Lessons From the Collapse of Mars Hill Church

Adam blamed Eve (and God for giving him Eve) for his sin and Eve blamed the serpent for tricking her and the blame game was on.

https://anchor.fm/blueskiesandgreenpastures/episodes/Thoughts-on-Mark-Driscoll—discernment–and-taking-responsibility-for-our-spiritual-lives-e16v469

I’m listening to a very interesting and informative podcast called The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. Mars Hill was a popular mega church founded in 1996 that was shut down when the pastor Mark Driscoll resigned in 2014. The documentary-style podcast was produced by Christianity Today’s podcast channel. I’m not a huge fan of CT, but this interested me because I remember the rise and fall of this church. And also because we are living in a time of church exodus and people claiming to have been abused by churches.

Thanks to the internet, church drama is no longer a private thing between the pastor, elders and members. And thanks to the blame game, we are usually told who is at fault based on the opinion of the author. And thanks to people’s sin nature and our love of drama, there is no shortage of stories about bad pastors.

In the case of Mark Driscoll we are told that he was to blame for the fall of Mars Hill church. (He has a new church, by the way, Trinity Church in Arizona.) The podcast gives all the gory details of what led to his huge growth and how his anger issues and poor reaction to being held accountable by elders resulted in his choosing to walk away rather than deal with his problems. He definitely was the major player in this drama.

But the focus of this blog is not Mark Driscoll.

I want to talk about the topic of personal responsibility as it pertains to our own relationship with God and which leaders we follow, books we read, what we believe, etc. It is up to each of us as individuals to know that what we believe is actually in the Bible. It’s our job, as adult Christians, to make sure that we are following leaders that meet the qualifications stated in the Bible to lead and teach a church.

James tells us in chapter 3 that not everyone should assume they will be a good teacher. This is an important job and teachers will be held to a higher standard.

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. James 3:1”

In this same chapter, James says that our words are very important. This is immediately after he says that not everyone should be teachers. We can assume that he meant that a person who holds the position of teacher must be even more careful with their words than other people. He goes on to say that we must not have jealousy or selfish ambition in our hearts because that is demonic, not wise.

Jude also gives us guidance on what to look for in a false teacher. Is Driscoll a false teacher?

Good preaching ?

Mark Driscoll displayed a lack of controlling his passion, his tongue and showed signs of selfish ambition. Yet, because he was charismatic and entertaining and what his sermons were helpful and even biblical, people overlooked his bad traits for a long time.

Even after the closing of Mars Hill church, Driscoll still had supporters and is now the pastor of another church. This tells me that people chose to overlook or forgive his past behavior and consider him a good pastor.

I listened to a sermon of his today from August 7, 2021. The scripture passage was Romans 16:17.

17 I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. 18 For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people. 19 Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I rejoice because of you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.

Romans 16:17

He preached for over an hour on the topic of three types of people, evil, foolish, and wise, using the above verses as a platform with some additional verses sprinkled in along the way to help define these three types. It was what I would call good advice for life. I think that is what his members are looking for more than anything, advice for how to navigate this world. Many pastors give the same type of information, although in less controversial ways.

This type of life coaching is very much needed in a world that where everything we were taught is being ‘deconstructed’ and called a lie. People have lost the ability to think for themselves and discern good from evil. However, is this the proper way to preach?

What about angry preachers? Driscoll got a lot of attention for yelling in church. He’s not the only one who does that. Check out this guy. Note that this video came out in 2013, during the era of putting preachers on trial by media.

Seeking God or something else?

Driscoll is not the only popular pastor of a megachurch that has some of the traits Jude lists of a false teacher. Are all these Christians deceived? The Bible says that in the last times people will flock to false teachers because they have ‘itching ears’. They want to hear what these people are saying! They love the way these pastors make them feel. Some offer hope for liberation, others prosperity, and others offer guidance on how to live in this world. All of them diverge slightly from or add to the gospel message.

The problem is not just these pastors, but our own individual human tendency to love charismatic leaders, a lack of accurate Bible knowledge, and a desire to be in control of our destiny .

Following Jesus is about humble submission to God’s will, serving his kingdom, and recognizing that this life will have trials and possibly persecution if we go against the will of the world.

Mark Driscoll was very popular with young married men because he told them “how to be a man”, and that their wives should serve them sexually, among other things that appeal to our flesh. Yes, the Bible does say something about those topics , but Driscoll based his main message on that , not Jesus . His actual mission was church growth . He even refused to take advice from respected pastors if their churches had fewer members than his.

The podcast suggests that the rise of suburbs was a big part of the rise of megachurches, and I don’t doubt they are correlated. However, I think we have to look beyond that to what caused the rise of suburbs, which was rising middle class prosperity. But I am not blaming the rise of prosperity itself for church problems.

Prosperity does increase the expectation that life should be comfortable, a resistance to the idea of holiness, and, a dependence on experts, which can lead to spiritual laziness. But money can also be used for God’s purposes.

My thought is that idolatry is the root of all of these issues. The rise and fall of megachurch leaders and even small church pastors, the many stories of people who claim church abuse, popularity of Progressivism and outright heretical teachings, and the general falling away from Biblical teaching happens because people put man’s word above God’s.

Truly seeking God requires humility! God is not going to work in the lives of those who don’t recognize His authority. We may think we are doing everything right, but if it’s based on worldly or fleshly desires, we are building our spiritual house on sand .

What does this have to do with the blame game?

As long as we look outside OURSELVES for the cause of church-related problems, we will be at risk of deception .

The need for discernment

New believers can be excused from not understanding that there are ‘bad teachers’ in churches. This is why it is so important that they be taught immediately how to be discerning and to study the Bible diligently and become like a Berean.

But in a culture of ‘trust the experts’, many people are very willing to trust the person in the pulpit as long as what they say is relevant to them , uses Christian words, and makes them feel good in some way. This is why progressives and other liberal churches are so popular.

Driscoll’s style and messages were very appealing to his particular audience and evidently they are still popular. He is giving people something they want. His rise to power coincided with the 9/11 attacks and the new era of fear. The growing influence of the internet on young people also played a big role in his ability to get his message out quickly. He was there when young people need a leader and someone who claimed to know God.

What is the purpose of a church?

Matthew 28:19 gives us the answer.

[19] Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, [20] teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

But what is discipleship? Discipleship is modeling and teaching Christians the precepts of the Bible—mainly prayer, doctrine, Christian living, and worship. True discipleship often steps on toes.

Driscoll’s idea of discipleship is a carefully designed mix of Bible teaching and life coaching, which includes sexual counseling, marriage advice, and stern words about worldly sin. It was not the same as Joel Osteen’s soothing , motivational speeches that appeal to a slightly older crowd.

His hip style was very appealing to young, eager to please Christians who may not have ever received instruction in those areas. Many people were baptized in his church and say that they learned a lot from him. But is that enough to be considered a good pastor?

Was Driscoll a victim of a PC cancel culture ?

One difficulty with the Mars Hill story is that part of the reason some people love to hate him is because he was too ‘masculine and patriarchal’. If that was his only so-called fault, I would have no problem with him.

It is not surprising when feminist Christian authors do not approve of his message telling men that they are the head of the household. But the Bible teaches that very thing.

Why do people stay in troubled churches?

Sometimes we are so close to a situation we can’t see when a slight shift occurs in the trajectory. It’s the same with people. We don’t always notice right away when a leader’s focus changes from preaching biblical truth to growing the church or other goals. We want to do the right thing, so we overlook the first few times we do notice something seems off.

Some people do leave churches when things start to go off the rails. Others stay and try to use private conversations to make a difference, but never approach the people in power. Either way is not biblical. Churches have elders and boards for a reason.

But, once again, the point of this article is this: we as individuals must learn that we are ultimately responsible for our choices. No one forced anyone to follow Mark Driscoll or work for him.

If we are being discerning, eventually we should start to see signs that something is not right. It is at that point we are responsible for making a decision.

In this podcast, the people who felt most abused were people who worked for Driscoll as paid employees or as elders in the church. The opinions of non-church members are not as important to me, but I do value the ones who actually spent time working with him or trying to help him when the problems started.

Leaving a church and a church family in a bad situation is understandably painful and difficult and usually not a quick decision. I know of many personal stories. It’s hard to find a new church!

It’s interesting that very actual few members left the church even when elders were fired and Mark was yelling and making not-very veiled threats in the pulpit against anyone who would undermine this authority.

Rise of the megachurch

The second episode of the podcast gives an interesting timeline and details of the rise of the megachurch model which is actually a very effective business model. I thought Rick Warren was the originator, but now I know that it goes way back to Robert Schuller. This is a truly sad story in my opinion.

Millions of people became members of these churches who were not yet believers and they were very poorly discipled and taught a limited version of the Bible . Thankfully God is able to save people with the gospel even in a bad church!

What does that look like in practice? It looks like a church that says people want to hear, not what the Bible says, and provides programs and entertainment to keep them coming back to their ‘club’.

Megachurches are more likely to curate their messages to stay relevant, avoid hot button issues, or pick the ones that provoke more giving. Because of this, their preaching can become devoid of the essential gospel of repentance. Joel Osteen somehow manages to talk ‘about God‘ and give encouraging speeches while still avoiding the topic of repentance.

no results

Who is to blame?

We can learn all about the rise and fall of Mars Hill, Ravi Zacharias, and many others, and then say that is why churches are failing.

Or, we can look at these situations and ask, did we do anything contribute to this? Why did we go to church and why did we stay? Did we stand up for truth and support orthodox preachers in our local community churches? Did we attend Bible study and Sunday School when basic Bible topics were taught? Did we put God first in our lives, or the church culture? Did we trust man’s authority without searching the scriptures?

I know that some people are raised from childhood in churches that were not good and even physically and mentally abused by church leaders and that was not your fault. But as adults we must become responsible for our own spiritual lives.

I’m not talking about obviously abusive cults.

The majority of the congregations of these fallen churches were perfectly happy to attend there. These people kept giving their money every week, kept clapping, laughing and saying Amen!, and never questioned the preacher because they LIKED what he said. If tithing and attendance has slowed down, I guarantee you that changes would happen!

What happened in Driscoll’s church was he kept saying the right things to keep tithing and attendance up. I’ve listened to some of his sermons. He’s very good at throwing in not-subtle pressure about giving and staying involved.

I know many of us feel like ‘someone else’ will handle church problems. We are busy and we don’t know what to do about it! We think giving money to the church or attending regularly is our only responsibility.

However, this is a good place to repeat that we each have an individual responsibility for our faith and spiritual life.

One thing these megachurches do, as well other organizations such as churches and political movements, is promote a collectivist way of thinking. “We are all one. We are of the same mind. If one of us does something good, we all get the credit. We are all good because of the good that our ‘church’ is doing. “That way of thinking also makes people less likely to speak out! They don’t want to be the troublemaker. And church leaders often use Bible verses about UNITY to keep ‘good Christians’ quiet.

If you only read verse 11 from Ephesians 4 and do not read verse 12, you aren’t getting the right idea.

11And it was He who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for works of ministry and to build up the body of Christ, 13until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God, as we mature to the full measure of the stature of Christ.

14Then we will no longer be infants, tossed about by the waves and carried around by every wind of teaching and by the clever cunning of men in their deceitful scheming. 15Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Christ Himself, who is the head. 16From Him the whole body, fitted and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love through the work of each individual part.”

But is that what the Bible teaches? Do we have collective salvation or will we judged as a group on judgement day? Some progressives would like you to believe that! That is why they push social justice activism as proof of salvation. Is unity in the church the same thing as staying quiet when the pastor is wrong?

Collectivism doesn’t work, not in economics or in churches. People need to think for themselves, make choices based on right and wrong according to God’s word, and only then can they be free from the blame game.

In summary , false teachers and bad preachers are not rare. We must know what to look for . It’s up to us to be discerning and choose who we follow based on biblical truth. With prayer and courage , we can make the right choices in tough situations.

6 comments

  1. A timely warning, dear sister. Jesus noted to one group, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.” (Matthew 22:29)
    And in Matthew 24, He warned of many who would come in His name and lead many astray.
    We err if we do not love the Truth (2 Thessalonians 2:10), so it begins in our hearts. Do we love Him: the Way, the Truth and the Life?
    Keep preachin”!! 😉

    • I do love Him ! ❤️ Thank you for your encouragement. My husband is still quiet weak . I know you are praying and I appreciate you so much.

  2. “But as adults we must become responsible for our own spiritual lives.”

    A big amen to this! In Matthew we’re reminded not to call anyone “teacher” or “father ” because we have one Teacher, one Father in heaven, and we are all brothers. That means we are accountable for our own faith, for our own walk with the Lord.

    I also believe much of what motivates some of these exposures of various churches is not restoration and healing. People just want destruction, vengeance, and to expose the “bad guy.” Restoration and healing requires us to take responsibility for allowing the bad guy to make such a mess of things. Ironically, if we’re unwilling to do that we tend to just replace the bad guy with a new one. This is why women will sometimes go from one abusive relationship right into another.

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