It is Bigger Than Mark Driscoll

This week I have had several students ask for my opinion on the circumstances surrounding Mark Driscoll and the dissolution of Mars Hill. The issues involved go beyond the obvious ones presented in the most news articles. Not wanting to give a partial or disjointed answer I did not give an immediate response. May I now present the following for consideration?

First of all, I am saddened. I spent twenty years in Alaska and have a heart for the Pacific Northwest. Two of my sons are pastors in the region. Seattle is a beautiful city with a unique culture. Washington state ranks as one of the most unchurched states in the nation with 25% of its people having “no religion”.[1] By the time you add in people who are unchurched or attending religious bodies not teaching biblical truth the vast majority of the people of the Puget Sound need Christ. I do not agree with some of Mark Driscoll’s methodologies and theology. I love the book of Colossians. I hold to Paul’s words in Colossians 3:8, “But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth.” (NKJV) Like many of the emergent persuasion Driscoll’s view of social freedoms differ from mine. However, I have heard Driscoll state he regretted being known for his cursing. Perhaps, in time, we might move closer together. (Time does have a way of mellowing angry young men.) That being said, Mars Hill had a ministry reaching the area with the gospel. I have respect for anyone who is able to contextualize the gospel to a culture as challenging as Seattle’s. There is no joy in seeing Mars Hill disband.

I wish to address the issues of ecclesiology involved but first must say I disagree with the report from the Mars Hill leadership when they state:

We concluded that Pastor Mark has, at times, been guilty of arrogance, responding to conflict with a quick temper and harsh speech, and leading the staff and elders in a domineering manner. While we believe Mark needs to continue to address these areas in his life, we do not believe him to be disqualified from pastoral ministry [2]

No pastor is perfect. We are all fallen creatures saved by grace; but a pattern of the above behavior is not acceptable for ministry. Paul states:

7 For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, 8 but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled, Titus 1:7-8 (NKJV)

When the report summarizes the behavior as rooted in arrogance there should be cause for concern and censor.

The larger question I have concerning the Mars Hill is the model of the multi-campus, satellite, video feed church. I believe Mars Hill consisted of thirteen campuses in five different states. Mark Driscoll would preach from the central campus and the various congregations would receive the video sermon. This model is used by a number of American churches. The common thread of these churches is the dynamic, gifted pulpiteer. Mark Driscoll was Mars Hill to many of the people who attended the church. The disbanding of the campuses is probably the most logical course of action unless the church was able to find another strong personality with the drawing power of Driscoll. That is highly unlikely.

Mars Hill raises the question: What is the role of the pastor? In the multi-site model the pastor is the face of the “franchise”. He is the gifted public speaker who draws the audience. He casts the vision and serves as the CEO of the organization and, in the mother church; he functions as the senior pastor. The usual model has “campus pastors” assigned at each satellite location. They are responsible for leading the ministry for their campus and maintaining the corporate agenda while hosting the service when the video feed is off.

This model is a refinement of the televangelist strategy of the 1970s-80s. Now people can listen to a talented speaker on a large screen and also enjoy the corporate worship and a sense of participation in their campus church. Too many, it is the best of both worlds.

Can “campus pastors” fulfill the biblical responsibilities of shepherd without being the regular Bible teacher/preacher? I think not. A pastor’s effectiveness depends upon his relationship with his congregation. It is a relationship built on love. Thom Rainer affirms, “[Effective pastors] communicate love, sincere love. . . . Their members know that their pastors love them. And that love is contagious.”[3] The relationship between the pastor and his congregation forms the basis of his evangelistic ministry to the community. Multi-site supporters will say the campus pastor does have that relational role. However, I agree with John A. Broadus. Broadus was the first professor of Greek and preaching at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In his homiletics text, which was used by almost all Protestant seminaries for over half a century, Broadus recognized the power of preaching combined with pastoral ministry. He believed that the relationships that develop between a minister and his community gave power to his sermons. Visitation of the unconverted and sick, catechism of young believers, and counseling of troubled individuals builds a receptivity within the congregation and community. When the pastor who has spoken for God from the pulpit visits “[the visit has] a meaning and a power of which otherwise it must be destitute.”[4] The campus pastor is not seen as the teacher/preacher, and the video preacher is not seen active in pastoral ministry. The powerful combination of proclamation and incarnation is divorced.

In the case of Mark Driscoll, most of the Mars Hill congregants never had the opportunity to see Mark interact with his family, church leadership, people in need, or in the community. He was just the face on the screen; the author of the books, and the public personality which attracted them to the ministry.

I know there are a number of gifted pulpiteers in the video campus movement, as there were in the TV churches. But, I must confess I have never seen the attraction of listening to someone over a video link. I will also admit that I have been a member of some churches where the preaching was not stellar. I could have stayed home and tuned in one of the TV churches. However, I believe there is a blessing being involved in a local church family and knowing the man behind the sermon. The biblical requirements/descriptions of the pastor make sense when the job entails living among the flock. All the church planting gurus affirm the importance of contextualization of the gospel. Ministers must be able to exegete their community. When you have multiple campuses in different towns, and even states, as does Mars Hill, the challenges of contextualization multiply. When I was serving as interim pastor in Ketchikan, Alaska, we had a guest speaker from Texas. He made a comment about “two ticks on a dog.” My congregation began looking at each other and mouthing, “What did he just say?” He finally realized he had lost the congregation and stopped speaking at which time I explained they did not know the expression because there are no ticks in Alaska.

I suspect the popularity of multi-site campuses reveals a weakness in American Christianity. Our brothers and sisters in third world countries walk miles to worship in churches without padded pews, air conditioning, professional level music, and all the other trappings expected, and sometimes demanded, by American church goers. Growth requires struggle. Most pastors do not present an entertaining, scholarly, transformational sermon each week. (Some weeks I struggle to even have a respectable message.) We have good weeks and bad weeks. Pastors are required to faithfully present God’s word. We should strive to present sound doctrine in as compelling manner as possible. We should never cease striving to improve, but the congregation should realize the benefits of working through a Bible presentation instead of having it handed to them on a homiletical “platter”.

That said, it seems church attenders want the pastor to do all the studying, meditating, and applying a scripture passage. Too many Christians want to walk in, sit down, enjoy the show, receive a prepackaged Bible message, and then go home. My dad had stomach cancer. After his surgery he could not handle solid food. Until his death he lived on a diet of Ensure. An Ensure diet does not require cooking, chewing, doing dishes, etc. It is convenient. It seems congregations migrate from church to church depending upon who is offering the best “package” and the greatest convenience. The multi-site church model is strong on convenience. You don’t even have to drive across town to participate.

The Free Church tradition came out of the Anabaptist of the Radical Reformation. The two foundational characteristics of the tradition are baptism and the disciplined church. The Lord’s Supper required both to be in place. Key to church discipline is a membership bonded together by covenant. The ability to maintain discipline declines when the local church becomes a multi-campus body. We usually think of church discipline as involving members. However, the Bible also presents the criteria for a church dealing with an erring pastor. I do not know Mars Hill’s position on church discipline, but the satellite campuses would not be aware of the on-going problems with Mark Driscoll because he was just the face on the screen. Such is the short-coming of the technologically dependent multi-site model.

The issue of multiple campuses and video links developed while I was a resident faculty member teaching church planting. I developed my position from a safe distance. For the last six years I have been pastoring a young church and living in the “shadow” of a multi-site church. My church is also near a seminary. I have watched new seminarians arrive, church shop, and settle into the area churches. A large number of them end up attending one of the campuses of the area mega-church. It is an appealing place to go. The pastor is a gifted communicator, solid theologian, and great guy. It is also an easy place to go on Sunday (or Saturday night), have a great experience, and have any level of commitment you desire. It is convenient. It is safe. My church cannot “compete”. All we can offer is basic ministries, hard work, and a supportive church family. I do not see any evidence of the problems experienced by Mars Hill, but I have the same reservations. I also wonder how long the multiple campuses would last without the present pastor.

My hope for American Christianity is not in the ministry model currently in vogue. Models will change. My hope is in a Sovereign God sending His revival. When the Body of Christ is revived, we will have Christians who will not be drawn to the best attraction or most comfortable place to “worship”. We will see the Body of Christ seeking the tough places, the lost people groups, the greatest needs. The power of God will be evident in the churches when people are not drawn by great public speaking, but by our marvelous Christ.

[1] http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/life/2002/2002-03-07-no-religion.htm

[2] https://marshill.com/2014/10/15/pastor-mark-driscolls-resignation

[3] Thom Rainer, Effective Evangelistic Churches (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1996), 195.

[4] John A. Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons (New York: A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1905), 2-3.

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