Making Sense of the Mars Hill Saga

Ruth Graham tells the story of “How a Megachurch Melts Down” in The Atlantic. Graham begins by outlining the rise and fall of the evangelical church:

“Two years ago, Mars Hill Church was the third-fastest growing large church in the country. Its original location in Seattle had spawned 14 other branches in five states, and 13,000 people attended weekly services at which founding pastor Mark Driscoll’s sermons were projected on large screens. Thousands more connected with the church online, and Driscoll and his wife Grace wrote a guidebook titled Real Marriage that hit #1 on the New York Times best-seller list in January 2012.”

“In hindsight, that year was the pinnacle for Mars Hill. Now it’s all over. Driscoll resigned a few weeks ago after a leave of absence that begin in August. And last Friday afternoon, Mars Hill Church announced online that it will dissolve by January 1.”

Then Graham explains that Driscoll’s and the church’s troubles began in late 2013 when a Christian radio host accused Driscoll of plagiarizing a theologian in a recent book. Graham adds:

“A few months later, the conservative Christian magazine World broke the story that Real Marriage had only landed on the best-seller list because Mars Hill paid a consulting firm $210,000 to boost it there. In July, bloggers dug up a series of crude and relentlessly misogynist comments Driscoll made under a pseudonym on a church discussion board. Writing as William Wallace II, he lambasted America as a “pussified nation,” and posted a bizarre glossary that mocked “male lesbians” (men who think like women), “femans” (women who think like men), “momma’s boys,” “Larry Limps,” and “rock-free” men who attend churches headed by female pastors. His defenders pointed out the comments were 14 years old, but they occurred years into his tenure as a professional pastor.”

Graham poses the obvious question. What went wrong?

“. . . Driscoll was a vocal proponent of the idea that the contemporary American church lacks manliness; as he put it in 2006, “real men” spurn the church because it celebrates a “Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ.” His message appealed to many people for many years. But recently, Driscoll’s own peers and followers began to turn against him, too. Their disfavor ultimately made it impossible for Driscoll to survive. What went wrong—or, from the perspective of Marsh Hill’s numerous noisy critics, what went right?”

The less obvious, more interesting question is why did a “relentlessly misogynist” leader’s message appeal to many people for many years?

Because people, whether inside or outside the church, resist change and prefer simple answers to pressing questions of the day, especially when they are offered up by charismatic demagogues. For example, instead of trying to understand, let alone welcome into the church people whose gender identities and sexual orientations are different than their own, they find comfort in Driscoll-like name calling and his proposed return to unquestioned patriarchy.

If I were a pastor, and I often engage in that flight of fancy, I’d repeatedly tell my congregation that we have to cultivate and then demonstrate empathy for everyone who has felt marginalized by Driscoll-like church leaders. And the only way to do that is to embrace all the subtleties, nuances, and ambiguities inherent in people’s different gender identities and sexual orientations.

But I don’t think I’m very charismatic, so I don’t know how many people would attend my church.

Churches of the Future

I grew up a seven mile bike ride down Chapman Avenue from Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California. Recently, Schuller’s evangelical Christian ministry declared bankruptcy, conducted its last worship service, and sold the Cathedral to Orange County’s Catholic diocese for $58m.

Jim Hinch, a reporter and columnist for the Orange County Register does an excellent job explaining the Cathedral’s decline in the context of the changing landscape of religious life in the United States in 2013.

Hinch grew up in SoCal and studied English literature at Berkeley and Oxford. I find his analysis more insightful and convincing than some of his other readers.

Here’s a key paragraph from near the end of his American Scholar essay:

In a few years, perhaps a decade or two, religious America will catch up to Orange County’s present. There will be a shrinking number of evangelical megachurches, gradually aging and waning in influence. There will be numerous small, eclectic, multiethnic evangelical congregations whose emphasis on spiritual commitment and social service is unlikely to attract a large, mainstream following. And there will be surging numbers of immigrant Catholics, Pentecostals, and Muslims. The political influence of evangelicalism will decline. America will not become like Europe, where ossified state churches proved unable to compete against the inherently secularizing forces of market capitalism—and where immigrants’ faith expressions are often met with hostility. America will remain exceptionally religious. But traditional evangelical Christianity will no longer be a dominant presence in that religiosity.

Describing the heyday of the evangelical  movement, the 70’s and 80’s, Hinch writes:

As the boomers’ youthful political activism evolved into the suburban libertarianism and mistrust of government that propelled Ronald Reagan into office, evangelical megachurches offered their own spiritual blend of social conservatism and entrepreneurial innovation. Pastors emulated the corporate managers who often filled their pews. They researched their audience, introduced new products, marketed their offerings, and measured success by growth in membership and budgets.

Then Hinch describes the demographic shift which will make the United States’ majority population nonwhite in roughly three decades. Church attendance numbers prove that shift hasn’t been kind to suburban evangelicalism. He writes:

Orange County is dense with Vietnamese pho joints, boba tea shops, Asian shopping malls, halal markets, Mexican swap meets, punk-rock nightclubs, and art galleries. Corporate-style megachurches seem bland by comparison.

Hinch’s analysis of evangelical Christianity’s decline probably applies to mainline Protestant denominations who are also experiencing significant declines in membership.

My church experience may be symbolic of these larger trends. Much to the GalPal’s chagrin, I don’t enjoy my Lutheran church’s worship service as much as I do our adult “Sunday School” class between services. During the services, everyone listens passively while one or two people take turns speaking week after week, month after month, year after year. By lunch on Monday, 90% of people would do poorly on a quiz on the sermon’s content.

In contrast, adult Sunday School encourages active participation. We’ve been studying the early Christian Movement which has prompted people to rethink some of their biblical assumptions they’ve always taken for granted. It’s far more engaging because it hinges on dialogue, more specifically, people share contrasting perspectives on important questions of faith. Complexity is honored as topics are explored in more depth. Consequently, for me, the experience is more meaningful and memorable.

[thanks to SMW for the link to Hinch’s article]