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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.