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Takeaways From The Rise & Fall of Mars Hill

I have to admit, I didn’t know anything about Mars Hill Church or Mark Driscoll before listening to “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hills“, a podcast production by Christianity Today. And it is good storytelling—dramatic, sad, hopeful, and thought-provoking all at the same time.

It narrates the arc centered around Mark Driscoll, one of the pastors and founders to Mars Hill Church in Seattle. It details how his charismatic personality and strong vision grew the church to megachurch status but simultaneously contributed to its collapse in 2014. It explores themes of leadership abuse, the dangers of Christian “celebrity” pastors, and also takes a closer look at cultural context and generational church history.

A Few Observations From the First Few Episodes

  • People need Jesus, but that need for meaning or fulfillment can also be exploited
  • Family structure and sense of purpose can be hugely impactful in people’s day-to-day lives
  • The paradox of God working redemptive transformation beside brokenness and pain

Right off the bat, I think the story is captivating and very well researched. It doesn’t seek to demonize Mark Driscoll. Rather, it attempts to explore the question, “Who killed Mars Hill?” Was it solely the fault of one man? Was it the lack of accountability within the church? Or are we collectively at fault for being a culture that not only tolerates narcissistic celebrity figures, but ends up feeding them self-perpetuating authority and power?

I was struck by the testimonial accounts of people whose lives were truly transformed (for the better) through their experience in the church. On the flip side, I heard clearly the kind of damage that abusive leadership from a spiritual figure could unleash on a person and community. It was thought provoking to consider how much “bad” stuff was tolerated by the church because of all the other “good” stuff that was happening—baptisms, people coming to faith, marriages and lives transformed. A major component of this paradox at Mars Hill was the way that many people, particularly young men, were craving a sense of purpose when they first discovered Mars Hill. Mark Driscoll’s brash but commanding way of communicating vision about Jesus filled that need exactly.

How can so much pain and abuse coexist alongside such deep life transformation? Which leads me to my next few questions…

…Followed By A Few Questions

  • What’s the point of trying if the church keeps on “failing” to be a good witness?
  • How do we find loving accountability for our mistakes when we inevitably make them?
  • What is my personal takeaway from all of this?

I think a major question, for myself and maybe any other Christian listening to the podcast, is the question around the purpose of the church. What’s the point if the church keeps failing to be a good witness to the world? How can it be that Christians, who are supposed to be a light to others, end up harboring such bad fruit?

One question I keep asking myself is the question of “what now?” And, “how should I let this challenge or inform my life?” I know there’s a small part of me that is enjoying the thrill and drama of the storytelling itself—sadly, I’m sure stories like Mars Hill are not unique. Humans and Christians and church institutions will always have catastrophe and disaster. So I don’t want to walk away from this podcast only having listened to it for the drama of it—similar to how people are captivated upon reading and scrolling through attention-grabbing (usually bad) news on the Internet.

We’re all sinful as Christians. In humility, I can’t insulate myself from the possibility that I would commit similar errors if placed in the same circumstances. For me, the question shifts from not “how do we prevent mistakes” but rather, “what shall we do when we do make mistakes?” As someone who wants to keep writing and sharing my thoughts in a Christian space, it is sobering to know I will probably regret or at least need to amend much of my writings and expressed convictions about Christianity as time goes on. As such, one takeaway from the podcast is that it is wise to be surrounded with loving accountability.

I want that sort of accountability for myself. I also want that for the church as a whole. For a number of reasons, loving confrontation was not something Mark Driscoll was able to receive. The podcast presents personal deficits of his character but it also examines the structural deficits behind the collapse of Mars Hill. So ultimately, I don’t think any of us are completely insulated from the story. We can all learn and reflect on some of the themes presented here.

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