Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Mars Hill Church, transfer growth, and a new Burned Over District

Note that the first link Driscoll includes in the above entry ...

Is dead. An actually working version of the link seems to be here:

It’s my belief that we’re living in a new movement, with the potential to see revival in our generation.
Many people in the United States and around the world have a general feeling that something is happening. There’s an excitement in the air worldwide. The hearts of church leaders from around the globe are pounding from an increased sense of urgency for evangelism, discipleship, and church planting. This increased heart rate was felt by the thumb of Collin Hansen back in 2006 when he penned the article Young, Restless, Reformed. Just a few years later in 2009, this new movement was considered by Time magazine as one of the top ten ideas changing the world.

I used to think Mars Hill was a new movement, maybe back around 2002, maybe 2004. But even back then when asked what Mars Hill was like I'd say, "Well, pretty much Calvinist Baptist." I had that impression ten years ago and I still have that impression now.

Whether or not neo-Calvinism is one of the top ten ideas changing the world is a matter for debate. Many people who have come into Mars Hill within the last ten years have done so through transfer growth.  These thousands have not generally been unwashed heathen masses but people already raised Christian attracted to things that makes Mars Hill seem different or special. The institution seems innovative because it is a young institution and because when you appeal to people in their 20s who are generally literate but not heavily educated in church history or anchored to a particular theological tradition the institution will seem more innovative than it actually is.  I was that 20-something years ago myself.  Whenever you read anyone attempting to describe neo-Calvinism as a movement let's keep in mind that it's a drop in the bucket compared to Pentecostalism as an influence in 20th century global Christianity. 

My blogging associate Dan over at City of God also blogged this a while back (November 15, 2010):

I was a bit taken aback today to see that new research is indicating that the Calvinist resurgence has made no statistical difference in the theological allegiances of American Protestant churches. When the researchers at Barna Group crunched the numbers ...


... they showed that the percentage of Reformed churches had not changed in the past decade. The conclusion seems to be that Reformed leaders may now be better or at least noisier communicators. Says study director, David Kinnaman:
“there is no discernable evidence from this research that there is a Reformed shift among U.S. congregation leaders over the last decade. Whatever momentum surrounds Reformed churches and the related leaders, events and associations has not gone much outside traditional boundaries or affected the allegiances of most today’s church leaders. It is important to note that the influence of Reformed churches might also be measured through other metrics that are currently unavailable, such as the theological certainty of self-described adherents, their level of acceptance toward those who are not Calvinist, and the new methods Reformed leaders are using to market their views to their peers and to the public.”
In other words at least one statement from folks at Barna suggested that the Reformed shift was not as big as previously estimated. No shift in leaders might not tell us much, though, because if the neo-Reformed are gaining members by assimilating into existing churches and pushing for transfer growth then the number of "Reformed" or "new Calvinist" leaders doesn't have to grow at all.  All that is necessary is for the leaders to strategically assimilate the pastors who can be measured as having steady growth of financial stability and the plucky churches can be assimilated formally or ideologically into the movement. Quaintly enough, and getting back to Driscoll's sales pitch:
What Is a Movement?
A movement is an unusual work of God, sometimes called a revival or renewal. During a movement, things happen in larger numbers. I’m not speaking of programs, potluck dinners, or camp meetings, but rather conversions, discipleship, and church planting. ...

Some of us do not trust revival talk any longer. We were Pentecostal long ago and heard talk of revival and then some of us went to college and began to read about revival as a dominant idea or metanarrative in American Christian thought.  Some of us heard numerous misquotations and misapplications of "If my people who are called by My name ... " as a plea for revival that ultimately would work itself out in America being great again.  Now maybe it's because some of my ancestors are the sorts of Americans who were here before the white Americans showed up but when American Christians have wanted God back in America there's a lot to be asked about which god and which America.

So it doesn't matter if Driscoll says we're on the cusp of a revival.  Pentecostals and dispensationalists have been saying that for decades and postmillenialists lament the slow and inexorable downward slide of society, complaints about "pessimillenialism" withstanding.  Maybe Driscoll realizes that by tossing around the term "revival" he's playing to a pop mythological expectation.  If so then it's even more hollow than if it were sincere because every generation can imagine it's living in the last days even without a religious zeal motivating it. 

Let's keep in mind that the doomsday clock in Alan Moore's Watchmen was a portent of doom meant to address concerns in the Reagan years.  Funny how it seems that decades later the comic book turned into a portentious film adaptation by Zack Snyder.  When Paul Simon sang "These are the days of miracles and wonders" the song had momentum because he was talking about normal miracles and wonders, the things we as humans can do regularly that were unimaginable before. Apocalyptic visions of heaven and hell on earth have tended to elude us yet we still make certain to underline that this time our generation's apocalyptic vision of doom or joy must be right. It might be ... but our generational cognitive biases may be no better than that of earlier generations.  It's curious how within the Bible some of the people who managed to change things up were those able to say "I am no better than my ancestors." The ancients had unenlightened views about race and women, yes, but it was the modern age that created and dropped the atomic bomb. 

If you want to get a sense for what conversation, discipleship and church planting might entail consider Driscoll's 2012 conversations with Justin Brierley and T. D. Jakes.  Consider that longtime Mars Hill pastor and former Acts 29 president Scott Thomas is playing it really quiet in the wake of Paul Petry documenting Thomas' role in presiding over a kangaroo court process that included lying to church members in 2007 and using Acts 29 resources to put those lies over.  Consider the $1.5 million boondoggle purchase from the 2005 capital campaign.  Consider Andrew's disciplinary situation and that Mars Hill has admitted multiple times on record things didn't go as planned due to things like "unclear communication."  We'll have other things to consider about church plants momentarily.

My desire is to relate publicly and to confront privately.
I’m fortunate to have close friendships with Christian leaders from around the world and across the theological spectrum. We share a love for Jesus and a love for each other. Some consider me their theology buddy whom they can call on issues. I deeply enjoy these friendships and want to serve them in any way I can.

The way I do things within the movement are more fluid than the way I handle things within Mars Hill Church and the Acts 29 Network. I think this is an important distinction to be made.

Again, relating publicly and confronting privately doesn't add up in light of Driscoll's remarks to and about Justin Brierley and British Christianity. Driscoll seems to have been on a tour to let men in South Africa and Australia and Britain know that he thinks they're cowards. How this adds up to relating publicly and confronting privately is a mystery someone wiser than I could unravel.

Considering that Driscoll pulled out of The Gospel Coalition months after Don Carson publicly and gently schooled him on what an ignorant troll he was about British evangelicalism this invites the question of whether Driscoll is so committed to his relate publicly and confront privately shtick that he can't quite handle his former Gospel Coalition partners even politely suggesting he's ignorant on British Christianity or shamelessly committed to sheer numbers in shaking hands with Jakes. 

I believe we’re sitting at the edge of a precipice. God is moving in ways I believe history will look back on as the beginnings of a new movement in the church. The flows of this movement have and will continue to run over the banks of our current relational boundaries and influence all of the church around the world, not just our own local gathering.

No, I don't think we're sitting on the edge of a precipice that will lead to the beginnings of a new movement in the church.  Ecclesiastes tells us there's nothing new under the sun and whatever once seemed new about Mars Hill to me in my twenties looks like a hipper and more swinging variation of Calvinist Baptist that has a patina of "charismatic with a seatbelt". All the spin and public relations and marketing in the world at Driscoll's disposal will not convince me that this is what's going to come along.  The more Americans push for revival and attempt to launch a Third Great Awakening and, this time, on a global scale, the less I find the idea credible. 

If such a movement is even likely to happen it has probably already occurred in the form of Pentecostalism sweeping across the globe.  A "charismatic with a seatbelt" like Mark Driscoll is arguably nothing more than one instanteation of a movement that has already taken place, which is the expansion of Pentecostal pneumatology into Catholic, Episcopal, and mainline Protestant settings.  Driscoll, after all, grew up in a nominally Catholic home.  He's now functionally TULIP and Baptist and has a charismatic streak and preaches and teaches by way of video.  Which means that other than some points in soteriology and not having a TV show he could be said to have boldly trailblazed stuff Pat Robertson was starting to do before Driscoll was even born.

Making a point will get you a rabid online fan base that loves it when there’s someone else’s blood in the water.

Driscoll would know, after all.

But in the end, it’s not about us. It’s about Jesus. And I’d rather make a difference for Jesus than make a point about him. How about you?

If that difference is a new movement or revival then it's not going to be anything other than a point, unfortunately. 

It's not difficult for even casual scholars of religion in America to know what The Burned Over District is.  It's not hugely difficult to consult Finney's role in the development of such a region. For those who are interested in at least playing with a scholastic idea, the "emergent church" and the spin-off from within that movement that has become Mars Hill, with Driscoll's idiosyncratic form of evangelical designer religion and the videology and multi-site approach, it's possible that what Mars Hill as a movement is preparing us for is a new kind of Burned Over district in which a virtual church mediated by virtual preaching changes the expectations of churc-goers. 

The seeds of such an approach were arguably planted by the likes of Pat Robertson decades ago, as well as by those in TBN as a whole.  Benny Hinn got to his tens of thousands a while back and a video-mediated church experience is not something inherently new.  If the technological savvy of new Calvinists seems new to evangelicals or conservative Protestants (however we define that term) like Driscoll or Piper or whomever this would only be because they have lacked a broad enough grasp of American Christianity to understand who got there first. That Driscoll has shaken hands with T. D. Jakes merely cements the observation.  Teachers are known by their students and if Jakes is okay then Paula White and Juanita Bynum must be okay, too, right?  If Driscoll is convinced, actually convinced, we're on the cusp of a new revival that alone would be enough for me to dismiss him as a doctrinal non-entity.  I consider revival to be one of the most dangerous idols in American religious thought.  For a guy who has loved to bag on "Religion" invoking revival is as much old time religion as anyone can get.  Why this is coming up from a new Calvinist is a whole question in itself.

This wouldn't be a proper blog from a person connected to new Calvinism unless I included the word "moreover" somewhere as a transition.

Moreover, it may be said broadly that many people who settled in what became the Burned Over District could be described as able to read but not particularly well-educated. It was from this region Adventism and Mormonism would spring up, eventually.  The Second Great Awakening hit very hard in this region of western New York and Finney famously labeled it "burnt". Just because Mark Driscoll doesn't have the theology of Finney (yet) doesn't mean he can't employ Finney's methodology if it suits him. Mars Hill never had altar calls ten years ago and the reasoning was altar calls are emotionally manipulative.  When I heard a couple of years ago about how Mars Hill did an altar call I was disappointed.  Pragmatism is king. 

The Second Great Awakening led to what has famously been called the Burned Over District.  These folks tended to be literate but not highly educated and in a region that was subject to a lot of business and trade in a frontier and multicultural setting.  Wow, this is just like Mars Hill!  See?  I can do that, too.  If Driscoll gets the revival he may want then the least churched region in America may become more churched but inside of thirty years the region of the Pacific Northwest and places touched by Mars Hill could become a new kind of Burned Over District.  Hooked on a technological gloss and an idea of "community" informed by a remote-control Protestant super-bishop people who listen to Driscoll may forget what expository preaching actually sounds like because they are hooked on the comedy and the personal anecdotes. 

I hope this doesn't happen but when I look at Mars Hill expansion and Acts 29 I don't see the beginnings of a new revival.  I saw Pentecostals pulling for a new revival in the late 1980s and that revival never came.  The Toronto Blessing does not count, does it?  If as the neo-Calvinists have been so fond of saying, "What you win them with is what you win them to" then it looks like Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll are trying to sell us their version of Jesus but what comes off in the sale is, well, Driscoll.  Driscoll can talk about movements but what he's got on his hands are religious institutions
No one working toward a legacy can be in denial forever about institutional stability as a goal. Driscoll wouldn't have considered how to keep Mars Hill going after his death if he hasn't ultimately come to grips with wanting to found an institution. But to the Acts 29 crowd he wants to emphasize movement. He's even willing to plug for revival.  If you know there are Christian traditions and practices that don't take American revivalistic religion as the starting point for normative Christian practice now would be a good time to keep close to that tradition.

I am probably going to be wrong but if Driscoll gets his revival, if this somehow turns into a Third Great Awakening then I would anticipate that more blood will get shed.  After all, after the First Great Awakening we got the Revolutionary War and the Second Great Awakening stirred piety enough to help fuel the Civil War.  Yes, I'm being snarky but sometimes it's easy to grasp why various Christian thinkers in Europe warned about the craziness of "enthusiasts". Given the martial bent of Markulinity it wouldn't be that surprising if the realization of Markulinity and his "I just teach what's in the Bible" theology with its truncated hamartiology would lead to various forms of conflict.
But conflict isn't going to come about just yet.  If the revival doesn't happen, if the movement turns out to be a paper tiger then none of this will transpire, whatever "this" could be.  But what is likely to transpire is assimilation and we'll get to this shortly. A revival that is an explosion of church growth that is simply transfer growth won't seem like a revival at all.  Which gets me to ...


Anonymous said...

Name the church that is build on anything other than transfer membership today? PLEASE...

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

There can't be any church in America built on anything other than transfer growth because America is a Christian nation. ;-)

You're asking the wrong question there. Driscoll can just joke that even Jesus' own disciples were all transfer growth away from the prevailing religion of the time.

The question remains, if a pastor is shepherding a stagnant or dwindling flock is Driscoll the kind of "shepherd" to hand over that flock to? I'll let a comment from Nick Bulbeck at Bill Kinnon's blog answer this one.

... leaders are nearly always capable public speakers, and have an innate ability to grasp enough of the basics of a subject to appear competent at it. In Driscoll’s case, he’s learned some basic theology and aligned himself with a particular theological tribe, and thus he has been able to pass himself off as a teacher. In practice he is nothing of the kind; he is merely adept at using the bible as a sock-puppet that always agrees with him. It’s all of our faults; for centuries the “reformed” church has idolised the pulpit, and increasingly confused the terms “minister”, “preacher”, “teacher” and “leader”. But again, I don’t judge Driscoll as a teacher; he isn’t one, and I don’t need to take his theology seriously. Which, again, leaves one free to pick out anything of value.