Spiritual maturity, Mars Hill, and me making people wish I'd shut up.

Last night I went to a party at a friend's place, and as conversations inevitably do when I'm at parties, discussion turned towards religion. Inevitably my opinions lined up more with the non-religious folks than with the religious folks, and even more inevitably I ended up taking a few frustrated pot shots at Mars Hill, Seattle's indie rock macho-man megachurch where most of the religious folk in the room attended. I really try not to be abrasive in these sorts of situations--respecting other people's opinions, giving people room to grow, and all that--but I'm sure I stepped on some toes. Mark Driscoll, the pastor at Mars Hill, is an easy target in a lot of ways because he's big and public and loud and obnoxious, and he's theologically very conservative. Though I think he's a generally sincere (and funny) guy, he's also got a bullying leadership style and has more than his fair share of misogynistic and homophobic tendencies (preach as he might about loving the sinner and hating the sin). I'm sure at some point I called him nasty names. (I know. I'm sorry. I shouldn't do such things, particularly around his acolytes who are also my friends. If I do, I should at least keep my comments under my breath, or pretend like I'm sneezing when I say them. "ah ah ah chewbigot!")

Most people in Seattle look on Mars Hill warily, I would guess, as a place that's teaching a worldview that's out of step with Seattle's good sense and progressivism, but lots of Christians around the country and blogosphere look at it as a model example of the way for churches to attract the youngsters (most of the congregation is under 30). To me, I'm like whatever dude. I've seen enough megachurches to know that Mars Hill really isn't anything unusual. Like most megachurches, it opens the door with a good show (their music is probably the most appealing Protestant church-music I've heard), appeals to predominant American Protestant conservative religious instincts, and is founded on the charisma of one really good preacher. These places are a big feature of our modern religious landscape.

Some megachurches are more problematic than others though. At all of these places, the preacher basically plays a celebrity role, and for some reason we Americans have a hard time questioning our celebrities' opinions. With our spiritual celebrities, we act as if they're smarter or holier than us (because they have a public leadership role? because we don't want to go to the trouble of sorting out issues on our own? because we all want there to be someone who's got the answers?), and we follow their lead. When they screw up, as they inevitably do, we're shocked. We thought they knew it all and were completely trustworthy. Come to find out they're just like us, only with shinier suits and more time to think up jokes for sermons.

Now, the best religious leaders know this, and do their best to guard themselves against the temptations of power. They hand over power to others in important areas. They're honest about their shortcomings. They realize their limitations. They openly promote the questioning of their ideas. They distinguish their own ideas from "the divine word of God". They try not to give people the impression that Angels delivered a message to them while they were in the shower, and that all must obey or go to Hell. Sometimes they make mistakes and disappoint, but when they do so, people generally tend to be prepared and understanding. Laity in these congregations tend to be spiritually mature as well, because they are given the ability to sort issues out on their own rather than doing what the pastor tells them. (A good definition of spiritual maturity, I say, is being wise enough to not do what the preacher tells you to.)

The worst religious leaders, on the other hand, consolidate and guard power. They discourage questioning. They take charge of committees. They micromanage. They bully and abuse. They give people the impression that they somehow know the absolute truth--either God delivered it to them first hand, or they've found it plainly written in Scripture, such that it can't be brought into question. (I think this is frequently a reflection of sad insecurity, by the way.) If the leader is charismatic enough, the upside of this approach is that lots of people will tend to treat them as an ultimate authority, and will do what the Angel's suggested to the pastor while he was in the shower for fear of Hell or retribution. People may or may not actually believe what the leader says, but they'll generally obey (at least publicly) because they like the dude and want to be identified with him (and it's almost always a him). These types of leaders tend to polarize, because they attack the people that disagree with them. They also tend to hurt their congregations, because they're ultimately going to screw up and disappoint the people who looked to them as an emissary from God. Or, they'll drift into the cult leader role, and actually lead their followers to do things that are self-destructive. These sorts of churches, I think, do almost nothing to encourage actual spiritual growth--they tend to encourage conformity and moralism, and produce guilt-ridden followers.

By this point, you've probably figured out where I'm going with this. Whatever my theological disagreements with the Mars Hill crowd, and Reformed Evangelical types in general, the heart of my concern is with the leadership style and the church culture there (and at a lot of churches). From what I've gathered, (full disclosure: I've only been there once, but I do follow their blogs, occasionally watch webcasts, follow their media coverage, and have lots of friends who go there) the senior leadership there leans pretty heavily towards the controlling side. They like the whole "absolute truth" from above thing, generally discourage questioning, operate behind closed doors, and so forth. People are ostracized and excommunicated, and all that sort of fun stuff. I think that's abusive, whether it's intended to be or not. (As that old Nazi Will Smith pointed out, even Hitler thought he was doing the right thing, so I'm really not that into the "good-intentions" argument). In the end, Mark Driscoll strikes me as the linebacker on the high school football team who pushes people around to make his buddies laugh, and then apologizes when he gets called out on it, as if he didn't know what he was doing. He wants everyone to like him, but he also wants everyone to do what he says. I really don't have a huge problem with Evangelicals, per se, I just can't deal with this kind of leadership behavior.

And he's always making fun of Episcopalians.


Jed Carosaari said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jed Carosaari said…
Not just Episcopalians. Also members of the Early Church, Presbyterians, Catholics, liberal seminaries, gays, feminists (Christian and otherwise), and basically anyone who doesn't agree with him on everything. Thus there are two issues here: making fun of people just because they don't agree with him, and having such a very very small group of people who agree with him on everything.
Kyle said…
I get worried by Christian leaders who think it's acceptable practice to flat out mock other people. We've got both former baptists and episcopalians in our congregation, and one of the little pastoral challenges in discipleship is to encourage folks to put away the bitterness that leads to such behavior.
Anonymous said…
whats wrong with being a misogynist?
Unknown said…
Sheesh. I've gotten about five times my average number of hits since posting this (mainly because I linked to it from http://riseandfallofmarshill.blogspot.com,
which is an interesting, if painful, blog to visit.)

I could write more on the whole Mars Hill thing, but really what's the point? I sincerely wish people would stop practicing the kind of religion that that place (and a million others around the world) promotes, but that's not the blog-battle that I want to fight right now. (I'm not sure how efficacious blogs are in swaying religious opinion anyway.)

A few responses to comments though:
Wes, sorry to hurt your woman-hating feelings (you Rebel bastard).

Abdul, I agree with you. You do kind of have to take his messages with a grain of salt, because his preaching style could be described as "Fundamentalist Stand-up Comedy". However, that's kind of beside the point, and no excuse for disrespecting people from the pulpit. Some of us can take the jabs, some of us can't. Most of us get pissed about it at some point or another. All of us shouldn't have to listen to that sort of childish babble coming from our prominent religious leaders.

And Kyle, I agree with you (though I will admit that I've been guilty of the same in the past, if not from the pulpit). That actually made me a little hesitant to post this, b/c I hate the attack blogging thing and don't want to let myself drift into that camp. It's silly and childish. However, in Seattle, the reverberations from Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll are pretty much everywhere, and folks need to think about what's happening there. There's a clearly unhealthy leadership dynamic that combines with bad theology to generally make a mess of lots of people's religious beliefs, consciences and self-perceptions. Visit the "rise and fall of Mars Hill" blog above, and you'll see what I mean about the way people are affected by the place.