Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Confluence of Situations: A Postscript

Last year Wenatchee mentioned a few things at the following post:

... Mars Hill has lamented that they were not contacted by authors to verify the facts or seek explanation regarding the cases prior to publishing articles. But if Mars Hill was so concerned that nobody contacted them to verify the facts why did Mars Hill suspend its entire campus blog network and associated archives in early March 2012? Why did Mars Hill scrub away all references to spouses or offspring in pastor profiles? The question at hand has not been why bloggers and journalists didn't contact Mars Hill to verify facts about Andrew's case. The question is why Mars Hill said they regretted the press not verifying facts, yet undertook a massive information purge of the very facts the press, in the past, could have looked up without having to talk to anyone directly?

... So when Mars Hill lamented that nobody contacted them to verify the facts related to Andrew's case that lament was specious precisely because during this period of time they were, if anything, probably suppressing access to facts that were easy to look up before the controversy made the news. What does an information purge that has gone unmentioned in the press or blogs suggest? It suggests this-- bloggers and journalists verifying the facts connected to Andrew's case was the last thing Mars Hill wanted to happen.

Then later, this:

Someone could have done a massive info-dumping project showing all the still publicly accessible, on record information necessary to identify the key parties involved in the Andrew case and have done this months ago.

Someone didn't do that last year because Andrew Lamb and Matthew Paul Turner had made at least some effort to preserve Andrew's anonymity.  Mars Hill had undertaken their massive information purge but that was moot in light of the sheer volume of information Mars Hill, as a culture, had blogged and tweeted and podcasted at every level between 2004-2011, including people who at one point were associated with Acts 29 churches.  The fascination with and eagerness to use social media could be said to be in the DNA of Mars Hill and associated outgrowths. 

A word about Justin Dean.  He joined Mars Hill in November 2011.

Communications Director

Mars Hill Church

Nonprofit; 51-200 employees; Religious Institutions industry
November 2011Present (1 year 3 months)Seattle, Washington
I currently oversee the communications department, including public relations, social media, and marketing for Mars Hill Church, The Resurgence and Pastor Mark Driscoll.

Founded in 1996 by Pastor Mark Driscoll, Mars Hill Church hosts upwards of 14,000 people each week across 14 locations in 4 states. Mars Hill has been recognized as the 28th largest, 3rd fastest-growing, and 2nd most-innovative church in the country by Outreach magazine. Pastor Mark's sermons receive almost 15 million downloads per year, consistently rank #1 on iTunes, and he has 400,000 combined followers on Facebook and Twitter.

Pastor Mark and his wife Grace co-authored Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, & Life Together which was released from Thomas Nelson in 2012 and reached #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list, #3 on Publisher Weekly’s Nonfiction Hardbound list, #8 on the Wall Street Journal Nonfiction Combined List, and #38 on USA Today’s Top 150 Books.

Pastor Mark's newest book titled Who Do You Think You Are?: Finding Your True Identity in Christ will release January 6, 2013.

The Resurgence is the largest Christian leadership blog, publishes a half-dozen books annually, holds conferences around the country, and offers a master's level theological training program for leaders from around the world.


What's that, upwards of 14,000 people hosted each week across 14 locations in 4 states?
What did MH PR officially say to Slate last year?

Furthermore, says Dean, only the approximately 15 members of Andrew’s small group, who met regularly and knew one another well, had access to the letter on the City. (Though Andrew was blocked from accessing the City, he says the letter was available to a slightly wider circle, including his fellow security volunteers.) “His case was not shared with the full church and had, until he posted it publicly online, only been known by a handful of people who were involved in his life and cared deeply about him,” Dean said. (Confusing social-media privacy settings strike again!) He added that Driscoll was not involved in the case at all. Mars Hill currently has 5,417 members (emphasis added) and just nine ongoing church discipline cases.

So for the PR spiel says 14,000+ are hosted.  Okay, so that would distinguish between about 10,000 people who attend and the roughly 5,400 contracted members.

What was the weekly attendance for Fall of 2012?

You'll notice how big those numbers are in the report when you click on the link.

So the overall attedance by FY2012 report was a thousand less.  Mars Hill's got no reason to care about that in the short run.  The numbers will go up.  More important, the number of total contracted members went up to 6,429.  So that means 1,012 people surveyed the news of the day about Mars Hill, listened to the praching and so on and decided to sign up.  7,109 people are in community groups and for the 6,064 folks attending Mars Hill who don't go to a community group, you're probably doing fine whether you go or not. 

But let's notice a detail from the annual report.  For everyone person attending the church 20 people are listening online.  Really?  Well, then that means it was even more impossible for Justin Dean and company to have ultimately kept some "private" things "private" because Wenatchee has made use of nothing less than Driscoll sermons to help identify parties associated with Andrew's disciplinary situation from a year ago. 

According to the FY2012 annual report in 2012 attendance was 12,000 rather than 14,000.  Dean may have inflated the numbers in his recent post or maybe an extra thousand picked up between December 13, 2012 and now.  Those kinds of things have been known to happen.  The 5,417 Slate was told is the important detail.  While for PR purposes to the rest of the world the hosted people and the podcasts are a way to show the collosal influence of Mars Hill when Andrew's story made headlines it was best for Mars Hill to say the church was just 5,417 people and that there were just nine disciplinary cases current at the time.  Some folks are concerned about quality and not just quantity.  What would the nature of church disciplinary cases be like?  After all, people with a longer sense of history of Mars Hill than Justin Dean may know of Joyful Exiles and how those two church disciplinary situations played out. 

Driscoll said FY2012 was the best year ever and December 13, 2012 made for possibly the latest FY report ever.  Andrew's disciplinary case, mass layoffs due to a financially dangerous model for Mars Hill's long-term future, that stuff wasn't important.  The growth was important and by that metric nothing could have been better, even though in the first half of 2012 Driscoll said they were in one of the tougher seasons of Mars Hill history, though not the toughest.  "The toughest" might have been 2007-2008 when about 1,000 people didn't renew membership and the church failed to make budget for the first time in its history.  Early 2008 in the Doctrine series was the period in which, as documented by Scott Bailey, Robert Cargill, and Christian Brady Mark Driscoll presented, at best, dubious claims about a Jewish commentary on Genesis supposedly backing trinitarian theology before Jesus was born. 

Christian Brady pointed out that Driscoll claimed the Targum Neofiti, a rabbinical commentary on Genesis which Driscoll alleged was written in the 2nd century BCE, was actually more likely written in the 2nd century AD (for those who don't know that we switched to CE decades ago).  Furthermore Brady noted that not only did Driscoll misdate the source he claimed backed up a pre-Christ trinitarian concept, Driscoll also used an inaccurate translation of the text.  Since to this day Driscoll's never even acknowledged he made basic errors about the Targum that has beeen downloaded via sermon podcasts to millions of people, he apparently doesn't care.

But Justin Dean joined Mars Hill's team in November 2011, which was the month Andrew's disciplinary situation was escalating.  For those who spotted how recently Dean joined the Mars Hill team it suggests that Dean was quickly thrown into a church culture in which PR disasters would potentially be the norm. Some PR meltdowns Dean didn't realize he was going to inherit until Matthew Paul Turner posted some blog posts.  Others Dean may have had a hand in creating himself.

Back in 1998 Mother Jones published a prescient article on Mars Hill that may be worth revisiting:

Of note was an organization that provided financial support to Mars Hill that would be easy to overlook. 

Postmoderns receive crucial support—financial and otherwise—from the megachurches. These postmodern ministries are loosely organized by the Leadership Network, a Dallas-based umbrella group for many of the nation's megachurches. It's the Leadership Network that keeps Driscoll's bohemian Mars Hill ministry in touch with the fast-growing, but more traditional, University Baptist Church in Waco by holding conferences and seminars. For the past three years the network has sponsored national conferences that bring together postmodern leaders. The first one attracted nearly 300, the second 500, and the next one, this fall in New Mexico, is expected to draw 1,000.

The Mother Jones piece highlights the early Mars Hill for its self-identified foundational appeal and even its methodologies in generating awareness.

How do the movement's young leaders intend to stem what they see as an increase in secularism? By preaching that God is relevant and church is cool. Postmodern leaders walk effortlessly between the secular and religious worlds, talking about the new Radiohead album in one breath, Jesus in the next. They are dynamic and approachable. And don't tell this new breed of preachers that they're marketing religion. They say market research is the domain of baby boomer megachurches, and point out that their churches don't advertise—the extraordinary growth has come strictly from word-of-mouth.

And yet subtly, brilliantly, it's all part of the sell. Postmoderns repeat the word "authentic" like a mantra. They seize on the tenets of Generation X—ennui, skepticism, cynicism—and use them as a way to attract members. Song lyrics portray a generation unanchored; politics go unmentioned; dysfunctional families are mourned. And almost all the churches are located near colleges, with a ready-made population that craves acceptance.

That was in 1998.  Since 2011 Justin Dean has the job of managing Mars Hill public relations and communications.  The time for strictly word-of-mouth is gone and now we've got ads for Driscoll books on public transit and radio ads on Christian radio. 

"For financial reasons or whatever, the parents of Gen Xers put their lives ahead of their children's," says Lief Moi, 35, a leader at Mars Hill and the co-host, with Driscoll, of "Street Talk," a nationally syndicated Christian radio show. By playing the "dysfunctional family" card, Moi, Driscoll, and others implicitly coax young people to turn to church as a place where they can experience the family and fellowship they missed out on as a kid. The church then becomes appealing to college students for the same reasons that fraternities and sororities are: instant community.

In order to get some grasp of Mars Hill culture it helps to observe this, that it began with a rhetorical observation that the parents of Generation X put their own lives ahead of the lives and welfare of their children.  If Mars Hill is a cult then we should observe that how a cult gains traction is by appealing to real and healthy needs with a culture that promises openness and kindness but reveals its toxic insularity only over time.  Moi's history of having never known his father in his youth and having been raised by his mother with her lesbian lover is easily known by anyone who was part of Mars Hill from 1998 to 2008.  Driscoll has been very tight-lipped about his own parents over the years.  He apparently would sooner talk about Grace's sexual abuse and related frigidity than to say much more than his dad was a union dry-waller.  But in 1998, with a chance to talk to Mother Jones, Driscoll said the following:

"Some of us haven't given ourselves over to the American Dream yet," Driscoll says into the microphone. "How do we make sure we don't become victims of what harmed us— parents who weren't around because they were too busy making money so we could go on vacations and look like a family?" The phones are dead.

When Driscoll asked rhetorically year after year "Where's dad?" in his sermons a person could wonder why the theme of the absentee father would be so important if all Driscoll ever said about his dad was that he was a union drywaller who swung a hammer for a living and broke his back supporting his family.  And yet year after year the most vivid anecdotes Driscoll had for his ancestors and siblings were not of his father or mother but his grandfather.  For the most part Mark Driscoll's father has been invoked simply as proof of bluecollar working-class credibility and his mother is essentially an icon of Catholic piety. 

The article gets to the earliest money quote before long:

By setting themselves up against their elders, postmoderns are ingeniously adding an anti-establishment spirit to their movement. "I really preach; it's not just three points to a better self-esteem," Driscoll says. "Megachurches have perfect services with perfect lighting. We're a friggin' mess." Driscoll delivers his sermons largely off-the- cuff, and refuses to follow a point-by-point outline like most pastors at megachurches do. "I'm very confrontational," he says, "not some pansy-ass therapist."

There it is, right there, "I'm very confrontational, not some pansy-ass therapist" Mark Driscoll said. 
There was also evidence of preaching Song of Songs as far back as 1998.

"There are gays all over our church and I don't need to yell at them like the religious right," Driscoll says. "You can be a gay or punk and we'll treat you like everybody else. Even if you never become a Christian, we're still friends."

Mars Hill is all about acceptance. Compared to the religious right's favorite son Ralph Reed, a vision of fundamentalist zeal in a blue suit, Driscoll seems downright countercultural. He's unabashed about using the pulpit to discuss sex. "I speak very frankly about the reasons God made our bodies to experience orgasm, the Bible's approval of oral sex between a husband and wife," he says. "Once you're married and as long as you remain monogamous, God tells his children to be unblushingly erotic and passionate."

Consider this anecdote:

Driscoll says one of his best friends is gay. "When I found out, I cried. And then I made a deal with him. I said, 'I'll go to a gay bar with you if you come to church with me.' So there I was in a bar with country-western drag queens! "I just told the guys I met there that I loved them. That yes, they are sinners and they needed to come to God and then their sexuality would take care of itself," he says. "I think we're all screwed up, some of us are just better at hiding it."

Has Mark Driscoll spoken even four words to "one of his best friends" in the last fifteen years?  It doesn't take even all that cynical a person to know the "some of my best friends are ... "line when they see it.

For folks who may have wondered at Driscoll on politics, back then he told Mother Jones the following:

He offers classes at church on topics such as "evangelical feminism" ("the Bible is clear that men and women are both created by God in His image and likeness and totally equal in every way," he says) and disavows any link with conservative politics. "I used to think it was part of Christianity to be conservative," he says. "I was further right than Falwell and Limbaugh." Now he says he doesn't even vote. What changed? "It got boring," he says with a shrug. "And I realized that politics didn't change anything, that in the meantime, people were still starving."

Politics may not be as fun for Driscoll as blogging and tweeting, after all.  Back in 1998 Driscoll told Mother Jones:

"Some of us haven't given ourselves over to the American Dream yet," Driscoll says into the microphone. "How do we make sure we don't become victims of what harmed us— parents who weren't around because they were too busy making money so we could go on vacations and look like a family?" The phones are dead.

In February 2010 during the Luke series:

... I’ve never been accused of that. I’ve been accused of many things, not being a fundamentalist. I do love film, I love story. My degree’s in communication. I’ve got two home theater systems. I’ve got three Tivos, all right, I am not against technology and the arts. Our film crew just was in L.A. at Universal Studios shooting on the Spartacus set to get all of our footage for Good Friday. Some of my friends are filmmakers and poets and artists and we’re a very creative church. We just don’t like Satan, that’s all. We love the arts, we just don’t like Satan. ...

In twelve years Driscoll went from saying some of us (him implicitly) hadn't given themselves over to the American Dream yet, to claiming he's not a fundamentalist because he's got two home theater systems and three Tivos.  He even mentioned that the Mars Hill film crew was in Los Angeles at Universal Studios shooting on the Spartacus set. 

Back when I first began to hear of some place called Mars Hill I heard it was theologically conservative but culturally liberal.  When people I know mentioned asking Mars Hill for a doctrinal statement what I heard was passed out was not an actual doctrinal statement but the Mother Jones article.  Even from the beginning, despite his protests, Mark Driscoll was using hostile publicity as a way to further the reach of Mars Hill as far back as 1998.  If he really didn't care about press coverage he could have declined to talk to Mother Jones. Using hostile press to expand the reach of Mars Hill isn't some new tactic in a Driscollian PR arsenal, it was one of the earliest moves in the game.  Don't let his tweets or blogs about bloggers fool you, Mars Hill has been using bad press since its beginnings, especially if the controversy can revolve around its founder.  If the controversy revolves around 2007 firings, changes in by-laws, or maybe a high profile divorce among core members then expect complete and utter silence. 

For the reader who has stuck with this series this far, you'll notice no use was made of The WayBack Machine and there was no material except content posted by Matthew Paul Turner that came from The City.  That tells you how much Mars Hill saturated broadcast media and social media with the information necessary to establish that Andrew Lamb's story checks out.

Blogging about the idol Mars Hill had made of social media was the oblique courtesy, this series has been a detailed demonstration of a church culture that has been obsessed with using social and broadcast media from its beginnings to expand its brand.  It's only when the narrative that is cumulatively presented by broadcast and social media risks damaging the iconic story of what Mars Hill is supposed to look like that things get clamped down.  It took a "Pussified Nation" or two from William Wallace II to get supporters of Mars Hill wondering if the support was justified.  It took the Inner Circle, whoever they were, to show that the old unmoderated Midrash was becoming a liability. 

The new Midrash was member-only and worked great for years until it became a medium through which members could communicate across campus boundaries as the church went multi-site and it became important to make sure that disagreements about real estate purchases, by-laws changes, and other executive decisions weren't being questioned.  If people had doubts about whether sinking $1.5 million into real estate at 50th street that couldn't be zoned for anything other than industrial use, well, maybe they needed to get off the bus, maybe. 

Thus came The City, the new top-down silo-information knock-off of Facebook and MySpace.  This was the tool that would ensure private stuff stayed private and the admins at the top of the information could control everything.  Or so they thought.  Somehow, against all odds, a letter was passed along to Andrew Lamb, who passed it along to Matthew Paul Turner.  The invitation-only proprietary social network created inside Mars Hill was where something got posted due to "unclear communication".  The best defense and clarification the new PR head Justin Dean could provide for Mars Hill was simple incompetence.  If, as the proverb says, pride comes before a fall, Andrew Lamb's story was the disaster that was waiting to happen ever since Mars Hill launched The City.  All it took was a church disciplinary case in which actions were deemed so punitive as to warrant breaking the story.  If the elders at Mars Hill had heeded Paul Petry's advice in 2007 to include an appeals process for members under discipline then "maybe" this whole thing could have been prevented.  But we know exactly what happened to Paul Petry and Bent Meyer in 2007. 

Mars Hill talks a lot of talk about idols for others and not so much about its own idols.  It's easy for Mark Driscoll to say your idols will let you down and, hey, maybe that's true.  If it is true then what can we learn from that as a lesson about The City? 

A year ago Andrew Lamb's story made headlines. In the same month Mark and Grace Driscoll published Real Marriage and we were told how Mark and Grace were fornicating. Grace, a pastor's daughter, lost her father Rev Gib Martin this year. A year after Andrew's case became news one can't help wondering how different things would have been if Rev Gib Martin had, say, dealt with fornicators Mark and Grace Driscoll the way Mars Hill Church dealt with Andrew Lamb. If the recently-deceased Rev. Gib Martin and his family had dealt with Mark and Grace Driscoll fornicating the way Mars Hill dealt with Andrew Lamb we don't know if there'd even be a Mars Hill Church today. But of course there is a Mars Hill Church and it did deal with Andrew Lamb in the way outlined by Matthew Paul Turner.

PS 01-28-2013

This is called a "postscript" because it's the afterthoughts of observations from the preceding 13 parts.  For the folks who have read the poscript don't forget there's 13 parts that preceeded this. :)

HT to Matt Redmond for noticing there are actually 14 parts.