In twenty years Mars Hill Church (MHCC) went from a new plant out of Antioch Bible Church to a mega church with 15,000 people in 15 locations. Thousands of completely unchurched people received forgiveness and new life from Jesus through the ministry of the church and the leadership of Pastor Mark Driscoll. Many matured amazing leaders both in MHCC and other churches. The Acts 29 church planting network facilitated establishment of many other churches. Then in three months MHCC imploded. In August Paul Tripp announced his resignation from the Board of Advisors and Accountability (BOAA) and Acts 29 delisted MHCC. Twenty one former pastor/elders filed formal charges. They were joined by nine current pastor/elders, all calling for Pastor Mark to step down from all ministry to get help for his self-confessed sins of pride, anger and domineering spirit. Pastor Mark stepped down while the charges were investigated. In September, Pastor Sutton Turner resigned as executive elder. The board of seven elders lead by Pastor Matt Rogers, chair of the BOAA, investigated the charges. In October they presented their findings to Pastor Mark and he resigned. At the end of the month Pastor Dave Bruskas, the remaining Executive Elder, and the BOAA announced that MHCC would dissolve as of the end of the year, leaving assets and operations to the local Mars Hill churches.
What lessons are to be drawn from this astounding saga? What are lessons from the growth and power of MHCC and Pastor Mark?
Early on, Pastor Mark made the choice to distance himself from the emergent church movement, embracing a pulpit philosophy of expositional Bible teaching rather than “relevant” communication. The message of the Word continues to be powerful when taught with Spirit lead authenticity even in a most unchurced city. Those messages found receptive ears far beyond Seattle with astounding numbers of world wide sermon downloads.
Where others were affirming Mike Regele & Mark Schulz or Michael Jinkins in prophesying the death of the church, Pastor Mark and MHCC showed that the church is still the bride of Christ. He and men like Matt Chandler, Tim Keller, and Daniel Montgomery – to mention a few – are leaders of large, high impact multi-site churches. Those who are blogging the end of the mega church need to listen to this lesson. The verdict on multi-site and video venue models of church is still out. Will it prove to be a fad like bus ministries or one effective model of church organization? MHCC theologized that each campus must have its own campus pastors, ministry teams, and community life. Sites cannot be franchises to expand the brand or celebrity speakers or cheap ways to plant churches.
Many asserted that the video venue approach of MHCC replaced preachers and leaders with a video screen. But a more careful look will show that MHCC was exceptional in raising up young leaders, equipping and encouraging them to believe God could use them mightily. Ironically these same men strengthened at MHCC are the ones who refused to tolerate the centralized leadership model, the controversies, and the culture of conflict that brought about the demise of MHCC.
Capitalizing on the resources of the high tech culture of Seattle, MHCC lead the country in effective use of technology both in the church and in the cloud. They explored podcasts, vodcasts, internet resource sites as portals to vast church resources. But one must remember the proper order. Technology is a great servant, but a tyrannical master.
The encouragement of church based bands is a welcome alternative to Contemporary Christian Music and its touring professionals that often are more like Hollywood than Church. MHCC demonstrated that the message of the gospel can be effectively presented in all sorts of musical genre. They led the way in utilizing the evangelistic power of high quality music.
MHCC emphasized the role of a large church as an equipping resource for other churches. Where some built the revenue of the church by charging for downloads, everything on Resurgence was free to the user. As it turned out the donations from the users more than paid for the materials.
There are also lessons from the demise MHCC.
Every leader has a dark side to their character. Regeneration and the new heart imparted by the Spirit of the New Covenant (2 Cor. 5:17-21; Tit. 3:5-8) means that the deepest desires of a Christian are Christlike. Sanctification means that there is a growing Christlikeness and maturity of character necessary for leadership (1 Tim. 3:1-13; Tit. 1:5-9). But Paul teaches that the sarx, the sinful desires or flesh, are a persistent reality (Gal. 5:16-26; Rom. 7:14-25). The brokenness of leaders must never be excused in light of their great strengths. Leaders must know those weaknesses, flaws, and sin things in them and call a team around them to overcome those. Leaders must invite trusted colleagues into the deepest parts of their lives, the slimiest realities, to bring the healing work of the Spirit. Leaders must have people who will listen well to them and invite them to say, "No" to their most cherished ideas and proposals, to alert them to the damage their sarx is threatening.
Power, the capacity to act or get things done, the ability to execute change, is an essential part of leadership. It comes from spiritual, physical, economic, or personal sources. Power, like gasoline, is both advantageous and dangerous. It is beneficial when used biblically, in service of others (Matt. 20:25-28; Acts 20:28 Pet. 5:1-4). But power is also a seductive, addictive, delicious narcotic. The sarx in a leader wants more and more power, resisting checks and balances without which power becomes domineering and abusive in the name of efficiency and results.
That is why ministry and leadership in the New Testament is always a team thing. The charges of favoritism in ministry in Acts 6 went to the Twelve, not to Peter. The huge controversy about the necessity of circumcision for salvation in Acts 15 did not go to Peter or James but to the apostles and elders with the whole church (Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23). Elder is singular only in 1 Tim. 5:19 when it is about an accusation.
MHCC categorized leaders as Prophet, Priest, or King with a clear ordering of King, Prophet and then Priest. But those are not the biblical categories of leadership qualities for the church and certainly not with this ordering. Prioritizing King, the rightly criticized "Moses model" of leadership, often results in a domineering culture where results take priority over the soul care of the Priest. It tends to define unity as loyalty and agreement with the king. If this happens the danger of "group think" increases as disagreements are not stated lest they be judged as lack of submission or cowardice.
The Bible speaks of five types of leadership gifts: apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd, and teacher to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:12-14). This APEST model is five dimensions of a team of leaders not the common misinterpretation of five offices. As I understand it, all five dimensions are equally crucial and must be mutually submissive coming together in a true team where disagreement is stated first hand, respectfully, and constructively as in Acts 15 with the whole team or even the whole church coming to unity around the decision. That doesn’t mean there is no disagreement. Real unity comes on in the context of frank constructive disagreement. The few who still disagree submit to the decision of the team, supporting it fully.
Leaders must be deeply involved in the pastoral life of the church no matter how large the church. The temptation of sarx in powerful leaders of large churches is to isolate from day to day stuff in order to focus on preaching and vision. While leaders cannot be distracted from their personal responsibilities by the pile of details, isolation is deadly. If leaders cannot be pastors to every member of a large church, they must compassionately invest in pastoral realities lest they lose touch with the church Jesus calls them to shepherd. This pastoral work will be with "report to" people but also with some old and new members. Otherwise leadership becomes abstract, policy driven, and in danger of becoming fear based and abusive as decisions become for the good of the organization instead of for the good of the people.
The elder board of a large church must keep close touch with staff morale. This often gets lost in defined channels of communication where top leaders never hear the hearts of lower level staff. Because staff are closest to the life of the church, they are most sensitive to the life of the church. While outsiders see the leader ‘s greatness, the staff often see a darker, more dysfunctional side of things. Leaders must not write off their discouragement or frustrations to Satan’s attack, or simply condemn unhappiness as bad attitudes. The board must remember that the staff/infra-structure is as important as the charismatic leader for the health and effectiveness of the organization, for effective sustainable ministry. To illustrate, isn’t the server at a fine restaurant at least as important as the executive chef and the CEO? When organizational culture begins to go sour, the staff become interchangeable tools for carrying out organizational goals. But especially in a church, staff must be always be valuable persons, whom leaders bless and serve, as well as being employees serving with performance metrics.
Sound theology, effective ministry, good teaching, evangelism do not guarantee Christlike church life. They can never replace love and service, mutual submission and support. Leader must always promote a climate of trust which can only occur in personal vulnerability and compassionate care. Trust is the willingness to risk being vulnerable based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behavior of another. In a climate of distrust communication lines are sewer lines where comments are tainted by the sickness of the culture. But in a climate of trust, communication lines are power lines where even a harsh comment comes in the context of commitment. So instead of retaliating or isolating, the recipient goes graciously to the speaker to see what’s happening.
I think the temptation to virtue is much more dangerous than the temptation to vice. The Devil’s temptations of Jesus were temptations to strengths, not sinful passions. We think of leaders falling to temptation around money, sex, power, and information which are temptations to vice, to lustful passions, to sarx. Wise leaders build accountability provisions around these vices. But the temptations to misuse of virtues often go completely unrecognized and therefore without protections of accountability. I think of many stories of leaders who ended up in sinful relationships – not because they were tempted to indulge sexual lusts but because virtues of pastoral helping were used beyond boundaries of godliness. Caring is expressed in a touch, then in touches, in holding . . . and misused virtue becomes devastating sin.
There are other lessons: Even the most dynamic leader does not build a dysfunctional culture alone. Subordinates cooperate in building the culture which turns on them later. People often make the dynamic leader to BE the church rather than the servant of the church. When leaders buy into the lie, their identity becomes so intertwined with the church that all charges become personal attacks. They become an idol and the worship becomes idolatrous. A church culture based in anger and fear cannot produce life of the Spirit.
A final lesson is being written as I write. Even as MHCC will discontinue operations in a few weeks, the Mars Hill churches are in process of replanting, many with a lot of continuity of their leadership teams and congregations. Many of those leaders have privately pondered and publicly repented. In a context of vulnerability, trust can be rebuilt and the work of the gospel go on. While bloggers continue to build their income with disparaging gossip, the people hope in the power of gospel centered transformation, hoping in the sense of the confident expectation of good based in the character of the God of Exodus 34:6-7.