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.

The ends don’t justify the means

In the late 1990s, with our church newly planted, I remember being challenged about a decision I was proposing for the church. I was playing golf with a good friend, a Canberra public servant and a member of our leadership group, and we were chatting about church. He said something like this to me: “I like the decision you have made and where you want to take the church, but I’m not happy with the process, and so I will be opposing the decision.” Wow! That was a lesson for me. My ends didn’t justify my means. The way we do things is just as important as what we do.

I was somewhat immature at the time and objected to his response. I think I put it down to his being a Canberra public servant who had procedures and rules for everything. But over time, I’ve grown to appreciate his words and taken them to heart. In fact, other people felt the same way as my friend, they didn’t come out and say it so explicitly.

I’ve been considering some lessons to be learned from the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. The ends don’t justify the means in these three areas.


The church was growing at enormous pace. Demands on staff and leaders were growing and changing all the time. The end was ‘growth’ and the means was whatever needed to be done to keep growing. One aspect of this was the repeated ‘firing’ of so-called ‘under-performing’ staff. Driscoll boasted of the bodies piled up behind the Mars Hill bus. This is a huge theme in the podcast and the bodies include some of those closest to Driscoll. 

I believe God would have us build a culture of leadership that is servant hearted and honours those entrusted with responsibility for others. The congregation should show such an attitude, but so must the lead pastor. The church is a body, a community, held together by relationships. It’s not a factory with machinery to be replaced when more effective or efficient parts are needed.


Mark Driscoll wasn’t content to build a church. He wanted to build a large church, a multi-site church, a movement of churches. And he wanted it built his way. To do this he needed the authority to make more and more executive decisions. People needed to get out of the way, not question his plans or intentions, but get with his program, or suffer the consequences.

There is an African proverb that says

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

This proverb must be heard today. Mars Hill’s meteoric rise, and overnight closure, are a warning about the catastrophe that comes with unchecked authority. It describes a leadership structure of fear, threats, paranoia, and pressure.

As much as I too like to get my own way, I’m reminded that God is calling his leaders to firstly be followers, to be sheep in need of a Shepherd. We must submit ourselves to our Sovereign Father and keep in step with his Spirit. We must remember that we are only ever under-shepherds, taking care of God’s sheep, waiting for the Chief Shepherd to appear.


Sometimes there is a fine line between grace and law, between gospel and legalism. Even the Apostle Peter crossed this line and was rebuked by his brother in Christ, the Apostle Paul.

It’s difficult to work out when Driscoll is faithfully preaching Scripture and when he is preaching his own ideas. I remember listening through Driscoll’s series on Proverbs and asking the same question: How much of this is Biblical and how much is simply Driscoll’s ideas? 

Mark Driscoll is an extraordinary communicator. He’s quick on his feet, funny, intelligent, edgy, and has no problem holding an audience for more than an hour. People clamoured to hear him speak. But there is also a dark side. Members of Mars Hill describe listening to preaching as feeling like they’d been beaten up, shamed, and bullied into responding. 

Our churches are to be safe places for the spiritually sick and wounded. We are called to be hospitable, providing hospital-like care for people’s souls. There will be times to confront, correct, rebuke, and call for repentance. People need to hear what it will be like to be a sinner in the hands of an angry God. There will be a place for calling our hypocrisy or complacency. But people need most of all to hear of the Saviour, who took on flesh, shared in our pain and suffering, endured the hate and violence of sinful men, hung on the cross, rose from the grave, and invites us to come to him in faith and repentance.

Only in God himself do the ends truly justify the means, and that is because he alone is a Holy God. His ends are pure, and so are his means.

Rise and Fall — not for everyone

Before I go much further with my reflections on the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, let me say that I don’t recommend that everyone become a listener. There are dangers in following a series like this.

1. Voyeurism is a real temptation. It’s possible to listen to this series in the same way that someone might watch Big Brother, Survivor, or Temptation Island (not that I’ve seen Temptation Island). Rise and Fall is amazingly well produced. The patching of excerpts and interviews and soundtracks is brilliantly done. The story is captivating. However, I suspect I’d view this experience very differently if it was written about people I knew well, or if I’d been part of the church, or one of the staff. I suspect there would be way more pain and tears.

2. Emotional manipulation is a real possibility. Mike Cosper, the producer, director, and host of the show, describes this series as ‘long form journalism’. I’m not familiar with this genre and I haven’t followed any of the investigative crime podcasts. However, this seems to me to be something beyond journalism. The musical score carries your emotions—empathy with some and hostility toward others. The introductory sequence of soundbites and music is very powerful. It started to have the same impact on me that The Eye of the Tiger does in the Rocky movie. As I look back, I’m thinking that I don’t want to be entertained by this stuff.

3. Over-simplification is a real danger. Rise and Fall is a long and detailed series. While the focus is on Driscoll, many other villains are uncovered along the way. There are implicit or explicit critiques of mega churches, celebrity pastors, complementarianism, firing pastors, multi-site churches, ministry brands, long sermons, plagiarism, lack of accountability, narcissism, and way more. Listeners need to be discerning. There are editorial agendas. This is not a package deal. Each part needs to be examined carefully and weighed against God’s word.

I can see how this series is a balm to some who have experienced some of the horrors of abusive or dysfunctional pastors, churches, and systems. It gives a voice to many who’ve suffered. It’s an important and sobering warning to those of us in leadership and authority. It highlights blind spots and dangers for people ambitious for the gospel. It’s an important podcast. But it’s not for everyone.

Reflections on the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill

I have been one to avoid the Christianity Today podcast, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. I didn’t want to join the voyeurs. It wasn’t my business. I have a church to lead, people to pastor, leaders to mentor, books to read, things to do. I don’t need to spend 15 or more hours being infotained by a church tragedy. 

But a few days back, I was challenged to listen to the Rise and Fall. At the encouragement of a friend, I thought I would at least listen to the final episode, The Aftermath, to hear the impact on the lives of so many people who had been caught up in what Paul Tripp describes as the most toxic church culture he had ever experienced.

A few days later, many walks up and down our beach, and I’ve now listened through the entire series. What do I make of it? It’s extraordinary. In this internet age, we get to listen in to conversations, sermons, meetings, interviews, that paint an amazing and yet disturbing picture. It’s compelling listening. Sobering. Disturbing. Heart-wrenching. And, in so many ways, closer to home than I ever imagined.

I’d love to reflect on some of the lessons and the warnings for those of us in Christian ministry. To be honest, on a smaller scale, I’ve seen and experienced much of what is described in the series. I’ve assisted in churches processing the fallout of a narcissistic leader. I’ve witnessed the damage caused by leaders who churn through staff. I’ve been exposed to pastors with a ‘you’re either for me or you’re against me’ mindset. I’ve gone from being a friend to a foe simply by listening to an alternative point of view. It’s more than thirty years since I started out in Christian leadership and over that time I’ve seen and heard too many stories of ministers behaving badly. It’s not hard for me to see the reality of Mars Hill by looking at others, but I want to consider first what I can be learning—and this may take some time. There are many, many issues to consider.

It’s not about me.

A major concern of the Podcast is how a vision for ministry in Seattle morphed into the vision to build the Mark Driscoll personal brand. And how the leadership and the church were complicit in fuelling the vision. As brand ‘Driscoll’ grew, so the church grew, so the opportunities for the gospel expanded, so the influence on others’ ministry multiplied, and so it rolled on. Mark Driscoll was the centre piece of the puzzle and, according to those close to him, brand ‘Driscoll’ eclipsed honouring Jesus.

I’m reminded of the untimely exit of James O’Connor from Australian Rugby Union in 2013. There had been numerous ‘off-field indiscretions’, but the deeper problem was O’Connor’s explicit verbalised commitment to ‘building his own brand’. In a team sport such as rugby, there is a massive culture clash here. If we cringe at this for something so inconsequential as rugby, then how much more should we take notice when someone makes ministry all about them. We should remember the words of the psalmist: 

Not to us, Lord, not to us
    but to your name be the glory,
    because of your love and faithfulness. (Psalm 115:1)

But what about me? It could be ironic that I am writing a blog post on this. Look at me humble-bragging about me! Writing builds profile. Not just a pastor, but a blogger. Make that an author too. Record your sermons and put them online. Check out the number of hits. Until Covid hit, we only ever recorded audio, now we’ve moved into video, then we need a better microphone, and a better camera, and a website to deliver it. I have felt the Driscoll-danger of preaching to the camera instead of to the congregation. The temptations are subtle. The rationalisations are easy.

It’s easy to justify a library of video sermons on the church website. They bless the regulars who miss church. They enable the sick and vulnerable to receive teaching. They can provide a lifeline to churches without a pastor and isolated Christians. They effectively advertise the church and the importance of expositional preaching. 

And yet the dangers of pride are real. Does my self-esteem rise and fall with the number of downloads, likes, or comments? Do I hog the pulpit? Am I encouraging other preachers? Do I have to get my way? Do I make it easier or more difficult for people to disagree with me? Do I need the accolades? Am I depressed when no one thanks me? Do I make ministry about me?

It seems funny to draw these comparisons with Driscoll and Mars Hill. Millions of people listened to his sermons and thousands attended his churches. We might get a hundred downloads or a hundred attend church on a good day. But it’s not about circumstances. It’s a heart problem. Deep down I need to keep asking who my life is about? Am I serving my own interests, or am I willing to be anonymous, as I serve Jesus and his church? I need to remember that Jesus said:

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1)

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