Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Justin Dean interview with Carey Nieuwhof on the decline of Mars Hil and how they just didn't quite get the media ... revisiting Mark Driscoll's 2012 accounts of his and Grace's media acumen

Justin Dean on how some people are generally critical of megachurches

... When people have that general criticism of, "Oh, you're big" ... it's like, wait, you're criticizing us because we're reaching more people than you? I don't get that. What is your goal? To stay small? How is that biblical? I think every church's goal should be to reach as many people as possible. That is actually the commandment that we all each, individually have. ...

Now that the era of Mars Hill Church as a corporation has apparently become formally over, it's worth noting that even earlier this month Justin Dean was talking about how some folks criticize megachurches for being big, and rhetorically asked if the mission of those critical of megachurches was to stay small.

Well, Jesus mentioned something about a narrow and straight way, and how many are called but few are chosen. These could be held in tension with a commission to go make disciples among all the nations. 

But what's apparent in the rambling interview Justin Dean gave is that he's still thinking not like someone who's been in any pastoral ministry but as someone who has been saturated in mass marketing.  When he talks in terms of the goal being to reach as many people as possible that could be construed as part of evangelism, yes, but it's also part of market saturation. 

And when I left Mars Hill and stopped attending in later 2008 and was able to share my concerns with my local campus pastor I tried to explain very clearly what my concern was about Mars Hill's commitment to growth was.  It was a fiscal concern.  I was concerned that the rate at which Mars Hill was assimilating campuses and expanding could mean that Mars Hill was adding operational expenses and liabilities faster than it might be able to cultivate a stable and healthy donor base and that if ever the meteoric growth stopped, to say nothing of an actual numeric decline, the entire enterprise could become so fiscally insolvent as to lead to the death of Mars Hill at an institutional level.  That was what I shared back around 2008 or 2009.

And here we are, with Dean in mid-March 2016 talking about how Mars Hill did some good things but didn't understand the media and got waylaid by the media.  Dean has kept coming back to this idea that somehow the people at Mars Hill didn't get the media.  But how plausible is that claim?  Now it might be possible to assume for the sake of conversation that Justin Dean himself may have misunderstood something, perhaps it could be suggested simply by Mars Hill's public reputation declining precipitously from later 2011 to its decline that perhaps this showed us that Justin Dean could have done better at public relations and media management.

But Dean can't exactly speak with any authority for Mark Driscoll, can he?  What did Driscoll have to say about himself in 2012 at what was arguably the peak of his time at Mars Hill?
A Blog Post for the Brits
by: Pastor Mark Driscoll on Jan 12, 2012 in Current Events

I have a degree in communications from one of the top programs in the United States. So does my wife, Grace. We are used to reporters with agendas and selective editing of long interviews. [emphasis added] Running into reporters with agendas and being selectively edited so that you are presented as someone that is perhaps not entirely accurate is the risk one takes when trying to get their message out through the media.

An Official Response to The Kerfuffle At Liberty University
Pastor Mark Driscoll
Apr 16, 2012

... I have a degree from Washington State’s Edward R. Murrow College of Communication and worked professionally as a journalist [emphasis added], and I can assure you that The Kerfuffle is a very serious matter to be taken with the utmost sobriety and propriety. In fact, one anonymous “source” I spoke to said that Watergate pales in comparison.


The key is have one primary content creator, other supportive content creators, and (to as much as possible) have some sort of unified theming through as many platforms as possible to multiply and embed the message. You need fresh content but you don't need fresh message. That make sense?  You need fresh content but you don't need, it's not like one huge earth-shattering idea every single day. People can't handle that much, right? ...

What's the big idea I'm sending out right now?  Identity. One big idea and it's a hook and then all the other ideas hang off that big hook. So for the whole 16-week sermon series there's one big hook called identity. All the social media, all the blogs, all the community groups everything's hanging on the hook. And then it's even consistent. So you walk in and you see "I am a saint" and, all of a sudden, the theming is consistent in the building. And so it's just, every medium, how do we communicate this message? And so for 16 weeks it will a concentrated content message on identity in Christ. But then once we're done with the series, let's say somebody gets saved in two years and walks in all of that content's available. [emphasis added]
This would be worth noting even if we didn't have access to a marketing plan proposed by the Driscolls for promoting Real Marriage.


So maybe we could just make a guess that Justin Dean didn't know how to handle media on behalf of Mars Hill but Dean may have only been able to speak for himself.  Driscoll kept assuring folks publicly in a variety of ways what a smooth operator and shrewd person he was about media and the press. 

Justin Dean mentioned in the mid-March interview having some regrets about the way one of Mark Driscoll's books got promoted.  Yes ... well, really when large churches get criticized for things like a pastor re-organizing everything about the life of a church around a book that's being promoted rather than, oh, a book of the gloriously public domain Bible that might be cause for concern. 

Let's remember that Justin Dean explained to Slate that that Andrew Lamb disciplinary situation was because of some communication problems.  Justin Dean's overarching narrative about things at Mars Hill was to plead incompetence, more or less.  And yet that's not how Driscoll himself presented the way either he as an individual or Mars Hill in general worked in relationship to media.

And the thing is that by about 2010 a majority of people who called Mars Hill home were watching a sermon on video that was edited from the previous week.  Maybe some people thought it was live or something and didn't think to ask but Driscoll had functionally become a TV preacher behind the scenes whether members at Mars Hill knew it or not.  A church capable of that technical and media feat across three states for years on end doesn't sound like a church that didn't understand media.

Perhaps Justin Dean doesn't understand and doesn't want to understand that what Mars Hill leadership did was sacrifice the welfare of the church on the altar of Mark Driscoll's celebrity.  There was no need for Mark and Grace Driscoll to have written a book on marriage to begin with, first o fall.  The Christian book market is arguably glutted with books new and old.  Did Mark pitch that friendship wasn't discussed in books dealing with marriage?  Okay ... but it was only at Mars Hill I first heard the term "friend zone" used with dread by dudes.  Even as stupid a riff in Real Marriage of FRIEND with benefits seemed to suggest that the Driscolls skimmed the shallows on friendship.  But, at any rate, it's not like C. S. Lewis' The Four Loves has gone out of print, has it? It's not like you can't get Richard Baxter's The Christian Directory cheaply. 

Yet the Driscolls decided to put a book together and then to promote it through the church.  Dean has reiterated the real cost of the promotional project was less than what the press reported but he hasn't explained why it was cheaper than what was reported.  If it was cheaper than $210,000 because everybody in the community groups was told to buy the book to promote the book then that meant the entire church was told to invest in a book by buying it all in a small window, and as has been discussed here before, the pre-sales were urged to be channeled into Mars Hill and Acts 29 so that they could count toward the NYT bestseller list.  Justin Dean is welcome to believe what he wants but it seems impossible to believe that Mars Hill "didn't understand the media" if it had the infrastructural capacity and the express will to rig the New York Times bestseller lsit to begin with, with a bit of help from Result Source.  You can't rig the way ane stablished outlet in the traditional media responds to a product you're promoting if you don't understand how media works and don't know anyone who knows how to game things in your favor, can you? 

While Justin Dean's welcome to share if he thinks Mars Hill leadership somehow didn't understand media or how it works, the fact that the leadership of Mars Hill admitted to contracting with Result Source to rig the New York Times bestseller list on behalf of Real Marriage makes that general story seem ... somewhat implausible.


Sonja said...

I never knew Justin personally, but he certainly seems and seemed to be in over his head. Having said that, I wish him success to be able to provide for his family.

That interview however, would not be a ringing endorsement for this product from his site:


Steve said...

I'm wondering more and more about how deep the roots of Mark's teaching were. Justin Dean saying that Judah Smith (who drops "Oh my god" in sermons) is doing a good work in Seattle. Or others I've read/heard who don't believe in complimentarianism or substitutionary atonement anymore since leaving MH. The BadChristian guys remember him dropping F-bombs in elders meetings.

All of this makes me think that while he may have had some theology right and was an awesome communicator, having a bunch of young, often new-Christian, guys just doing it on their own is extremely dangerous. It's made me realize that being "reformed" means a lot more than "God's sovereign", as who Mark's palling around with now shows clearly that he was never truly reformed in his beliefs.