Earlier this year, Mike Cosper of Christianity Today began a podcast docu-series called The Rise & Fall of Mars Hill. For readers who may not know, the eponymous Mars Hill was a short-lived, very influential megachurch in Seattle. It began in 1996 and dissolved in 2015. This church was centered around Mark Driscoll, the founding pastor. He was both famous and infamous, depending on where you in evangelicalism and the world. Originally known as the “cussing pastor,” he became a prominent voice among conservative (often reformed) churches who sought to engage the culture. Driscoll seemed to excel at this given the fact that his church was able to thrive in one of the most liberal cities in the country. Yet he and the church did not end well.
According to the Christianity Today website, the podcast seeks to document “the perils of power, conflict, and Christian celebrity” that “eroded and eventually shipwrecked both the preacher and his multimillion-dollar platform.” Cosper also states that the podcast will “look for the presence of Christ, working in surprising and unseen ways to bring beauty out of the ashes of what was once Mars Hill Church.” As the podcast wraps up, I want to offer some reflections.
Several elements stand out for me as positive elements of this podcast.
The story needed to be told. For anyone who has been online, read a book, or attended a conference in popular evangelicalism over the last decade and a half, you know the names Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church. Opinions were divided. Conversations were had. Everyone knew about the work in Seattle and all of the associated ministries that grew out of it (e.g., Acts 29). Likewise, everyone saw the very public implosion of the church. One could argue about the amount and depth of details needed to be shared. But the story itself needed to be told, if for no other reason, than to prevent the same situation from happening again.
There are examples to see and lessons to learn. The story of Driscoll and Mars Hill are a mixed bag. There was good that was accomplished in and through the people involved. But by all accounts, Mars Hill Church did not end well. If we simply sit by and listen to the way it burned with voyeuristic tendencies, we’ve missed the point. The sinful mistakes and mindsets on display should serve as a warning for others. There are patterns to be avoided. Those in the pulpit as well as the pew should be on guard against such things. I talk more about these in the Takeaways section below.
The story came from those intimately involved. Sometimes stories are told from outside pundits. Here, Cosper did a good job of hunting down key people who were part of the church. This includes both leaders and members. While not everyone chose to be included, I feel like many significant voices were heard through the course of the podcast. This not only gives it a sense of authenticity, but helped ensure a generally balanced prospective.
The generally well-crafted nature of the podcast. Cosper and the team working on this podcast have a great artistic sensibility. Across the series, episodes are generally well-paced, the interviews well-crafted, and the music is well-chosen. Aside from a few bad edits where clips were cut-off or repeated, it was really well done. This is not bland drudgery, but an easy-to-listen-to podcast.
Not everything about the podcast was great. There was a weird inconsistency in the way profanity was censored. The same word could be bleeped in some episodes but not others. Somewhat related were the surprising references Cosper made to scenes and quotes from questionable media in some episodes. I’m not going to make rules for what a Christian should or shouldn’t watch. But drawing analogies from movies that contain sexually explicit scenes seems strange for this kind of podcast. These are minor quibbles. There are a few more significant ones.
Keys parts of the story seem missing. I know this isn’t meant to be the definitive work on Driscoll and Mars Hill Church. But for those who tracked with these things in real time, there seems to be some significant things left by the wayside. For example, there was a period when Driscoll had more mature, reformed evangelicals around him. People like John Piper and D. A. Carson have gone on record in other places as working with Mark. This season ended about the time his friendship with James MacDonald took off. From a trip to Haiti, the Elephant Room, simultaneous exits from The Gospel Coalition, and more, their very public relationship coincided with Driscoll’s turning away from the other outside influences. It’s surprising that the negative effects of this friendship were not explored more.
Lack of clarification on key issues. In pointing out Driscoll’s twisted or extreme versions of biblical ideas, Cosper is often silent on clarifying the biblical reality. This happens many times across the podcast, but is especially striking when talking about purity culture and complementarianism. It’s become popular to dunk on so-called purity culture in recent years. But often I came away wondering why a positive, biblical culture of purity was not quickly summarized or advocated for in the podcast? Somehow, the most prominent voice of so-called purity culture, Joshua Harris, comes off as a hero because he repudiated his previous work, despite his renunciation of Christ as well. Likewise, Cosper brings in some opponents to complementarianism to talk about the negative hardness of Driscoll’s version of it and their conversation with him. Fine. But where was the simple affirmation of biblical complementarianism? Since Cosper often makes brief clarifying and moralizing comments, this silence stands out. Was this a production oversight or something passed by because of his own beliefs at these points?
Unexpected choices for authoritative voices. This may just be down to preference or it may reflect my own theological convictions. I’m not sure. Either way, on more than one occasion who he chose as an authority took me by surprise. First, whenever the issue of trauma comes up, he always turns to psychologists for comment instead of biblical counselors. This stood out even more because he interviewed well-known biblical counselor Paul Tripp on other aspects of the show, but did not have him talk about the trauma aspects. Then, in episode 12, Cosper thinks through what the gospel preached at Mars Hill was really like. To do this, he contrasts an emphasis on works and grace by interviewing David Zahl on the nature of the biblical gospel. Yet Zahl makes two completely unbiblical comments on Christ’s person and work. He says, Jesus “gave up agency” in the Incarnation and “was only influential by lack of his influence.” What? The term agency is big in that episode; it comes up several times when talking about abused and traumatized people who lacked agency in their lives. But Jesus never gave up agency. He was fully, finally always in control—even of his own death and resurrection (John 10:15–18). Moreover, Jesus’ influence came because he was God’s Son in the flesh, speaking God’s Word with authority (Matt 7:28–29; 13:54; Mark 11:18; Luke 4:32). Outwardly, he was not impressive. But it’s misguided to say that was the source of Jesus’ influence. Maybe this was just sloppy, off-the-cuff language. But I would have used something much clearer when trying to advance a biblical gospel.
As I’ve thought about this podcast series over the last several weeks, a few things stood out to me as big takeaways.
Sin brings pain and suffering. Much of the hurt and difficulty seen in the story of Mars Hill comes from the sinful attitudes and actions of leaders. And we need to dwell on that. Some of the people interviewed have yet to get over their treatment by people who were supposed to be godly men. This is a warning to every believer: sin hurts. Whenever we deviate from God’s will and ways, there will be consequences.
The essential need for character in leadership. It is amazing how much the church in America gravitates to things the Bible is essentially silent on when it comes to leadership. Big personalities and engaging teaching take a back seat to godly character among biblical qualifications for pastors (1 Tim 3:1–7; Tit 1:5–9; 1 Pet 5:1–5). This should be an ongoing, essential mark of pastors. Robert Murray M’Chenye was right: “It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus.”
The helpfulness of leadership teams. So many times problems came with one man dominating the room, rules, and running of Mars Hill. They had executive pastors, multi-site pastors, but the authority always flowed from Driscoll. Having a church where even the main preaching pastor is subject to a group of elders who all have the same authority would have gone a long way to helping Mark and the situation at the church.
The mindset of pastors vs. preachers. Several people talked about the inaccessibility of Mark and other pastors at Mars Hill. Pastors must find ways to mitigate the “preacher only” mindset that can set it. The pulpit is never disconnected from the shepherding aspects of ministry. If people cannot find their pastor, how much of a pastor are they really?
The problems of God “told me.” Though Driscoll’s examples were most prominent, others in the church often relied on what was seen as an immediate voice from God in decision-making. This is problematic; how do you argue with someone who said “God told me”? Surely, God still speaks through his Word. His Spirit still brings to mind passages to direct our decisions when we seek his help. But “God told me” should never be the trump card in a discussion when believers disagree. Scripture should be the final authority of our appeals.
The unstoppable nature of the gospel and the church. Despite the spiritual wreckage left in the wake of Mars Hill, the church goes on. Not in a way that shakes off the dust of the crumbled church and simply moves on, but in and through the lives of those hurt by it. Many of the campuses became churches in their own right. Many believers hurt by the sins of others grew in their faith and are now able to help others. The story of reconciliation between Sutton Turner and dozens of Mars Hill members was especially moving. God did not abandon his people. The Church did not end. The gospel did not stop changing lives.