Sunday, September 12, 2021

Justin Dean’s first day on the job at the former Mars Hill Church and a sense of glorious purpose in his book PR Matters

Something Justin Dean has clarified via Twitter recently is that he decided he would not talk with Mike Cosper for Christianity Today’s podcast series The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. Dean objects to Cosper’s take on the “How Dare You” sermon suggesting that no man’s life seemed to be changed and that, far from a spontaneous outburst, the moment was planned and executed in the same way in all versions of the sermon. Dean has said that if Cosper couldn’t find any man whose life was changed by that sermon he wasn’t looking.
 
Now perhaps Cosper was trying to make a point that didn’t come across, a point that I have made explicit in suggesting that Mark Driscoll’s “Pussified Nation” could be seen as agitation propaganda while Dead Men and the mens’ boot camps from the 2000-2001 era could be viewed as integration propaganda. I have, of course, made some extensive use of Jacques Ellul’s book Propaganda as a way to think about the William Wallace II era. I have argued that Mark Driscoll should be understood not so much as a pastor but as a propagandist. I will quote Ellul’s warning about Christians using propaganda techniques to disseminate Christianity as a preface to looking at some statements Justin Dean has made in his book PR Matters (which I have reviewed in a three-part series of posts here, here and here). 

Now Ellul argued that churches that use propaganda to disseminate Christianity would ultimately fail to disseminate Christianity and instead replace it with an ideological position resembling Christian life and practice but devoid of its realities.
 

PROPAGANDA: THE FORMATION OF MEN'S ATTITUDES
JACQUES ELLUL
Translated from the French by Konrad Kellen & Jean Lerner
Vintage Books Edition, February 1973
Copyright (c) 195 by Alfred A Knopf Inc.
ISBN 0-394-71874-7

 

page 230
... Propaganda is a total system that one must accept or reject in its entirety.

If the church accepts it, two important consequences follow. First of all, Christianity disseminated by such means is not Christianity. [emphasis added] We have already seen the effect of propaganda on ideology. In fact, what happens as soon as the church avails itself of propaganda is a reduction of Christianity to the level of all other ideologies or secular religions.


This can be seen happening throughout history. Every time a church tried to act through the propaganda devices accepted by an epoch, the truth and authenticity of Christianity were debased. This happened in the fourth, ninth, and seventeenth centuries (of course, this does not mean that no more Christians were left as a result).

In such moments (when acting through propaganda), Christianity ceases to be an overwhelming power and spiritual adventure and becomes institutionalized in all its expressions and compromised in all its actions. It serves everybody as an ideology with the greatest of ease, and tends to be a hoax. In such times there appear innumerable sweetenings and adaptations, which denature Christianity by adjusting it to the milieu.

Thus reduced to nothing more than an ideology, Christianity will be treated as such by the propagandist. [emphasis added] And in the modern world we can repeat in connection with this particular ideology what we have already said on the subject of ideologies in general. What happens is that the church will be able to move the masses and convert thousands of people to its ideology. But this ideology will no longer be Christianity. It will be just another doctrine, though it will still contain (sometimes, but not always) some of the original principles and the Christian vocabulary. [emphasis added]

The other consequence affects the church itself. When it uses propaganda, the church succeeds, just as all other organizations. It reaches the masses, influences collective opinions, leads sociological movements, and even makes many people accept what seems to be Christianity. But in doing that the church becomes a false church. it acquires power and influence that are of this world, and through them integrates itself into this world. 

Justin Dean’s position has seemed to be that if churches do not embrace contemporary mass media and social media techniques to get their message out and control their narrative the churches are doomed. He has clarified that he would share his story in his own way and has brought out a hashtag on Twitter that at first glance seems to refer to #PRMatters.  If that is a reference to Dean’s book PR Matters then the book has been published and available since 2017.  Because by now almost anyone who even knows who Justin Dean is knows he was at Mars Hill Church and that it was the only church on which he was on staff that anyone has discussed (Dean included) then let’s quote from Dean’s book to get his account of his first day on the job at Mars Hill.  Along the way Dean shared that public relations is something churches can not afford to not do In our day and age. 

PR Matters: A Survival Guide for Church Communicators

Justin Dean

Copyright © 2017 by Justin J Dean. Published by DOXA Media Group, L. L. C.

ISBN : 0692862676

ISBN-13: 978-0692862674

Library of Congress Control Number 2017909376

First Edition 2017

 

Pages 41-42

I will never forget my first official day on staff at a church. I had just left a great marketing position in the corporate world to now work for one of the largest and fastest growing churches in the world. When I signed up I was excited to be using my skills and experiences for such a great and worthy cause. I quickly realized I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

 

The position I had taken was the Public Relations Manager for the church, but the role evolved over the years, and I ultimately oversaw all public relations and communications for the church including content, social media, our websites, and more.

 

That first day was very revealing for me. As soon as I arrived at our cold, dank Seattle offices I was whisked off to meet with our senior pastor. He said something to me that helped set the tone for my role as the “Church PR Guy”.

 

He asked if I was ready to strap my boots on. Which made me incredibly self-conscience about the Converse shoes I was wearing at the time. He went on to tell me that what I signed up for was not a job – but, rather, it was a calling.

 

He said the office was full of people who worked nine to five and produced great content, but what we really needed were more soldiers on the frontline.

 

He told me I’d take a lot of hits. Not just for him, and not just for the church, but for God. That what we were trying to do was reach more people than ever with the story of the gospel, and that it was going to require risks, and would most definitely have its challenges. The only rewards we’d receive would be the satisfaction of seeing people’s lives changed as they came to Christ and got baptized.

 

And we sure did reap the rewards. Year after year we saw hundreds of people get saved and over a thousand people per year get baptized. Hundreds of people watched our sermons and consumed our content every week, and we captured as many of their stories as we could.

 

I walked away from the first meeting with an unbelievable weight on my shoulders that never went away. A glorious purpose that I had never felt before. I knew God had orchestrated everything in my life up until then so that I could serve in that role.

 

If you want to be successful in helping your church reach more people, you can’t treat it like a job. If you feel called to this type of work, then the only thing left to do is to strap your boots on and start to hustle. It’s time to hone in on your skills and be the best you can be.  People’s lives are at stake. 

For those conversant in Mark Driscoll’s metaphors of warfare this account is striking for how Justin Dean’s role was described.  In pulpit contexts Driscoll has had a tendency to distinguish between “air war” and “ground war” in ways suggesting that the “ground war” was what happened at local campuses, in community groups, small groups, and other small-scale or face to face interactions. “Air war” by contrast, was often a phrase that referred to mass media of all kinds and social media.  Justin Dean’s job, in the pulpit-based taxonomy of war metaphors, would have been a quintessential air war roll.  If Mark Driscoll were Megatron then Justin Dean would have been Air Commander Starscream.  

But in Dean’s account of meeting with the senior pastor (who by now we should generally recognize was Mark Driscoll), Dean’s account has Driscoll saying that there was a need for soldiers on the frontlines, which suggests the possibility that inside the upper echelons of the Mars Hill leadership culture engaging mass media and social media had come to be considered by Driscoll and possibly others as the ground war.  Driscoll has never served in the military or displayed any interest in or competence at military anything and this civilian is not pointing out this fact simply to say Driscoll is all hat and no cattle with warfare metaphors of all kinds. That is, I admit, a natural side effect of making an observation about Driscoll’s martial metaphors but not the key point in itself.  People who have never served in the armed services can still recognize that in the history of warfare no long-term military conflict of strategic importance has ever been won solely by air war.  It  may be telling that in telling Justin Dean that his role was anything like a foot soldierly role the senior pastor may have revealed the failures of his martial metaphors in one potential interpretation or, more plausibly, revealed that the brand and image of the church had attained a level for which Justin Dean really was a foot soldier in protecting and advancing that brand.  

Of course by now we know that the brand in question was the brand of Mars Hill.  

It is striking that Dean described that first day as impressing upon him: “…with an unbelievable weight on my shoulders that never went away. A glorious purpose that I had never felt before. I knew God had orchestrated everything in my life up until then so that I could serve in that role.”  Who gave him that feeling?  The senior pastor. Who was that senior pastor? Mark Driscoll.  It seems Driscoll had a capacity to impress upon Justin Dean an unbelievable weighty feeling but also, as Dean so emphatically put it, a sense of knowing that God had orchestrated everything in Justin Dean’s life up until then so that he could serve in the role of handling public relations and media for Mars Hill Church and Mark Driscoll as its senior pastor. 

But how prepared was Justin Dean for that role?  By his own account he had no idea what he was in for. Dean’s book is not a history of his tenure as Public Relations Manager for Mars Hill but there are passages in PR Matters that go into some detail about unusual incidents in the history of Mars Hill Church. In a passage outlining the need for discernment Justin Dean wrote extensively about an incident that might have gone into a normal bureaucratic proceduralist purgatory of some kind but for Dean’s gut feeling (a spidey-sense feeling) that he needed to respond to this particular situation: 

Pages 46-78

 

One day a request came in over the phone to our receptionist. On any other day, this request would have easily went into our queue and eventually would have received a standard response. But something tugged on my gut that day and I knew this one deserved my attention.

 

A man called in and told our receptionist that he needed to speak with someone in senior leadership. He refused to give any details, just that it was serious and not just any pastor would do.

 

The receptionist wasn’t about to patch him through to our senior pastor. That just wasn’t something we would do. The guy was relentless and wouldn’t let her just take a message. He knew he would be brushed off. To be fair, we’ve had other calls like this one that ended up just being someone who wanted to tell our pastor off, and it’s hard as a receptionist to tell who is being reasonable and who is a crazy person.

 

I was alerted to the call, as was normal procedure when something weird or tense was happening.  Like I said, any other day and I’d tell this guy to cool down and submit his request in writing. But something was off. My spidey-senses were tingling, and I knew I should take this seriously.

 

I told the guy that there was no way he was going to talk to our pastor, but that I would listen to him and take whatever action was appropriate. That was the only option I gave him, so he gave in. But he didn’t want to do it over the phone, and he didn’t want to put anything in writing.

 

I agreed to meet him. I had no idea what I would be walking into, so I told him to meet me at a Starbucks that was next door to one of our church campuses.  I took a friend and fellow church staffer with me for accountability … and for protection (he’s a big guy with tattoos).

 

As it turns out, the guy wasn’t a church goer. He wasn’t even a Christian. But he had information that I am glad he brought to us. A friend of his had a teenage daughter, whom one of our lay pastors had been messaging privately with on Facebook.

 

The guy showed me print outs of their conversations, which he obtained through the teenage girl’s mother. As I read the transcripts, the pastor, who was a volunteer and also worked at a local high school, was clearly flirting with this underage girl. And to make it worse, I knew he had a wife and children of his own.

 

I assured the man that we would handle the situation and not ignore it, and thanked him for bringing it to our attention. I asked for his phone number so that I could follow up with him should I have any questions, and so that I can give him an update on what we had done about it.

 

I immediately called our Executive Pastors and alerted them about the situation, and they agreed that my next move should be to alert the school where the pastor worked, as well as the police. While I made those phone calls they visited the lay pastor’s wife.

 

The pastor admitted to his wrongdoing, and was immediately removed as a pastor and fired from his job at the school. The weight of turning this man’s life upside down was upon me, but all I could think about was that poor teenage girl who probably didn’t know what she was getting into. Based on the conversations I read, it would have escalated into something far worse had this friend not intervened.

 

We continued to provide pastoral care to the pastor and his family, and we offered to pay for counseling and legal ad for the teenage girl and her family, The pastor did eventually face criminal charges and I pray that he and his family have been restored.

 

I was prepared with statements for the press should anything be leaked, but the whole mess stayed out of the news thanks to our fast reactions as well as the grace of the man who brought it to our attention. This wasn’t particularly something we wanted to release on our own, but we were prepared to share every detail should it come up.

 

Had I not trusted my gut that day, the man was prepared to release those transcripts to the news and the police. We would have lost any leverage to tell the story correctly, and would have been forced to go on the defensive. The man didn’t expect us to do the right thing, but we did. When I called him to give him an update on everything that had been done, he thanked me and said we turned around his perception of the church. 

What is striking about this story is that it was a state of exception, that Dean’s gut told him to not pass this along the usual channels to get some possibly prefab answer.  The volunteer pastor admitted to wrongdoing and was removed as pastor and fired from his job at the high school he had been working at.  Dean described it as a moment of keen discernment.

Yet as we know by now, there is no longer a Mars Hill Church. For all the discernment different men in leadership within Mars Hill have at times claimed to have that Result Source contract still happened.  The plagiarism confrontation Mark Driscoll had with Janet Mefferd still happened. Mars Hill attempting to deflect blame for citation errors on to the Mars Hill content management system and research assistants still happened.  Now it may well be the content management system within Mars Hill did ultimately contribute to the citation errors that made Mark Driscoll’s plagiarism controversy unavoidable in late 2013 but when the initial Mars Hill Church public relations response was to blame the systems before belatedly saying Mark Driscoll made mistakes didn’t help the reputation of the church. 

I stand by an earlier observation that whatever Justin Dean’s intents for the reputation of Mars Hill it was as though he drained all of the fuel of a C-17 Globemaster transport plane on to the reputation of Mars Hill, whipped out a Zippo lighter, and threw the fire into the fuel.  It remains one of the mysteries of Mars Hill history how and why Mark Driscoll thought Justin Dean was a good fit for managing Mars Hill’s media presence and reputation.   No one has to cast doubts on Dean’s loyalty and integrity to suggest, if a bit bluntly, that part of why Mars Hill Church fell into a pathetic public relations death spiral was because Dean was incapable of salvaging what was already a sinking ship.  Documents leaked to Warren Throckmorton over the years revealed that Sutton Turner was worried as far back as later 2011 through early 2012 that Mars Hill had a disastrously bad set of fiscal patterns in place.  Over the years Wenatchee The Hatchet heard word of “Sutton Turnover” and “The Hatchet Man” from former Mars Hill people but others spoke well of him.  For longtime readers Sutton Turner has commented here at Wenatchee The Hatchet to correct wrong interpretations I’ve made about events.  Justin Dean, for that matter, has commented here and while we have obviously disagreed on a few key things he’s been welcome to comment here, too. 

Now Justin Dean has stated that he doesn’t plan to talk with Mike Cosper it may be arguable that he doesn’t need to talk to Mike Cosper since Dean self-published PR Matters.  Dean seems to have intimated as much on Twitter and, to be fair, Dean’s identification with the late Mars Hill is so complete for those who even know who he is that PR Matters could be for Justin Dean somewhat like what the book Confessions of a Reformission Rev is for Mark Driscoll, a guidebook in which the history of Mars Hill Church is an essential part of the story, even “the” story, but which is always subordinated at every point to the how-to-do-this manual genre that people who have come and gone from leadership within Mars Hill have had varying degrees of success in writing and publishing. 

Perhaps the most striking story in PR Matters is Justin Dean describing what seems most likely to have been the public relations debacle in which Mars Hill Church made a bid for the International Paper Building only to discover that Sound Transit exercised its rights to gain real estate for its projects.  Mars Hill attempted a “Good for Bellevue” campaign online that was, let’s not sugar-coat this, was a public relations disaster.  Lest Wenatchee The Hatchet seem to be too harsh in saying so, let the record presently show that Justin Dean looked back on the public relations contest between a megachurch and a government project to have been a disastrous failure, one for which he felt responsible: 

Pages 114-118

Never make bad jokes or lose professionalism. Remember that the entire time you are with the reporter, they are paying attention to your conversation. Even after the interview is over and you’ve turned to chit chat, your words can be used in the story. In fact, they’ll often use opportunities like that to catch you off your guard.

 

I learned that lesson the hard way. We were making a bid for a huge building that was for sale near our main church campus. The building and property was a perfect fit to expand our church’s central operations and main auditorium. It was right off the public transportation line, and in the middle of a proposed mixed-use development that was supposed to be the new epicenter of the city. It was exactly what we had been looking for, and at the end of the day it was the only option we found that was big enough to fit our growing congregation.

 

We needed to expand and this building was the only option within the city. There wasn’t a lot of undeveloped space in the area, and there are a lot of restrictions on new buildings, particularly worship centers. It’s not like down South where you can just buy an empty field and build a massive auditorium to your specs.

 

We made an offer on the building, more than they were asking, and the owner accepted it. Unfortunately, the city turned out to have a claim on the property, as it was one of several locations they had the right to seize while they planned a new maintenance facility for the mass transit line. Even though our offer was accepted, the city blocked the sale.

 

The hardest part was the property would sit vacant for up to five years while the city decided if they even needed it. They wouldn’t be ready to build their maintenance facility for several years, but they seized about five different properties while they determined which one they might use. If they didn’t choose this one, they’d end up selling it at auction, but that could be five to seven years later and we didn’t have that kind of time.

 

We tried working with the city to show them that our church would be a better fit for the community than a maintenance yard, especially since they had several other properties that were a great fit for their new facility, but we only had the one option for the growth of our church. I appeared at every public hearing they held for months, and spoke our concerns but they wouldn’t budge on their decision, nor would they work with us to find another suitable location for the church. Eventually they stopped letting me speak on the matter.

 

There were no legal options we could pursue, and our efforts to work with them were failing. We felt we had no other choice than to try the matter in the court of public opinion so we started a website to draw attention to the situation and get the public’s interest. After all, even non-Christians could agree that a beautiful church campus that doubles as a public auditorium, book store and café, was a better option in the up and coming shopping district than an ugly maintenance yard for trains.

 

A local TV station quickly picked up on the story and sent a reporter out to interview me. The whole thing lasted 30 minutes. I hit every talking point we worked up, and was so excited that they were devoting that much time to the story. I knew they’d take a controversial angle with it – pitting the big rich mega-church up against the city who was just trying to support the popular mass transit line. But I had high hopes. The reporter seemed genuinely interested, was friendly and asked great questions.

 

What I didn’t expect is the reporter baiting me into a corner as I walked him out to their news van. With the interview over, but the camera apparently  still recording audio, he asked me, “Do you think God wants you to have this building?”

 

My response, with my guard down and thinking he and I were now buddies, was “Sure, we believe God wants us to have this building. We wouldn’t be pursuing it if we didn’t.”

 

Dang it. Why did I say that? As they hopped into their van and sped off, I was praying the cameraman didn’t capture me saying that. Sure enough, when the evening news came on that night, the lead story was, “Local church says we believe God wants us to have this building!” with my photo next to it.

 

Thirty minutes of interview, and the only clip they aired was audio of me saying those words. They didn’t even air him asking the question. It played as if I volunteered the information. None of the context was included. Not a single key point made it into the story. The whole thing was about how the wacky megachurch thought they could take someone else’s property just because God told them to.

 

I should have said something like, “Well I’m not God, I don’t know what he wants. But I do know that we love this community and want to continue being a part of it, but this building is the only option we have to expand our growing church. If the city continues to block the sale so they can sit on the property for five years then we’ll have to more than 150 jobs and a place of worship for 5000 church members to another city.”

 

Even my coworkers the next morning in the church office were asking me why I would say such a thing. It was a nightmare.

 

The city issued a statement the next day saying that they don’t just give up buildings because a church says God wants them to have it. Man, I envied the city PR guy. He had me and he knew it. We lost control of the message, and the public turned against us.

 

A reporter caught me off guard and it threw a whole building campaign off the tracks. We might have been able to recover by doing another interview and explaining what happened. I certainly wanted to stay in the fight. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance to even clarify my position because the prevailing decision was to move on. We were already under a lot of pressure at the time, and frankly it marked the beginning of us giving up on the future of the church. In hindsight, we would have been selling that building a year later had we known the church would soon close. 

On the other hand, in an earlier passage, Justin Dean wrote the following:

Page 35

If you haven’t read Mark Driscoll’s book A Call to Resurgence, please pick it up. It was published amidst the closing of our church and didn’t get the recognition it deserves. Had more church leaders actually read it, I’m convinced the church wouldn’t be in as big of a mess.

 

In the book, Pastor Mark says, “With the epic rise of borrowed faith, lost faith, or no faith, what’s left of actual Christian faith? The present-day blend of beliefs, traditions, and spiritualities makes it difficult to identify a remnant, especially when all of the ingredients have been marinated in the brine of American civil religion and Judeo-Christian ethics. Everything comes out of the mix with a hint of Christianity and vice versa.”

 

He goes on, “Many Christians of the borrowed or lost faith variety have gladly accepted society’s new vision for the church.” Since when does society dictate the church’s vision? 

Unless someone were a Mars Hill insider it might seem odd to pinpoint the public relations debacle of the summer of 2013 as the beginning of the end but there’s a serious case to be made for the claim.  Consider that A Call to Resurgence was published in later 2013; Mark Driscoll’s fateful interview with Janet Mefferd in which she would accuse him on air of being a plagiarist had not yet happened; but Mars Hill had already faced a humiliating defeat in not only not getting the International Paper Building but having been shown up as having made a bid after the sale of the building had been finalized.  Dean, of course, has other information he may or may not be situated to provide; and he’s alluded to how he attended meeting after meeting and was shut out of being able to speak on behalf of Mars Hill, thus leading to what in hindsight even Dean seems able to see was a clearly desperate bid at a public relations appeal to a public that arguably had little incentive to ever side with Mars Hill. 

But Dean’s insider case that the “Good for Bellevue” campaign was such a catastrophic failure everyone at the top tier of Mars Hill Church basically gave up on its future sounds plausible.  Dean simultaneously seemed  to believe that his gaffe doomed a public relations campaign that in some alternate universe might have succeeded, yet that with the 2017 hindsight of Mars Hill’s demise the church would have had to sell off the International Paper Building even if it had somehow acquired it. Given local coverage by Seattle media Dean’s take on the possible success of anything like the “Good for Bellevue” campaign seems catastrophically optimistic.  

The tricky thing is that Dean has not been in the strongest of positions to lament how churches should be setting culture and not following it if he’s written a book like PR Matters to begin with. 

Page 13

PR is everything, and your church doesn’t get to dismiss it, because you’re already doing it whether it’s part of your job or not

 

Pages 33-34

When Christian media and bloggers start picking on churches and pastors, publishing unsubstantiated rumors and misinformation and participating in the shaming of someone of who has made a mistake or sinned—even after they repent and apologize—then it’s not time to be bland, or tolerant. We can’t let the world dictate what we do or say.

 

It’s time to be bolder than we have ever been. It’s time to stand up for the church, stand up for the Bible, and stand up for Jesus.

 

The church should be setting the culture, not adapting to it. Using the Bible and the Holy Spirit as our guide, we should be leading the way with what to believe and how to act. But too often we are trying too hard to stay relevant and not offend anyone. 

So Dean could talk about how content on content on content could feature having a sermon with pull quotes and blogging excerpts or posts with variations on the theme of a sermon in his practical advice in PR Matters. Yet he could simultaneously lament the nature of the media game itself. In fact, as he noted in his book: 

Pages 51-52

Part of my job was reading and reviewing everything that was said about the church online. Anytime someone would make a comment on an article, post a blog post, tweet, or even sneeze within a mile of our church – I would know about it. We had alerts and monitoring services running 24/7 so I’d know the second something breaks.

 

That’s probably overkill for the majority of churches, but at the time we would get a lot of media attention online. I monitored what people said, because we cared what they said. People having a perception of us that aligned with reality was critical to us being able to reach even more people all over the world with the story of Jesus Christ.

 

Sometimes what they would say was pretty harsh. We were the largest church in the Seattle area, an overly liberal and pretty hostile setting for a conservative, reformed Christian church.

 

As the official spokesman for the church, often their criticisms and nasty comments were directed at me personally. That was more of an issue for my wife than it was for me. No wife likes reading bad things about their husbands in the local paper, or worse on national stages like Slate or the New York Times.

 

I ordered a pizza once and the delivery driver texted me to say that he knew who I was and where I worked, so he wouldn’t be delivering me my pizza. That’s what I mean by hostile. The guy recognized my name from news stories about the church, and decided it was worth risking his job to tell me he wasn’t going to deliver my pizza to me. That was a scary time. This guy I had never met hated me that much, and now had my address.  We were thankful for security during that time. 

 

You probably think you won’t ever experience anything quite that extreme in your position, but I would have said the same thing before it happened to me. 

Justin Dean took (and I can only guess takes) it as given that a job of this sort is actually necessary for a contemporary North American church. But is it?  Why? Will having a church staff member tackling social media help church members navigate the mysteries of 1 Kings 13?  It’s too bad Dean has faced some hostility on the one hand but on the other, wasn’t that what some senior pastor warned him was part of the job? There’s room to both “strap your boots on” and then wishing you hadn’t but that, as yet, has not come up so much in accounts about Mars Hill until relatively recently. 

Dean’s comments about blogs and bloggers failing to vet claims and statements is, naturally, of some interest to me.  Here is Dean remarking on a routine failure he saw among members of the institutional press:

Pages 82-83

In today’s world of tight deadlines and unreasonable quotas, reporters aren’t taking the time they should be taking to verify sources or quotes. If a blogger publishes it, then they can quote the blogger and move on to the next story. No need to verify if the quote was written down correctly, learn more about the context, or verify if it was even said at all. If something needs to be corrected later, they’ll just post a update to the story and blame the blogger. Never mind that most people will have already read the story, and no one will go back to read the update.

 

I’ve seen the New York Times, Washington Post, The Blaze, Daily Beast, and Huffington Post all quote me from posts by no name bloggers without ever reaching out to me to verify the quote or ask for more information. Sometimes they’ll even re-publish the blog post word for word without writing a new story. It’s quite amazing.

 

I find it remarkable that anyone with a laptop can now be a reporter. These days anyone can write a blog post, and if the subject is good enough, it can be picked up and republished on Huffington Post or Daily Beast and attributed to you as if you’re a real journalist with an editor and years of training. I applaud the advancement in technology. It’s a crazy time to be alive with how much information is posted every day. But the cost of speed and efficiency has been quality control and fact checking. The high standards of journalism have taken a nose dive across the board. And the public is oblivious to it, or too busy to really care. 

I have myself complained that much that aspires to watchdog blogging fails to attain even the most basic functions and disciplines of journalism and that often watchdog blogging and online discernment ministry form and function tends to rise no higher than rote yellow journalism.  But the irony of Justin Dean saying what he said about bloggers is that it was not clear, in the end, that Dean knew what he was doing any more than the bloggers he has complained about since the demise of Mars Hill.  

Now I won’t blame him for being upset that mainstream press publications did botched coverage of Mars Hill.  There was an article published in AlterNet and republished in Salon about Mars Hill that was so egregiously inaccurate I took a week to point out the errors in each paragraph and was told by the author that corrections were going to be made (I have to trust they were).  I, too, find it remarkable that people with computers can think of what they do as bloggers as somehow being the same thing as journalism.  Not all aspirant citizen journalism actually attains to journalism and I am willing to claim that I a at least as aware of this sad reality as Justin Dean, maybe even more. After all, I wouldn’t have devoted so many years to blogging about Mars Hill the way I have if I thought that the institutional or indie press on the one hand and bloggers on the other had been covering the late Mars Hill Church as accurately as I believe needed to be done. 

With that in mind, if Wenatchee The Hatchet ever quoted Mark Driscoll inaccurately in the first editions of his books; the first released versions of his sermons; or has made a factual mistake in reporting on anyone who has ever been at Mars Hill I’ve been eager to correct mistakes.  I can’t recall even a single case where Justin Dean ever indicated that what I said was factually inaccurate.  So whatever he has written and said about bloggers in general I am willing to say that whether he’s ever liked what I do or not that Justin Dean could grant that Wenatchee The Hatchet has tried to be accurate as humanly possible. 

I’ve been ambivalent about the Christianity Today podcast for my own reasons and I think I can understand Justin Dean’s reticence at the prospect of talking with Cosper.  I can even understand Dean’s conviction that he would be better off sharing his own story in his own way about what happened at Mars Hill.  But as someone who attended Mars Hill from about 1999 through 2008 and met the three co-founding elders Mark Driscoll, Mike Gunn and Lief Moi, I would advise Dean to remember that his stint from roughly 2010 through to the end in 2014 wasn’t very long. That Mars Hill launched in 1996 means it was a nascent group in 1995; and while it dissolved in 2014 the corporate dissolution process extended through into 2015. In other words, the span from the embryonic Mars Hill through its birth to the death rattle and rigor mortis took twenty years.  

As valuable as Dean’s stories and insights into the death rattle of Mars Hill can potentially be he came to Mars Hill after its core stories and stances were consolidated, its corporate mythologies and histories established, but not necessarily in a way that gave him an opportunity to second-guess whether the accounts he heard were contestable, which was precisely the point at which bloggers disagreed with things Dean took for granted within his role at Mars Hill Church. 

I don’t have basic questions about the credibility of Justin Dean as a source the way I have those questions about other people in the history of Mars Hill, but I hope Dean can appreciate that part of the challenge of his explaining the demise of Mars Hill is that few people who haven’t gone to the trouble of reading PR Matters (like I have, obviously) will know that Dean has ever even broached the topic of feeling he had a role in catalyzing the death of the church he worked for.

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