Rise and fall — four lazy targets

The experience of Mars Hill, and the role of Mark Driscoll in particular, has many lessons to teach those of us in evangelical ministry. I encourage pastors and leaders to examine our thinking, motives, attitudes, words, behaviours, structures, and systems, to discern the good and reject the evil. 

In doing so, we need to be careful where we lay the blame, how we determine cause and effect, and not settle for lazy targets. What do I mean? Let me illustrate with this syllogism:

1. Driscoll bullied his staff.
2. Driscoll was a man, therefore
3. We shouldn’t employ men as senior pastors.

You might never have considered such a conclusion. Unless, perhaps, you had already decided that all men are bullies and a male senior pastor will therefore bully his staff. I’m concerned we don’t apply this type of confirmation bias in our analysis of the Rise and Fall. In this regard, I see a four lazy targets.

Celebrity pastors

Much is made of Driscoll being a celebrity pastor. We’re not told exactly what that means, but the title seems to fit well. Big profile, major influence, rapidly-growing church, multi-site in multiple states, influencing millions through podcasts, videos and books. People ‘following’ him, within and beyond his church.

But is ‘celebrity’ wrong? Billy Graham had celebrity, huge profile, world-wide influence, the ear of US Presidents. Luther had celebrity, as did Whitfield and Wesley, as do Piper and Carson. We need to look deeper than celebrity.

Mega Churches

Put the words ‘mega’ and ‘church’ together and you get some people cheering and others cringing. Back in 2007, Scott Thumma and Dave Travis wrote their analysis of the phenomenon called Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn from America’s Largest Churches. This book was helpful in getting beyond the stereotypes. Size itself is not definitively positive or negative. Size makes some things easier and others more difficult. Size magnifies some of the threats, but also makes possible opportunities. Every growing church must grapple with growing pains and determine, how large, when to plant, when to add congregations, how to govern, how to staff, lead, equip, disciple, evangelise, and pastorally care for those in the church. There may be important biblical wisdom to apply around these choices, but the Bible doesn’t put a cap on church sizes at 15, 150, 1500, or 15,000.

I don’t hear the same criticisms of Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian (mega) Family of Churches in New York. Spurgeon’s legacy is widespread, extending well beyond the thousands who met in the London Metropolitan (mega) Tabernacle. All this to say, we need to be careful about taking cheap shots at large churches. In Australia, we have an additional risk. Our tall poppies syndrome leaves us wanting to bring others down a notch or two. Let’s be careful when it’s God’s church we are critiquing.

Multi-site Churches

Multi-site churches have come in for some criticism for extending the boundaries of what the Bible means by ‘church’. For example, IX Marks Ministries doesn’t seem to allow for a category of multi-site churches. I understand they see the church in essence as the actual, physically gathered community of believers. Others have critiqued multi-site churches around the topic of video preaching rather than face to face preaching with real pastoral connection. Some multi-sites have grown so large as to effectively be their own denomination.

Again, let’s not be too hasty or simplistic with our critiques. Some multi-site churches have been created to facilitate synergy between complementary ministries, others to utilise the gifts and strengths God has given, some because a lack of adequate facilities has led to duplication, and others because the 1 per 4sqm rule has made it impossible to gather as a church in one location. Some churches do not own property and get bounced around schools, clubs, lecture rooms, and community facilities. One year a church needs to divide and downsize, and another year they need to merge and upsize. And is there a difference between multiple congregations on one site versus multi-sites?

I understand that Redeemer Presbyterian has managed the twin challenges of multi-site and celebrity pastoring by not publishing which site Keller happens to be preaching at that week.

Independent Churches

And then there are independent churches. “Independent churches are started by people who refuse to work with others, who believe their ways are always right, who will not be held accountable. Independent churches are the fertile seedbed of narcissistic church leaders.” 

Really? We can be very quick to approve our own motives, while critiquing the motives of others. Wasn’t it the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Teachers of the Law who would not allow for anything outside their institutional control?

Haven’t we heard of the bad behaviour and the damage done under the auspice of denominations and respectable parachurch organisations. Sadly, the Royal Commission in Australia demonstrated systemic institutional cover-up happening across all kinds of churches and denominations. Perhaps we feel safer if we can point the finger at something that is not us.

Here I show my hand. In 1996, I was involved in planting an independent church in Canberra. We considered being Baptist, Presbyterian and Anglican, but they weren’t options. So, we became independent, gaining the best advice we could, under the guidance of a mentor, with a Board of Reference, in fellowship with brothers and sisters outside our church. To be honest, we soon identified others in a similar place, began meeting, sharing ideas, learning from one another, and eventually joined in creating a denomination. I’ve recently been involved in planting again, what you might call an independent evangelical church and we are doing it in fellowship with others.

We can and we must examine carefully our churches, leaders, and ministries in the light of the lessons from Mars Hill, but let’s not settle for lazy targets.

2 thoughts on “Rise and fall — four lazy targets”

  1. Thanks again for your reflections,
    I do think a person with your place in Aussie churches should listen to Mars Hill. And I really do appreciate your reflections for us all.
    As I have mentioned, I fear that people leading small churches of a couple of hundred have little to learn from such series that aren’t screamingly obvious from Scripture. Millions in our land do not know their right from the left hand (Jonah 4)and the broad road to destruction is still adding lanes in Oz – and if we all embrace the comforting idea that small is the truly good then it is unlikely the kingdom of darkness will be robbed of its inmates. Personally I’d absolutely love to pastor a 50 to 80 people. I hear some say – small congregations plant many small congregations which all plant …. it may have worked once somewhere – but I fear its a comforting illusion – Mega-church – Boo Hiss
    You don’t free Europe (WW2) with a small army that all know each other and love each others company.

  2. Thanks so much for your comments on this podcast. I was motivated to listen to the podcast as I was listening to Mark Driscoll some years ago and got a lot out of it. I was curious to know what had gone wrong and was horrified to hear what the podcast revealed. It’s good to sit back and reflect on your writings and my church situation

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