Today, I’m kicking off a series of articles on the extraordinarily popular podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, hosted by my friend Mike Cosper and produced by Christianity Today. The show follows the story of Mars Hill Church, founded in Seattle in 1996 by Mark Driscoll. The episodes chronicle the rise of Driscoll and his church’s influence within conservative evangelicalism, describing patterns of unhealthy leadership that resulted in the diminishment of Driscoll’s credibility and the dissolution of the church (in its original form).
A Word About Quality
Whenever The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill comes up in conversation, people mention the production quality. There has never been a narrative-style Christian podcast that matches the quality of this one. Mike Cosper’s skills as host, writer, and storyteller are on full display. For years to come, Christian podcasts in the journalism genre will stand in the shadow of this one, much like Serial changed the game for narrative podcasts nationwide. Kudos to Cosper and the team at CT for raising the bar and setting a new standard!
Critiques of Rise and Fall
Through social media and on various blogs, people have offered constructive critiques of the storytelling decisions and the interview format Cosper has employed throughout the series.
- Some worry that the critique of the distinctive culture of Mars Hill will be conflated with the theological positions Driscoll held: a complementarian view of gender roles, Reformed theology, a high view of Scriptural authority, the reality of the demonic, etc. Will podcast listeners be able to untangle the unhealthy leadership culture of Mars Hill from the mainstream Christian beliefs professed by its leaders?
- Others express frustration at the inclusion of guests whose doctrinal and ethical views put them outside the boundaries of evangelicalism. Does the podcast’s occasional reliance on voices from outside traditional Christian orthodoxy imply that the answers to concerns about Mars Hill will be found in progressive or post-evangelical theology and practice?
- Still others criticize the podcast for centering on Driscoll, making him “the star,” a move that pushes the testimonies of the wounded to the periphery. Does the show, because of its framing, unwittingly reinforce our focus on the “gifted, charismatic leader” at center stage?
I find these critiques intriguing, but I’m going to approach this series from a different angle, not focusing on the podcast or the strengths and weaknesses in how Cosper has told the story, but on the context that made Driscoll’s meteoric rise possible and the likely influence this podcast will have on evangelical church leaders in the coming years.
The Soul of the Listener
There is one concern, however, raised by listeners to the podcast that deserves further discussion before we evaluate its cultural influence: Is The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill good for us?
The story is one of ministry disgrace and failure. What does it say about us that so many listeners wait with bated breath for every new episode to release?
Several pastors have said they will not listen because of the detrimental effects it would have on their hearts. Pastor Jon Tyson urges listeners to examine themselves, to be aware when crossing the “fine line between cautionary tales and failure porn.” Liam Thatcher worries that the fervor surrounding this podcast bears a striking resemblance to celebrity gossip.
Why This Question Matters
The question of a podcast’s effect on one’s soul is going to become more important, not less, in the days ahead. A success story like The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill will spawn innumerable copycats. We can expect to see series after series devoted to other ministry implosions. They won’t be done by organizations as respectable as Christianity Today, and their storytellers won’t have the background knowledge that Mike Cosper brings to the task.
But that won’t stop eager podcast producers from digging through the dumpster of evangelicalism’s recent scandals, and (Lord, have mercy!) there are plenty to choose from: Ravi Zacharias, James MacDonald, Bill Hybels, etc. The revelation of moral rot in evangelical circles will draw more and more people to the spectacle in these spectacular falls. (A recent season of Gangster Capitalism focused on the Jerry Falwell Jr. debacle, a story so lurid and perverse that one could imagine a Hollywood film producer turning down the script for being too unrealistic!)
Again, the question is a good one. What motives do we have when we listen? Should we trust our inclinations? Do we savor the sensational? Do we revel in the revelations? Do our hearts leap with self-righteous sanctimony as the sins of others are exposed? Is our craving for each new episode akin to the temptation to catch the latest juicy gossip?
The question of what this podcast may be doing to us spiritually, how it might be beneficial in some ways and harmful in others, is appropriate. I wish we as Christians would ask similar questions about every podcast we listen to, or the cable news shows we watch, or the online commentaries we peruse. In a world of infotainment, surely it is wise to pause and consider the effect of media consumption on our souls. The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill is no exception.
Pleasure in Imperfection?
I’m reminded of a quote from Charles Spurgeon. “The church is not perfect, but woe to the one who finds pleasure in pointing out her imperfections!” Pointing out imperfections is not the problem. There is nothing godly or unifying about ignoring character flaws and dismissing complaints from people wounded within toxic leadership environments as “distractions.” If the example of Mars Hill has taught us anything, it’s that we need more conversations about good and bad leadership, not less.
Still, there’s a line that’s easy to cross—when you go from a sober assessment of the imperfections of God’s people to finding pleasure in pointing out flaws. The location of that line won’t be revealed in a podcast, but in careful examination of your heart.
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