Mars Hill Church and its former senior pastor Mark Driscoll made headlines throughout 2014. Events culminated in Driscoll’s resignation in October, followed two weeks later by an announcement that Mars Hill itself will disband with its remaining campuses becoming ‘autonomous, self-governed entities’. A lot has happened in a few short months, but to really understand the situation it is worth looking back to 2007.
Back then, Mars Hill seemed to be making headlines for all the right reasons: its firm focus on evangelism and its burgeoning church attendance, with around 4,000 attending the Seattle-based church each week.
However, while some welcomed a return to teaching about submission and authority, others condemned Driscoll as a false teacher. One thing was certain: his approach elicited a strong reaction one way or another.
When Driscoll proposed a rewrite of church bylaws that would give him increased decision-making capabilities, former elders Paul Petry and Bent Meyer expressed their concerns. They were fired from their church roles and their church membership was put ‘on trial’. Other church members and leaders were instructed to shun them, and many did.
‘Yesterday we fired two elders for the first time in the history of Mars Hill,’ Driscoll told his pastors at the time. ‘...I’ve read enough of the New Testament to know that occasionally [the apostle] Paul puts somebody in the wood chipper.’
Another longstanding church member, Rob Smith, who was about to join the eldership, was made an example of when he questioned the fairness of these trials and refused to shun Petry, Meyer and their families.
Recalling a phone conversation with Driscoll, Smith claims: ‘He was vile, he was vulgar, he threatened me with obscene language, said that he would destroy me, destroy my career and make sure I never ministered again.’
POPULARITY AND CONTROVERSY
It was at this point that Driscoll cancelled all church membership and instructed the congregation to reapply, simultaneously forcing them to accept his newly proposed bylaws. However, while the majority of existing members (according to Petry and Smith) did not reapply, new members continued to flock to the church, plugging the many gaps.
Meanwhile, Driscoll’s worldwide reputation as a pull-no-punches-preacher continued to grow. Podcasts of his sermons dominated download charts and many flocked to conferences to hear his brand of muscular Christianity. He was a Calvinist who loved the Puritan reformers, but wasn’t scared to use ‘cuss’ words occasionally (to the consternation of his more conservative brethren). The church grew to 14,000 in weekly attendance across several locations.
But controversies began to stack up. Former church members went public with their grievances about how they had been treated by Driscoll at the church. A slew of negative news stories emerged, including: the church paying almost $250,000 (£155,000) to get Driscoll’s Real Marriage book (Thomas Nelson) onto The New York Times’ bestseller list; misappropriation of funds that were earmarked for overseas church planting; allegations of plagiarism in some of Driscoll’s books; and sexist comments he had made under a false name in an online Mars Hill chatroom in 2000.
In an open letter, Driscoll wrote earlier this year: ‘As the church grew over the years, it was clear that both the church and I were unhealthy in some ways…In my worst moments, I was angry in a sinful way…I have been deeply convicted by God that my angry-young-prophet days are over.’
Driscoll resigned in October, partway through an agreed six-week leave of absence. The temporary arrangement followed public protests at the church’s main campus and a public letter signed by nine staff members calling for him to step down. The nine subsequently left Mars Hill amid claims that they were pushed.
I HAVE CONFESSED TO PAST PRIDE, ANGER AND A DOMINEERING SPIRIT
Before his sabbatical began, the Acts 29 Network, which he co-founded, removed Driscoll and Mars Hill from its membership. Mars Hill also experienced a significant drop in attendance because of negative publicity, and merged three of its campuses as a result.
Driscoll wrote in his official resignation letter: ‘I readily acknowledge I am an imperfect messenger of the gospel of Jesus Christ. There are many things I have confessed and repented of, privately and publicly...Specifically, I have confessed to past pride, anger and a domineering spirit.
‘I do not want to be the source of anything that might detract from our church’s mission to lead people to a personal and growing relationship with Jesus Christ.’
Since his resignation, Driscoll claims he and his family have received death threats and have had to move house three times. Most recently, Mars Hill announced that it will disband its centralised operation. Church property will be sold, or newly independent congregations will take on existing loans.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the multi-site model could not survive without its central character at the helm. Nevertheless, Petry believes more should have been done to get the church and its remaining leaders back on track.
‘I believe many people were expecting more, and certainly expecting more of the men who had a sacred duty to love the church, to love the people and to love Mark Driscoll,’ he said following the resignation. ‘I believe [the leaders] failed miserably.’
Some will see Driscoll’s well-publicised exit from ministry as a salutary tale of what happens when one ‘celebrity’ pastor is given too much power and freedom. Yet, Driscoll himself has owned up to many mistakes in his past.
It’s easy to forget that he was a 26-year-old recent convert when he founded the church in 1996. Perhaps Mars Hill’s rapid growth outstripped its pastor’s own level of maturity.
That’s not to excuse his errors of judgement or quick temper, but if there are lessons to be learned from the rise and fall of Driscoll, (and Mars Hill church) perhaps it is the importance of older and wiser mentors for young church leaders. What the former pastor will do next is unknown. Some may hope that he fades into obscurity, but many will be praying that the passion and engaging preaching that made Driscoll so well-known may yet be channelled into a fruitful, more grace-filled future.
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