Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Gospel Coalition piece on life after Mars Hill misreads time-frame of Mars Hill collapse, consulting FY2012 and FY2013 reports we can establish numeric decline starting in Fy2013.


Four years ago, Mars Hill Church in Seattle seemed too big to fail.

Just 17 years old, the church was drawing an average weekly attendance of 12,329 to 15 locations. In fiscal year 2013 alone, Mars Hill baptized more than 1,000 people, planted 53 churches in India, and supported 20 church planters and evangelists in Ethiopia. It released 50 new worship songs, gave away more than 3,000 Bibles in the United States and Ethiopia, and took in nearly $25 million in tithes and offerings.

Then, in a few breathtaking months, the whole thing collapsed. Founder and lead pastor Mark Driscoll’s bent toward the provocative, which was part of his draw, increasingly came under fire, fanned by a series of controversies.

Driscoll announced he was taking a break in August 2014, then resigned less than two months later. By the end of October, lead preaching pastor Dave Bruskas announced the whole thing was shutting down.

“We don’t have anything in church history this apocalyptic, as far as a behemoth like Mars Hill—not only a city but national and international voice—collapsing in a two-month period,” said Taproot Church pastor Dan Braga, who watched the whole thing from the adjacent suburb of Burien.

Mentioning the plagiarism and Result Source controversies early on is a good way to let readers know the nature and scope of the controversies surrounding Driscoll at the basic level; but it can be easy to miss that if you weren't documenting the plagiarism scandal as it was happening it could be easy to forget that between the evidence presented by Janet Mefferd or Warren Throckmorton or even here that the scandal about the integrity of Mark Driscoll's intellectual property was what it was because it turned out to encompass what was, at the time, a stretch of time going back to even his first book, then called Radical Reformission and since re-issued as Reformission.

Under no circumstances could the church be said to have collapsed in a mere two month period. Of course it would have been difficult to know that the numbers for attendance might have been declining for anyone who wasn't inside Mars Hill in 2014.  That would be because Mars Hill decided to stop submitting numbers to magazine lists for list articles in 2013. 

Pastor Mark Driscoll
August 27, 2013

On September 12th, Outreach magazine will release its annual issue listing the 100 largest and  fastest-growing churches in the nation. For the first time in a number of years, you won’t see Mars Hill Church listed. [emphasis added]

The longer I am at Mars Hill, the more I feel like a dad. First Corinthians 4 is a place my soul has been camping for the past year. There, Paul speaks of the fact that we have a lot of teachers, but not a lot of fathers. Elsewhere, he speaks of people as sons in the faith including Timothy, Titus, and others. Similarly, as an elderly man writing 1 John, John keeps referring to the people in the network of churches he oversaw as his dear “children.” As Mars Hill has experienced growth that is staggering and unprecedented for our region of the country, there’s nothing to prove. But, there are a lot of people to reach, love, and serve. I hope, by God’s grace, to have a growing family and pastor one church from the age of 25 until Jesus says I’m done. I genuinely care about the faces in our church and not just the numbers. I also want to relieve some of the pressure our leaders may feel to outdo ourselves every year, as that has the possibility to cause us to not make certain tough calls and changes because it could slow our growth for the sake of health. In the end, removing ourselves from the list is just something I feel the Holy Spirit has asked me/us to do and godly counsel from our executive elders and outside pastors of other very large churches.

I have no criticisms of the lists, nor any judgment regarding those who participated. I simply pulled our church off the list after conversations with some pastor friends who have done the same. We will continue to count things at Mars Hill, such as how many people we have on Sundays, how many people are baptized every year, how many people are in Community Groups, how many elders we have to lovingly lead our people, how many people are giving financially, how many dollars we are bringing in and sending out, how many locations and services we have, etc. But, we will use that data internally for our church and not be publishing it much externally. [emphasis added] Our church continues to grow and has big plans for long term expansion, and by God’s grace we are expecting our escalator of opportunity to continue to go up.

To count or not to count

Since we are no longer submitting our numbers for the Top 100 list, this seemed like an opportune time to speak about numbers. Churches that like to count are often accused of being proud, pragmatic, and all about the numbers in an unholy and unhealthy way; some are, some aren’t. ...

While Mark Driscoll wrote that Mars Hill would not be publishing the numbers externally and said that the church continued to grow, another Mars Hill pastor published the following:

 by Pastor Matt Rogers
... This next stat is a tough pill to swallow: about 1 in 5 of us churchgoers invites anybody to church in the course of a year, per Rainer. We might have someone who could be totally up for it right in front of us, practically beckoning us to invite them, and instead we hesitate and hem and haw and sometimes don’t even get the words out of our mouths.
So the hard sales pitch that you should invite people to church coming mere days after Driscoll's announcement didn't seem to jive with the assurance of growth.  For that matter, a commenter remarked as follows:

... Mars Hills was around 14,000 people a Sunday at the end of 2012 and now is around 11,600. Most of the pastors who left did leave over the corporation management style that took full effect about 18 months ago, moving for a 5 day work week at 10 to 12 hours a day, to 6 day work week at 12 to 18 hours a day. And when you question this as a pastor or member like I did and many ex-pastors you are told to resign and leave Mars Hill for not being in full submission to Mars Hill's 3 executive pastors, Mark Driscoll, Dave Bruskas and Sutton. Turner. Most of the ex-pastors are bond by non-disclosure agreements and will be sued by Mars Hill for ever thing they have if they talk about it in public. I pray for a heart change form the 3 executive pastors and for all the ex-pastors and ex-members forced out of Mars Hill to land in a Christ centered church.

That was at the blog post here:


where it was noted, thanks to content from The City published by Sutton Turner that:

July Recap
All that to say, here is a summary of our July numbers—the first month of our new fiscal year:
  • Average weekly attendance: 11,151 (8,959 adults and 2,191 kids)  [emphasis added
Maybe that 12k figure is what you get if you average year-round attendance but the July figure that was leaked to Wenatchee The Hatchet in the summer of 2013 had the average weekly attendance at least 1,175 lower. 

There's also something to keep in mind about the 11,151 attendance number from July 2013. We have to compare it to what was listed as the attendance rate in Fall 2012 from the earlier fiscal year report.

The average attendance for the FY2013 report mentioned 12,329


But weekly attendance in the fall of 2012 was 13,173. 

Nor would that be the only detail that has been missing.  As noted back in the blog post in January 2014 there's the matter of comparing how many contracted members were at Mars Hill across FY2012 and FY2013, which WtH did in the post linked to above:

Check out the average weekly attendance listed in what appears to be a FY2013 MHC annual report, that's 12,329 average.  While 1,337 members were added the grand total number of members of Mars HIll Church only increased by a total of a net total of 60 members between FY2012 and FY2013.  [emphasis original] Curious.  If your organization has a net gain of formal members of a mere sixty after getting more than 1,200 newbies that's obviously not very awesome net growth....

Compared to FY2012's listing the percentage of people who gave $0 went from 23.9% to 35.1%.  Interesting. (emphasis added) [WtH at 11:53pm---comparing this percentage of 0 donors to previous annual reports it also looks like possibly the highest ratio of non-givers at MHC in the last five fiscal years]

The number of people who gave between $1-$499 went from 42.9% to 29.5%.  It looks like they're losing the bottom of the pyramid in terms of lowest-level donors but that Mars Hill Church is gaining in the mid-tier and major donor categories.  But no organization can rely entirely on the top-tier for long.  You have to mobilize your base-level, low-end donors.  It's not safe to assume that some kind of Pareto principle means you can effectively ignore your base.  Let's not forgot if the numbers presented in the MHC FY2013 report hold up a whopping 64.6 percent of donors to Mars Hill in FY2013 either gave nothing at all or gave no more than $1-$499 for the fiscal year.
 [emphasis original]

Merely looking at the attendance numbers listed for FY2013 would give you a truncated picture of Mars Hill's rise and fall.  In terms of sheer numbers Mars Hill peaked in late 2012 and began to decline slowly in 2013 and then precipitously in 2014.  Even the average in July being 11,151 was so if you count 2,191 children on top of 8,959 adults.  Was the 13k from late 2012 also including children? 

So the sentences in the Gospel Coalition article that say:
“We don’t have anything in church history this apocalyptic, as far as a behemoth like Mars Hill—not only a city but national and international voice—collapsing in a two-month period,” said Taproot Church pastor Dan Braga, who watched the whole thing from the adjacent suburb of Burien.

it's not really true.  There was no collapse of Mars Hill in a mere two-month period.  Mars Hill was already experiencing numeric decline in 2013.  Mark Driscoll even made a point of saying in August 2013 that Mars Hill would no longer submit numbers to magazines for lists because numbers were important but not to be published for the general public.  Thanks to information leaked about tracked numbers inside MH from sources with access to The City, the resource Mars Hill Church leadership used to communicate to the members, it was possible to establish that the average weekly attendance in July 2013 was lower than the publicly disclosed peak attendance.  It was also possible to observe from the annual reports that while mid-tier and major donor giving had escalated that the rank-and-file donors were giving less and less. 

As previously noted, the number of members who gave nothing at all rose from about 23% to slightly more than one third of all listed members. For anyone with a modicum of professional background in non-profit donor cultivation the numbers inside MH were starting to look creepy in terms of long-term sustainability even during the two years prior to the formal end.  The memo from Sutton Turner to the executive elders that was leaked to Warren Throckmorton established in some detail that even at the uppermost echelons of Mars Hill leadership there was some real worry that the growth paradigm Mars Hill had committed to pursuing was economically unfeasible; even a slight stoppage in numeric growth could have had catastrophic consequences.

That Bellevue was described as "ground zero" of Mars Hill rather than Ballard indicates how much had changed in the last five years of Mars Hill.  There are a variety of issues and incidents associated simply with what was once Mars Hill Bellevue but that is probably best served by another post.


PicoMicroYacht said...

'Most of the ex-pastors are bond by non-disclosure agreements and will be sued by Mars Hill for ever thing they have if they talk about it in public.'

This was something most bothersome about Mars Hill in that in order for there to be reconciliation and forgiveness between people there has to be truth - for there to be the truth people need to be able to talk about their experiences. Mars Hill when it finished should at the very least have released people from their obligations regarding these agreements. However, because of a legal obligation people are unhealthily silenced and have bear the burden of abuse - some might say an insidiously evil and callous act by those who ran Mars Hill. But I am wondering whether they were released anyway, since Mars Hill has ceased to exist.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Driscoll claimed in an interview with Sheila Walsh and Randy Robison, if memory serves, that he signed a non-disclosure agreement about stuff he couldn't talk about. But given how much he said during 2015 at conferences about how and why he resigned from Mars Hill it's impossible to know what he was supposed tohave not talked about.

It's possible there are non-disclosure agreements associated with other former pastors of what was once MH but since the legal entity finally dissolved it's not clear how long a non-disclosure agreement with a legal entity that no longer exists could be binding. It's perhaps possible that in the "move on" mentality people who could talk about what happened just don't want to?

No mention was made in the article about the Darrin Patrick removal but it seems important to mention because back in 2008 Driscoll said of Patrick "he's my pastor, you know?" This was a guy that Driscoll name-dropped as someone to help hold him accountable but Patrick's removal suggests that there were huge systemic failures lurking behind the scenes. The TGC article also didn't seem to get into the question why Acts 29 seemed to publish and then remove statements about why they removed MH and MD from their roster.