Saturday, October 22, 2011

Mars Hill Church as a trademark, probably another sign it's a denomination/institution/franchise

A cease and desist order to a church calling itself Mars Hill down in Sacramento suggests any number of things.  One is that those people down in Sacramento may have lived in some special bubble world where the internet doesn't exist.  Two, those people have also lived in a part of the United States where Mars Hill, whether a Driscoll brand or a Bell brand, hadn't gotten much notice in the last fifteen years. 

And brand is exactly what comes up.  Mars Hill just turned fifteen years old recently and is no longer just in Seattle.  It is present in three states and multiple campuses exist.  It is, as I have been saying, a denomination.  If Driscoll and the elders at Mars Hill ever wanted to imagine Mars Hill would not become another denomination or institution a cease and desist order to a group of uncreative church planters in Sacramento should put to rest any doubt about the institutional and denominational nature of Mars Hill now.  Even as far back as about 2003 when people would ask me what Mars Hill was like I'd say, "Basically Calvinist Baptist without dispensationalism, which I'm okay with."  Well, I was at the time, obviously.

Well, if the cease and desist letter is legit then congratuations, Driscoll, Mars Hill is a denomination that can use its branding and trademark as leverage against little start-up churches like the one you planted fifteen years ago.  And, legally speaking, this "can" be done, but along the way you have to concede that the little church you planted has become the denominational institution that throws its weight around to make little churches fall into line.  It has become the kind of church and institution you used to complain about.  Citing trademark to tell a little church in Sacramento to cease and desist is a case where a big megachurch tells a little start-up what it can't do on account of branding and trademark.  Doesn't that sound like a big ol' institution telling a sincere little group of godly guys with a vision for missional community that they have to jump through some hoops? 

One of the great ironies about Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill in the last fifteen years has been watching Driscoll and his church turn by steps from a little church plant that met in his house into a massive institution, a denomination and a brand.  Having spent a few years complaining about how too many pastors only have so many years of sermons in them he spent a good chunk of 2006-2008 recycling material from his 2000-2005 period.  Early on he and other pastors talked in 2000-2002 how traditional copyright was outmoded and that open copyright was the way to go and now?  Well, a cease and desist letter.

After talking about how denominations were dead institutions that could throw their weight around to make life miserable for little sincere start-up churches Driscoll and company have managed to become that, too.  Of course it's possible Driscoll complained about the ways denominations made life tough for little, sincere start-up churches and churches dependent on bigger churches for help because that's what he was chafing at.  Nothing quite says "institution" like a letter expressing concern that one's trademark and brand is in danger of being compromised. 

Back in 2000-2002 Driscoll was talking about how copyright was outmoded and becoming out of date and suggesting that people go with open copyright.  Well, I saw how that was going to turn out, the Mars Hill team was going to have a change of heart once it got big enough and popular enough to worry that its content might get infringed upon or dilluted in some way.  Unlike some ideologues I have come across I don't actually object to intellectual property.  Mars Hill as an institution may illustrate a short observation Robert Frost made in a poem, he wrote that he chose not to be radical in his youth for fear of becoming conservative when old.  The young radical from the 1960s could at lenth become a Reagan Democratic in the 1980s.  An upstart group of Christians claiming copyright was outdated in the late 1990s can become older guys who issue cease and desist letters about trademark infringement, it seems, in the 2010's.  Christians who want more public recognition of religion in the 1980s in America steadily don't want that recognition of religious practice to be Islam in the 2000's. 

Dare I suggest, as a conservative Christian, that the problem with this is that the real nature of the game is being given away?  Or perhaps we could consider that Francis Schaeffer pointed out decades ago that Christians must be ready to accept the full implications of engaging in discussion and debate in the marketplace of ideas. We have to grant the possibility that we may fail to make the sales pitch, fail to seal the deal, fail to make the most successful case for our view in light of alternatives.  Now a guy like Van Til wouldn't concede that possibility but, of course, I'm not talking Cornelius Van Til and "worldview", I'm talking Francis Schaeffer (not Frank). 

A lot can change in fifteen years.  Driscoll used to be far more critical of Robert Schuller in 2000 than he was in 2003.  Driscoll was more accomodating and less polemical toward egalitarians in 2001 than he has been in 2010 when he can afford to be less considerate now that there's no risk that ticking off egalitarian churches in Seattle might open fewer venues into which Mars Hill could move.  Mars Hill is also obviously much less dependent on support and resources from Antioch Bible Church.  Perhaps part of institutional growth and institutional memory is a selective forgetting and remembering of where you have come from. 


JS Bangs said...

My cynicism about MH has been growing for a long time ,but this really seems to take the cake. I'm literally speechless, with nothing that I can usefully say except WTF.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

This one doesn't shock me, really, which almost surprises me. It just seems like some proof that Drew G. I. Hart was right to comment that the battle between Rob Bell's team and John Piper's team doesn't seem to ultimately be about theological differences in the end; it's more like you have these two groups of urban white guys waging war over who gets the most upwardly mobile white guys who will become the establishment of tomorrow.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

What DID shock me was Driscoll claiming we should not rush to judge T. D. Jakes and say he's a modalist this year after ripping apart The Shack in 2008. THAT still baffles and angers me. That could be something else I can construe as fitting Drew G. I. Hart's comment that the battle is less about theology and more about who gets the young white guys of tomorrow's establishment. I think Anyabwile's objections to Jakes being invited to the Elephant Room still hold up.

I don't personally object to caring about trademark and branding stuff in itself. To me the craziness is that Mars Hill tries to avoid admitting it is a denomination and an institution. It's okay and valuable for an institution to defend brand and cultural integrity. As I noted in the lead, a group of church planters who somehow don't figure out that there's a MH brand do not in themselves get my pity for being the target of a cease and desist order. Best case scenario they're ignorant doofuses, worst case scenario they're leveraging a brand to attract people to a church plant that doesn't have anything going for it other than brand confusion. Notice that Driscoll and company have not yet made news for sending a notice to Rob Bell's Mars Hill Bible Church and haven't over the last few years. See, if the Mars Hill logo and all that are trademarked and there hasn't been any legal action against BELL's church that signals to me that the folks in Sacramento may not be purely innocent victims of institutional power. That doesn't make me less cynical about Mars Hill, but it does mean I'm cynical about the folks who got the cease and desist letter, too, at least a little bit.

Anonymous said...

Big church threatening to sue little church. Nice.

Sounds like bullying to me.
Should have seen it coming.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Well, life is full of could have/should have moments that are ultimately impossible to have truly foreseen where we're at. I'm not surprised by this trademark stance because branding has been pivotal to Mars Hill from the beginning. Even the Jakes thing "shouldn't" have shocked me in light of how Driscoll did a 180 on Schuller years ago after being invited to Crystal Cathedral.

If someone were to look back on a "should have seen it coming" moment it would have been when friends and I saw the Mars Hill logo projected on to the walls inside the Ballard campus and the logo projected on the wall was ten times bigger than the cross on the stage. If someone wanted to pick a contrivered moment of epiphany that would be the one to run with. But if there were any moments I look back on that make me wish I'd thought through things differently it was not trusting the elders had been competent or thorough enough to investigate the building use code issues for the capital campaign project from 2005.

But, being the Joan Didion fan that I am, this is precisely where we can sucker ourselves through a narrative of cynicism. Being unpleasantly surprised by things is good. A person incapable of any surprise is incapable of being surprised by any source of good. The Good News is the good news that is shocking in its implications. There is a kind of jaded cynicism that is ultimately a resignation to death. True, death will crush us all but there is a difference between this and utter despair. Even in laughter there is sadness and the end of joy is grief. Proverbs says this and yet too often we forget it. Many times we are not acknowleding that though we are dying yet we live, we often say we are living and then are shocked to discover we are, in fact, dying.