mars hill EO

What Can We Learn From the Mars Hill Shutdown?

Mars Hill Church began as a small gathering in Mark Driscoll’s home in 1996 and soon became one of the fastest-growing churches in the country. But the church that was praised just last year as one of the “Top Churches to Watch in America” has been the subject of much controversy lately, stemming primarily from its hyper-masculine, strongly opinionated founding pastor. The Puget Sound Business Journal recently ran an article stating that there are rumors of Mars Hill declaring bankruptcy (the Puget Sound region of Washington was home to several of the church’s locations). Even if such rumors are false, they are indicative of the dramatic decline in both popularity and organizational stability the church has seen in recent months. On January 1st, 2015, Mars Hill Church will officially dissolve.

In an October 31st announcement on the church’s website, Senior Pastor Dave Bruskas starts off by saying, “I am excited to share with you important decisions recently made about the future of the congregations of Mars Hill Church.” The word choice is deliberate: this is about the future of the congregations, not the larger entity of the church as it has been known. Pastor Bruskas also outlines the three options individual locations have:

  1. “becoming an independent, self-governed church,
  2. merging with an existing church to create one independent, self-governed church,” or
  3. “disbanding as a church and shepherding current members to find other local church homes.”

While Pastor Bruskas’ language in the announcement is positive and hopeful—he calls the shutdown “a new expression of the same mission”—the message is clear: the future of Mars Hill is that there is no more Mars Hill. 

Towards the end of the announcement, Pastor Bruskas writes: “Mars Hill Church has never been about a building or even an organization. Mars Hill is a people on mission with Jesus, and that singular focus continues as these newly independent churches are launched. It’s still all about Jesus!”

Absolutely, Christ is the Gospel. Without Christ, his incarnation, and his resurrection, there is no Christianity. I have no doubt that former Mars Hill members will continue to earnestly live Christ-centered lives and seek new churches to facilitate that. However, after all that’s happened, it seems clear that Mars Hill has also been very much about Mark Driscoll, and there are lessons to be learned from this.

Driscoll was certainly the face of the church, and his public blunders negatively affected the church as an entity. Attendance at Mars Hill dropped this year as controversies kept popping up, which in turn led to reduced financial giving, now cited as a major factor in the shutdown. As Ruth Graham summarizes in her recent piece for The Atlantic, church spokesman Justin Dean “framed the dissolution as a ‘stewardship’ issue: Setting the individual churches free was the only way to save them.” Graham concludes by saying, “‘Nondenominational’ organizations like Mars Hill, built on faith and charisma alone, will always be vulnerable to the fate of losing the popularity contest.”

Graham’s statement highlights an individualistic aspect of (primarily American, primarily Protestant) Christianity that is problematic. Take, for example, the fact that there exist somewhere around 41,000 Christian denominations in the world today, most of them within some sort of Protestant tradition. There are so many variations on how church should be done (Rock band or hymnal? Long sermon or short? Communion every week or just on certain holidays?) as well as what church is for (Bible study? Worship? Receiving the sacraments? Fellowship? Church history class?). The variations extend to church organization, beliefs about administering sacraments (or what a sacrament is), worship and preaching style, and so on.

Such a plethora of options lends itself to a consumerist mentality when it comes to choosing a church. My upbringing included nine years at an Evangelical K-12 school and a short time at a theologically conservative, interdenominational university. “Church shopping” was not uncommon, as individuals and families went from church to church every few years, or every time they moved to a new town, or if a church did something they didn’t like. Christians can now pick and choose from a seemingly infinite array of options, and it’s not difficult to find a church that fits your personal preferences.

I have heard the argument that this is a good thing: maybe this opens the door for people who otherwise might not consider Christianity. But there is a danger, too, and I don’t think it’s outweighed by the potential benefits. Christians run the risk of church hopping whenever they bump into an idea, leader, or style that they don’t like. Additionally, in light of Mars Hill’s shutdown, if people are drawn to a church primarily because of a particular individual, around which the church itself is built, what happens when that person is gone?

Mark Driscoll’s style was polarizing, but it attracted many members who may not have otherwise felt comfortable in a church, like (as this New York Times article mentions) an Afro- and wife-beater-wearing tattoo artist. I personally know many who benefited from their time as members, and I don’t doubt that most people involved in the church—including Driscoll and other leaders—sincerely love God and want to live fully in their faith. Mars Hill became widely known in part due to its ability to get young people serious about church, particularly young men, a demographic that has often been difficult to reach. It was pro marriage, pro family, pro babies, and generally pro grownups-acting-like-grownups. Ironically, this oft-dubbed “hipster church” seemed to be offering an antidote to the perpetually adolescent tendencies of the millennial generation.

None of these are bad ideas, but there was bad execution. Sometimes the good things got overshadowed by Driscoll’s personal biases or (to put it lightly) poor choice of words (remember his Facebook comment about “effeminate anatomically male worship leader[s]?”). Other times, the good idea was stretched so far as to be skewed: exhorting men to take responsibility for themselves and their families is a good idea; saying that stay-at-home dads are subject to church discipline is not. Nevertheless, Driscoll’s style worked—for a time. As this 2007 Seattle P-I article states: “Mars Hill provides at least some of Seattle’s legion of young adults, who are often nowhere in evidence in more established churches, a clear sense of direction along with simple rules for getting on with your life,” and the article ends by stating that “While [Mars Hill] won’t be what everyone wants or needs, it seems that it is what many are looking for, even in Seattle.” As time went on, this seemed to be the case for several other cities in Washington along with Portland, Albuquerque, and Huntington Beach.

However, Mars Hill and its contentious leader have declined in popularity in tandem. As the controversies around Driscoll kept popping up, church attendance dropped dramatically over the course of this year (from over 12,000 a week to between 8,000 and 9,000). Earlier this year Mars Hill consolidated three Seattle locations into one and laid off over thirty percent of its paid staff.

The problems only compounded as Driscoll gained authority and lost accountability: in 2007, two elders were fired for objecting to Driscoll’s proposed changes to the church’s bylaws, which they felt consolidated too much power in Driscoll and his closest aides. Now it looks like their concerns were justified. A discerning observer can pick out Driscoll’s personal biases from his sermons and writings; I’ve also long suspected that his vitriol is perhaps fueled by past hurts (he was raised Catholic, and I’ve heard several sermons in which he needlessly poked fun at Catholicism).

Just as Christians are not consumers, we are also not free agents. That goes for churches, too; the danger of being an “independent, self-governed” church is that when the church loses its linchpin—be it an individual, an idea, a style, or something else—there may not be much else to fall back on. Mars Hill’s mantra was “It’s all about Jesus,” but it was enough about Mark Driscoll that his decline led to his church’s deterioration. Mars Hill’s fate is an example of a harmful side effect of the individualized, consumerist approach to churchgoing: now that the magnetic presence that drew so many into the church is gone, the church itself will dissolve. Driscoll, at least in the public eye, went from polarizing to alienating and from aggressive to offensive, acquiring descriptors from critics like “bully” and “misogynist.” Mars Hill was, for better and for worse, intrinsically linked to one man, the man whose image was beamed into satellite campuses across multiple states every Sunday. A cult of personality, as it’s been called. As long as Driscoll was popular, this worked in Mars Hill’s favor, but the structure is not sustainable.