Mars Hill Church is no more. According to their website, the Seattle-based multi-site megachurch will be devolving into various independent congregations and/or simply shutting its doors, ideally by 1 January 2015. In their words:
(1) All of Mars Hill’s existing church properties will either be sold, or the loans on the individual properties will be assumed by the independent churches, subject to approval by the lender; (2) all central staff will be compensated for their work, and then released from their employment; (3) if any funds remain after the winding down and satisfaction of Mars Hill business affairs, they will be gifted as seed money to the newly independent churches, then, (4) the existing Mars Hill Church organization will be dissolved.
The news on Friday was a shocking one for American evangelicalism, not to mention the church community here in Seattle. Coming on the back of founding pastor Mark Driscoll‘s resignation connected to bullying and dictatorial behavior, the church appears to have been in tailspin in recent weeks. To think that a congregation that not long ago numbered over 12,000 will now disband is nothing short of astounding. Pieces of it will persist, but not like it was. Despite the reasons for such developments, the rapidity of the fall is monumental, especially here in the city of Seattle.
As I’ve reflected on the developments over the weekend, I have to admit a certain wistfulness. I have spent many years studying Church history; now it’s happened right in my backyard. And as it has, I’m rather sad about it.
At a certain level, I’m going to miss Mars Hill. I realize that may be a controversial thing to say, but hear me out. When I say I’m going to miss the church, I don’t mean that I’m going to miss a pastor that bullies his people. I won’t miss any of the reproach he has brought upon the gospel. I won’t miss accusations of misogyny. I won’t miss an ideology that devalues the role played by women in the church and world. I won’t miss people being hurt by their church. These things would best die with Mars Hill.
But as the church fades, I can’t help miss what it was at its best: an example of Christian community that drew Christ followers from a city and a subculture that others didn’t reach in the same way. The work that Mars Hill did in the city of Seattle–especially in its early years–is not to be ignored. As a voice for the gospel in this place, they were used by God. I remember first learning about their ministry in the later 1990s. They were innovative. They were thoughtful and artistic. They had a lot to offer. I still remember the “Mars Hill Worship” CD I listened to regularly in those days, and how it was like nothing I’d heard before. They were truly trying to translate evangelicalism into contemporary idiom and practice, and they did so with excellence.
And Mark Driscoll? For all his flaws, the man is a great preacher. When he wasn’t saying unhelpful things, he was saying some very helpful things. In all his bravado I’ll miss him too as a kind of public dialogue partner on his pet issues.
All of my reasons for missing Mars Hill are not enough, of course, to excuse the faults that led to its demise. I am grieved and frustrated by the people hurt by this ministry over the years. They deserved better than this. So to say that I feel a certain sadness at its passing is not the same as concluding it was faultless. I simply wish they had been able to build on their not insignificant strengths without taking the path that has led to their destruction. A Mars Hill–and a pastor–that could have course corrected in a number of ways would have been a different thing entirely. That this did not happen is a sad reality indeed.
For those who disagreed with Mark Driscoll on a number of things, I’m with you. He does not seem to have been a pleasant man…and believe me, I’ve had issues with him. But while we may be glad that the toxic culture that existed has now hopefully dissolved, let’s not take joy in Driscoll’s suffering or the demise of his church. There is, after all, deep pain felt today by the thousands directly affected by this tragic turn of events.
The people of Mars Hill who proclaim faith in Christ are the sisters and brothers of believers all over the world. They are broken and in need of healing, as is Driscoll himself. They deserve our prayers, not a victory parade over their dying corpse. Whatever else it may be, the decimation of a part of the body of Christ is not good news.
So as we think about Mars Hill, let’s remember this: schadenfreude is not among the Christian virtues.