Controversial Megachurch Pastor Mark Driscoll Finds a New Flock

Barely a year later and 1,000 miles away, Driscoll is back, planting a new church in Phoenix, Arizona.

“I don’t know why he’d hide [his history with Mars Hill], or think that he could,” said Warren Throckmorton, a psychology professor at Grove City College in Pennsylvania and perhaps the most prominent of a handful of fastidious religion bloggers who have documented the particulars of Driscoll’s troubles. “Given that he built his brand on going public with things, being a celebrity, and marketing, I would think people would want to know what actually happened at Mars Hill before they welcomed a similar church in Phoenix.

 

There’s a new church coming to Phoenix, Arizona.

According to its website, the pastor, Mark Driscoll, is a “Jesus-following, mission-leading, church-serving, people-loving, Bible-preaching pastor…grateful to be a nobody trying to tell everybody about Somebody.”

While he may wish he were less recognizable these days, compound adjective-loving Mark Driscoll could hardly be called a nobody. Though there’s no mention of it on The Trinity Church’s shiny new website, Driscoll built and presided over Seattle’s controversial Mars Hill Church, and he is one of the most famous and disruptive figures in the history of the evangelical mega-church movement.

Driscoll and two other pastors started Mars Hill in 1996. Before long, Driscoll was drawing crowds with a unique brand of hipster conservatism. He was a 25-year-old charismatic preacher with a Sam Kinison yell and a collection of ironic “Jesus is my homeboy” T-shirts, who talked freely about sex but offered a socially and theologically conservative message that introduced Seattle’s young unchurched to a macho, vengeful God. (He once described Jesus as “a prize fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed.”) The first services outside of the Driscoll living room were held in a music venue—owned by church cofounder Lief Moi—in a space aptly named the Paradox.

“Do they call you pastor here…or dude?” a Nightline correspondent asked in 2008.

Mars Hill was slated to become the biggest church in the country. In its heydey, it was welcoming more than 12,000 visitors every week to one of its 15 satellite campuses in five states and reporting $30 million in yearly revenue.

But as Driscoll’s star rose, he was dogged by allegations from church members and pastors as well as from outsiders—of bullying and spiritual abuse, misogyny and homophobia, plagiarism, and misuse of church funds, just to name a few. In 2014, after being asked to submit to a reconciliation plan proposed by the church board he organized, Driscoll quit.

Now, barely a year later and 1,000 miles away, Driscoll is back. And though he may be fresh off an apology tour on the megachurch circuit and backed by a roster of celebrity pastors and online supporters, many of his original followers—a dozen of whom spoke to The Daily Beast, not counting at least 100 others who have shared their stories online—are still wondering if Pastor Mark will ever address the damage he allegedly wreaked on the people at Mars Hill or the church he left in ruins.

In his new bio, without naming any controversies specifically, Driscoll writes that he and his family “faced the most challenging year of their lives.”

Driscoll declined to be interviewed for this article, but in an email response, “The Trinity Church” directed us to his personal and church website. “Our church plant is in the infancy stages and as more details come together we will let everyone know in our weekly church newsletter,” Trinity wrote. Several follow-up requests seeking more information about the period between Driscoll’s resignation from Mars Hill and his new venture at The Trinity Church were not returned.

“I don’t know why he’d hide [his history with Mars Hill], or think that he could,” said Warren Throckmorton, a psychology professor at Grove City College in Pennsylvania and perhaps the most prominent of a handful of fastidious religion bloggers who have documented the particulars of Driscoll’s troubles. “Given that he built his brand on going public with things, being a celebrity, and marketing, I would think people would want to know what actually happened at Mars Hill before they welcomed a similar church in Phoenix.

“There are a lot of loose ends.”

So, as prospective parishioners might be wondering, just what did Driscoll do?

The first and easiest thing to digest, because the media so readily reported the juiciest bits, is the large groups of people whom Mark Driscoll has offended. Usually the aims of his ire were women or gay men. Sometimes, he hit both at once, like the time he suggested Ted Haggard’s wife “letting herself go” might have had something to do with the rival evangelical pastor’s proclivity for male prostitutes and crystal meth.

The largest repository for his most offensive remarks comes from early 2001 in his church’s members-only forum, where he posted under the Braveheart pseudonym “William Wallace II.” In one particular thread, Driscoll rants (in part) that: We live in a “pussified nation” where men are “raised by bitter penis envying burned feministed single mothers,” homeosexuals are “Damn freaks,” and women, (unpoetically described as “homes” for a man’s penis), “will be ignored,” because Driscoll “[does] not answer to women.”

These writings resurfaced some 14 years after Driscoll wrote them, and he has on several occasions apologized for his “angry-young-prophet days,” calling the posts “plain wrong.” But former congregants tell tales of a bullying Driscoll not so far in the distant past.

In 2003, former congregant Jennifer Roach had a disagreement with Mark over whether men and women could be friends. In response, Driscoll posted a letter to the forum addressed to her husband that read, “You better shut your wife up, or I’ll shut her up for you.” What surprised Roach, she said, even more than her pastor’s anger, were the “mini-Marks”—young men who took it further. “I got direct emails telling me I was an adulterer and a whore,” Roach told The Daily Beast. “One said that I was just trying to ‘take down a good man.’”

Hundreds of similar stories exist. A closed Facebook group of disaffected members has almost 500 members.

But personal stories of alleged mistreatment by Driscoll aren’t why Mars Hill imploded. As unbelievable as Driscoll’s statements could be, the more vicious the evangelical firebrand got, the more popular he became. Driven by a doctrine of manifest destiny and surrounded by struggling smaller churches happy to turn over their assets in order to join the Mars Hill brand, the controversial megachurch continued to grow.

Read More