July 7, 2021

Who killed Mars Hill? Perhaps Jesus did, and a good thing too.

I have enjoyed the first two episodes of the podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, presented by the excellent Mike Cosper.

Enjoyed it in the same way that so many of us enjoyed the secular Serial podcast, which was also about a killer. Think of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill as the Christian version of that groundbreaking podcast. It has the same cultural traction – among Christians at least -, as people wait for each episode to drop.

It’s certainly an excellent piece of new media journalism, and is at pains to be scrupulous in its timeline, with a breadth of interviewees that is impressive. Incidentally, you can tell Tony Jones is from progressive emergent stock by his funky tone, and also, sadly, because of his casual blasphemy.

So onwards and upwards with the podcast. It’s going to be Christian podcast of the year surely. Certainly the most talked about.

But I do take issue with what seems a bit of a trite, and almost too culturally self-aware, response to the question raised by the title of the first episode Who Killed Mars Hill? Cosper, at one point, after a series of revealing interviews and long-term cultural/ecclesiastical observations, answers his own question this way: “Maybe we all did.”

To which I would respond, that’s clever, but almost too clever. Because in the end, it risks spreading the blame around in such a way that there is no actual “persons” to singularly blame for what happened at Mars Hill. It was all of us, so in reality, apart from some major players who should be apportioned a higher percentage of blame, we’re actually all at fault.

And from where I sit in the bleachers, that muddying of the waters has, in the past, led to a “launder, rinse, repeat” problem in the evangelical church. I am willing to be wrong on this one, by the way, and we’re only two episodes in, but this is my initial take in what will be an ongoing commentary on the series.

As Homer Simpson said, on a number of occasions when he is clearly to blame for the malaise that has affected his family, “Maybe we’re all to blame?”, hoping against hope that the family buys the excuse for his own poor behaviour, behaviour which he refuses to take responsibility for.

But the “Maybe we all did” doesn’t quite stack up. Sure it’s fine to blame the cultural zeitgeist that gave rise to a whole bunch of fatherless (and wifeless and childless) kidults who ended up being super attracted to this gig, but the people running the show were not those types of people. It was alpha male dad types all the way down. And plenty of voices were calling out for change for a very long time. I don’t think such voices should be included in the “all” of “we all did”. That just sounds like blame-shifting to me.

And let’s not blame the sheep who ended up being killed off a lot earlier than Mars Hill did. They were bleating for years about the problems, and it was only when the noise got to the point of embarrassment, and the leadership within Mars Hill saw that Driscoll was taking a drive into Nutbar City limits, that anything was done.

And let’s add to that even further – Mars Hill may have been killed off, but the spirit of Mars Hill lived on in the appointment of the likes of Steve Timmis to head up Acts29, even though he had the same track record as Driscoll in terms of creating toxic cultures and then blowing things up. The excuse has been made that “How could we possibly know that prior to appointing him?”

Well you’d think an organisation would do some serious homework on their next appointment after such a toxic experience. You’d think that a full-blown investigation of Timmis’s track record would be required, you know, just to be on the safe side. I have it on good authority that no such investigation occurred.

Yet the article by Sara Zylstra in 2017 on The Gospel Coalition website about Timmis’ appointment, and its reflection on how the new leaders (who were the old leaders reworked), were now charting a new path away from the toxic past, seems naive looking back on it. It was, I think, another “Maybe we all did” moment. Someone should have said something about that at the time. Oh that’s right, I did, four years and six days ago to be exact, and you can read it here.

Here’s what I said back then:

It’s easy to treat the Driscolls of this world as the singular and coalesced problem because this narrative allows other leaders the escape route of painting themselves as victims who have suffered within the abusive system rather than enablers of that system. Yet perpetrators only perpetrate, and continue to perpetrate, because enablers enable, and continue to enable, even well after it dawns on them that there might be a problem.

Sure, enablers can help pick up the pieces, but some of those pieces are pieces that they helped create. To their credit several of the leaders admit as much in the article, yet even that admission process apes the Oprah Winfrey-esque reinvention of self so beloved of American culture.

So it seems, rather than cast the net too narrow and blame Driscoll in particular, which I think the podcast is rightly at pains to avoid doing, an equal and opposite mistake is being made by casting the net too wide and saying actually “It’s all our fault.”

Now I am waiting with eager anticipation along with the rest of you for the next episode to drop, so the ensuing information and reflections might soften that initial, almost whimsical, conclusion by Cosper. But we shall see.

However, it would seem this is the exact time to pinpoint blame and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

And I say this following yet another TGC article, this time in Australia, following the almost carbon copy fall of Timmis. I had plenty of feedback here in Australia following that article, particularly on this point that was being made:

Lessons for All

There are lessons for us all in this.  For those in leadership, those being led, and those developing leadership structures and systems. 

Humility is crucial in Christian leadership.  Humility begins with a recognition of our finitude before God and moves us to live and be concerned for the other above ourselves (1 Pet 5:2-6Phil 2:3,4).  Humility means we will be quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19).  It means actively seeking out, and valuing, the perspectives, opinions and advice of others (Prov 12:15; 15:31-33).  Humble leaders willingly submit to accountability structures rather than insulating themselves from criticism or surrounding themselves with sycophants. 

To all of this the likes of Driscoll and Timmis would shout a hearty “Amen!”. They indeed affirmed to all who would listen to them at their conferences that they themselves were constantly putting such structures in place, and ensuring that people spoke into their lives etc. Indeed it was a Timmis mantra that The Crowded House was led by consensus among a group of robust elders. Who believes that now?

In other words when we read articles that say such things, the leaders most likely to self-reflect and worry that they might end up being the proud, arrogant, controlling bullies that they are warned about, are generally those types who are never going to become such leaders. They have too much humility and self-awareness!

And, in a great and tragic irony – one that I think will have eternal consequences for their souls – the leaders who see such articles and immediately think of how they can incorporate them into their next conference talk, with nary a thought it might be them, are exactly those types of bullying leaders. They have zero humility and zero self-awareness.

We know this to be the case because even when irrefutable evidence of their behaviour is put in front of them they find ways to shift the blame, diminish their responsibility, and find loopholes in reports and reviews that were commissioned to examine their ministries. And even as they do this, they start setting themselves up for their next gig. There are lessons for all, certainly. Just not for them.

As my wife reminds me from her days at working in the protective wing of a maximum security men’s prison:

“Even in there where you’ve reached the end of the line, the amount of blame shifting is incredible. The worst atrocities have been committed and men still blame their victims.”

That, my friends, is what hell will be like.

So in the long ironic run, perhaps, there is actually a lesson for us all.

Perhaps we all did kill Mars Hill. Perhaps there was something in a whole bunch of people like us who wanted this to be the way going forward, even though at the same time plenty of other voices were saying “No!” So perhaps we are to blame. Perhaps.

But let’s not jump straight there.

Besides, maybe we are, once again, putting too much store in our own ability both to bring something to life and to kill it. That would seem to be a “God-thing”, if I may use that expression. We’re eager to claim that God brings the church to life, but too quick to spread the blame when a church dies. Perhaps we’d be better to sit in sober judgement and read these words from Revelation 2:5:

Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.

Turns out the same One who said the gates of hell would not prevail against his church, might be in the church killing business too. Perhaps it takes him to do so because even when faced with what seems like insurmountable evidence, toxic church leadership neither considers nor repents.

The hope of course is that God is not just the God who brings to life and kills, but as Hannah says of Him in 1 Samuel2 : “The LORD kills and brings to life”! We are adept at the former, and useless at the latter. According to Revelation 2 the path to life for the church is repentant consideration. There’s still time for that for the toxic bullies who are ripping churches apart, and then absolving themselves of blame when they do.

So who did kill Mars Hill?

Perhaps Jesus did, and a good thing too.

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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

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