Friday, May 08, 2009

the implications of Mars Hill Global in light of a Mark Driscoll from years gone by

Part of me should be excited that more people are able to be reached through something like Mars Hill Global but I can't muster the enthusiasm for it. I can't help but wonder if Mark Driscoll has turned into the kind of spiritual leader he preached against circa 2001-2002. He's primary teaching pastor of what is effectively a denomination, except for that part where local campus pastors in the trenches do all the pastoral care and teaching besides.

Yes, I get that the reasoning is that the main draw to Mars Hill is Driscoll. I got that line of reasoning back in 2005 and I didn't buy it then either when some now bitter former Mars Hill members were trying to argue the case for that back then. I "could" name names but I don't wish to, I simply note rather dryly that some of the people who bitch most about a "cult of personality" were among its stronger advocates. All that is to say that I have the same reservations now that I did back then about this scale of contextualizing Mark, as it were. He's good at what he does but having him have such a high profile place as a teacher in Mars Hill means he's the kind of denominational leader/spiritual figurehead who has no idea what is going onin the real world in the trenches of the church that is Mars Hill. If Driscoll circa 2001 saw what Driscoll is now would he be happy? Possibly, but if he were that would raise questions about what he wants, because by Driscoll's own preaching circa 2001-2002 he has become the very sort of pastor he warned people against. I don't know that this is on purpose or even observed, I just throw it out on the internet because finding the sermons in which he expounded upon the dangers of denominational hierarchical systems wouldn't be that difficult.

A lot of people can and will be touched for the sake of the kingdom of Christ this way, don't get me wrong, I just doubt that this is the ideal way to do it. If Driscoll's preaching gets piped out to Arizona or New Mexico or London or Guam or Australia or some other English-speaking culture it doesn't mean it's really contextualizing the Gospel for those places. Driscoll in those settings might be a useful SUPPLEMENT to another pastor's preaching but should not be considered equivalent to it. If you don't live in the United States or Seattle then don't consider Driscoll to be your pastor, it doesn't matter how much you like his preaching.

The real dillema, given Mars Hill's understanding of membership, is that this kind of move to an interstate or global church means the death knell of meaningful membership. At this point if a person wants to become a member they can be invited to log on to The City, a kind of Facebook meets MySpace knockoff for churches. It has some value, I grant, but does bode entirely well that to become a member of the "real "community you have to sign up through a virtual community? Let's not kid ourselves or anyone else, The City is a social networking implement and a virtual community no matter what the people who built it may say. If Mars Hill ever cracked wise about the way things work in the evangelical Christian ghetoo they had better stop cracking because this is the kind of reinventing the wheel I have seen at the place for a while. Wheels are great but they aren't great just because WE made them.

Don't get me wrong, the need for a competent, centralized database that can be used for administrative purposes is cool and all ... but the terrible risk of getting invited to join a virtual community (even an invitation only virtual community) is that that virtual community is still inextricable from being considered formally connected to "real" community, whatever that is. And the thing is that given the level of personal investment leaders as a whole can often have at different levels the only red flag that something might be amiss is if someone hasn't given for six consecutive months, in which case membership is revoked. A person can give on-line and download sermons. A person can attend a community group but this in itself is not a sign of real community. In other words, when the membership process can be done entirely by listening to sermons from a Doctrine series and then through filling out forms on-line through The City and donations can be done via internet and automatic deposit we're talking about a virtual church.

In fact there is a great deal in principle in which Driscoll and Benny Hinn would even out. Think about it, potentially millions of people who don't know jack about Driscoll and who Driscoll will never meet consider him a great spiritual leader and teacher and immensely gifted by God. Benny uses TV and Mark uses the internet but the mass communication means of "pastoring" is essentially unchanged. Now if I had to pick just one of these guys I'd pick Driscoll any day every day for the rest of my life ... maybe. Sometimes Benny gets better musicians. Sorry, but even Benny occasionally grabs a capable musician or two while Mars Hill has done the DIY indie punk don't-quite-tune-your-guitar approach.

The Catholics have the Pope and the Orthodox have their own approach to determing what all Christians should believe. Since the Doctrine series of early 2008 Driscoll may, note I say "may", be setting himself on a path where he is effectively making himself a kind of evangelical Protestant Pope. Even a subtitle like "What christians should believe" telegraphs at least that possibility. Now attending a church like Mars Hill isn't necessarily a problem, despite what various cranky ex-Mars Hill members have blogged in the last three years. I may have more to say about the problems of many of the ex-Mars Hill member criticisms I have begun to observe are out there on the internet but that is another matter for another time. As I have written elsewhere, taking sides is not really my interest, not least because after a decade I see the same spiritual troubles in the complainers as I have seen in those about whom they have complained. It is more fruitful to consider our own weakness rather than simply rip into people as though they didn't have character flaws until the second they hurt US, which is what a lot of certain types of blogging have amounted to.

I am concerned, and I am willing to put it that blandly, that Driscoll in the last six years has transformed into exactly the kind of spiritual leader he was telling us was bad and to avoid. It is highly improbable he is consciously aware of this transformation in his ministry and in his life. That he's been recycling material and doing that as part of his book deal isn't a problem, it's when he recycles Song of Songs or rehashes the Doctrine series to streamline an increasingly impersonal memberization process that may one day resemble Borg assimilation that I admit I start to worry. What are the odds Driscoll has any idea what is going on at any given campus in his denominationa, er, multi-site church? What are the odds that Driscoll has done any pastoral counseling? Maybe high, maybe low, it's not something I know for sure. I ask all this simply because those who heard Driscoll's teaching on good and bad pastoring from 1 & 2 Timothy may note that much of what Driscoll spoke against is exactly the kind of spiritual leader Driscoll seems to be turning into.

Now if he'd just admit that denominations aren't as bad as he thought six years ago and that Mars Hill is functionally a denomination much would improve. That would probably entail two unlikely things happening. The first would be Driscoll admitting he was young, naive, and wrong and the second would be that he'd have to admit he's effectively a Protestant Pope and a denominational leader. Any number of his mentors and hereos have denominational affiliations. It's not like Tim Keller is worse off for being Presbyterian. It's not like John Piper is worse off for being Baptist. These are men who trust their denominations enough to submit to them in practical ways that Driscoll, frankly, may not, not least because he effectively is not formally submitted at an organizational level to anyone beyond his own team. It has ever been thus, though, so I suggest that any bloggers seizing to leap on the charge that Driscoll has no accountability to ask whether he had it. Again, that's another topic for another time.

As evidenced from his courtship craze and reverse-engineering-your-life craze (both stupid, frankly) and how he broached the topic of the legitimacy of Christian dating in 2008 the evidence suggests that Driscoll and Mars Hill as a whole have problems saying, "We were actually wrong". It's easier to say "Maybe we haven't emphasized the legitimacy of Christian dating in the past as much as we could have" than to admit that "We promoted a stupid, extrabiblical and unbiblical fad because we thought we were being countercultural but were really more about moralism and control than about the saving power of Christ." And OF COURSE that is more difficult to say. Collective confession of actual sin is hard not least because God's people are loathe to admit they sin, first of all, and not everyone agrees what the sins might even be. There were people who dropped their membership precisely because they saw these kinds of things. Many of the newer members have no institutional memory of what has come before and many members who HAD that memory may have left in the last three years. This is, perhaps, if anything a great disservice to the local church. I am not, however, in a position to tell other people what the Lord would have them do or where their convictions lead them. I have also met too many people at and previously at Mars Hill who would make their convictions YOUR need to repent. I have been that sort of person myself, really, so it's not as though I should rush to become one of the pots calling kettles black.

I have talked with people who have gone through the process and they noted that it seemed really impersonal and none of the follow-up interviews that were supposed to be part of the process ever happened. In that case, isn't membership membership in a virtual church where the bottom line is that the only benefit from it is to leaders who can work things out for budgetary reasons? Mars Hill may have depersonalized the membership process to the point where a person can fulfill most of the requirements of becoming a member without being in the same state. Rather than seeing that as a great opportunity for how God is opening doors to expand missional work MAYBE we could also see that as the threshhold of a potentially terrible compromise in what membership actually means.

I just wonder if Driscoll has reserved for himself many of the privileges of being a campus pastor or denominational leader without taking on many of the core responsibilities. That a church is thousands large with plans to go global is part of the problem, how would anyone know? Would Driscoll circa 2001-2002 even recognize himself? Would he be proud of his accomplishments? Some, I think. He'd have every right to be proud of the bulk of his preaching in the Atonement series. It is also nice to consider that he may finally be getting the balls to go through a Gospel for the first time in eight years. For a man who has said "It's all about Jesus" he's been overdue to really make it all about Jesus for some time now, even by his own measure of things. His best preaching has almost invariably come from Luke so, Lord willing, we will see Driscoll's preaching at its best very, very soon, if God is kind to him. We can certainly use less of Driscoll attempting to preach through the Old Testament.

So long as people recognize that Mars Hill is nothing, that Driscoll is nobody, and that Christ is all in all, then I'm okay. I will occasionally write to that very end, obviously. He used to say we should take God seriously and take ourselves lightly. I'm not sure that's what's happening these days, ergo, a blog entry.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Mars Hill Global ... we ARE talking about a denomination now, aren't we?

Mars Hill GLobal is going, literally, global. I am sure there must be compelling legal and financial reasons to not call Mars Hill a denomination but I don't know what they are. But surely by now they could admit what any normal, thinking person could point out. Once it gets outside Seattle and has multiple campuses we're talking a denomination. Admittedly a rather weird denomination in which the denominational figurehead does all the preaching and this at a level that not even the Pope has, but more or less if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck we're talking about a denomination.

And that's not necessarily a bad thing. If anything it's the eagerness with which that word is avoided in Mars Hill press that strikes me as baffling, ergo, an appeal to the existence of some legal/fiscal reason to not call the duck a duck. Might be a very good reason, it's just puzzling, that's all.

Well, and here I had considered Mars Hill, Microsoft, Starbucks, and Boeing to be emblematic of Seattle. And Wamu, too, but Wamu is sort of changing into something else right now so it may no longer be representative of Seattle and the Northwest as such ... which for all I know might be a good thing. At any rate, it seems to me Mars Hill has been a denomination for a while and I look forward to the possibility that one day Driscoll and company can actually admit in public what they surely must know by now is the truth in private. It's nothing to be ashamed of, really, is it?

"Many people think nastiness ends Christian community. The gospel says nastiness is where Christian community begins."

Just had to put that quote up there as a teaser for this link.

I don't feel like explaining exactly why this resonates with me so much in much detail. I will, however, say that I have seen a lot of what appeared to be "Christian" friendship and fellowship devolve into worldly fellowship if the measure of worldly fellowship is a complete failure to live out Collossians 3:13. I have seen oodles of Christians, myself especially, utterly fail to be clothed in compassion, kindness, gentleness, patience or humility. It's easier to clothe yourself with indignation, impatience, pride (as often well-concealed as openly displayed), harshness, and smart-assery and condescension.

I have for nearly a decade had a connection to a Christian community where one of the most highly praised experiences is getting your ass kicked verbally, whether by the leadership or proxies. Real confrontation with sin it tends to be called, and all of that is, I understand, necessary. But the unilateral way in which it has often been practiced has been disconcerting. It is easy to feel as though it is tough love when you are on the dispensing end of it, much harder to feel certain it is tough love when you are on the receiving end of it. Being confronted with sin or confronting someone about sin tends to be the acme of the spiritual experience. And it is, as I have said earlier, necessary, but it is also not the only experience Christians have.

In fact a great deal of confrontation about sins real or imagined can happen without any reference to bearing with one another or forgiving each other. I guess that's my rueful observation that I'm not sure I have been connected to a Christian community that is even, as the blog I linked to puts it, "nice". Still, if Jesus can raise Lazarus from the dead He can do whatever He wills.