It’s a gospel-driven, gracious message that saves people and brings true change, especially in how we love our wives as Christ does the church. The pastor, too, must submit to that message, knowing that such a calling takes away his own control over the people, as it’s meant to do. Then the ministry is really all about Jesus, as Driscoll used to incessantly say. This is the lesson Reformed people can learn from the tragic account of the rise and fall of Mark Driscoll.
I’ve been listening with great interest to the new series at Christianity Today, “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.” At the pinnacle of Mark Driscoll’s success, I was pastoring a Reformed church in Lynden, WA, about an hour and a half north of Seattle. It was a challenging time in the landscape of rural Christianity.
A new megachurch in Lynden was drawing out the boomers from classic Reformed churches by the thousands. This church purchased the local shopping mall and created the closest thing as they could achieve, in appearance and message, to Rick Warren’s Saddleback church, abandoning anything that reminded their members of their Reformed past. It was light, easy-going, unstructured, entertainment Christianity—at its best.
There was, at that time, across the spectrum, circa 2005, a reaction to anything in Christianity that was structured or formal. People loathed visiting a church with a pastor in a suit and old music. There was something psychologically repulsive that happened for people when they walked into a church and looked at anything formal, especially if the music did not achieve the rated quality of a good experience.
But it wasn’t just the look, it was the “sound” too. As a pastor, I had a hard time grasping what was driving people in every direction. The sad reality was, in many traditional churches across America, there had been, over the years, a lot of angry, legal preachers who turned the Christian pulpit into brow-beating sessions on how bad the culture had become. This created an “us versus them” kind of ministry that offered little hope of the gospel to free people from sin. Preaching became a giant exercise in the advancement of self-righteousness in the particular legal emphases of that ministry.
The prop was the law of God itself. The minister could gain control of the people through the power of guilt and shame by making them feel that they were never doing enough for the kingdom of God. As the pastor assured them, at least they were on the right side of the fence so long as they stayed under his ministry. But these kinds of legal ministries have breaking points and people snap, as they run somewhere else to get away from it all.
Mark Driscoll and The Power of Shame
This was the perfect moment for Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill church to capitalize on the problem. Generation X had little toleration for the Saddleback model; it was viewed as their parent’s vision for the church as an escape from perceived abuse. Driscoll, however, was able to create a strange paradox in mixing both worlds. He used ancient symbols, creating the sense of an authentic Christianity, while still being able to strip away the churchiness that drove young people away from the church to begin with.
Front and center were ancient light fixtures, dark and mysterious, without that stereotypical, crusty old man in a suit behind a wood pulpit. There was something esthetically pleasing that looked even more authentic than the traditional church and that remarkably provided a bridge back to the church for the disenfranchised. And the music? How could you mingle together an authentic church with music that pleased a punk rock generation? Driscoll achieved this and more.
As I’ve listened to Mike Cosper’s series on Mars Hill, there is one comment I have not been able to get out of my head. Cosper questioned how the power of shame is able to change anyone. Driscoll’s ministry was one of angrily shaming people into obedience. But herein lies the sad irony of Mars Hill.
During my time of pastoring in Washington State, we had numerous young people move to Seattle and attend Mars Hill. I can’t comment here on the damage done as it’s too personal to the families involved. But what’s often missed in the Mars Hill story is that those hit the hardest by the Mars Hill bus were young adults from previously churched rural America. Many of these had previously exited classic Christianity for the reasons mentioned above, and attended Mars Hill as their last hope for finding a place in the church.