On the Mars Hill Church Phenomenon

Now and then over the past several years, I have been asked what I think about Mars Hill Church, based here in Seattle, or about their founder and main pastor, Mark Driscoll. For the most part, Mr. Driscoll has written enough inflammatory, self-incriminating remarks that are a part of the public record that he has made it fairly easy for me to justify my deep apprehension about the damage I believe he is doing to those who listen to his preaching on a regular basis. I have also listened to a half-dozen or so sermons of his online just to make sure I was giving him a fair shake. They only confirmed my fears.

However, the one argument in favor of the work he is doing that has always caused me to hesitate on feeling more justified about the worries I have for those in his congregation has been the sheer numbers of people who are flocking to his church. As has been said to me, and even by me at times, “We ought to be grateful that all those people are hearing the Word of the Lord.” I know that the vast majority of those same people would never be attracted to a congregation that I serve as a pastor. So, why not just say, “God bless Mark Driscoll for the work he is doing;” and move on? But I have never been able to make peace with that sentiment; and, it seemed like it was because of more than pure envy alone (though I know some of that was/is mixed in too). I just couldn’t figure out why it felt wrong to leave it at that. I think I now know why.

This Sunday marks the day on the Church calendar that we call “Palm Sunday.” It commemorates the occasion of Jesus entering Jerusalem at the beginning of what we now call Holy Week. Many of the English translations of this story in the Gospels headline this section, “The Triumphal Entry.” And, why not? It is estimated that 10’s of thousands, if not, 100’s of thousands, flocked to the road upon which Jesus was entering the city, waving palm branches (a sign of welcoming a victorious hero), and crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the Name of the Lord!” In John’s retelling of the event, he notes that the people even added, “Blessed is the King of Israel! (John 12:13, NIV) Meanwhile, the frustrated mainline pastors, otherwise known as the Pharisees, looked on in total exasperation, even commenting, “The whole world has gone after him!”

It sounds and looks a lot like many of us current mainline pastors as we look on at what is happening at Mars Hill, and in total exasperation think “the whole world” is now going there! So, again, why can’t we just be thankful for the crowds worshipping Jesus and move on? My answer is the same as that that the writer’s of the Gospel’s came to after watching the full story of Holy Week play out. As the week went on, the multitude of people, the thousands upon thousands who were hailing Jesus as the Messiah, the King, ended up realizing that he wasn’t at all what they were told he was; and, when they found out who he really was, they ALL left him. The number of disciples who stood with Jesus at the cross at the end of the week was down to single digits!

The expectation of the crowds waving palm branches was that Jesus was a kick-ass stud who was going to pummel the Roman occupiers, throw out the namby-pamby religious leaders and take over like a real-man should! But that is not what happened at all, because that is not who Jesus is. It’s not who he was or will be. In fact, Jesus specifically rode into town, NOT on a horse, which would have been a sign that he was coming to kick some ass, but he rode in on a donkey, as a sign that he came in peace. Later in the week, when the authorities came to arrest him and Peter pulled out his sword and sliced off the ear of one of the guards, presaging the “God-given” American right to bear arms, Jesus specifically and thoroughly renounced exactly that way of doing things! “Put your sword back in its place…for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” (Matthew 26:52-54, NIV) Rather than “man-up” like some fighter in MMA, Jesus allowed himself, chose, to be led to his crucifixion “…like a sheep to the slaughter.” (Acts 8:32, NIV) This is the same Jesus who shocked similar crowds of people earlier in his career by proclaiming,

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3-10, NIV)

Now, either he was lying, or he really meant that these are the “blessed” ones, not the strong, the arrogant, or the mocking. This is also the same Jesus who showed his own sensitivity by openly crying in overwhelming sympathy for his friends Martha and Mary as they mourned the death of their brother, Lazarus. And, this was no mere trickle of a tear down his cheek as he stoically “manned-up.” As Bible scholar, F. Dale Bruner puts it, “I think ‘bawling’ fairly captures Jesus’ genuine heartbreak with and compassion for those around him.” (p.678, The Gospel of John: A Commentary)

My fear is that the crowds of people, the literally thousands of people, who are attending Mars Hill Church, Sunday after Sunday, are being sold a false Jesus. I think they are being taught that Jesus is powerful and victorious in an “we-are-better-than-the-pagans-and-weak-Christians” way, a way that Jesus condemned over and over and over again when he saw it in the serious, religious leaders of his day; rather than being taught the Jesus of the Gospels, who is powerful and victorious but powerful and victorious over prejudice, elitism, sin that separates, and death. I fear they are following after a triumphantly, nationalistic Christ that is, in fact, a blasphemy; rather than following the one who came because God so loved the WORLD, that he gave his only begotten Son. I simply do not believe that the Jesus being proclaimed by a man who encouraged his followers on Facebook to share their favorite stories of “effeminate, anatomicaly-male, worshipper leaders,” is the same Jesus of the Gospels I believe in. And, simply because there are thousands and thousands of people lining up to hear him doesn’t mean they are hearing the true Word of God, or following the King, as Jesus defined himself. Look no further than the crowds lining the road to Jerusalem that “triumphant” day. Come the crucifixion, will they still be there?

6 Comments

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  1. Thank you. “To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness.”
    ― Flannery O’Connor

  2. Hi Pastor Doug,

    Long time no see! I saw this on your Facebook and decided to take a read.

    I really, REALLY hesitated commenting but I honestly felt a conviction in my soul and hope that what I have to say will at least be considered. I have respect for your church, you as a Pastor, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) — in fact, I grew up in the Presbyterian church and was a member of First Pres of Bellevue until I was 20. But I am now a member at Mars Hill Church and have been attending there for going on eight years. And it was there, in their Ballard warehouse of a sanctuary, that I truly whole-heartedly met Jesus Christ. Of course I knew about Him, His ministry, read the Bible, prayed; but I had never been so heavy-laden about my sin against God and His amazing work on the cross to reconcile us to Him in spite of ourselves. My life completely changed, and I had a hunger for God I had never experienced before. I am certainly not saying and am not attributing this to Mars Hill or Pastor Mark. My salvation can only be attributed to God my savior for choosing me as His. But it was the sermon preached, the prayers prayed, the worship sung, all at Mars Hill Church by God’s providence and perfect plan that led me to exchange my heart of stone for a heart of flesh and fully follow Him. Praise Him!

    I am disheartened, shocked, and hurt by the claims you have made in this post by claiming I (and many of my brothers and sisters) am deceived because I call Mars Hill Church my home and Pastor Mark one of my pastors. Sure, there are some who idolize Pastor Mark and put him on a throne where only God belongs and that is a tragedy. I do not argue that Mark Driscoll has made offensive, sinful claims and statements — many of them (like the effeminate comment and others he’s posted on Facebook and/or Twitter) I have taken offense to and don’t agree with. Pastor Mark is a sinner, like you and me, with the sin of pride and haughtiness, like you and me. I can only be encouraged to see a soft heart that publicly repents of sin and such statements, as Pastor Mark has done on several occasions. And praise God that we have been given grace upon grace in the name of Jesus for such folly. If Christ gives us grace, is Pastor Mark beyond the limits of the grace you can extend to your brothers and sisters?

    I have no problem if people don’t like Pastor Mark — that’s fine. Sometimes I struggle with his abrasiveness! BUT (and that is a very large but), it is about so much more than Pastor Mark! God has blessed Mars Hill and saves people there maybe even IN SPITE of Mark Driscoll and his sins! The Word of God is preached every Sunday (as you even claimed above), God’s inerrant Word of The Bible is read every Sunday, the salvation offered by Jesus Christ alone is preached every Sunday, and hearts are turning to Him. Isn’t that what it’s all about? Pastor Mark is one small piece of the puzzle of Mars Hill Church which God has chosen to bless. There are hundreds of Pastors on the ground-level loving their flock, members serving one another, and families being knitted together by Christ. Every week we welcome 20+ people on our own couch in our home and open the Bible, study His Word, and earnestly pray for one another. How can you say that this church is evil, pharisaical, astray, or elitist? Come sit on my couch, meet my brothers and sisters, talk to us about the Living God and see what our doctrine is. NONE of us is deserving of God’s salvation, yet He freely offers it to us….how could any of us claim to be better than anyone when we all murdered God?

    The glory belongs to Christ alone, not individual churches. Where people really are meeting the One True God how can we say anything other than “Glory to God” and thank Him that He continues to save despite our rebellion. Unfortunately you’ll find people who believe they’re better than others in any church, even yours Pastor. Pray for them. I urge you to join me in prayer for my church, QAPC, and all of those who are working to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The fight isn’t against other Christians of other churches and denominations who love Jesus; it’s against the enemy who would seek to divide, wreck, and destroy the church.

    • I hear your dedication and commitment to the Lord, your church and pastor. The thing that gives me pause is the regularity with which I hear members of Mars Hill saying things like, “Yes, Mark says things which are offensive…” apologetcally. I know that pastors are not perfect and struggle with the same sins as all of us. However, as a church member for nearly 40 years, I don’t recall EVER having to apologize for my pastor saying something inappropriate. It simply shouldn’t be a normal occurrence – or at the very least – happen more than a couple of times. It’s worrisome to me that members of Mars Hill just see this as part of their church experience.

  3. With no dog in the fight (Doug knows this best), and after attending a service at the Mars Hill church out of pure curiosity (had to go to Trader Joes anyway), I must agree with Rev Early’s comments on what may be sold at the Mars Hill church. There is an elitist and exclusionary vibe at the church and Mr Driscols delivery and interpretation of liturgy boarders on cult like charisma. It always makes me uncomfortable when a leader tells one what to think as apposed to leading the respondents down a logical pathway of discovery. He has mastered the multimedia presentation, and the youtube delivery. The underlying message he delivers self positions himself as THE righteous authority. Mr Driscol uses Christianity as the vehicle to exercise his ego.

  4. Pastor Mark doesn’t “tell” one to think, he preaches. Everyone who attends any church should discern and pray through what’s opinion and what is Biblical truth. Pastor Mark has strong opinions, sure, and he voices them. But there’s a difference between him sharing his bold opinion and stating “this is what you need to believe because I do, and it’s the only Biblical way of thinking”, the latter of which he doesn’t preach.

    All I’ve heard so far are attacks on Mars Hill Church, rather than a true concern for potential lost sheep. Is your concern really is about the “false indoctrination” of people there? Are your hearts are burdened for those people? Do you truly believe they’re being led astray? Then you should be coming along side us who you believe don’t know the “true” Gospel, praying for us, and loving us. Or even boldly rebuke us through scripture! Pointing fingers, bashing, name-calling, and making negative statements is not bringing unity or showing concern for your brothers and sisters. Rather, that “elitist” mentality ya’ll claim of Mars Hill is being boldly preached yourselves by your actions and statements.

    Praise God that my, and every human being’s on this earth whether a Mars Hill Church attender or not, salvation is dependent on Christ alone and not other Christians.

  5. Brother, you have overstated your point. While Pastor Mark may have his faults, it’s not all that you mention here.

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