Image Source: Christianity Today
Over the past four or so months, I have listened with rapt attention, waiting for the next episode drop of the Christianity Today podcast, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. For the uninitiated, it chronicles the story of Seattle megachurch, Mars Hill and its founder Mark Driscoll. It first came to my attention, if memory serves me right, when its host, Christianity Today‘s Mike Cosper, popped in to the Holy Post podcast for a conversation with Skye Jethani. That interview, and the end of the first episode, go some way to lay out the team’s reasons for exploring this story and what lessons they hope to tease out as they go along. As expected, Mark Driscoll looms large over the series – which has one final episode to go. Alongside him, making appearances and/or being named checked are a slew of other heavyweights in the evangelical space, thanks to his involvement in two organisations like The Gospel Coalition and the Acts 29 network.
Listening to the podcast has been a trip down memory lane for me of sorts, back to the mid 2000s, a time when I was deeply wedded to the Pentecostal cause back in the old country. I was two years into a move to a different city for work, had home internet – even slower than dialup – for the first time and had gotten myself a laptop to boot. At the same time my friend A had just gotten a copy of Joshua Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye as well as mp3s of the three-part series Harris preached at the Covenant Life Church’s singles ministry meetings. The outcome of all of this – and the advent of Apple podcasts – was to open my eyes to the wealth of resources on the internet – SermonAudio & Boundless to name a few. This was my path to coming within the Driscoll orbit, from a distance as it were. With the benefit of hindsight, the folk I listened to a lot then were an interesting bunch – John Piper, CJ Mahaney, Joshua Harris, Al Mohler, Mark Dever, Bruce Ware and the others who turned up regularly to the defunct New Attitude Conference to name a few.
By all accounts the failings at Mars Hill were due to a the failure of governance with a hyper powerful central figure whose brand became the focus of everything, or the results of the scheming and conniving of few disgruntled elements seeking power, if the alternative narrative is to be believed. The strong powerful central figure trope though is one that persists, particularly in its exported form in churches in my other country. I have vivid memories of spiritual fathers insisting on ‘seeds’ and ‘offerings’ and laying down the law as to what should happen in people’s home as part of adjudicating matters. Not too long ago, a certain Nigerian MOG spouted some 5G and COVID conspiracy stuff and got his followers – some of whom are very bright and otherwise intelligent people – deferring to his opinion on the subject. That he did seem to offer a retraction seems to carry less weight with the one or two of those I know, who I have since deleted and blocked off Whatsapp, that cesspool of misinformation.
At its peak, Mars Hill attracted close to 15,000 people over five campuses, which perhaps begs the question of what attracted them. If my experience is anything to go by I sense that most people want a strong central authority in their lives, want clarity, and if they are of a religious bent, want access to people who are close to the Divine and who can say with (misplaced?) confidence that God told them some hidden and arcane reason behind something out in the world.
It seems to me that Cosper and co went to great lengths to present both sides of the Mars Hill story – the real hurt to people but also the real lives helped. Balancing these two narratives was always going to be a big difficulty with a project such as this though in my view, they did do very well in that regards. I am looking out for the final episode, hopefully it ties all the various strands of the narrative together nicely as well as addresses some of the criticisms others have levelled at.