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.

The Great Church Disconnect 2

The second of two parts.

For reasons I don’t fully understand, Lutheran ministers seem intent on giving sermons that sound beautiful, but are very difficult to remember later that same evening, let alone throughout the week in the places people live, work, and play. This is the disconnect. Many congregants are suffering from strained relationships with spouses, other family members, and co-workers, but hear little that might help them begin reconciling with one another. Many suffer from mindless materialism, but are rarely if ever challenged in any specificity to live more simply. Congregants are frustrated with the shallowness of popular culture, but aren’t taught to live more vital spiritual lives at school, at home, and the workplace.

Instead, Lutheran ministers seem intent on stringing vague generalities together. Here’s a sample from a recent sermon from one ELCA church: don’t be weary, faithfully walk in his steps, don’t be afraid, live faithfully without fear, live the faith, and walk faithfully as a community of Jesus followers. There was also a reference to “unhealthy pathways”.

The first thing I impress upon my writing students is to substitute details for vague generalities. They know that if I was to read a transcript of a typical ELCA sermon, I would sprinkle the following comments throughout: What does that mean? An example would really help here. Elaborate. Explain more fully. This leaves me scratching my head.

If some Lutheran pastors read this, they may fire back, “You clearly don’t get it. Some congregants are liberal, others conservative, and so the only way to hold things together is to avoid being too specific about anything the least bit controversial.”

And how’s the moderate, mushy, middle working out?

I go to church thinking about Saturday morning’s running debate about Islam, terrorism, Christianity, religious extremism, and the military. Or education reform. Or the deficit reduction commission. Or the health of my marriage. Or what my larger purpose in life is. And what I hear is vague, unchallenging, uninspiring, and fleeting.

There are other hypothesis for the church’s decline that I stumbled upon following a quick search. No doubt some homophobic-inclined members have left the ELCA following its 2009 decision to embrace gay and lesbian ministers and members. However, given the gradual but growing acceptance of the GLBT community in society more generally, one would think at least an equal number of gay and lesbian people would eventually join what’s now a more accepting institution.

Another is that the church simply isn’t evangelical enough in the conventional sense of knocking on doors, talking to people about their faith, and inviting them to church.

I don’t think more door knocking is necessary. More people will try out church, and decide to stick around, when congregations model getting along and truly caring for one another despite political, theological, and interpersonal differences. When people see congregations living out the Sermon on the Mount in their family lives, at their workplaces, and  in their community-based ministries. They will be attracted to people living more purposeful, selfless lives than normal.

Literary and vague sermons given by the same one or two people every Sunday will not inspire that type of Christ-centered modeling.

More specific, relevant, challenging, and inspiring preaching probably won’t reverse the downward trend by itself either. A complete rethinking of the Sunday service may be needed. That won’t happen though because the service linchpins—the liturgy, the sermon, the hymns—all resonant with the traditional, elderly, 96% white congregants who yield the most influence because they’re the longest standing members.  They are, in essence, the “default”. By deferring to the majorities desire to maintain the status quo, the steady decline will most likely continue.

Religious Life and Leadership 2

After the too lengthy “Religious Life and Leadership 1” post, I feel like I can be relatively concise here. 

I agree with my mother who says “variety is the spice of life,” but religious services are amazingly predictable. On some level, routines are comforting, but more than that, they probably contribute to a nostalgia for years gone by. But religious leaders and organizations don’t seem terribly reflective about how the exact same traditions that long-standing members find value in, may not resonate as much with younger, more diverse visitors.

I’m curious as to why there’s not more experimentation, especially with forms that promote interaction between religious leaders and members and between members themselves.

One of the most consistent routines is a mid-service sermon or homily by a religious leader or pastor. He or she typically speaks somewhere between 10-40 minutes depending on denominational traditions. Within my Lutheran denomination, you could go from church to church, and pastor to pastor, and find quite a few commonalities.

In contrast to Baptist or Pentecostal preachers, Lutheran pastors are much more subdued. More like a poet at a public reading than a union organizer at a large rally. I was reminded of this while visiting a Baptist church on MLK day. As the visiting Pentecostal pastor grew increasingly animated, I wondered why on earth he was using a microphone. Maybe Lutheran pastors would get more worked up if Lutherans threw a “call and response” switch which is about as likely as the Phoenix Cardinals making it to the Super Bowl.

Lutheran pastors tend to focus their sermons on the biblical excerpt for the day. Their exegesis is more historical than contemporary in nature. The classic Lutheran style is literary, my poetry reading reference was intentional. It’s rarely clear what the implications of the scripture might be for young people at school on Monday morning, middle-aged people in their respective families and workplaces, and the elderly in the various contexts in which they live. The pastor reveals relatively little about his or her spiritual struggles and probably to keep the political peace, pressing controversial issues are tip-toed around.

I’m not even sure if “good” sermons are remembered from one Sunday to the next.

I’m not sure I’d like to see more passionate, applicable, authentic sermons as much as a complete rethinking of the model where the same person communicates a few insights each week with little to no participation from anyone else. Imagine a pastor finishing her sermon and instead of moving straight to the offertory music, saying, “So what do you think? Let’s take some time to hear a few reflections, questions, or even differing perspectives.” My guess is the 50+ set would say “What the heck, I don’t want to have to participate in the service. Isn’t it written somewhere in the bible that ‘Thou shall go from the sermon to the offertory music?!” 

I’ve attended churches where a more informal, alternative, interactive, hippy service has been introduced only to be poorly attended and then given up on. So I suspect I’m in the minority.

I just wonder, if religious leaders were more reflective about the outline of their services and found ways to promote interactivity, if more people would engage.