Re: The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill Podcast

… and our attraction to following aggressive leaders.

There’s a podcast blowing up among church circles called The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, and if you haven’t listened yet, please come out from under that rock, my Friend. 



Usually I find it wise to keep a lot of opinions about controversial issues to myself unless I think that sharing my opinion could be helpful, and that rule counts double online. So, please know my intentions and my disclaimers and my background before you read further:

  1. I want you to know why this is an important message to hear.
  2. I believe many of the lessons learned the hard way can be beneficial for all of us so that we don’t repeat them.
  3. I am guilty of riding this train.
  4. I’m ashamed and mortified that I once wished my church-planter pastor husband would lead and preach just like Mark Driscoll. Cue all the dead emojis. I’m blessed and grateful that the church I am a part of, where my husband is the co-leader and they are both humble men of integrity, is a place where there is a network of accountability and where we don’t value “growth” at all costs. We believe in serving our community and in shining Jesus’s light of hope to our city, but we are far from perfect, so please don’t assume I’m saying that.
  5. I can admit that though Driscoll was found to be and continues to be a perpetrator of spiritual abuse without genuine repentance, he was also the founder of a movement that reached souls with the Gospel message of Jesus and saw transformed lives by what I believe has been the power of the Holy Spirit, and I don’t pretend to understand why God does things like that. 
  6. I think there is an underlying problem with WHAT WE DESIRE IN A LEADER, not just with some of these problematic leaders.
  7. I don’t think I have all of the answers, and I’m looking forward to listening to the rest of the episodes (supposed to be 6 more for a total of 12) in order to find more questions to ask and hopefully more lessons to learn.
  8. I believe in BALANCE and NUANCE. No one in this situation or any is completely evil, and while we can look back on abuse and misuse of power, that doesn’t mean God was not at work, or that good things didn’t happen at Mars Hill. I believe the podcast does a great job of keeping this truth in tension. My opinion about the bottom line: sometimes the ends (salvations, and especially “church growth”) do NOT justify any and every means, especially when those means include corruption, abuse, and misuse of spiritual power. Especially because those salvations can sometimes end up in a soul abortion, and that church growth can subsequently end up in a complete collapse of the church and people walking away from God for good. Those are often the ends in the end, and therefore do not justify any means. 

There are so many themes we could cover, and I want to do more posts about this podcast as more episodes are released, as well as on the subject matter of church leadership and toxic evangelicalism in the future, but for today I’m going to stick to two main things on my heart that I think are worth sharing with you, Reader. The first is what I believe to be self-evident, and I’ll be brief. The second is something I’m not hearing directly, but that I’ve been thinking for the past few years.



FIRST: Church leaders need to be careful that their charisma does not take them to platforms with influence so wide that the foundation of their character, experience, network of accountability, and education cannot support. 


Mark Driscoll, the lead pastor of Mars Hill for almost 20 years (1996-2014) committed many atrocities of what I would define as aggression, misogyny, bullying, generalized spiritual abuse, as well as abuse of power. There were others around him who not only gave him a pass in these areas, but platformed him BECAUSE he was this way. He was not educated in any accredited seminary, as far as I know, and was a self-ordained pastor “so that he could do weddings and funerals.” He was building a movement and speaking at church leadership conferences after just one (1) single year as a church planter under his trendy, studded grunge belt. He had not developed the character traits of humility, integrity, or diplomacy required to lead the large and diverse organization he led. These are my conclusions, based on listening to him back in the mid 2000’s, reading some of his books and blogs written about him, and listening to the long-form journalism from Christianity Today in the podcast. If you have a different conclusion after similar research, I’d like to hear it. If you haven’t yet done these things, I’d encourage you to do so because there is a lot we can learn about leadership, character, and platform that will help us do better as God’s kids who do life together.



SECOND: The problem was/is not only with these charismatic, narcissistic, powerful leaders, but in WHAT WE AS FOLLOWERS DESIRE in a leader. 


How was it that an entire church network of over 15,000 people and millions of online followers (including myself for a time) followed such a leader for so long, despite these obvious character flaws? I don’t think it is exclusively due to poor leadership, but misguided followership, which is not sufficiently taught, emphasized, or guided in our culture. I’ve been saying for years that our western culture places far too much emphasis on developing powerful leaders, and not enough emphasis on the importance of developing effective followers. In America, everyone is trying to be an influencer and a leader, gain followers, but no one values followership or teamwork more than just as a number on the top of their social media account. I could write a book on good followership, and maybe someday I will, but for now the warning is this: We are drawn to follow and prop up a bully because we falsely believe he can protect us from our (often imaginary) fears, and we put up with it when he turns that domineering charisma on us, which results in abuse.

Now, before you think I’m victim blaming here, look at my face. I don’t think anyone that Mark abused is to blame for the situation, but I do think we ALL need to take a hard look at the kinds of leaders we are attracted to and why. Because if we are to turn things around and avoid some of these casualties, especially in the Church, I really think it will require some introspection about what we’re attracted to, what we’re drawn to, and what we are craving. Some people think this leadership style or personality is a “virtue of strength,” but it is NOT the strength I see demonstrated by Jesus or His Father. I think it’s for this similar attraction that women choose abusers to marry and stay with them far longer than they should. I think it’s this same attraction that made millions of Christians vote for a man who bragged about sexually assaulting women on tape and who graced the cover of magazines that worship sex or money, not Jesus. And I think this attraction is causing men and women alike to flock to this brash, aggressive, narcissistic bully personality in droves, only to realize that the person they hoped would protect them from a false enemy is now turning that aggression around on them. The fact that all red flags are being ignored is in itself the red flag.


The fact that all red flags are being ignored is in itself the red flag.

Please, Friends. Choose more wisely who you follow. Hop off that bandwagon before you get caught in a web with no easy exit. 


We saw the failure of willful blindness on the part of the Mars Hill staff and lay leadership. Whether in the moment or in retrospect, they realized that instead of elevating God or meeting the needs of the members or even the needs of the community at large, most everything they did revolved around  promoting and benefitting Driscoll alone, and propping him up became synonymous with the mission of church growth. Which rings familiar with something I heard our former president say in that whatever was good for him was good for the nation, and to protect his reputation was equal to protecting the United States. He also claimed “I alone can fix it” after describing all that he saw wrong with America. My warning here, Friends: It is dangerous FOR YOURSELF to put any person in the place where only God should be. Not only will they fall off that pedestal that YOU have placed them on, but they will tear you down painfully in the process of their fall. If you find yourself attracted to this kind of leader, beware! It is not the leadership Jesus modeled and it is not the place any person should hold in your heart or mind. 


I want to leave you with a careful warning from a rarely-read passage in the Bible. In the book of Zechariah, the minor prophet recounts the days when God’s people returned from a disciplinary season of exile in a country called Babylon, where they were enslaved, killed, and abused at the hands of people who were known to be brutal aggressors. As they set up a humble leader named Zerubbabel, who was entitled to a royal authority but took the title of governor instead of king, God spoke this important clue for their hopeful and good future: 


“It is not by force nor by strength, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.”

– Zechariah 4:6

How about you? Have you listened to the podcast yet? If so, what are your reactions and thoughts? Why do you think people continue to follow people (men?) with this kind of personality? What do you think the Bible has to say about it? If not, why not? I’d love to hear more from you!

With love from my Nest,

Robyn

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