“It’s difficult to see much more than the still-soggy ruins and drowned hopes of the once booming megachurch. “How did this happen so fast?” asks Rene Schlaepfer, pastor of Twin Lakes Church, a megachurch in Aptos, California. Watching disgrace devour other celebrity pulpits is always grim, he says, but this story hits home even harder.”
“Storm clouds seem to be whirling around me more than ever in recent months,” said Pastor Mark Driscoll to his Mars Hill congregation last August, “and I have given much thought and sought much counsel as to why that is and what to do about it.”
In the same announcement, he said, “I have requested a break for processing, healing, and growth for a minimum of six weeks while the leadership assigned by our bylaws conduct a thorough examination of accusations against me.”
Those storm clouds raged harder. Gale-force condemnation whipped up tumultuous seas of public criticism until, as those six weeks closed, a Seattle Times headline read: “Mars Hill Church reeling as Pastor Mark Driscoll quits.” Reporter Janet Tu attributed his departure to “an avalanche of allegations,” ranging from “charges of bullying,” to “abusive behavior,” to “plagiarism and overseeing mismanagement of church funds.”
Two weeks after Driscoll’s resignation, Mars Hill’s Dave Bruskas announced in an October 31 post on the church website that as of January 1 2015, “the existing Mars Hill Church organization will be dissolved.” After the church lays its central structure to rest, its 15 local bodies will float alone, if possible.
Thousands of Christian worshipers gathering weekly across four states, their church boasting annual revenues of more than $30 million, dissolving. Done.
Considering the ruins
It’s difficult to see much more than the still-soggy ruins and drowned hopes of the once booming megachurch. “How did this happen so fast?” asks Rene Schlaepfer, pastor of Twin Lakes Church, a megachurch in Aptos, California. Watching disgrace devour other celebrity pulpits is always grim, he says, but this story hits home even harder.
“Driscoll went to Western Seminary, where I went. And as I try to lead a large, theologically conservative, evangelical church in a super liberal, super progressive place [Santa Cruz, California], Driscoll was doing something similar in Seattle. He was obviously someone I looked to for guidance.
“I’m completely blown away,” says Schlaepfer. “It does not seem real. It’s like a nightmare … to have it all just go away, to have to shut it all down. It does not seem redemptive.”
Bill Clem, campus pastor and elder at Mars Hill’s West Seattle location, then later at the Ballard location from 2006-2012, says, “I knew something would eventually happen, but none of us would have ever predicted this.”
However nightmarish ruins like these may be, a traveler in Proverbs 24 suggests that the wise person will pay attention. He stumbles upon another’s ruin and says, “…I saw, and considered it well; I looked upon it, and received instruction.”
No simple answer
Clem pastored alongside Driscoll for more than half a decade, and he refuses to single out Driscoll, church structure, staff culture, or any problem as the one that “necessitated wrapping the car around the pole,” as he puts it. Perhaps no singular, simple answer will ever emerge.
Nevertheless, Clem says, the structure of Mars Hill—which over time consolidated power and financial decisions in the central organization—did play a role. “As the structure became more refined, the driving motive became efficiency and growth, and those two factors began dictating church policy.”
Tim Gaydos, pastor and elder at Mars Hill’s downtown Seattle campus from 2006-2013, sees principles from Galatians 2 playing out here. “This all began as a work of the Spirit,” he comments, “but we quickly started to push harder and harder, trying to accomplish it with human efforts—bigger, better, faster, stronger.”
“One of the things that drew my wife and me in early was being involved in a particular neighborhood context, operating with a strong theology of time and place,” Gaydos says. “But that started to shift significantly—to focus more on expansion to wherever we could find podcasters to set up a new site.”
Welcome to the whole Seattle mindset, Clem says. “Some say, ‘Let’s deliver packages,’ but Seattle says, ‘No. Let’s make it Amazon.’ Some say, ‘Let’s have coffee,’ but Seattle says, ‘No. Let’s make it Starbucks.’ ‘Let’s have a grocery store.’ ‘No! Let’s make it Costco.’ Microsoft. Google. Boeing. Seattle is about power, expansion, and world domination.”
The principle held true when that corporate drive took hold of Mars Hill. Clem had planted a small church called “Doxa” in West Seattle, and shortly after receiving a large building as a gift, they merged with Mars Hill, becoming its first expansion campus.
“At the time, when they got me and my building, the concept of multi-site church structure was fairly infantile in its movement and structure,” Clem says, “and we chose to start out heavily centralized.
“For example, by the time we had three campuses, we still only had one youth pastor. His team did ‘youth-ministry-in-a-box’ at Shoreline on Tuesday, West Seattle on Wednesday, and Ballard on Thursday. And we did the same kind of thing with the different pieces, from counseling to children’s ministry to whatever.”
Centralization consolidated power and finances efficiently. And as Driscoll’s celebrity brand infiltrated the Internet, plainly put, the church expanded enormously.
Gaydos says, “Mark made it no secret that he wanted to become the biggest church in America.” Push further. Grow faster. Give more cash to fund “The Front.”