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Changing course?

After a public apology and the adoption of a softer tone from the pulpit, star pastor Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church face new challenges

Changing course?

Mark Driscoll (Mars Hill Church)

Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times

LARGE FOOTPRINT: Mars Hill’s location in downtown Seattle.

On a hazy Sunday morning in downtown Seattle, cars crawled around a century-old, terra cotta–domed church, one of the city’s oldest church buildings. The reason: Seattle’s 40th annual gay pride parade closed a portion of 4th Avenue near the historic church. Police officers in kilts and colorful beads patrolled the area, and volunteers set up purple balloons and rainbow flags in preparation for the thousands that would swarm downtown that afternoon.

But before the parade, drivers, cops, and volunteers got a good blast of Mars Hill Church’s rock ’n’ roll remix of the classic hymn “Nothing but the Blood of Jesus.” Mars Hill moved its downtown location to this old church a year and a half ago to be a local church amid a community, and “preach the Bible clearly, without compromise, without excuse, but still loving our neighbors,” said Justin Dean, deacon and communications director of Mars Hill.

The church’s rugged black cross with the bold words “Jesus Saves” is hard to miss, and so is the aroma of coffee and soy milk from the welcome station, both parked at the top stairs to the entrance. Sometimes, Dean said, passersby enter the church to use the bathroom or score free hot coffee—and then stay for the service. When trend watchers want to point to a successful example of hipster Christianity, they often cite Mars Hill Church because of its rapid growth.

Mars Hill and its pastor Mark Driscoll are also known for controversy: brash, in-your-face preaching, and Driscoll’s own sometimes unfiltered language. Lately, the controversy includes behavior that stepped over ethical boundaries. Last year, a plagiarism controversy forced Driscoll and his publisher Tyndale House to issue a joint statement admitting “mistakes were made.” This year, WORLD reported Mars Hill Church spent a quarter-million dollars in church funds to put his book Real Marriage on The New York Times bestseller list. Former staff members have increasingly taken to the internet to voice their grievances with what some have called Driscoll’s overbearing management style.

These controversies came to a head in March, when Driscoll made a remarkable public apology. In a letter to his congregation that received national coverage, he said his “angry-young-prophet days are over” and he would take steps to become “a helpful, Bible-teaching spiritual father.” Among the steps Driscoll planned to take included refraining from posting on social media until “at least the end of the year” and to doing few, if any, media interviews.

Driscoll has kept his word in at least one area: The normally media-hungry pastor would not agree to an interview for this story. But in other ways, Driscoll’s critics charge, it’s business as usual. Just weeks after Driscoll’s public confession, the executive elders (Mark Driscoll, Sutton Turner, and Dave Bruskas) surprised Mars Hill staff by announcing a new document retention policy that would destroy all staff emails more than three months old. The plan was dropped only after a group of former staff, elders, and members sent a letter to the church saying the new policy was an attempt to destroy documents that might be used in litigation against the church. The group’s attorney, Brian Fahling, asked the church to “preserve electronically stored information that may contain evidence” for legal action in which the church, Driscoll, and others in church leadership “will be named as defendants.” The letter lists anticipated litigation in the areas of “RICO [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act], Fraud, Conspiracy, Libel, Slander, Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress.”

In late May, Phil Smidt, a respected Mars Hill elder and pastor, refused to sign a non-compete agreement that prevented him from serving in a leadership position of any other church within 10 miles of a Mars Hill location if he left the church. Such non-compete agreements have become common for departing staff. Given Mars Hill’s many locations in the Seattle area, the agreement would make it difficult for him to find a church anywhere in western Washington—the most populated area in the state—where he could serve as a pastor, deacon, or elder. For refusing to sign such a restrictive document, the church fired Smidt without severance compensation.

It is common for churches to require departing staff to sign non-disparage agreements, but “non-compete agreements cross over into paranoia,” said Clint Pressley, pastor of the large Hickory Grove Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C. Pressley said he could name nearly a dozen former staff members of his church who were on church staffs within a 10-mile radius. “The Kingdom of God is big enough for us all,” he said.

Smidt’s story ended well. In an unusual show of support, 206 of Smidt’s friends—many of them former Mars Hill Church members—donated more than $50,000 in just five days using the crowd-funding platform GoFundMe.com. The public show of support for Smidt, and an equally public online show of disdain for Mars Hill administrators for the way they treated Smidt, caused the executive elders to offer Smidt severance compensation without his having to sign the non-compete agreement.

"I’m a hard colt to get a saddle on and Jesus is still working on me."     —Driscoll

Controversies have also surrounded Mars Hill Global. At issue: whether millions of dollars raised for what many believed was the foreign missions arm of the church actually went to foreign missions. The mission statement for Mars Hill Global says, “Mars Hill Global is how we as a church participate in the worldwide mission of Jesus.” Mars Hill spokesman Justin Dean said Mars Hill Global raised more than $10 million dollars during fiscal years 2009-2014.

However, it is difficult to determine where the money went, though it is now clear some of the money went not to international efforts but to domestic church plants, including some in the Seattle area. When WORLD asked via email for an itemized accounting of those funds, Dean wrote, “Since donations given by the Mars Hill Global family were never intended to be designated solely for international efforts, we don’t provide an itemized accounting of those funds.”

Mars Hill has apologized for donor “confusion caused by a lack of clarity,” and offered to redirect previous donations to international missions if requested. According to Dean, “Only a small handful of people have decided to designate their donations solely for international efforts, and we have gladly made those changes.”

The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) conducted a review of Mars Hill Global and issued a statement that read, in part, “The Church has gone the second mile to address use of any funds if they were not used consistently with donor intent. This commitment, which ECFA will periodically verify, demonstrates the integrity of Pastor Mark Driscoll and Pastor Sutton Turner.”

Meanwhile, church life goes on at Mars Hill.

Melissa Yao, a middle-aged, long-time Christian who has attended Mars Hill’s satellite location at U-District with her husband for two years, said she’s familiar with the controversies brewing within her church. But she shrugged and quoted a Chinese saying: “A big tree encounters wind.” Mars Hill is huge, so it attracts scrutiny that uncovers flaws other churches can hide, Yao said. She plans to continue attending Mars Hill, because she finds the sermons “very clear” and “biblically sound.”

During a recent 10:30 a.m. Sunday sermon at Bellevue, the main campus where Driscoll preaches, almost every one of the 900 seats was filled. Bellevue, a booming suburban town-turned-city, is home to large companies like Microsoft and Nintendo. Mars Hill Bellevue’s demographics reflect that with many working professionals and young families of various races.

That Sunday morning, young and old couples sat with arms around each other. Teenagers sat in the middle-front row and took notes. Parents took turns rocking babies in their arms. People came with beards, pubescent pimples, tattoos, hipster glasses, button-up shirts, sundresses, cardigans, and skinny ties. The audience murmured in agreement as Driscoll, dressed in a polo shirt, jeans, and his usual black sneakers, continued a sermon series on Acts. A sign language interpreter translated while Driscoll preached about healing. Jesus will wipe away every tear even if you don’t receive physical relief on earth, he said. Several people wiped away their own tears.

Driscoll is a gifted speaker. Neither supporters nor critics deny that, and under his leadership the multisite church has grown to nearly 7,000 members. Since the late 1990s, Mars Hill has burgeoned across five states in 15 locations. Each Sunday, more than 12,000 people attend a Mars Hill worship service, and an estimated 250,000 people listen to a Mars Hill sermon each week via podcast and website. According to the latest annual report, Mars Hill baptized 1,141 people last year.

These days, Driscoll screams less and uses more self-deprecation. In a recent sermon, Driscoll recalled his college days. He said he was “very self-righteous, thought I was better than everyone, very proud, very independent.” Then he joked, “Some of you would say, ‘And what has changed?’ You know, it’s still in process, right? I’m a hard colt to get a saddle on and Jesus is still working on me.” But he also gets serious about his flaws. In that same sermon, Driscoll said God has been allowing him to see himself “through the eyes of the Lord, accurately, and soberly, and honestly” and then asked for prayers to “grow in godliness.”

Many Mars Hill pastors, including Driscoll, have said the past year has been one of the toughest seasons for Mars Hill. Due to financial pressures possibly related to recent controversies, Mars Hill laid off nine staff members on June 20. But Steve Tompkins, pastor at Mars Hill Shoreline for eight years, said he believes Mars Hill is growing “healthier.” He said he’s seen Driscoll become “quicker to repent publicly, demonstrate humility, and express love.” AJ Hamilton, pastor at Mars Hill Huntington Beach in California, said he’s seen a “pattern of confession and repentance emerge” among church leaders over the past 12 to 18 months, starting with Driscoll’s open description of his failures.

Dave Kraft, a former Mars Hill pastor and elder who raised some of the original questions, said the process of repentance and reconciliation in Mars Hill is in “very early stages” and has “a long way to go,” but he is “cautiously optimistic” about Mars Hill’s progress. 

Warren Cole Smith

Warren Cole Smith

Warren is the host of WORLD Radio’s Listening In. He previously served as WORLD's vice president and associate publisher. He currently serves as president of MinistryWatch and has written or co-written several books, including Restoring All Things: God's Audacious Plan to Change the World Through Everyday People. Warren resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.

Warren Cole Smith

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute and University of Southern California graduate. Sophia resides in Los Angeles, Calif., with her husband. Follow her on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.

Comments

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  • PBPhelps
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:47 pm

    We need to resist one of our culture's common fascinations - to pile on when someone has committed a public error or sin.  It seems we all feel better about ourselves when we can point a finger and pile on with our criticisms and opinions.  I don't say this to defend Mars Hill, or Pastor Mark, but it does seem like people should be much more slow to speak in this piling on fashion.  We're so quick to think of King David as a man after God's own heart, yet if he ruled in our day I'm sure there'd be many nasty comments about his adultery and murder.  Why do we look favorably upon David?  Because he was genuinely humble and repentant.  If Mars Hill recognizes their errors and changes with humble repentance, aren't we being pharisaical to not give them time - watching for the fruits of repentance and God's ability to work?  Seems we need to have David's attitude of letting God do the work of touching His anointed, instead of taking that role upon our ourselves.  I don't say any of this to minimize the sin committed, but only to encourage prayer for restoration and ongoing fruit within a ministry that has clearly been blessed of God in the past.But for the grace of God...

  • Dr Kelvin
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:47 pm

    1 Tim 4:16'Watch your life and doctrine closely, persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers."

  • Lizzy's picture
    Lizzy
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:47 pm

    Wow.  I am not sure what I wrote to bring forth such condemnation from someone who does not know me nor claim to personally know any of the people directly involved in the whole Mars Hill Church controversy.  I apologize if I was less than eloquent.  Perhaps if I had known my every sentence was to be parsed I would have expressed myself with more care.  I was not advocating leaving a church lightly.  The churches we have left were for what we believed to be valid reasons and the decision was never taken lightly.  I personally believe serious doctrinal disagreements are a valid reason for changing churches.  Out here that is a very real concern due to the almost universal acceptance of egalitarianism and homosexual relations even within the church (one of the issues at stake in the battle against MHC).  You misread my comment about felt needs - my point was that the church doesn't exist to meet my needs rather it is about Jesus, learning to love Him and serve Him corporately and yes, that means in relationship with other Christians.  And yes that is an area where I struggle, partly because of attacks such as yours.  I am not perfect nor do I mean to present myself as such.  All I am is a servant of my Lord, and all I know is that no matter what you may think and no matter how poorly I may state things, He is my Savior and my Lord and He loves me.  And He loves you too.

  • Lizzy's picture
    Lizzy
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:47 pm

    I agree that no pastor should be above reproach.  And believe me, if credible evidence that Pastor Mark is currently behaving in a sinful manner is presented, my husband and I will be looking for another church.  But at this point, I am willing to let the ongoing reconciliation process play out before passing judgment.  I have read many of the on-line postings by the disgruntled former members and while I can feel compassion for them, I am not sure I understand what it is they are after.  If it is to destroy Mars Hill Church as it now stands, believe me that will hurt many more people than this small minority who claim to desire reconciliation.  The church may modify it's structure of governance, and has already made some changes, but it is unlikely that it will be changed back to the structure of 7 years ago, which seems to be the main complaint of a number of the most vocal.    There is no way the church will be able to modify it's doctrine and still maintain it's integrity or membership.  This being the Northwest, some of the disgruntled former members would prefer a much looser interpretation of what constitutes sin (especially in the area of sexual relations).  This is also not a region of the country where complementarianism is popular, which seems to be another area of disagreement, but the church is also unlikely to change that belief.  And frankly, I don't see why they should have to.  There are other churches in the Seattle area with a much more liberal bent - I fail to see why some of the former members haven't just moved on to places they felt more in sync with.  Perhaps it is because I have been a Christian for so long (40+ years), perhaps it is because my husband of 35 years and myself have been in so many churches, but one thing I have learned is that in the real world no church or pastor is perfect.  No church has ever met our felt needs (and nor did we expect them to) and there have been several churches and community groups in our past where the hurts went deep enough that we left and searched for a new church.  But we never went after the churches we left or posted stories of the wrongs we felt had been done to us.   God has taught me that in any situation, reconciliation is a two way street, but forgiveness only needs one side.  I do not need the people who have hurt me to ask forgiveness for me to forgive them.  And not forgiving people only drives a wedge between me and God.  The loss of His presence in my life would be a hurt far beyond anything a person can do or say to me.  So I guess what I am trying to say is that I would rather fellowship with broken people who are also aware of their complete inadequacy before God but who love Him and His word and are doing their best to live out this life as He calls us to and, ironically, that is what I currently see in the leadership at Mars Hill Church. 

  • Joe M
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:47 pm

    One reason I continue to like Mark Driscoll despite internet static is he is one of the few public faces in the church that pulls no punches. You know just where he stands. Pretty unusual.

  • Joe M
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:47 pm

    One reason I continue to like Mark Driscoll despite internet static is he is one of the few public faces in the church that pulls no punches. You know just where he stands. Pretty unusual.

  • Cornerstone's picture
    Cornerstone
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:47 pm

    I think World Magazine and the army of internet critics of Mars Hills should take a chill-pill. Why do Christians think God has given them allowance to become self-appointed arbiters of a) how an independent church should manage the organizational aspects of its ministry or b) how that church decides to use funds to get maximum exposure for their Christ-centered message (e.g. a book)? It's hard to find a similar nosey neighbor approach applied to other independent organizations, including World News Group. I am weary of seeing many Christians live under the misconception that they have a duty to scrutinize and pronounce judgment on churches (who are building the kingdom and doing their best to discern how to do the hard work of ministry effectively and with integrity). Wouldn't it be more appropriate and wiser to leave these things up to the church's God-appointed shepherds and a biblically informed leadership structure?

  • Midwest preacher
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:47 pm

    Indeed, no one is perfect.  In any mega-church situation we must be sure we don't elevate the leader to the point where his "mistakes" are forgiven based on what he has done rather than on what Jesus has done.  It is one thing to discover and repent of sins we find in our lives and quite another to have progressive "repentance" based on what is discovered by others.It is a fine thing to respect our leaders but sometimes they must be rebuked.  In some situations there is no mechanism for that.  I mean this in a general way.  I am not in a position to know all about this particular situation.  

  • Lizzy's picture
    Lizzy
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:47 pm

    I followed the link Dave42 posted.  The video being "released" is 14 years old.  How thankful I am that things I said 14 years ago are not now being held against me.  It is misleading to imply that it reflects the current state of Mars Hill Church, and Pastor Mark in particular.  (Not to mention that if any of the demonstrators planning to picket the church on Sunday had any current relationship with Mars Hill Church, they would know that he is on vacation and Sunday's sermon will be preached by a visiting pastor from England.)As a regular attender at MHC, I have witnessed a growing maturity in Pastor Mark's sermons over the last few years.  Is he perfect?  No.  Are you or I perfect?  No.  If we were we wouldn't need a Savior.  Have mistakes been made or sins committed?  Of course.  No human endeavor or person is without sin (see Paul's writings in scripture).  Repentance of committed sin is essential to faith, but only God is in a position to know the state of our heart when we repent (even publically).  The real question (beyond the necessary repentance) would seem to me to be - are the people of MHC, especially Pastors Driscoll, Sutton and Turner, pursuing Christ and letting Him lead them into greater maturity, greater knowledge of and love for Jesus and a bolder and yet more humble witness.  From where I sit, I would have to say that the time I have spent at MHC has been used by God to grow my relationship with Him in ways that I can only praise Him for and it is to Him (God lest you misunderstand), that I give all the glory.  So to the person who posted that they would be ashamed to attend MHC, well my husband and I attend, and I am not ashamed.  Until God tells me to move from here, this is where I stay.  Doctrinally, the theology is sound. The worship at beginning and end of the service frequently moves me to tears as the hymns we sing remind me of the great gift of salvation Jesus purchased for us on the cross and the overwhelming love He has for each one of us. And I pray that if there are administrative and maturity issues that need to be addressed, that God continues to lead all of MHC into a deeper relationship with Himself and wiser ways as a result.  Peace be with you.

  • MTJanet
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:47 pm

    Non- competes generally have a hard time holding up in court.  I am disappointed to learn that any church leader any where on the planet would ever try to institute a legal agreement of this nature.  That said, I believe that it is better that this church is in existence, with all its flaws, rather than it not be in place at all.  

  • Perseus
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:47 pm

    Why would Mars Hill need to pull a Lois Lerner and delete emails?

  • Christian_Prof
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:47 pm

    Thanks Warren. This is a very fair article that shows the flaws of Driscoll, MHC, and raises fair questions. It also shows the ways in which both parties are going through the sanctification process.

  •  ND's picture
    ND
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:47 pm

    Mark Driscoll's theology has undergone a massive improvement since he started preaching (this was before Mars Hill). Maybe some of the accusations and turmoil originate from people who started working with him back then and resent his current beliefs.

  • Jim Hasak
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:47 pm

    In the Body of Christ, competition does not come from other churches; it comes from Satan. Jesus said, "Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters." Non-compete agreements are an attempt to stop someone else from gathering.

  • Dales
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:47 pm

    Sickening.... non-compete agreements among elders!??? And destruction of staff emails older than 3 months??? In particular when there are allegations flying!Paying to get on a best seller's list!?What on earth is wrong with these guys!!? I wouldn't attend any place they had any kind of authority over whatsoever! And I would be nervous to attend any place that had any kind of association or remote acceptance of these guys. It is so thoroughly disgusting to me I want to go take a shower and brush my teeth! I feel dirty and ill......They call their assembly a church!??They focus on repentance timing being quicker as a good sign... whoopdeedoo! A miniscule good sign among an avalanche of grotesqueness....

  • Phil W's picture
    Phil W
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:47 pm

    Great article. Thank you. I am moved and want to believe Driscoll's confession. What undermines it are the business decisions behind the pulpit, like the email burning and what I understand to be a rewriting of the church's history. As I understand it, Driscoll founded Mars Hill with two other men, but they are no longer acknowledged in official documents because they are critics now. I assume bullying and intimidation will come out if and when that lawsuit is filed. Still the church and Driscoll's confessions are too vague. It reminds me of Arthur Dimmesdale confessing how sinful he is from the pulpit, knowing the congregation would love him more for what appears to be humility, what actually is cowardice. Dimmesdale doesn't say he has committed adultery, because a specific confession like that would bring consequences. I fear the same thing at Mars Hill and not just with Driscoll, as Lief Moi, one of the co-founders of Mars Hill, has said on a site dedicated to Mars Hill pastors confessing in public: http://repentantpastor.com/