We Are Mars Hill

I’ve listened to the entirety of Christianity Today’s Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast with great interest, eagerly waiting for each episode to be released. But I’ve held off recommending it too enthusiastically until the final segment aired, to be sure it didn’t go off the rails, or at least my set of rails.

Well, the twelfth*, and last, episode came out on December 4, and after listening to it, I encourage you to do the same. Even if you don’t take in the whole series, I think you should still listen to the ending segment, titled “Aftermath.” Why? Because I’ve come to the conclusion that We Are Mars Hill, and it is the closing episode that makes that clear to me.

Like many, I first heard of Mark Driscoll, co-founder and lead pastor of the Seattle-based Mars Hill Church, when Donald Miller introduced him in his 2003 book, Blue like Jazz (though at the time he was simply “Mark the Cussing Pastor”). And later, he caught my attention by infamously stating,

There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus and by God’s grace it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done. You either get on the bus or you get run over by the bus. Those are the options. But the bus ain’t gonna stop. . . . There’s a few kind of people. There’s people who get in the way of the bus. They gotta get run over. There are people who want to take turns driving the bus. They gotta get thrown off, cuz they want to go somewhere else.

In time, Mars Hill grew to, at its largest, around 13,000 attending at 15 sites in multiple states. Over the years I kept up with news coming from the church as Driscoll became more of a celebrity and accusations against him became more newsworthy, culminating in his departure from the church in 2014, followed by the dissolution of the church network. This came after Driscoll’s fellow elders declared him guilty of having a quick temper, using harsh words, displaying arrogance, and leading with a domineering manner, characteristics that had spread through church teaching and relationships.

One thing that makes the Mars Hill saga relevant is that there seems to be something of Mars Hill in so many of us—the desire to find something big and powerful that removes ambiguity and tells us how to do things the right way, the desire to have confident leaders who aren’t afraid to brawl with easily identified enemies, the desire, especially for men, to regain significance in our culture and in our churches and in our families.

And if we’re not careful, very, very careful, we’ll climb aboard the bus and travel confidently down the same road. Yes, We Are Mars Hill.

By “we,” I mean the global church, because all of us must take care. But a smaller “we” are workers sent out from the Western church to take the gospel abroad. For better or worse, we are influenced by the values that have made their way through the church landscape back home, affecting how we do ministry and how we define success. It’s easy to believe that we will succeed if we can only get everyone on board, doing the right things—and if we don’t take our foot off the gas. How easy it is to measure our worth by what we are doing for Christ rather than what Christ has done for us . . . and we can never seem to do enough for Christ.

In the last episode of the podcast, David Zahl, editor in chief of the Mockingbird blog, warns against the kind of gospel that came out of Mars Hill, a gospel that first presents a “life shattering and extremely exciting” grace that saves us from the condemnation of the law, only to return to it again:

[W]hat happens is you bring the law back in so it becomes a kind of a . . . Law, grace, law is the way that we would normally put it. The disposition that comes through is this very sort of Get better . . . to try harder, to pull themselves together. Eventually what you’ll have is what you have in every other element of the culture, which is burnout. You’ll have people who wake up one day and’ll be like, Hey this isn’t actually working.

There’s also another way in which We Are Mars Hill—or we can be. It’s in taking our place alongside those who have been hurt by the church. In a followup interview, the podcast’s host, Mike Cosper, comments on those who were drawn to participate after listening to earlier episodes. One was “Lindsay,” who shares in the final segment about what she went through dealing with an abusive husband who was enabled by Mars Hill leadership. Cosper describes her reasoning as “I know I’m not alone. I know I’m not the only one who experienced something like this,” but it took hearing from others to come to that realization. Cosper adds, “Someone who’s been through an experience like that—domestic violence and church hurt and everything else—it’s like, man, that’s hard stuff. And so to have the courage to come forward took a lot.”

We honor that courage by showing those like Lindsay that they truly are not alone. Have you, too, ever been wounded by individuals or an organization or an institution in which you put your trust? Even if we haven’t been run over ourselves, we can still pull over to the side of the road and attend to those who’ve fallen under the bus’s tires.

And then there’s Jen Zug, a former member of Mars Hill and assistant to Driscoll. In 2014, she wrote an open letter to the church, “The Story of How Mars Hill Church Broke Up with Me,” which she reads from in episode twelve. Her letter ends with “I will always love you, Mars Hill, like a school girl remembers her first crush. But I choose to continue forward on the mission God gave me through your influence, even if you choose another direction.” Several years later, she and her husband, Bryan, visited another Seattle church that just so happened to be meeting in a building formerly owned by Mars Hill. That Sunday the church was spotlighting a ministry that offers therapists for pastors and missionaries. In her notes from that service, says Cosper, Zug wrote, “Christians are messy people, and sometimes Christians in full-time ministry are even messier than usual.” Cosper adds that “that posture and that ministry struck her as unimaginable at Mars Hill.” It is with this new congregation in an old Mars Hill building that the Zugs have now found the kind of authentic community that they originally had in Mars Hill’s earlier days.

If you haven’ t already, I would encourage you to listen to all of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. It fills in details for those not familiar with the whole story, with lots of interviews, sermon clips, and personal perspectives. It even takes off on a couple tangents with two “bonus” segments: In one, Cosper talks with Joshua Harris (of I Kissed Dating Goodbye) about his deconstructed faith, and in another, he looks at the Acts 29 church-planting network, of which Mars Hill was a product. In total, the podcast is over 17 hours, so if you don’t have that much time to give, the last episode presents a good overview, touching on many of the important issues. (It’s two-and-a-half hours long, so it still covers a lot of ground.)

The voices in “Aftermath” are striking, too. I’ve already mentioned Lindsay and the Zugs, but another poignant story comes from Benjamin Petry. His father is Paul Petry, one of two elders dismissed from the church in 2007, the day before Driscoll made his bus comments. This past September, the younger Petry travelled to Driscoll’s new church in Phoenix, seeking some sort of reconciliation. He asked Driscoll to call his father to say he was sorry, but that call hasn’t happened . . . at least not yet.

At Christmastime, we remember Jesus’ coming to the world to make things whole. But that celebration can also put a spotlight on the brokenness that will continue until he comes again, asking us to mourn with those who mourn. It was the podcasts’s final installment that brought tears to my eyes, in listening to the stories from people who once called Mars Hill their church. Some of them are now doing the hard work of asking for and offering forgiveness. Some are celebrating the holidays in their new churches. Some are picking up the pieces and trying to figure out what to hang on to and what to let go of.

All are worth hearing. They are part of our family. I hope you get to listen to them.

(*Counting the two bonus installments and a “side story,” there are fifteen episodes in all.)

(Mark Driscoll, clip at Joyful Exiles, October 1, 2007; Mark Cosper, “Aftermath,” The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, Christianity Today, December 4, 2021; Cosper, “Why the Mars Hill Podcast Kept You Waiting,” interview by Stefani McDade, Christianity Today, December 8, 2021; Jen Zug, “The Story of How Mars Hill Church Broke Up with Me,” The Pile I’m Standing In, August 12, 2014)

[photo: “one-sixty-six/three-sixty-five,” by Laura LaRose, used under a Creative Commons license]

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Craig Thompson

Craig and his wife, Karen, along with their five children, served as missionaries in Taipei, Taiwan, for ten years before returning to southwest Missouri. His experiences, as well as conversations with other cross-cultural workers, have made him more and more interested in member care and the process of transitioning between cultures. Craig blogs at ClearingCustoms.net.