the Bible verses that mention how women are “the weaker vessel” and “easily deceived.” A woman’s role then was clear to Mark. They were to live quietly under the headship of their husband. They were to meet every sexual need/want/fantasy of his. (sexually unwilling, frigid, or otherwise underperforming wives are the reason why men go astray) and they were to have lots of babies because that would prevent gossiping — a predominantly female problem. Women felt the pressure and confinement of this view. They experienced shame and blame as a result, but they were labelled as ungodly if they protested. Protection and provision became an unbearable weight, and far too many women got crushed by it. In this church, if women’s voices could have been equal to men’s voices, it would have tempered the machismo and spoke the necessary compassion into relationships. The bus with the pile of bodies behind would not have happened, and there is a good chance the church may still have been thriving to this day.

  • A church dies when its members put up with the bad because there is so much good.
    Humans love to join movements with heroes at the centre. We embrace the superman who inspires us to live better lives and change the world. We can not escape our deep longing for a saviour. The super-hero has the answers; he has the secret sauce, he has the inside track, to join him is to be in on something. There is nothing more exciting. Every one of the insiders interviewed for the podcast referred to the Mars Hill experience in glowing terms. (At least while they were in Marks good books) Sadly when Mark began to stumble, they all admitted to turning a blind eye. They didn’t want the rumours to be accurate, so they dismissed them or denied them. Mark, who had helped so many, must be protected from the evil people trying to tear down this incredible movement. For far too long, loyalty was more important than truth. But truth ultimately wins. So everything blows up; people lose their faith, all gains lost, but valuable lessons learned — at least until the next hero comes along.


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One Response

  1. Great post, Dennis. You’ve done a superb job of summarizing so many of the key elements of the podcast.

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