The Mars Hill crash & me

The last 12 months have been devastating for Mars Hill Church in Seattle and their globally recognised teaching pastor, Mark Driscoll. Numerous former and present pastors, elders and members have described the church culture as abusive and manipulative, and criticised a process of concentration of extraordinary power among very few hands, including the power to silence employees.

Famously, Mark has described the process of dealing with those who do not buy into the Mars Hill vision:

“Here’s what I’ve learned. You cast vision for your mission, and if people don’t sign up, you move on. You move on. There are people that are gonna die in the wilderness, and there are people that are gonna take the hill. That’s just how it is. Too many guys waste too much time trying to move stiff necked, stubborn, obstinate people. I am all about blessed subtraction. There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus, and by God’s grace, it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done…. ‎You either get on the bus, or you get run over by the bus. Those are the options. But the bus ain’t gonna stop.”

As a result, the Mars Hill story has become a byword for the dangers of allowing untested young pastors with strong convictions and dominant personalities to exercise senior church leadership in the absence of effective oversight.

Now, I’m not really interested in talking much more about Mars Hill. There is much of Mark Driscoll’s ministry for which I am unashamedly thankful. There are other parts that I’d rather not have seen. However, it isn’t my job to offer commentary on third-hand insights into the inner life of the church.

What interests me – interests, that is, in the sense of morbid fascination and regretful reflection – is this question: how much of this is true of me?

(By the way, I’m fully aware of the incipient narcissism of this piece – I’ve just said that I don’t want to talk about them, I’d rather talk about me. Sorry. Guilty as charged.)

I am a relatively young pastor, or at least I was when I became the senior minister of St Barnabas Broadway, one of Sydney’s most iconic churches. My gifts don’t hold a candle to Mark’s; nor, however, have I had some of the same charges levelled at me. But I do hold strong reformed convictions. I am fairly driven, and have little time for liberalism or wooly-headedness. And I have made decisions that have hurt members of my church. I am prone to spin. I often shortcut important processes. I have a tendency to drive others towards my preferred outcomes without truly hearing their concerns.

And although I don’t resile from any of the hard choices I have made over the last few years, I don’t think I’m quite the white hat I’ve always believed.

I catch up regularly with a bunch of other young ministers, many of them church planters, and this theme is depressingly common. We have been tasked with starting new churches or revitalising old ones. Our relative youth has been named as a source of energy, and our strong convictions as a source of change. Some of us can point to significant conversions and growth. And yet all of our churches – as far as I’m aware – have balls of hurt, disappointment or resentment. The decisions we have made, and the way in which we have made them, have led to people leaving our churches, or just disappearing in them. And we are the source of this, too. In other words, there are ‘dead bodies’ behind our buses, too.

And it’s beginning to dawn on me that I don’t know how to lead a church where this isn’t true. And that’s really sad. And worst of all, the line between me and a Mars Hill sometimes seems a little hard to pin down.


10 thoughts on “The Mars Hill crash & me

  1. It’s a sad thing to see, but I’m glad you’ve seen it and that you don’t see it as a good thing. Don’t really have any ideas about how to stop it. But I will say, make sure you keep up with some people who can pastorally care for you. Not just with peers, although that’s also good, but with someone/a few people who can shepherd you. One enduring observation from my life as a PK is that the church is dreadful at looking after its own ministers; this can lead to ministers who (all too often, quite accurately) feel like lone crusaders with nowhere to run in a storm. You can’t look after people well, or try to swerve the bus around the obstinate parishioners, if your own wounds are untended. My parents’ parishioners would care for them, but would expect care back and probably to a greater degree – that’s just the nature of a pastoring relationship I guess. Consequently, when things got really tough for us, they had few places to go. Make sure you have someone to pastor you, someone you can lean on when your parishioners get narky, someone who’ll notice when you look like you’re about to put a step wrong and who’ll say so, someone who’ll look after you just because you’re you and not because you’re their pastor.

  2. There is another way. It’s a whole lot more collaborative and consultative. It requires a whole lot more “persuasion” and a whole lot less rapid progress. Oh yes, and a whole lot less visible success and glory for the pastor. In fact, you’d probably end up quietly excluded from those ‘successful young pastor’, or worse… !

    1. I hear what you’re saying, Tim. I’m not sure the spectrum between ‘rapid progress’ and ‘slow persuasion’ is quite as easy to navigate as your comment might (to some) appear to imply. That is, true consensus remains rare, and there is no real reason to expect it – hence our diversity of churches. And most of our churches have changed so little, for so long, that there is a backlog of major decisions that are pretty urgent. The average Australian church goer is 53 – things are about to get dire very quickly.

      1. You’re quite right – no dispute here. I guess what I think is that there’s a consensus sweet-spot which few pastors even get close to. At the risk of stereotyping – I think often the older guys miss it because of an over-abundance of fear and/or enculturation, the young guns miss it because of an insufficiency of fear and/or enculturation !

  3. Michael – thanks for a great, honest post. I’ve been in ministry for 27 years in the Presbyterian Church of Australia. I was recently speaking to a Nepali church planter and he said “I’m not building the Church, Jesus is. Jesus is building His church!”. I think sometimes we lose sight of that. There are times when we need to ask “What are we really doing as pastors?” Are we more concerned for our reputation among our peers and so this drives us to do what we can to make our congregations as large as possible. I hate going to interdenominational conferences in Sydney and at morning tea someone eventually asks the question in the circle “How big is your church?” because implicit in that is the question “How successful are you as a pastor?”. Sometimes in our quest for numbers we neglect to minister to those who struggle with ill-health and mental illness and marriage issues because such people ‘slow us down’. I think many of us have bought into the wrong model of success.

    1. Totally, Kevin. But I wonder if part of the problem is that there are 3 pieces that we need to hold together carefully. Firstly, we look for not merely spiritual but also numerical growth. Acts is clearly a celebration of the early expansion of the church. Secondly, the Reformed view holds that God’s sovereign work in building his church operates primarily under and through human endeavour. There is a tendency for us to mistakenly separate the two, but true monergism sees them as one. As a result, giftedness matters. Some pastors are better at this than others (though, of course, that ‘better’ is often situational – one may be more effective in one location, but less so in another). And finally, giftedness is not a worthy object of honour, and certainly not of pride. God has made me a certain way, with some gifts – and not others. I’ve got no basis for glorying in the gifts I have, or despairing about those I do not.

      1. Mike, I agree that Acts is a celebration of the early expansion of the church, but it’s also, at most, half the story. Before the stoning of Stephen, the narrative focuses on the actions of the Spirit within the church (hence the name we’ve given the book), and the comments about the growth in the numbers of believers are generally side points at the end of these stories. Beyond the stoning of Stephen there’s very little said about day-to-day church life in the many churches planted by the apostles. You could say growth was the focus here, but it seems to me that growth is still a corollary of the Spirit’s efforts in deepening and broadening the church’s understanding of the gospel and of itself. So while it does celebrate the growth in numbers of the church, it celebrates the growth in maturity of the church much, much louder.
        I think it’s a bit of a category error to compare day-to-day church, i.e. parish or congregation life, with the overall trajectory of the church as a whole. The measure of maturity is different, the needs are different, the short-term goals are different, and the methods of directing short-term achievements to the overarching long-term goals we all share are different. They have to be, and the most basic reason for this is that institutions aren’t humans. I think this is what makes Paul’s beautiful teaching about the body of Christ a bit perilous—even in the midst of that discussion on how we are to use our gifts to serve each other, it becomes easier to conceive of a monolithic body that has a single set of characteristics, a single set of needs, and a single goal. But of course, that’s not what Paul meant at all; at the risk of complicating things by bringing in another metaphor, he was after harmony not melody. And the risk of focusing on numbers growth is that it’s a very melodic thing. It sounds pretty, but it lacks depth. That’s fine if you’re discussing the broader church, as then there’s an implicit understanding that there are deeper stories to tell. But for the day-to-day church, perhaps the harmonies are more subtle, delicate, intricate, and more easily drowned out by a strong melody.

  4. It is very insightful to recognise this trait. It seems to be partly due to the ‘worship’ of successful business people – often really talented bullies. It is such a short term outlook of the church to feel that you need to drive it forward for God to “succeed”.
    The number one question I would ask a pastor is ‘do you use scripture to performance manage staff or volunteers’. If the answer is yes – well thats poor management and scriptural abuse. I wonder if church leaders can ever work out how to live with the stress of multiple truths. Would the average 53 year old Australian church goer feel the church is a great place to take people? I dont think so.

  5. It’s all much more about loving one another!
    Sadly Mark wasn’t willing to be accountable and he had no one loving him as Nathan loved David.
    We SLM make mistakes but that is the reason we are called into ministry together to keep in line by our gifting and our sincere love for rack other . . .
    All the rest is purely academic and worthless . . .

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