Saturday, November 04, 2017

a very belated riff on Kyle Borg's "The Monster We Created" blogpost about councils, brands, names and celebrities in American Christian scenes

A bit more than a year ago I saw this blog post linked to at Phoenix Preacher.  Earlier this year the former public relations person for what used to be Mars Hill Church published a book about how public relations matters and how your church needs to get engaged with public relations if it's going to survive and/or thrive in today's technologically savvy scene.  Still mulling over whether or not to actually review that book. 

I've tried to make a point of at least reading post-MH published books that discuss the church because, as I noted with the Dale Soden book, it's disappointing to see academic publications so far toe a fairly pedestrian line about Mars Hill as a whole was the religious right striking back.  I can attest that I met some people in my time at Mars Hill who were staunch Democrats, some people who think that Abraham Lincoln is a war criminal, neo-conservatives, Rand fans, and people who advocated for progressive/socialist policies, all people who believed in Jesus Christ risen from the dead.  I loved that about the Mars Hill scene.  I loved that real, sometimes even combative difference in political views could be retained by a core Christian profession.  But as the brand solidified within Mars Hill as a culture that brand solidified around the personality of one guy, a guy who reportedly said "I am the brand". 

Now as potentially a trickle of academic publications may emerge that deal with Mars Hill there's another sort of publication, courtesy of Justin Dean, about how your church needs PR to make it in today's world and he seems to believe that Mars Hill wasn't able to take all the hits they got from liberal and secular media.  Last I checked Janet Mefferd wasn't secular or liberal when she confronted Mark Driscoll on the air about A Call to Resurgence being full of what she regarded as plagiarism.  What Driscoll called a call to resurgence ended up being a focal point in a controversy surrounding the intellectual integrity of his published work.  At this point I've heard a couple of interviews Justin Dean has given in podcasts about the decline of Mars Hill and hostility from secular/liberal media.  That was not what damaged the reputation of Mars Hill so badly.  When the Andrew Lamb disciplinary situation became a national headline Justin Dean clarified that it wasn't the intent to harm Andrew but that due to unclear communication something that was only supposed to be circulated among a small group of people became known campus-wide.

Even in Ruth Graham's 2012 Slate article she could note that fellow evangelicals were expressing concern about Mars Hill's disciplinary culture and the nature of Driscoll's leadership in it.

So if an author at Slate could recognize that serious criticism of the Mars Hill culture was an intra-evangelical concern then Justin Dean's belief that the struggle Mars Hill faced was from secular and liberal media is a vision of Mars Hill history that is, while understandably partisan, all the more blinkered if that's the narrative he's committed to.  Longtime readers of this blog might even remember that when the Andrew Lamb disciplinary case came up in coverage I wrote that I found it hard to feel sorry for a guy who said he regarded the membership covenant of Mars Hill like an end user licensing agreement on iTunes that he just signed without really thinking about it.

But then there was Justin Dean's response:
Before now, Mars Hill’s only response has been posting an excerpt on church discipline from Driscoll’s 2009 book Vintage Church on its website and an opaque tweet from Driscoll. But Justin Dean, the church’s PR and marketing manager, agreed to answer my questions by email to tell the church’s side of the story.
One key element that was not clear in Andrew’s original account, Dean told me, was that the letter was intended to be read aloud, not posted online, and only to a “handful” of people. Instead, the group leader received unclear instructions and posted the letter online, a move Dean insists was not meant to hurt Andrew. [emphasis added]
Furthermore, says Dean, only the approximately 15 members of Andrew’s small group, who met regularly and knew one another well, had access to the letter on the City. (Though Andrew was blocked from accessing the City, he says the letter was available to a slightly wider circle, including his fellow security volunteers.) “His case was not shared with the full church and had, until he posted it publicly online, only been known by a handful of people who were involved in his life and cared deeply about him,” Dean said. (Confusing social-media privacy settings strike again!) He added that Driscoll was not involved in the case at all. Mars Hill currently has 5,417 members and just nine ongoing church discipline cases.

As I've written before, the explanation that something ended up on The City where the content was supposed to only be read aloud to a small group, a process that led to apparently a whole Mars Hill campus worth of members to know about the situation, came across for the public record like Justin Dean's best defense of how things went down from the perspective of Mars Hill leadership was to plead simple communicative incompetence.

Even if we were to all take at face value an assertion that Mars Hill leadership didn't know how to cope with hostile coverage from secular and liberal media (which we shouldn't, since everything from Mark Driscoll's 1998 Mother Jones interview up through 2011 articles featuring Mars Hill leadership in any and all mass media suggest that the church had a meteoric rise in the preceding decade by actively courting mass media) if we could identify any single incident that began to distill and embody public controversy surrounding Mars Hill in a way that could be said to catalyze its downward spiral in public reputation, how Justin Dean handled the public relations crisis of a single church discipline case might very well be the "pivot" to study. 

One of the things that Justin Dean will want to keep thinking about is the nature of a church culture in which a disgraced former member could decide that the best thing to do would be to take something that was disclosed on The City, which was Mars Hill's online member social network at the time, and disclose that to a journalist outside of Mars Hill.  Let's try to put this another way, Dean had to have realized at some level that a church culture as technologically dependent upon and savvy in social and mass media use would have to consider that if any members or leaders or volunteers did have a falling out with the central leadership culture that these would be people primed for using the technology the church had used to bolster its brand to weaken its brand.  That's not to say that the goal was to weaken the brand, any number of former members and leaders who chose to speak out saw themselves as dedicated Christians who were concerned that the brand Mars Hill had become was prone to insularity, injustice and a betrayal of the path of following Christ with a leadership culture of mass media propagandists rather than shepherds.  That's my take, in case you hadn't inferred this already. 

In many respects it's better to be back in arts blogging and discussing animation and classical guitar and chamber music and things like that.  This blog has probably one tenth the readership it had back in 2014 when the blog was temporarily dedicated to steady journalistic blogging about the life and times of Mars Hill.  But just as this has never been a dedicated watchdog blog it has also never had a moment where there was some "I'm done" or "I moved on" announcement or manifesto.  The negative impact of the culture of Mars Hill has been too pervasive and too readily misrepresented by the cliches of red and blue state  pseudo-Christian concerns for me to believe that there shouldn't be people willing to keep discussing Mars Hill and its history.  There are cases in which a genuinely ecumenical and scholarly discussion of what happened should continue and I think that the history of what used to be Mars Hill is one of those cases.  I've "moved on" in the sense that I've gotten back to blogging about music, composition, animation and other topics I love to write about but I haven't "moved on" in the advisory sense that former Mars Hill pastors and staff might have used, which means never writing about Mars Hill and treating the whole thing as in the past and we're here and now and let's just push forward because there's no benefit in looking back on the fiasco of what was.

Well if the authors of biblical books took that approach we wouldn't have gotten the Book of Judges in the Bible, would we?  So clearly authors of Scripture, guided and prompted by the Holy Spirit,  were inspired to document the atrocities and injustices perpetrated by God's people for our edification.  Yes, edification.  One of the most necessarily edifying things we can do in our study of Scripture is to be everywhere from it reminded of the atrocities and evils those of us who call ourselves God's people have perpetrated either in His name or, far more often, for the sake of our glory while pretending to do so for His name. 

Now a guy like Mark Driscoll could decide to tweet that nobody ever made a monument to a critic ...

and yet here we are at the quincentennial of Martin Luther having decided to publicly criticize what he regarded as corruption within the Roman Catholic church.

We're also here in a world where a mere five years ago there was still a Mars Hill Church and Mark Driscoll's reputation was at its peak.  And now it's all gone like the Joker's pencil in The Dark Knight.

So here we are in 2017 and Justin Dean's got a book out called PR Matters.  It's inspired me to belatedly return to soemthing somebody blogged last year.


This monster of brand names and platforms, flourishes in an environment that encourages consumerism. What is often being promoted seems, at least to me, to be a small step above a marketing scheme, showbiz, or a strange form of entertainment. After all, to get headlines you only need the right key-note speaker; or pick the right target audience; or include the right adjectives–scandalous, inexhaustible, radical, extravagant; or affix the right logo; or define the right narrative and wrap it all up in terms of the gospel and you’ve got a recipe for success that’s too big to fail. The result is that the ordinary means-Word, sacrament, and prayer-are replaced by an extra-ordinary method of advertising. [emphasis added] That begins to look a lot like the self-ambition that, though it may have the right goal, is borne out of what should be an intolerable greed. Jesus is not a means to the end of promoting a brand name or platform, he is the end itself. That’s the monster we’ve created.

This monster of celebri-fying pastors flourishes in an environment that cultivates spiritual dangers for these men. We have watched and read with sadness the moral failures and downfall of those we have happily heaped demands, pressures, publicity, exposure, expectations, and contracts upon. Their failures have been many, and their failures–failures like adultery, cult-like leadership styles, domineering personalities, scandalous coverups, egoism, unentreatability, lack of self-control, manipulation, spiritual abuse, abandonment of community, family strife, doctrinal error, etc–have all been seen by the public eye to the shame of the church and the dishonor of Jesus. While they bear the responsibility for their sin it must be asked if the culture that has been created fosters conceit, yields double-standards, feeds pride, and sets mere men on high places and slippery slopes from which they are prone to fall for lack of footing. That’s the monster we’ve created.


I two-thirds agree.  I would suggest that in the sense that the consumption gets done by masses of people we play a substantial role but the apparatus of formulating and disseminating brands would be the work of propagandists, to keep getting back to the writings of Jacques Ellul on propaganda I've been blogging about this year.  Ellul's proposal that the new aristocracy that has placed itself above any meaningful democratic discourse would be propagandists could have some merit.  Conservatives will say that it's the media and that would be right in the sense of the medium but progressives have been complaining about how conservative the financial owners of media production are and they are, in a different way, equally right. 

Christian circles that have adopted the brand as equivalent to substance can make this mistake to the left or to the right in the United States. 

A super-majority of what's written here about megachurch pastors will generally not apply to actual local church pastors who love and serve in their local church and serve their local community.

If Justin Dean actually believes that your church or anybody's church in the United States somehow can't thrive without public relations I just disagree.  He's got to know that plenty of Christian communities have gone some distance without public relations.   If, and this is a very, very big "if" leaning toward "no" for me, we're even going to grant that a contemporary American church "needs" someone handling public relations the last person who should be handling that would seem to be the shepherd.  Driscoll stopped being a shepherd a long time ago in the Mars Hill scene, and may have forgotten what actually being a shepherd entails if he ever knew to begin with. 

I've increasingly come to the conviction that the problem with American Christianity in its entirety is that we have duped ourselves into thinking that the role of pastor is better conceived of in post-Billy Graham terms as a thought-leader or a public figure or as part of the propagandist caste.  Shepherds had to be out where the sheep were and they stunk of that work and were considered lowly and disreputable in all sorts of ways.  Who would hold it against sheep that they are sheep?  On the other hand, shepherds didn't have the best street cred among those who herded livestock animals.  Years and years ago a former Mars Hill co-founding pastor, Mike Gunn, preached a sermon where he mentioned the low reputation shepherds had and mentioned, if memory serves, how a bad or incompetent shepherd might keep sheep grazing in one area so long the animals stripped the land of the ability to grow much greenery and that sheep needed to be kept moving.

For all the chorus among Driscoll's advocates and advocates for a positive legacy for Mars Hill saying that so many lives were touched; that so many baptisms happened; even in the peak Mars Hill period of 2012 Driscoll himself felt obliged to say of Mars Hill growth that it was not all transfer growth.  Nobody makes that kind of apologetic case if they don't think there's a case to be made that most of the Mars Hill growth in 2010-2012 hadn't been precisely that, transfer growth of people switching brands rather than people experiencing observable conversions. 

What Mark Driscoll may have left in his wake could be likened to the creation of an even-more-Burned-Over district.  It's not that nobody came to Christ but that's not the point because we could simply propose that a real monergist would say the Holy Spirit deserves all the ultimate credit for conversions anyway.  Mars Hill dudes can't deserve any credit for the Holy Spirit convicting people of sin.  They can, however, deserve all the blame for creating a culture in which the role of the Christian shepherd was transformed in the Seattle region in a particular church context into the role of being a media-savvy propagandist more fixated on the quality of the Mars Hill brand than the state of the souls who were part of the Mars Hill community.

Which is not at all saying this was necessarily the case at the campus level.  In fact I could name a few names at the campus level where there were men and women of good faith and integrity doing what they could in a church they felt was where the Lord wanted them to be.

Refusing to demonize anyone for loyalty to Mars Hill as a community of believers was probably no small part of why sources trusted me with sensitive information, but I've written about that in the past already.

If the masses entreated Aaron to make a god for them and Aaron complied the masses bear their guilt, just as Aaron was guilty of fashioning the golden calf.  It is absolutely good and necessary to remember that as idol factories go the crafters of the idols are always, as a saying goes, providing a supply for an existing demand.

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