As The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, a podcast that tells the story of the rapid rise and fall of pastor Mark Driscoll and the influence of his church in Seattle, draws to a close, evangelicals who love the church and care about the future will take away lessons related to leadership, both good and bad, and implement measures designed to prevent abuses in the future.
In previous columns, we considered the potential spiritual effect of this podcast on the souls of those listening, the place of “father hunger” in the rise of the Reformed movement (a dynamic at work in Driscoll’s “How dare you!” sermon), and the need to respond to the abuse of authority with good authority, not the abdication of pastoral responsibility.
Today, we wrap up this series by considering one of the unintended consequences this podcast could have, unless we commit to listening with care and wisdom. We may become instantly suspicious of another ministry model.
The ‘Real’ Problem . . . Out There
Some listeners to The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill might assume the real problem is the megachurch, as if the size of a congregation and the “celebrity” status that anoints the pastor is the root of all kinds of evil. The problem is the “attractional church” with its focus on numerical growth. Once a church grows too big and successful, we should expect all sorts of shenanigans behind the scenes. Surely something nefarious must be going on for a church to gain this kind of traction.
Raising an eyebrow toward churches that follow a different ministry model is not a new phenomenon. Many large-church pastors privately sneer at the small church without a full array of programs, or quietly judge the small-church pastor who just doesn’t have “what it takes” to influence the power brokers in the congregation and “make things happen.”
Not to be outdone, small-church pastors often roll their eyes at megachurches and call into question their ministry philosophies, sometimes out of a sense of inferiority, other times out of envy, but occasionally out of conviction that a big church must be built on celebrity, or pragmatism, or something other than the gospel.
This tension between church leaders is unhealthy, and The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill could exacerbate the problem by giving smaller churches seeing little missional effectiveness an easy way to excuse their evangelistic apathy, or more reasons to justify their suspicion toward any church seeing numerical success.
The Limits of Learning from Numbers
If growing numbers do not necessarily define faithfulness, neither do growing numbers necessarily indicate compromise. Numbers are just numbers. They tell us something about a church, but not everything. Those who look at numbers for everything—whether it’s confirmation that a church is doing everything right or a sign that a church must be doing something wrong—are guilty of the same problem, a tunnel vision that expects too much out of data and statistics.
Surely church leaders coming out of a pandemic that blew up the most popularly relied-upon measures for church “success” (budgets, buildings, and bodies) should have heightened awareness of the limitations of looking to numbers to define your church.
Listening to Be Confirmed
Without the pursuit of wisdom—without an understanding that God works through different church sizes and models, even different philosophies of ministry (each with corresponding strengths and weaknesses)—the result will be more tribalism and polarization.
We will be attracted to overly simplistic narratives that justify our preferred ministry model. We will point to Mars Hill as an example of all that’s bad in the group we oppose. If, by the end of this podcast, we feel a smug sense of superiority (“At least my church/tribe/peers are better than that!”), we will miss the opportunity for genuine self-reflection.
Even worse, we may assume that we are protected from such leadership debacles by the righteousness of our “tribe,” as if small churches are immune to the pastor bully, or egalitarian church leaders are less susceptible to sexual immorality, or a checklist of biblical fundamentals defines faithfulness, even without missional fervor to reach the community with the gospel.
An uncritical rejection of this church or that leader would prevent us from gaining insight into missional effectiveness from brothers and sisters who may operate differently than we do.
The best response to this podcast is humility: to approach the Lord with a repentant spirit for the ways we might be complicit in self-serving leadership decisions or prone to protect institutional credibility no matter the cost to the wounded. Humility makes us teachable, willing to learn, to be challenged and convicted.
If we close out The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill having only been entertained, feeling confirmed in our correctness, excused in our evangelistic apathy, or justified in our critical and overly suspicious spirit toward other churches and leaders, we will have missed a God-given opportunity to follow the apostle Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 10:12: If you think you are standing firm, take heed lest you fall.
This is the fourth in a series of reflections on “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.” You can read the first post here, the second here, and third here. If you would like future articles from Trevin Wax sent to your email, as well as a curated list of books, podcasts, and helpful links I find online, enter your address.