The story of the people of Israel in the Old Testament can be read in many ways but one of the simplest ways of reading that story is as a battle to get and keep real estate. Of course everyone who has read the Bible knows that battle was eventually lost. In the story of Ezra-Nehemiah we're given an account of how that land was resettled. If we dig a bit further we can get into the Maccabean revolt and the history of various occupying empires that found the region that is Israel indispensible for empire building and trade. Though it can be read with spiritual ideas in mind I invite you to consider the Old Testament as a story of the battle to get and keep real estate. This martial approach to the story serves as a useful starting point for more local variations of how people who have identified themselves as on a mission from God have sought the gift of real estate through providence.
Because, as the author of Ecclesiastes put it, there is nothing new under the sun the history of local churches can also be studied in this light. If there is a church in the Pacific Northwest that has become famous over the last fifteen years for its attempt to provide a masculine and theologically conservative beachhead in the secular liberal realm it is Mars Hill Church. Of course Mars, was any cursory student of Greco-Roman mythology knows, was the god of war. In any way it is necessary to gain and keep ground within the battlefield. A spiritual battle can still be seen as being fought in terms of real estate. It is to real estate that we now turn in surveying the history of Mars Hill.
In particular I'm going to discuss what is now the Mars Hill West Seattle campus. The story of Mars Hill and the property that has at different times been called Mars Hill West Seattle, Doxa, and apparently Hillcrest Presbyterian goes back to at least 1996 by Mark Driscoll's account, and the story of the property goes back generations. Let's begin with a sermon Driscoll preached at the end of July in 2006.
Part 26: One Body, Many parts
1 Corinthians 12:12-26
Pastor Mark Driscoll
July 30, 2006
That is a $5 million gift. That is a $5 million gift, right? And I don’t know if you’ve been tracking the real estate market, people aren’t giving away a lotta real estate right now in Seattle and so we have – we’ve taken Pastor James and Pastor Bill on staff at Mars Hill. We have taken their members through the Gospel Class and they’re now members of Mars Hill. [emphasis added] They’ve been meeting as a core group over there. As we speak, there is $1.5 million of construction going on at the West Seattle campus, with the intention of opening in October in time for our ten year anniversary, and we want to expand over to West Seattle as well. We were thinking, “Well, we can borrow $8 million from the bank. We can spend $3 million and for $11 million, we can open up a 40,000 square foot location.” Well, we can now open more square feet for $1.5 million. So obviously, you take that opportunity.
The two cool aspects of this particular campus is one, is already zoned as a church, so we don’t need to fight use permits. We don’t have to bring it up to code. We can just walk in and use it immediately and it saves us, literally, a few years of permitting. Secondly, the lot that it is on is only zoned for 15,000 square feet of building and it already has 50,000 square feet, and because as grandfathered in, we could use it all. We could never build this building today as it exists. And the cool thing with this building, a very Godly church that loved the Bible – started this church, built it, their denomination went liberal, dropped the doctrine of the inerrancy or perfection of Scripture and this building went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and was the test case for who owns the church building, the congregation or the denomination. The congregation lost and these people actually bought their own building back, because they refused to drop the authority of Scripture as their value. [emphasis added] And so, there were some Godly older saints who paid for this building twice. It then went into decline but there is still a core of these people, like in their 70s and 80s, that are now members of Mars Hill. Grandmas tithing, waiting for us all to show up and fill that thing up again, and they’re praying us in. It’s a really cool God story and what God has done is pretty amazing.
The first thing to address out the gate is the Supreme Court case. Was the property that was known as Doxa church involved in a case that went to the U. S. Supreme Court? Well, Driscoll doesn't provide any meaningful background as to when this case might have been heard even at a local level, let alone gone to the United States Supreme Court. He also doesn't mention whether the high court even agreed to hear the case.
Before we get to the question of whether there was such a case and which parties it may have involved, let's keep something in mind about the founding of Acts 29. Mark Driscoll said he co-founded Acts 29 with Presbyterian Pastor David Nicholas. David Nicholas was pastor at Spanish River Church in Boca Raton, Florida. That's a Presbyterian Church in America congregation, if memory serves.
Scroll down to FL, hit search, and then scroll down to the S's. There it is. And here it is being referred to by Driscoll at Pastor Mark TV.
And being referred to on the event of the passing of Pastor Nicholas.
The early link in the above article is dead. It takes a reference to another resource to pull up a captured/cached version of what the link was to.
Some local coverage of Nicholas life and passing.
So we've established that co-founding elder David Nicholas was Presbyterian and PCA. Being Presbyterian myself this wasn't really all that difficult.
Now in his July 2006 sermon Driscoll described the property that is now Mars Hill West Seattle as having been part of a denomination that went liberal. Okay, for folks steeped in enough American church history to have paid attention to denominations that have gone liberal that's too big a net to cast. However, Driscoll's association with Nicholas tells us that he was willing to work with men in the PCA. Now Driscoll also mentioned that the congregation that owned Doxa bought the property back from their denomination after the Supreme Court case. This is at least partly informative. Let's say that for a Presbyterian with a modicum of training in research methods, access to the internet, and who knows a couple of attorneys you can find out about this:
Hillcrest Presbyterian Church vs the Presbytery of America.
Well, the thing about Hillcrest Presbyterian is that if you look it up now here's what you'll probably find first:
That's roughly a six minute drive from the property that is now Mars Hill West Seattle which is here:
7551 35th Avenue SW
Seattle, WA 98126
Okay, so if you look up Presbytery of America literally you won't find it. You will find this, however.
PCUSA, for the folks who aren't actually Presbyterian, would be considered by Driscoll in all likelihood to have been a denomination that sold out on the inerrancy of scripture..
Here's a reference to this case hitting the Supreme Court of Washington from October 9, 1973.
The case didn't actually get appealed to the United States Supreme Court until Apr 22, 1974 and the Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
I'm not 100% sure here but it looks like this is probably the case Driscoll was referring to and this is what little I could dig up on the net for free with a little helpful guidance.
So Driscoll is technically correct to say the case got to the Supreme Court but the Supreme Court decided not to hear the case. Now I'm not an attorney or anything but Driscoll saying the case went all the way to the Supreme Court sounds sort of like someone saying he met Geddy Lee in an airport, shook hands with the man, and now he can say he's known on a first name basis with the bassist of Rush. That's just my take on things, and I know that's not worth much.
According to this July 30, 2006 sermon from the 1 Corinthians series, Mark Driscoll explained that James Noriega was a pastor with Bill Clem at Doxa, an Acts 29 church plant. Noriega, however, was not ordained until somewhere around November 2004 and Doxa was planted in 2002. Noriega could not have been one of the founding elders at Doxa. Since he was a pastor at Doxa, and Doxa was an Acts 29 church plant, we can at least infer that James Noriega was ordained in and by Acts 29.
We also learn from this sermon that what is now Mars Hill West Seattle had been the property Driscoll wanted for Mars Hill in 1996, at the start of his ministry. He was rejected, he said, from getting that property and it had been a property he’d wanted ever since. In 2006, obviously, he was finally able to grandfather in the property into Mars Hill by approaching Bill Clem. It’s important to note here that the transcript for the July 30, 2006 sermon is wrong by describing Bill Clem as “leaving” that congregation. Go listen to the actual audio of Driscoll’s sermon and you’ll discover he said “leading”, not “leaving”. So the sermon includes what appears to be a factually incorrect statement that James Noriega was one of the elders who founded Doxa and the transcript includes an error of wording that does not accurately convey what Driscoll said in the actual audio of the sermon. Overall the content in the sermon seems to be accurate.
Now to appreciate the significance of “we don’t need to fight use permits” you need to be aware of the 2005 capital campaign that led to the purchase of the 50th street property. This requires a lot of citations that can’t be shortened. Here they are.
The first excerpt is from Confessions of a Reformission Rev, published in April 2006.
Our current facility cannot accomodate much growth beyond our current four Sunday services. Additionally our kids' ministry is bursting at the seams, our Capstone classes are in desperate need of space, and our cramped, windowless office space would be perfect if we were a third-world sweatshop.
So the elders voted to purchase a 43,000-square-foot dumpy warehouse Jamie found one block away from our current building. When the project is completed, we will have two buildings only a block apart, each hosting church services, with 1,300 seats in one location and a projected 1,000 seats in the other. We will be able to grow to more than 10,000 people per Sunday through multiple services in multiple locations. Each service will have live worship teams, but I will only be live in some services and in video in others.
However, in his July 30, 2006 sermon in 1 Corinthians Driscoll said several things about the property mentioned in Reformission Rev:
There is the building a block away. We purchased it a year ago. It was heading into foreclosure. We purchased it for under market value. It has increased in value since that time, and this is just some interior and exterior shots of the space, and our plan was to turn that into a large room to see maybe 800 to 1,000 people. And so, what we have instead decided to do, first, we’re going to keep that building – and it’s been great – ‘cause according to King 5 television, they had a report that said that 98105, which is this zip code, is one of the five fastest, increasing valued zip codes in the State of Washington. Since we bought that building, as it was going to foreclosure, we already have gained a million dollars in equity in that building. We have no intention of getting rid of it, but here’s what we do want to do with it. We want to knock half the building down and just turn it into parking to increase our parking capacity. Secondly, the other half of the building – we don’t feel that we have to use right now because of some other things that have come available that we’re gonna tell you about – but we’re gonna keep it. We’ll rent it out with the hopes that a tenant will pay most of our mortgage. We can keep it then, and then if we ever do wanna build on it, we can develop it and do whatever we want with it but we feel it’s important right now to watch and see what happens with this neighborhood, particularly what happens to parking, and then make a determination down the road as to best use.
And the reason that we don’t need to develop it as we had thought is because of some other things have come available. Among those is Shoreline and these are some shots from the Shoreline campus and where we are meeting at Christa Ministries, at Shermer Auditorium. Four hundred seats, plus a full daycare. It’s amazing kid space. Huge gym for the kids to run around in. Lots of parking. They’re letting us use that on Sunday and now this fall for beginning, for midweek programming for nothing. It’s free. We don’t even pay for janitorial, we don’t even pay for utilities. It is a savings of over $100,000.00 a year. We can be there for two more years. It’s a savings of 200 plus thousand dollars. We love Christa. We’re very, very grateful for their kindness to us. Eventually, we will need to purchase a permanent site for our Shoreline. We’ll need to get them a permanent purchase campus, ‘cause we can only be there for two years. I mean, wouldn’t it be great if somebody let you how the house for two years for free? I mean that’s a very kind gift, so we are actively looking for another place to buy.
Reformission Rev got published in April 2006 and by July 2006 the plan for the 50th street property looks pretty different. My best guess is that it was this substantial change in announced plans was what Jamie Munson refered to when answering the question asked below.
Page 72/145 from Mars Hill: A miracle of Jesus
November 9, 2007
Answers submitted by Pastor Jamie Munson
Q: What is the status and future plans for the property M.H. owns just north of the Ballard campus?
We purchased the building on 50th with the intention of performing a massive renocation, and by connecting it with our Leary building, to create a large campus in the middle of the city. Sicne the 50th building dedication, our renovation plans were delayed by our attempt to obtain a change of use permit. During the permitting delay we were gifted a building in West Seattle and undertook renovating and opening that building as our next campus. [emphasis added] At the time of these changes we communicated this to the members of the church openly and honestly as we wanted to be faithful to the stewardship and generosity of the body.
Also, each quarter a letter is sent to members, along with their donor statement, urging faithful stewardship and giving updates to vision and building strategies. In addition, Pastor Mark wrote a lengthy letter that was sent ot members electronically, and handed out at all campuses explaining the shift ot a multi-campus church before the West Seattle campus opened. Due to the restrictions and expense of buildilng a single large buildilng in our city our focus has shifted from one large campus to becomine a multi-site church of smaller campuses. Your elders feel this will enable a more effective and cost-efficient spread of the Gospel throughout Seattle and beyond. It will still take capital campaigns and the purchasing of facilities but allows us to spread and grow more quickly as Jesus leads.
We are leasing part of the 50th buildling to generate some revenue. We are also performing a minor renovation of portions of the building to alleviate our current office and production space needs. This will eliminate the need for leasing office space for our use. In addition the property provides some much needed parking relief for our Ballard campus and also needs such as storage. An average church of our size functions with about 4 times as much square footage as we do with our Ballard campus. Storage, meeting rooms, office space and parking are greatly needed and this property serves those with purposes in the mean time. Future development options are being considered as well but there are no firm plans for these. This is further complicated as the city is considering further zoning changes and restrictions in industrial areas of the city. Until this legislation is decided it hangs property owners up as the future possibilities of the property are unclear. We are hanging on to the property and using it to the fullest extent possible in the mean time.
In other words, we could take Munson’s reply to explain that Mars Hill elders purchased property in 2005 without adequately investigating zoning and land use permits beforehand. They bought what is now the 50th street property, and have been making the best of it while they were looking to purchase or acquire other property. The property was valuable enough that selling it could be done without a rush and the property maximized while more suitable options were considered. As we can see from Driscoll’s July 2006 sermon other options presented themselves quickly enough.
This suggests to me, at least, that the 2005 capital campaign purchase was very ill-advised but that the elders did do their best to make lemonade out of a property that turned out to be a bit of a lemon in terms of actual land use permits. They also lined up the purchase of a controversial Belltown establishment that is a subject that would merit an entirely separate discussion. Suffice it to say Doxa being assimilated back into Mars Hill could be considered a boon because of the various reasons Mark Driscoll explained in his July 2006 sermon. It was also advantageous for Clem, who was approached by Driscoll shortly after Clem got word that his wife Jeannie had been diagnosed with cancer.
On November 9, 2011 the following video got posted. In the video Bill Clem says about what is now the West Seattle campus:
"It isn't as though we do a lot of ministry here on Sunday morning, but this is where we did all of our ministry when we first started a church plant called Doxa, which was an Acts 29 church in partnership with Mars Hill."
The close of the video establishes the following statistics.
Doxa launched in 2002 with eight people.
Today as many as 1,000 people meet to worship in that same building every week.
In 2009 the West Seattle campus planted the Federal Way Campus.
So the majority of what Driscoll said in the July 2006 sermon about not developing the 50th street property and the advantages of acquiring Doxa check out. It’s a bit surprising to read now in 2012 what Driscoll said in 2006, that he had made a bid for what is now Mars Hill West Seattle way back in 1996 and was rejected. The property that was once Hillcrest Presbyterian seemed to be owned by the PCUSA. When the church differed with the denomination a case went to court. The ruling was apparently appealed to the Washington Supreme Court, which rejected hearing the case. The case was then appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which also rejected hearing the case. It is probably after that point that Hillcrest Presbyterian Church bought back the property. According to this:
The property that is now Mars Hill West Seattle was sold to Mars Hill Fellowship for $180,236 on June 2, 2006 by Grace Community Church.
Having Bill Clem plant an Acts 29 church at that property matches up with what Clem himself says about his time as a church planter in Doxa. It would appear that by Driscoll’s own account he’d had his eyes on the property that is now Mars Hill West Seattle from the first days of his ministry way back in 1996. Doxa grew just big enough that Bill Clem and James Noriega were approached by Mark Driscoll in 2006 about arranging for the property that is now Mars Hill West Seattle to be added into the real estate of Mars Hill Fellowship/Mars Hill Church.
The advantage of this arrangement for Clem can't be overstated. He'd been approached by Driscoll just after finding out his wife Jeannie had been diagnosed with cancer and she passed a few years later. The church had grown enough to not have to meet in the basement or the gym of the property they were using (though it appears they did not necessarily own the property themselves). As Acts 29 pastors Clem and Noriega had much to gain from getting the property to Mars Hill. Driscoll is the more charismatic speaker, draws a bigger crowd and with the video venue and multi-site apparatus getting into place Mars Hill could solve the problems it faced from having acquired property in 2005 that got them little but permit purgatory. The property was too valuable to consider just getting rid of but they also couldn't use it for the things that Driscoll had announced the 50th street property would be used for in Reformission Rev. Beyond all that, as Mark Driscoll said in his 2006 sermon, the opportunity to get the Doxa meeting site was the opportunity to get property he'd always wanted for Mars Hill since 1996.
While Clem's role in founding Doxa is easily established there's less documentation about the ordination and role of Noriega in Doxa by the time Mars Hill acquired it.
Those links will suffice for an overview.
While there's little about James Noriega becoming a pastor at Doxa that has been published it is easy enough to establish how he became a pastor at Mars Hill. Mark Driscoll referred to Noriega not just in the July 2006 sermon but also in a November 2007 sermon. In the following sermon preached by Mars Hill Pastor Mark Driscoll on November 4, 2007, Driscoll explained that James Noriega was one of a number of men who were seeking humility and had been added to the Mars Hill elder team.
Mark Driscoll on November 4, 2007
... The last one is James. He was running a drug and alcohol treatment center, I think for the Union Gospel Mission. He was an elder at Doxa Church in West Seattle. He and Pastor Bill were there and I approached them and said, “I think we should partner together,” and turned that building into Mars Hill West Seattle. I don’t know what the building’s worth – $4 million, whatever. He said, “Well what’s the deal?” I said, “Give us the building, resign as elders, work through the membership process, work through the eldership process. I guarantee you nothing – no power, no job, no eldership. If you meet the qualifications and the men vote you in, we’ll make you an elder, but I guarantee you no job. Nothing. If you believe it’s right for Jesus, give us the building, resign, give up all power of authority, give up your position. Walk away from it all for the cause of Jesus.”
He said, “Okay, I think it’s best for Jesus.” He resigned, voted to hand us the building and the people. Humbly went through the eldership process. After he finished the membership process, oversees our drug and alcohol addiction recovery. We just voted him onto the Board of Directors. Why? Because God opposes the proud and he gives grace to the humble.
As I have documented elsewhere James Noriega stopped being employed at Mars Hill some time in late 2011. In late 2011, at Pastor Mark TV, Mark Driscoll wrote the following looking back to the acquisition of West Seattle:
Mars Hill West Seattle
Mars Hill West Seattle was a result of conversations I had with Pastor Bill Clem, who now leads our Ballard church. Bill planted Doxa Fellowship in West Seattle after having served as the North American Director for Sonlife Ministries, a national discipleship ministry. The church was part of the Acts 29 network and running under 100 people when Bill and I began talking.
At the time, Bill’s wife was diagnosed with cancer, from which she eventually passed away. I called up Bill to offer support for the tough battle he and his wife were facing, and I also asked if he’d be open to letting us use Doxa’s building on Sunday mornings, as Doxa was only meeting on Sunday nights.
Eventually, as our church met in his building in the mornings, as we talked more and more, and as Bill’s wife faced a continuing and difficult battle with cancer, Doxa decided to merge with Mars Hill and become part of our church. We gave Bill many months off, paid him a full salary, and let him care for his dying wife and get a break from the exhausting work he’d undertaken in planting a church with an often bedridden wife. [emphasis added] Her funeral was held in the church building that Pastor Bill had been given, and once he was ready, he started working for Mars Hill and is now our lead pastor at our biggest church, Mars Hill Ballard. Additionally, he has published the book Discipleship for us, and is the Northwest regional director for Acts 29.
The old church building we inherited needed a lot of work. So, the people of Mars Hill generously gave $1.8 million in one massive special offering to renovate it. It’s been a great transition over the last five years or so, with the church growing from less than 100 people to now well over 700 people coming together to worship Jesus and serve the West Seattle area, many of whom are new believers who’ve met Jesus and been baptized at Mars Hill West Seattle. Not only that, Mars Hill West Seattle has gone from being a church plant to planting churches, having planted Mars Hill Federal Way in 2009.
In April 2012 Mark Driscoll revisited the subject of West Seattle again in this entry:
3. We have some success, by God’s grace, adopting in an existing church and transitioning it to a Mars Hill church. In New Mexico, we’ve seen a church go from a few hundred to over 1,000 worshipers in a few years—primarily by conversion growth. In West Seattle, we saw a church go from under 200 to as high as 1,000. [emphasis added] In Sammamish, east of Seattle, we saw church go from under 200 to around 800 in a matter of months. This is not all transfer growth. Fully 1,392 people were baptized at Mars Hill last year, and every one of our 14 churches across four states is seeing people meet Jesus regularly.
4. We’ve found some fantastic people and leaders in churches we’ve adopted. Bill Clem, the lead pastor at our largest Mars Hill church, joined us when we adopted his small church plant. [emphasis added] One of our three executive elders, Dave Bruskas, joined us when we adopted his church of a few hundred in New Mexico. We’ve also picked up some amazingly gifted and generous Christians who have made our mission to preach Jesus’ gospel more strongly than ever. We love to develop and deploy leaders, and there are many people sitting in churches who could be equipped and unleashed for major ministry impact.
Mark Driscoll has mentioned West Seattle twice as a case study for why church mergers are good. It would seem like an important case study to sell churches on merging with Mars Hill. In his 2011 and 2012 accounts he didn't mention what he was very up front about in his sermon in 2006, that West Seattle was a property he'd wanted for Mars Hill since 1996. There's nothing necessarily wrong with a pastor at a church wanting a piece of property for his church for ten years in a row, and there's nothing necessarily wrong with him getting that property. It's apparent that the deal of getting the property to Mars Hill was considered a boon to everyone. Mark Driscoll and Bill Clem still have their jobs. Noriega apparently doesn't but at the time the deal was proposed, apparently by Driscoll, the deal looked fantastic to everyone involved.
But it does provide a basis for caution for those pastors who might be considering gifting property to Mars Hill now. Clem was sent as a church planter by Acts 29 in 2002 and was well-situated to negotiate a deal of getting to Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll property he'd wanted for ten years. It's probably just me but that doesn't seem like a minor detail to just skip past if you're a pastor considering gifting your church's assets and property to Mars Hill. Do you have a piece of property Mark Driscoll has wanted for Mars Hill for ten years? You'll get some willing ears and Driscoll mentioned that Clem offered to give the building to Mars Hill in the 2006 sermon. Gift may turn out to have meant sold for a fraction of the property value and building value. but at that point I leave it to better researchers than I to look at that stuff.
I know this has been long but when Driscoll has referred twice to West Seattle as a case for why church mergers are good it is to the benefit of any pastors considering gifting assets and property to Mars Hill to have a more detailed history of the acquiring of that property and its resources. It would appear the grand plan announced by Driscoll in Reformission Rev turned out to be prohibitively expensive and, in terms of permits and zoning, legally impossible. What looked initially like a fantastic real estate purchase turned out to be a bit of a white elephant. Though Munson was credited with finding the property Driscoll didn't clarify whose vision for the property he outlined in his book. Maybe it was his. We could guess that but it's ultimately not relevant. Fiscal and legal reality forced Mars Hill leadership to think of a new approach for the 50th street building and to try to make lemonade from a property that was a lemon. It is to their credit they seem to have made some sweet lemonade.
But Mars Hill was still too large a congregation to hold all the people attending and juggernauts of five and even six Sunday services was decimating Driscoll's health. There was the option, I would suggest, of letting other pastors actually share preaching responsibilities as was done when Moi and Gunn were also involved but Driscoll didn't pick this path. He chose a path that broke him physically. In an attempt to reach as many people video venue was championed and the path to multi-site began. To pull off multi-site there needed to be new venues. As history has shown the most promising early venues included Shoreline and West Seattle. For Bill Clem it was a way to let him take months off at a time to care for a dying wife with a full salary. For James Noriega it eventually brought being promoted to co-leading Redemption Groups and helping Mike Wilkerson transform the Grace groups that had been pioneered by Bent Meyer into Redemption Groups. By Driscoll's two accounts it was Clem and Noriega who were persuaded to give Doxa to Mars Hill and their initiative that was vital to the acquisition. For Mark Driscoll getting what is now the Mars Hill West Seattle property was the realization of a decade-long dream that had been snubbed at the outset of his ministry.