The “takeaways” from Mars Hill are as many as the situation is sad. Today, two thoughts related to its unfortunate demise.
The first has to do with structure. From what I understand, Mars Hill was–like a number of up-and-coming churches–an exemplar of the video-based multi-site model. What this means is that while each “site” around the city of Seattle and elsewhere had their own meeting place and pastor, they were all a part of the same larger church. For a number of services each month, Mark Driscoll (or someone else) would preach the sermon through a videolink. No matter where the parishioners were, they would be getting the same message. Other weeks, I assume, the local site pastor might speak or preach.
The basic logic of the multi-site model is that if the central church has a healthy system, it makes sense to expand that system through the launching of a new location. Rather than simply plant a church and set it free to fail, the mother congregation offers oversight and shares its resources to help the new site succeed. Such as it is, this is not a bad model. In my church, for instance, a pastoral teaching team plans sermons together and shares the same message at each of our two sites via a live in-person speaker. Though we’re only a month into this preaching system, I think it makes sense. If implemented another way, however, there is danger.
For Mars Hill, the multi-site approach meant (among other things) benefiting from Mark’s preaching and teaching skills by adding a vide0-based component. The problem with such a model is that it can centralize focus upon one person. If that main person is a celebrity and/or head and shoulders above the rest, it can begin to make the church rather single-minded. For as long as that person is there and doing their job right, it is all well and good. But if things go off the rails in any way, there can be trouble. At least one of the reasons Mars Hill is now splitting up, I think, is that the system it built can no longer be maintained without the centralizing focus and skill of Mark Driscoll. In other words, without the central draw, there is no need for a central draw.
The video-based multi-site model can therefore be dangerous, and I think that the collapse of these past few months should make churches who use it pause in their tracks. Though not every congregation will suffer the scandal of Mars Hill, whenever there is a “main draw” preacher via video there needs to be the realization that there will always come a time when they are not around. This may not be for years down the road. It may be within a few weeks. No matter the case, building a church around one celebrity is a dangerous proposition.
My second “takeaway” from Mars Hill is both analysis and hope. Though we do not (and may never) know in exact detail what led to the church’s downfall, it seems fairly clear that bullying from their lead pastor had something to do with it. Even by itself, this is not good. When coupled, however, with the hypermasculine rhetoric and approach that Driscoll embodied together with an overtraditionalistic model of male-female hierarchy, it is even more unfortunate.
While I don’t want to be too quick to say that all of these things (bullying, hypermasculine rhetoric, gender ideology) were necessarily connected in a cohesive whole, it seems like they formed a sort of matrix out of which Driscoll operated. Bad things resulted. Understand me: I’m not saying this all happened because Driscoll thought wives should be submissive. I’m simply say that something like this was a piece to a larger puzzle.
When it comes to Driscoll’s project, I have sympathy for what I perceive to be its genesis: the problem of extended adolescence. I picture him beginning to minister in Seattle in the later 1990s into the 2000s and coming to realize what many societal commentators have discussed: people aren’t “growing up” as fast as they did in generations past. For the contemporary young person, the adolescence that ended for their parents at age 18 is now extended as far as 30 or beyond. This is frustrating for many to see. As Mark Driscoll observed this in the young men to whom he ministered, he not inappropriately called upon them to “step up.”
The advance he sought, however, was not simply one of maturity, but rather wed to his own conception of masculinity combined with a certain reading of the Scripture. This, among other things, involved (my own airquotes) “being a man’s man,” “drinking beer and talking theology,” and “leading the family and church.” Driscoll of course accepted the idea that women cannot be pastors, and for a number of years we who support the call of God in our sisters’ lives have had to grapple with him.
Though not causing it, all of these ideas connected to what seems to be Driscoll’s pugnacious nature. The unfortunate result of this mixing has been in the news now for some time.
Whatever I have suggested above is admittedly conjecture, but I think it has some merit in explaining part of the Mars Hill/Driscoll ideology. This leads me to my hope: that because some of the same problems that led to Driscoll’s resignation are (at least) thematically linked to such a hyper-masculine ideology, it may fade in influence as a discredited notion. A kind of “guilt by association,” if you will. Even though such rhetoric and a failure to support women in ministry was not itself the presenting cause of Driscoll’s problems, that it was connected to them may cause many to rethink their stance on such issues.
To close, an historical example. Mere days after JFK was assassinated the new President Lyndon Baines Johnson addressed the assembled Congress. As he stood before the nation and that august body, he said this: “All I have I would have gladly given not to be standing here today.” Clearly, there are some lessons we’d rather learn and some realities we’d rather achieve by any other means. So please understand that as I’ve shared some thoughts about celebrity pastors and vide0 sites, I’m not happy about the way this lesson was learned.
So too I don’t dance on Mars Hill’s grave, even though with its burial some of the things I liked least about it may now fade. Though the takeaways I’ve shared may be helpful, how they came to be does not make them unmitigated goods. May we remember this as we pray for the Church universal and local.