July 11, 2021

Thoughts on Ep3 of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill

Episode 3 of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast was a cracker. An absolute belter. Especially in light of the recent Julie Roys podcasts about Driscoll’s new gig in Arizona which is in implosion mode for all of the same – but seemingly heightened – reasons.

And that’s the thing isn’t it? After you’ve already gone full crazy in one church, you kinda cut to the chase in the second one and pick up fairly quickly from where you left off. I mean why go to all the bother of wasting time being the starry-eyed, naive new bloke with wonder in your eyes planting in your lounge room, when you can be the gimlet-eyed, hard-nosed leader from the get-go with a huge budget and an online presence?

A few observations about the podcast episode:

  1. Are church planters crazy, or are the types of churches they want to plant the thing that is crazy?

It takes a certain audacity to think that you can plant a church. Anyone who thinks they can do it has to be a little bit crazy.” Rich Plass.

Well perhaps. Maybe it would be better to say that to think you can plant a certain kind of church in a certain type of culture, you need audacity and craziness. Let’s remember, we’re taking about muscular American can-do-ism here in which the pioneering, hyper-individualistic notion of building a successful business is the model.

There will be, no doubt, church planters all over India and South-East-Asia who simply proclaim the gospel from village to village and see people converted, who then grow these converts in the doctrines of the gospel, put some structures in place, give them biblical frameworks for leading, and then off they go to the next village, before doing the circuit back again to check on their health. They have a quiet audacity to them.

But when it comes to Mars Hill, we’re not simply talking about a church, are we? We’re talking about a church that, from the outset, deliberately stood against the prevailing ecclesiastical tone, and wanted to rattle the cage, not primarily of the culture (though that would come later), but of the church itself.

And in a crowded market like the USA, it had to rise above the noise. It had to make a mark. In a saturated market you have to be all about branding if you are going to stand out. In a time and place in which so much church is Teflon, you had to be Velcro. Much of the late modern West is about good branding because good branding cuts through, and churches, especially church plants, have found themselves needing to be in that territory if they are to cut through.

And like it or not, and this is true of most church plants in the Western world, church plants primarily grow from other Christians coming to them because of branding. Sure there is non-Christian fruit, and it is more non-Christian fruit than established churches see, but it’s not on a scale that would enable a church to grow on its own.

There’s simply nothing New Testament about modern day church plants anywhere in the post-Christian West. Sure we use the New Testament documents to justify what we do (causing a riot as Driscoll would approvingly say of Paul’s efforts), but let’s be honest with ourselves, we’re not planting or growing churches by conversions. We’re growing them by being better than the competition, or at least narrow-casting our message enough to attract a certain type willing to put its nose to the grindstone for a few years in the hope something good will spring forth.

Which leads me to another observation: many Christians who do join church plants are looking for something “more”. Whatever “more” is. That came through strongly in the podcast. The people who were dissatisfied with the traditional model, or whose own children had no cultural connection with the churches that they had grown up with. Mars Hill seemed to offer “something” that was lacking in their current churches. Something in their old church was not strong enough to keep them – or their families – there. This other something was.

I get that. I still remember the one time I went to Mars Hill in 2007 for a Boot Camp with Steve Timmis, and meeting young blokes who were pretty much refugees from fundamentalism, drinking whiskey and smoking cigars on Driscoll’s lawn. They were, if truth be told, the very men who Driscoll said he was trying to reach. the fatherless and slightly lost who had suddenly found a cause, a hill to die on. They were being given “something” as opposed to pretty much in their eyes, nothing.

Problem of course, is that Driscoll was not going to be a leader who would die on the hill before you, or even with you. He would sacrifice you for the sake of making it to the top of that hill himself.

Which brings me to the next observation:

2. Driscoll wanted men to “man up” except when it came to manning up to him.

It was all about men not wanting to wear a lemon sweater and sing love songs to the sky fairy. And I totally get that. I totally do. I don’t find the Boomer style of the 90s my thing at all. Driscoll was big on men being men, or being SNAGS (Sensitive New Aged Men, remember them?) getting out of their bedrooms, finding a job, marrying a woman, having kids, looking after their family. He wanted to reassert, in a city as hostile to family values as Seattle was and remains, the rightness of a quiet, well ordered, traditional family life. And I applaud that. Be hard to argue against it too much anyway, from a Bible that says “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life” (1Thess 4:11-12).

But when it came to Driscoll himself, not only did men who stood up to him find themselves being cut down. Turns out the “man up” rule only applied if you didn’t try it with him. But tragically, and disgracefully so, the women he kept telling men to defend, were fair game to his version of masculinity too!

The story told on the podcast by Karen Schaeffer (whose own earlier account you can read here) is a case in point. Schaeffer labels Driscoll “an equal opportunity abuser”. She and her husband were like so many who first joined after having a spiritual awakening when they saw how their own sons were transformed by Mars Hill in the early days. The fact that she was gifted in leadership saw Mark offer her the role of his Executive Assistant.

If you haven’t listened to the podcast I won’t spoil it for you by explaining why Driscoll called her to his home and shredded her, but what I do find horrifying is how she went back out to her car, with tears in her eyes and told her husband that she couldn’t do it anymore. And they drove off home. I am pretty sure I would have taken more drastic action against Driscoll if I had been her husband, given especially what he himself said a husband should do to defend his wife.

While Driscoll’s view of women was misogynistic at worst, and patronising at best, the fact is he only wanted the men around him to rise to a certain level of manliness, which was just below his level. Narcissistic men are always like that. As that fantastic podcast You Are Not So Smart revealed, in an insightful episode in May of this year on narcissism, research is now showing that there is no such thing as a grandiose narcissist. All narcissists are vulnerable narcissists. The grandiose is merely a sociopath who has zero feelings about anything or any decision they make.

Driscoll was/is the vulnerable narcissist who, like Don Draper in Mad Men (an archetype narcissist), must always scramble to gain back potentially lost ground in any relationship. The power differential must always be weighted in his favour. Always. And what behaviour is acceptable in order to maintain that weighted favour? Any behaviour. The vulnerable narcissist (and remember they are all vulnerable) can never, ever, allow anyone to be stronger or better than he at anything.

He is the Special One. Special rules apply to Special Ones. Rules that don’t apply to the non-special ones. Other men should man up to other men, and be strong for their ladies (who are to be treated with royal dignity), but those roles do not apply for the Special One. That’s how cults start. Or, that’s how second church plants in Arizona start, not to put too fine a point on it.

It’s my absolute experience with narcissistic church leaders. They want men to man up, except to them.

3. Driscoll wasn’t wrong about everything

It’s very easy to say, on the other side of such a toxic experience, that the person who abused you was wrong about everything. They usually aren’t. Driscoll was eerily accurate about some things. If he were all wrong about everything all of the time he would not have gotten so far. If he were always an awful preacher, constantly a dud theologian, not good at leading or starting anything ever, there would have been no Mars Hill and no The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast. And there would be no body count behind him either. The fact that he was not all wrong is the very thing that made the things that were wrong so desructive.

That exactly mirrors my experience with The Crowded House in the UK. It wasn’t all wrong. In fact so much of it was right. I feel the heart stirrings as I listened to people at the start of the podcast describe how there was something almost rapturous about finding a group of people and a church like that. It was something they had never experienced before. That’s how we felt when we went to The Crowded House initially. It felt like this was what we had been looking for in church for years. And Steve Timmis was also an exceptional preacher, something that is reiterated in Christianity Today’s expose about him from early 2020. Even those of us who left scorched and burnt could still say that. That’s why the open letter from Driscoll’s former Exec Karen Schaeffer is to be found on a website called We Love Mars Hill.

One thing Driscoll got right, got absolutely right, was the trajectory that the emergent church was going on theologically. As you listen to that part of the podcast which is a recording of the workshop session he did, about the need for the church to preach Christ, and the pushback he got, you can see the “emerging” split.

Those who were positing a new “humbler epistemology” in the post-modern age (e.g Brian McLaren) have ended up exactly where Driscoll predicted they would, a long way from orthodoxy. And for those of you who championed that other Mars Hill (MH Bible Church led by Rob Bell), surely you would be embarrassed by the cosmic new Age nonsense emanating from Bell’s mouth, as he conducts spirituality sessions for wealthy Californians alongside Deepak Chopra.

Driscoll, like it or not, was orthodox theologically, and stuck to his guns against wha has proven to be a less than successful, or Biblically faithful, emerging scene. I’ve written about it in the past, but McLaren and Bell were so intent on deconstruction that they didn’t know where and when to stop. They didn’t just give up on foundationalism, they gave up on foundations. No one is asking them how to arrest the ruinous decline of church attendance, because their theological framework is part of the problem not part of the solution.

So Driscoll wasn’t wrong about that. His tone was appalling that’s for sure. And he milked that tone for all it was worth as he established the groundwork for what has become known as the Young Restless Reformed crowd. But here’s the thing about that theology. It was something he retro-fitted (as the podcast clearly shows), into his ministry on the fly. I was somewhat bemused going to Mars Hill in 2007 and hearing the staff around him speak in breathless tones about this amazing biblical theology framework they’d discovered in an Australian theologian called Graeme Goldsworthy, and had I heard of him? It was as if they had never heard of stock standard Reformed theology up until that point. Which of course they hadn’t.

This thinness is obviously reflected by the fact that many who left the whole scene, probably burned their Reformed books a year or so later. It didn’t stick. And Driscoll is one of those who has led the burning. Whatever he is in Arizona, it isn’t Reformed! The scandal of course is that he sullied the theology through his pathology, when in fact there is no causal link.

My experience of Reformed theology growing up, then studying a degree which had the doctrines of grace at their centre was as far away from that muscular self-aggrandisement as you could get. Quiet, godly, learned scholars, and churches that were safe, gentle places to be. The Young Restless Reformed was an aberration of Reformed theology, yet it has so tarred it that many who are hostile to such a theological framework pull out the “patriarchy”, “muscular” “toxic” semantic field to describe it.

That’s the problem with not being wrong about everything. The things you are right about get sullied in the process.

Anyway, those are just some of my initial thoughts on the third episode of this increasingly fascinating “ear-worm” podcast. Can’t wait until Episode 4 drops.

Written by


Written by

Recent Posts

There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

Stay in the know

Receive content updates, new blog articles and upcoming events all to your inbox.