You may have heard of Mark Driscoll, who as a young pastor saw his Mars Hill Church in Seattle experience spectacular growth. The church grew into satellite congregations, and like other mega-churches might have met at least some of the criteria for being a denomination of its own. Remarkably, the growth came in spite of (actually, it may well have been because of) the strong Calvinist take-no-prisoners, our-way-or-the-highway doctrinaire atmosphere that Driscoll presided over and fueled.
Knowingly or unknowingly, Driscoll was tapping into a real spiritual dysfunction. Some people don’t feel they have been to church unless they have been yelled at, corrected, beat up and sent home somewhat humiliated, licking their wounds. Mars Hill churches flourish in part because sermons are viewed as “strong” – pastors as “solid, Bible believing and uncompromising” and the church is seen as “taking strong stands against bad stuff that is happening in the world.” It seems Driscoll attracted many with such inbred, indoctrinated religious needs, even within the strongly progressive and liberal atmosphere of Seattle.
I know this drill – it is an endlessly repeating cycle of what I call Bad News Religion.This heavy handed, oppressive, domineering and authoritarian baloney that many believe passes muster as the “truth” is intoxicating – members of such churches come to believe that they and the rigid, unbending, “literal” understanding of the Bible (as proof texted and interpreted by pastors and churches) to which they are subjected makes them feel clever, maybe even better than those who don’t see things their way.
So once again we have massive disappointment – and much of it, at least for some time, will be laid at God’s door rather than where it belongs. Our hearts go out to Mars Hill Church survivors who are depressed and disenchanted. Whose fault is this big fat mess? Spiritual crime scene investigators will lead us to see that Mark Driscoll, leadership and lay members of Mars Hill were puppets who were dancing to a tune. Of course they have responsibility, but who wrote the tune to which they danced? Not God. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of the Gospels will know that the way people were treated at Mars Hill does not comport at all with the way Jesus cared for and comforted those he served.
At the end of the day, the fault lies with the manipulative and abusive nature of institutionalized religion, whose techniques have been around throughout history. Of course Mars Hill has some culpability and of course Mark Driscoll made decisions and apparently said and did some outrageous things in the name of God. But Mars Hill Church was not the first bad news church nor is it the last. Mark Driscoll is not the first heavy handed pastor, nor is he the last. Half a world away people who don’t march to the tune of the dominant religion and its enforcers are being beheaded, and there are no resignations of top leadership in that world.
I have been on both sides of the story that is now being told by Mars Hill survivors. I know that when I participated in trying to control people’s lives that I felt I was doing God’s bidding. I also know the deep pain involved in looking in the mirror and realizing that what I had done and what I had believed was a crock. The link below is one of the early reports about the disaster of Mars Hill. I was particularly saddened, and deeply resonated with comments by “Christian activist” Jim Henderson, three paragraphs from the end:
“Being a Christian, Henderson worries that Mars Hill members will feel so burned by the experience that they’ll walk away from Christianity altogether. ‘The young people particularly attach themselves to a charismatic personality,’ he said. ‘And when that goes away, there’s so much hubris involved, you don’t want to admit to yourself that you got played’“[my emphasis].
Indeed, who wants to admit that they bought into a horribly flawed movement and were taken for a long ride into the religious hinterlands and swamps? Many will never admit it, because the admission just involves too much pain. Many will self medicate the wounds inflicted on them by oppressive bad news religion by blaming God, a pastor or a church – but in so doing they will fall short of discovering the true culprit and thus be unable to address the real reasons that truck ran over them, and never arrive at the real Answer in the process.