Reflections on “The Rise & Fall of Mars Hill” podcast.
God’s Word is the only Word that matters.
For For a while now, it feels as though we’ve been living in that meme of the dog who convinces himself that everything’s fine, even as a raging fire blazes all around him. And I’m not even meaning to allude to all the social and political upheaval we’ve witnessed in our nation’s recent history. Church scandals abound. The rot of evangelicalism is, to be sure, starting to stink up the auditorium — and it’s causing some to flee into the foyer. The problem is, it’s following them there, too. Still haunting a good many individuals is the fiasco known as Mars Hill Church and the fallout left in the wake of its toxic leader, Pastor Mark Driscoll. The wreckage this ministry caused has been well-documented by various outlets, with those shambles becoming the focal point of 2021’s most illuminating albeit divisive podcast, “The Rise & Fall of Mars Hill.” This twelve-episode show from Mike Cosper and Christianity Today positions itself as an investigative exploration on the abuses which ultimately spelled the doom for the most successful ministry conglomerate since the turn of the century. The Mars Hill brand and Driscoll’s platform crumbled ignominiously under the weight of exorbitant pressure, from both internal and external voices. Years of unethical let alone unbiblical behavior are detailed through a series of anecdotes and insights from those who were there, from those who were “victimized” by the Mars Hill system and Driscoll himself. This podcast is their story.
To be honest, I have a love-hate relationship with this show. Jesse Randolph posted similar feelings in an article over on For The Gospel, which relays both words of compliment and caution about the show as a whole. There’s certainly no denying the quality of the show’s production and investigation. The lengths to which its creators went to present factual accounts in a way that was both engaging and, dare-I-say, entertaining is obvious. As a product, “The Rise & Fall of Mars Hill” podcast is digestible “infotainment” in the class of other feature-length chronicles of crime and intrigue. And that’s also what makes this show such an enigma. There’s much to glean from a show like this, for pastors and ministry leaders alike, in which the harsh realities of how and why a ministry fell as far and as fast as it soared are articulated in grueling detail. But, by the same token, it’s also a show that has a particular bent. At times, the show appears more interested in filleting the problems than presenting any kind of lasting solution. To put it plainly: Should a church’s disintegration be edited and released for the masses? That’s a question worth considering.
I’ve read other bloggers opine what this podcast might do to the broader spectrum of evangelicalism — that is, that as somewhat of a “gotcha-podcast,” “The Rise & Fall of Mars Hill” sets a tenuous precedent, at best. And I do believe there’s some truth to that. Mike Cosper, the show’s host, has indicated that the Mars Hill story isn’t the only one that’s likely to be told in this format. It doesn’t take much digging to unearth some pretty gnarly skeleton’s in the church-history closet, especially recent history. And what does brandishing such stories do for Christianity writ large? There are many who fear that “The Rise & Fall of Mars Hill” and others who will surely copy-and-paste its formula will have a detrimental effect on churchgoers. An open letter was recently published over on The Laymen’s Lounge citing a number of New Testament references to encourage would-be listeners to stay away from the show entirely, its spiritual side-effects being deemed unbiblical and unhealthy. Likewise, in an essay that received a fair amount of attention, to say the least, Liam Thatcher explains why this podcast is more “failure porn” than anything else:
I am increasingly perturbed by the cult following that is developing around [“The Rise & Fall of Mars Hill”]. The drooling anticipation that fills my Twitter timeline ahead of each episode. The cries of “I can’t wait”, or “I need the next episode NOW!” The eager anticipation of what new controversies the next installment may unveil. The plethora of mocking memes that get shared after each installment.
That’s not normal for religious journalism.
It’s normal for reality TV.
It’s normal for celebrity gossip.
It’s normal for addictions.
And it’s the irony that bugs me. We’re listening to a podcast critiquing celebrity culture within the church, and responding to it with all the glee of someone flicking through a celebrity gossip magazine. Apparently oblivious to the hypocrisy. A podcast criticising how the Mars Hill cult leveraged branding and technology to send their message globally is now using the very same technology and platforms, and gaining a cult following.
I get all of that. There were certainly times in listening to particular episodes where I consciously wondered, How beneficial is this for me and my soul? I almost felt as though I was reading about the latest Hollywood scuttlebutt in People Magazine rather than listening to an extended story about how a church disintegrated. I understand the critique. I understand the reticence to promote let alone press play on a show like this. It appears to slake one’s thirst for sleaze under the auspices of “church culture correction.” I get it. The remark is certainly valid. It might’ve appeared as though Liam and others used the term “failure porn” as a click-bait-y way to entrap page views, but there was some truth to the analogy in the way the show captured the evangelical zeitgeist. Be that as it may, “The Rise & Fall of Mars Hill” is still significant for one particular reason, in my estimation.
Similar to what my friend Dave Zahl wrote for Mockingbird, the Mars Hill crater is a microcosm of the failure of the modern church. And no, by “modern” I don’t mean some trite discourse on church methodology, and that merely because of Driscoll’s penchant for “edgy Christianity,” he left countless lives in ashes. What I do mean, however, is that Driscoll’s debacle, to put it lightly, brings to the fore an image of what it looks like when business ethics overrun the church — when the law out-volumes the gospel. “‘The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill,’” Dave writes, “may first and foremost be a cautionary tale about what happens when law and gospel get confused in Christian ministry.” Whenever we try to infuse a little bit of law to motivate people to live according to the gospel, the gospel always, eventually, gets muffled and lost and drowned-out entirely. There’s no such thing as a faithful, successful ministry built upon some mutated “glawspel.”
Dave’s articulation of the mess in terms of law and grace offers helpful categories through which to sift and understand the horrors of this story. Driscoll, perhaps, would reject any such notion that his preaching wasn’t infused with Christ’s grace. But it’s one thing to preach about grace and another thing to actually embody that message to those with whom you do life. “You cannot convey a message of grace in a non-gracious or overbearing way,” Dave notes. “The circuits simply don’t match up.” Living graciously with church family and friends is what it means to be the Body of Christ (Rom. 12:16; 1 Cor. 12:13; 2 Cor. 13:11–13; Phil. 2:1–5). But what happens when a love for the ordinary means of grace and the faithful cultivation of the gospel in the hearts of sinners through the proclamation of the Word are jettisoned for some other souvenir of spiritual achievement? You get Mars Hill.
Scott Hagley, writing for The Presbyterian Outlook, contemplates what really brought down Mars Hill, which he describes as “the pursuit of unhindered growth.” “To blame the fall of Mars Hill,” he says, “on things like internet celebrity culture and the immaturity of a key leader allows us to decontaminate the lab rather than question its existence in the first place.” Testimony after testimony given throughout the show suggests that Mars Hill’s and Driscoll’s vested interest was “success at all costs.” And, I might add, success for Mars Hill. But in that endeavor, Mars Hill became a monster, whose insatiable hunger for success became the very demon which brought the whole thing crumbling down. Success became about quantifying advancements and measuring data to optimize what will lead to the best return-on-investment. But, as Jared C. Wilson writes in his trenchant book The Gospel-Driven Church, “the ‘effectiveness’ of the gospel message does not sanctify any and every evangelistic method” (45). There are no KPIs to measure the effectiveness of gospel ministry. There are no statistics to quantify faithful proclamation of the Word. There’s only the cross. “Communities thus claimed by the cross,” continues Hagley, “define success not in terms of influence or reach but rather proximity and fidelity.”
For all intents and purposes, Driscoll failed those benchmarks. It’s hard to argue, though, with the other ways in which he succeeded. He brought Mars Hill to the highest heights of “cultural Christianity,” amassing a large enough budget to execute countless ministries with seeming ease (though if you listen to the podcast, it was rarely easy to pull off those flashy events). The Mars Hill brand reached hundreds of thousands of lives all over the world. There’s no denying that the platform was immense and weighty. But I wonder, at what cost? What they were reaching those lives with? What message was been tendered by Mars Hill Church? The aftermath seems to suggest that it wasn’t the Lord’s word of grace. It was something else. Some other word occupied those channels — a word which, to this day, still haunts the lives of those who propagated it and sat under it and spent their lives sharing it.
In the end, God’s Word is the only Word that matters. His Son’s cross is our rallying cry, our message, our hope. As St. Paul writes in his letter to the churches in Galatia, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (Gal. 6:14). May we be filled with the Spirit of Christ to truthfully and genuinely declare the same thing. That our boast isn’t our bravado, our success, our glory. It’s Christ. May he alone be our chief end, whether that comes with soaring ministerial success or not. “A ministry’s faithfulness to the mission of God,” Wilson continues, “is itself success, regardless of the results” (43). Whether that means we’re made to witness the spectacle of thriving or given the lot to live in the doldrums of plodding faithfulness (Phil. 4:12–13). May we find the Lord Christ to be our joy and fulfillment in all things.
Grace and peace.
Jared C. Wilson, The Gospel-Driven Church: Uniting Church-Growth Dreams with the Metrics of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019).