Mars Hill troubles continue

Religion | Mark Driscoll’s planned six-week sabbatical stretches to an eighth week, with no end in sight
by Warren Cole Smith
Posted 10/15/14, 09:25 am

The slow-motion implosion at Seattle’s Mars Hill Church continues.

Pastor Mark Driscoll announced on Aug. 24 he would step down from the pulpit for a period of “reflection” that would last at least six weeks. The sabbatical, he said, would also give the church’s Board of Advisors and Accountability an opportunity to investigate charges against him.

But the six weeks have come and gone, and there’s uncertainty as to whether or when Driscoll will return, and plenty of indication that getting Driscoll out of the captain’s chair did not quiet the troubled waters through which the church is sailing.

The first jolt came just days after Driscoll’s announcement: Nine elders at Mars Hill Church wrote a 4,000-word letter to their fellow elders calling on Driscoll to step down “not just from the pulpit, but from all aspects of ministry and leadership.” All nine elders who signed that letter have since left the church, either by resigning or as part of staff layoffs Mars Hill has endured in the past two months. Other key leaders have also resigned, including Sutton Turner, one of three executive elders at Mars Hill Church and one of Driscoll’s closest allies.

The church also acknowledged through a statement that “giving and attendance have declined significantly since January.” At the beginning of the year, regular weekly combined attendance at Mars Hill Church was around 14,000. Weekly attendance is now about 7,600, according to church spokesman Justin Dean.The church canceled its flagship Resurgence Conference, a “Jesus Festival” planned for Marymoor Park in the Seattle suburb of Redmond, and other events.

“During the month of August, we received $1,552,817 and expenses were $2,222,274, so our net over expenses (loss) after depreciation and capitalizing assets was $647,768,” stated a report released to church members in September. “Our income target was $1,842,414, and we missed this target by almost 16 percent.”

The declines in attendance and giving prompted not only layoffs but also other painful changes. Mars Hill closed its Downtown Seattle and University of Washington District churches. Congregations there were asked to join Mars Hill Ballard, which has become the flagship church of the multi-site, multi-state Mars Hill organization. Its lone church in Arizona recently parted ways with the Seattle-based group but will continue operating as Phoenix Bible Church. Another Mars Hill congregation in Huntington Beach, Calif., is struggling but will for now remain a part of the organization, with a goal of increasing attendance and giving.

Not all Mars Hill locations are struggling. Mars Hill Albuquerque, for example, reported growth in August. And stories abound in the Seattle area of positive developments as a result of the bright light shining on Driscoll and Mars Hill.

“It has been heart-warming to see ex–Mars Hill members connecting and seeking to understand that God is at work in their lives,” said former Mars Hill deacon Rob Smith, who started calling for a change in church governance as early as 2007. “Many are finding renewed joy despite being harmed by Mars Hill, realizing their identities are in Christ and not in a single church.”

Smith added that he has seen “genuine reconciliation and renewed friendship between members and some of the ex-pastors, many of whom have acknowledged their role in supporting the abusive tendencies at Mars Hill Church and have sought out those they harmed and asked them for forgiveness. It has been a true joy to see the restoration of relationships. God is at work.”

In part because of these stories of healing and reconciliation, many former Mars Hill members remain passionate about their campaign for accountability and transparency at the church. A petition called “Mars Hill Church–Walk in the Light” is posted at Change.org.

The petition asks the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) to suspend Mars Hill Church’s membership in that organization until allegations of financial impropriety are thoroughly investigated. The petition claims Mars Hill misled donors who gave to Mars Hill Global and that the church promised to use the money for foreign missions, including church planting efforts in Ethiopia and India. The church said no such explicit promise was made, and it was free to use the money on domestic activities.

The ECFA’s Dan Busby told me in July that his group reviewed Mars Hill Global and found it to be in compliance with ECFA standards. In September, a week after Driscoll announced his sabbatical and the church announced its review of his behavior, Busby said, “ECFA will let the church complete their review. Then, ECFA will be in a position to determine if our separate review of the same issues is warranted.”

As for when Mark Driscoll might return to the pulpit, Mars Hill spokesman Justin Dean told me Driscoll’s leave would last until “our board reviews accusations against him. Neither he nor we know exactly how long that process will take.”

Warren Cole Smith

Warren is vice president of mission advancement for The Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and the host of WORLD Radio’s Listening In. Follow Warren on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.

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