How the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill Could Change Church Planting

How the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill Could Change Church Planting

By Daniel Yang

This article was originally posted on February 3, 2022 at churchleaders.com.

Editor’s Note: Daniel Yang and Ed Stetzer recently interviewed The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill creator and host Mike Cosper on the Stetzer ChurchLeaders Podcast. Listen to that episode here.

By now, likely thousands of people in church leadership have listened to Christianity Today’s The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast created and hosted by Mike Cosper. The series especially perked the ears of those involved in church planting in North America because of Mars Hills’ unique influence on the wave of new churches that started in the late 1990s and until around 2014.

As the podcast got underway, people weighed in on whether or not it was adequately addressing the problems raised in its first episode—particularly around abusive leadership, spiritual trauma, and the systems that perpetuate them. For some, it’s been seen as an unnecessary airing of the bad parts of American evangelicalism. For others, the podcast has been a catalyst to explore and understand their own leadership style and how it’s experienced by those they lead.

While there’s caution—even suspicion—about the idea of a podcast showcasing mostly Mark Driscoll, many are genuinely wanting to learn from it in order to do better, especially in gratitude to those who shared their Mars Hill story so that the ones most affected would have a voice.

Now that the series is finished (with some bonus material still to be released), it’s a good time for us in church planting to begin processing some of its themes, especially ones applicable to the work we do and the church plants under our care. For the sake of brevity, I’ll refrain from referencing episodes and timestamps because you’ll easily find these themes recurrent throughout the entire series. And while there are many other themes pertinent to theology, gender, race, and authority, all of which are important and even foundational to church planting, I’m focusing this article on how our awareness of the demise of Mars Hill could change our ideas in church planting systems in North America.

1. Narrative: The Mission Isn’t a War Against Culture and Other Churches
One crucial thing about a church planter is how they understand their calling to start a church, accompanied by the internal narratives they tell themselves in order to fulfill that mission. Mike Cosper spends time unpacking how Driscoll understood his call to plant Mars Hill and even how those stories evolved over time. Some of the narratives that drove the planting of Mars Hill in Seattle reflect the kinds of things fought over in the culture wars between evangelicals and secular culture. They also reflect the internal tensions that certain groups have towards others within American Christianity.

In the 1990s and 2000s, it was popular for church planters to talk about cities like Seattle as secular, liberal, postmodern, anti-Christian, and perhaps even dark. The posture of Mars Hill, especially in its early years, was hopeful, not to be consumers of culture but to be culture makers. The church is seen as a kingdom colony inside a dark city.

However, in this sort of motif, the tendency is to see a church planter primarily as a good soldier rallying an army to advance the kingdom of light against the kingdom of darkness. And depending on one’s theology and cultural background, the kingdom of light can be understood by a church planter to have a very strict vision for family, model of church, and posture towards non-Christians and other kinds of Christians. The narrative begins with an “us vs. them” framework so that the job of church planting is then to penetrate the darkness by winning some of “them” over to “us.”

“America used to be a Christian nation.”

“Church attendance is in decline.”

“The city is a dark place.”

“Churches here don’t preach the gospel.”

“[name any group you disagree with] are taking over.”

These statements, sometimes touted by church planters and whoever they heard them from, may or may not be accurate assessments of their context. Certainly, there’s some biblical language that could be appropriated to articulate these statements in ways that sound theological and missional. But they are such powerful ideas that when left alone, without further nuance and delineation, they can form strong opinions in the minds of a church planter. That opinion can become so real to the point where they aren’t engaging the actual spiritual dynamics of their city and context. The “war” is more in their heads than in their community. And when that is the case, they often end up creating enemies more than they do friends.

What was glaring from the podcast was Driscoll’s hyperbole and rhetoric about the culture and other Christians with whom he disagreed. It formed in him and in Mars Hill a narrative wrapped in a veneer language of mission, strong enough to justify some of the things that happened. It eventually caused tremendous cognitive dissonance with its members and leaders, and it created a gulf between Mars Hill and those around it, both non-Christians and Christians.

Church planters tend to adapt their missional rhetoric from mentors, missiologists, and mission organizations. This is a good time for those of us who fit these categories to re-evaluate the language we use to articulate mission in North America. Without great precision and appropriate revision, our mobilization can over time deteriorate into scare tactics and enemy making, much like it did with the Pharisees in Jesus’ time. We need to make sure that we mobilize people into the mission of God by first affirming the image of God in others.

While the gospel has huge implications for cultural engagement and doctrinal purity—ultimately, our rhetoric to inspire young women and men into mission can’t boil down to church and culture wars.

2. Church Planter Profile: Looking For More Than Just Maverick Leadership
As a church planter myself, I can attest to the importance of the characteristics many church planting groups train for in North America. Because the predominant model highly values church as an organization, the kinds of planters many are looking for tend to have similar skill sets to effective organizational and entrepreneurial leaders. In those cases, maverick leadership is almost essential.

There is no one particular style to this kind of leadership. But maverick leaders tend to be highly visionary and decisive. They’re accomplished and, if needed, will run through walls to make things happen. Make no mistake, we need visionary and decisive leaders. Although the Bible isn’t an organizational leadership book, it offers many examples of leaders who acted courageously with vision and decisiveness. And if that were all to it, then, biblical characters such as Noah, Abraham, Moses, Deborah, David, Esther, Peter, and Paul could all be considered maverick leaders. But if they are, then we also need to grapple with why the Bible doesn’t withhold stories of some of their failures and mistakes.

Much like the characters in the Bible, when pressure comes, church planters reveal their cracks. And as someone once told me, a crack in a leader can eventually lead to a crack in their church.

Vision and decision-making aren’t the most important things to look for in a church planter profile. The presence of these things, even in great measure, can’t tell you if a planter is healthy or self-aware. They can’t tell you if a planter has a history of receiving rebuke and correction, leading to character formation. They can’t tell you if a planter works well on a team. They also can’t tell you if a planter will be prone to spiritual abuse and manipulation, especially when the going gets tough.

The podcast gives us insight into how church systems can potentially enable highly visionary people to lead without empathy for others, which often is a key factor in balancing the urge to control people and narratives. Empathetic leadership is much more than just the ability to take others into account. It is a posture that pays attention to how others experience your leadership, making appropriate corrections when needed, especially when others have inordinate anxiety around you. And it’s almost impossible to have effective empathetic leadership if a church planter sees their role only to hold the vision and to make decisions.

This is where some of our church planting systems and processes fall short because they are built on the assumption that one person is given the vision from God and is in charge of executing it. There is almost no room for assessing a team of people with a corporately discerned vision. While of course point leadership is not wrong, and teams do not automatically eliminate toxic leadership, our inability (or unwillingness) to pivot our church planting systems to consider models outside of the maverick leadership model will continue to place unnecessary and unhealthy pressure on one particular person.

If a network or denomination decides they can’t overhaul their systems to eliminate an inordinate bias for maverick leaders, they now have an even greater responsibility to care for their planters and church plants. Those who oversee church planters now have to ensure that the ones they recruit, endorse, and fund are appropriately supported so as to not end up having to be the sole visionary and decision-maker on a church planting team.

You don’t have to limit a church planter’s gifting but you should know the limits of their gifting.

Of course, this does not guarantee against potential future abuse. But toning down the qualities of a maverick leader can help reduce the pressure planters unnecessarily put on themselves, and it also may detract away from church planting those who have strong narcissistic tendencies.

3. Structure and Accountability: The Body Really Does Keep Score
Dr. Bessel van der Kolk released his landmark book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, which has been used by some church leaders to better understand what is trauma, and how it is experienced in the body and acted out. By way of analogy, the Body of Christ has stored negative experiences of church leadership and the accumulated trauma is on display through hashtag movements, conferences on spiritual abuse, denominational investigations, and very public publications and exposés, such as this podcast. The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill serves as a reminder that the church planting world in America is not unaffected by abuse and trauma.

Although the podcast names several other church network scandals besides Mars Hill, every one of us involved in network leadership should humbly seek the Lord and ask where in our systems and structures are we 1) intentionally or unintentionally causing harm to church planters and church members, and 2) creating bottlenecks where it is difficult to report abuse and hold abusive leaders accountable.

I don’t make this point to raise suspicion on all networks and denominations. Many have feared that is what the podcast has done. In exposing one pastor and his church, some are concerned that this could create a wave of false allegations toward pastors and church leaders. While it is not an illegitimate concern, I don’t think any sort of wave like that is coming. However, in the case where abuse is rampant in a church or a network of churches, then I do hope this podcast gives courage to people to call it to account.

One of the things pointed out in the podcast was the repeated attempts to get the attention of executive and network leaders to take seriously the experiences of other Mars Hill pastors and church members. And while outside help was sought, it took further escalation before Mars Hill was removed from its network. Even then, Driscoll continued to lead. Many faithful women and men, staff and non-staff, led the charge in doing what they knew to do in order to bring their leaders into account. As the podcast unfolded to us, this would take seven to eights years before their efforts culminated in the resignation of Driscoll, and eventually the demise of the church, none of which was planned for or thought would happen.

The energy of Mike Cosper and Christianity Today would be utterly wasted if network and denominational leaders weren’t intentionally allowing the Holy Spirit to lead them to identify areas in their organization that could potentially perpetuate or cover up abuse. Abuse is usually not something blatantly done or programmed into an organization. (Although, sometimes it could be intentional through things such as re-writing constitutions and bylaws to concentrate power.) Many times the environment for rampant abuse happens because of organizational blind spots, outdated business practices, idolizing a particular person or tradition, or maintaining a culture of fear where many feel they cannot speak up. To the degree these things exist in a church planting organization, it is likely to be multiplied on to its church planters and church plants.

Again, this isn’t to stir up fear or suspicion about any one particular network or denomination. But it is to make the implicit more explicit: Networks and denominations should want to do better at holding church planters and churches accountable without creating a culture of fear.

When viewed wrongly, the podcast is merely a spectacle about the failure of a man and the church he helped start. But when viewed as a catalyst, the podcast is a part of a plethora of voices that have been trying to get the attention of church higher-ups to hear stories of pain and hurt.

Ultimately, the rise and fall of Mars Hill isn’t simply a “lessons learned” for church planting leadership. It is about the survivors and the Savior that wants to heal them. It is about the systems of hurt and the structures that need to change. And it is about the care of God’s people and how that has a direct impact on the witness of the Gospel to a watching—and podcast listening—world.

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