Sunday, August 03, 2014

Mars Hill and its history of social media, a potential "optimistic martyr" in the enterprise of churches with social media presence

Rather than attempt to discuss the recent news cycle about Mars Hill, Mark Driscoll and social media as strictly a local history, let's take some time to consider another angle.  In some business circles there's this phrase "optimistic martyr" that seems to refer to an early adopter or hopeful innovator in a particular area of enterprise or entrepreneurial activity.  The optimistic martyr can be seen as the person or corporation that bravely if foolish leaps headfirst into something and doesn't get the thing to work but through whom others learn that the thing can actually be done and how to do that thing better.

Perhaps Mars Hill Church is an optimistic martyr for other churches to learn from, not merely what to emulate but what things to avoid emulating. 

Notwithstanding the use of robots.txt or of sweeping media purges of old Driscoll sermons or the recently reignited realization that William Wallace II wasn't just a pen name and phase from Mark Driscoll's ministry he continues to find embarrassing that has been brought back into public consideration, it would be remiss to imagine that Mark Driscoll alone is all there is to consider about the history of Mars Hill leadership past or present with material published on line. 

Driscoll has reportedly said the Mars Hill unmoderated forum known as Midrash (circa 1999 to 2002, NOT the one circa 2002 to 2007 that was members-only) was a bad idea and that William Wallace II was a worse idea.

But it wasn't a bad idea at all.  The execution was arguably severely wanting in discipline and foresight but the fact that Mark Driscoll looks back on that whole period with embarrassment and shame doesn't mean everyone else who participated on Midrash must (or does) necessarily feel the same way.  Not everyone who contributed to the old Midrash used a pseudonym or wrote in such a way as to regret saying things that he or she now wishes had not been available for public consideration.

Then again it is likely that most people who participated on the Midrash and on "Pussified Nation" had 1) not thought through the possibility that this material would stick around 2) not acquainted themselves with theories of the press as ways to inform their online conduct. 

Wenatchee has written in the past about how Mars Hill has a history of embracing social and broadcast media and brand development and this quest for innovation in this area by Mars Hill has, in the assessment of Wenatchee The Hatchet, happened at a pace where the opportunities to apply and appropriate technology has expanded faster than a unified ethos of how a Christian community that emerged in the midst of the dot com craze in the Pacific Northwest could responsibly engage all that media.  It is not entirely surprising that on the eve of his meeting with T. D. Jakes Mark Driscoll would write that the ear is more forgiving than the eye and lean on that to suggest that since people could misunderstand written words that perhaps it was best to wait and see what Jakes was going to say and let Driscoll get on a plane for Jesus to see how things played out.  Driscoll was apparently suggesting that we should measure words that are spoken more generously than words on a page and also that this would be the more accurate measure of what was said. 

As documented at some length in "A Confluence of Situations" Mars Hill as a community had broadcast so much information that made the identification of Andrew Lamb with the Noriega family relatively easy to do it was impossible for Mars Hill PR to plausibly claim that they wanted to avoid combating misinformation and to preserve the privacy of parties who had blogged and tweeted everything necessary to identify a number of parties involved once Matthew Paul Turner broke Andrew Lamb's story.  Whatever attempts Turner made to preserve some anonymity for Lamb were complete failures from the start.  Once the Ballard location was mentioned and there was any mention of a stepfather the rest was simply a matter of observing what had not been scrubbed, up to and including Driscoll sermons (which have since been thoroughly scrubbed).

Wenatchee The Hatchet had all the information available with citations at the ready as far back as early 2012 but sat on the material for a while until Lamb was willing to share anything on record.  This ended up happening through Stuff Christian Culture Likes.  Once that took place then presenting what was sitting around in plain sight was not that difficult.

The rediscovery of "Pussified Nation" was even more a case of people simply rediscovering or newly discovering the significance of material that had been sitting around in plain sight for public access. 

At least in this case the discovery of the material in "Pussified Nation" went so viral so quickly Mars Hill could not realistically have implemented robots.txt to those threads and expect that content to get overlooked. 

Mars Hill seized the moment early to become an online presence as a church and a leadership community.  For a church, a community of people who consider the eternal significance and imiplications of not just the life and words of Jesus as Christ but of individuals who may or may not put their trust in Him, one of the ironies of Mars Hill use of social media is how utterly in-the-moment it has been since its start.  For those of us who were there in the earlier years we were so eager to embrace this new thing we had not thought through the implications of our words staying preserved in the internet.  Now we live in an era in which we not only have to remember Jesus said we'd have to account for every stray word on the day of judgment to come but also live in an era in which people on the internet may remember things we've said and require an accounting of every idle word we thought was serious and lasting ... in the moment. 

How many men and women who participated on "Pussified Nation" now would stand by their words?  It's possible some would stand by their words as ideas they meant at the time that they do not hold to any longer and that's fair.  We all have the option of changing our minds, but the vast majority of us were not going to be and are not as famous as the man who took up the name William Wallace II has since become.

In the past Wenatchee The Hatchet has issued a warning that Mark Driscoll the person is not the same as Mark Driscoll the persona and that the latter might at length create some significant trouble for the former.  Perhaps this has been the case, but a broader question needs to be asked of the community that was and is Mars Hill, why were so many of them cheering this on?  A lot of us believed Mark's diagnosis of the problems in young men was at least correct enough to let Driscoll (for those who knew it was him) go on.  For those of us who found the pen name and the antics stupid and irresponsible some of us convinced ourselves the pen name was just a cheap stunt and it was left behind.  But then the substance of what Driscoll was teaching about men and women didn't really change as he toned down the nature of the rhetoric. Did no one have questions whether a man who would take up the pen name William Wallace II and write as he did was not even fit for ministry to begin with? 

Mars Hill could purge and retract and express regret but the genie, as the saying goes, has gotten out of the bottle.  Mars Hill embraced social and broadcast media and brand development without realizing that in reaching for all of these things something colloquially known as "privacy" was going to be lost.  What Mars Hill, in the opinion of Wenatchee The Hatchet at least, made the mistake of doing was not just embracing social and broadcast media and brand development faster than it could formulate an ethos for media engagement or formulate a fiscally competent approach to real estate and expansion; Mars Hill Church also embraced media and brand development around a charismatic stage personality (since Mark Driscoll the public persona is not necessarily any more the "true" Mark Driscoll than William Wallace 2 may have been for all we know and don't know).  To push this idea further, as opinions go, Mars Hill began to be architected around a charismatic personality rather than a confessional identity.  It was said to be all about Jesus but the neo-Calvinist axiom may still prove instructive here, what you win them with is what you win them to and if over time both progressive and conservative evangelical Christians have come to doubt whether the Jesus Mark Driscoll points to is the historical Jesus or a Jesus refracted through the prism of Mark Driscoll's public personae then the last year of inquiry into and criticism of Mark Driscoll as a celebrity and public figure in religion and of Mars Hill as a corporation may have been a process that has been a strange ecumenical catalyst. 

After all, it was not the progressives who discovered the plagiarism across books spanning Mark Driscoll's entire publishing career, was it?  Conservatives and evangelicals made those discoveries and progressives were along for the ride, for the most part.  When secular authors have tried to jump into the coverage and investigation of things Mars Hill they have at times severely dropped the ball, sometimes so badly Wenatchee The Hatchet has felt obliged to correct inaccuracies, misunderstandings, and misrepresentations about Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill that became popular in some circles.  This has been and was previously very easy, done by simply directly quoting the sorts of material Mars Hill has been purging for a lot of this year.  It's as though the sprawling media presence of Mars Hill that was once its great source of pride has been the catalyst for and exemplar of its shame.

Not that Wenatchee The Hatchet hasn't blogged about Mars Hill and the idol of social media before, far from it. 

But what other churches may benefit from in observing the Mars Hill case is to consider the issues at play.  Don't think of this as some case where somehow Christians have unfairly and unwisely brought out dirty laundry for "the world" to see. Mars Hill leadership threw out a bunch of material of their own enthusiastic volition for years, year after year, considering it worth doing.  Even Mark Driscoll might say there are a lot of lessons in how a church should NOT make use of social and broadcast media that people can learn from from his career and the history of Mars Hill. Learning vicariously through the negative examples of others does have some precedent in the wisdom literature ... perhaps Mars Hill can serve as both a negative as well as a positive example to churches that are considering forays into social and broadcast media.