Title: The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill: Christianity Today
Produced by: Christianity Today
Available on: Christianity Today, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts
One of the most listened to and widely-discussed podcast projects this year among evangelical Christian circles has been Christianity Today’s series, “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.” The episodes document the meteoric rise and controversial fall of evangelical author and pastor Mark Driscoll, who co-founded Mars Hill Church in Seattle in the mid-1990s.
After two decades of explosive growth and widespread public visibility, Mars Hill disbanded in 2014-2015, following accusations and allegations against Driscoll of abuse, mistreatment, and verbal violence. The CT podcast series profiles many former church leaders and members who were affected and scarred by Driscoll’s often coercive, vulgar, manipulative, and domineering leadership style.
As someone who grew up in American evangelical circles in the late 90s and early 2000s, “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” hits close to home. In addition to the Driscoll/Mars Hill story, the series’ episodes cover several trends that swept through conservative churches during that era and still reverberate today. Some of them include the book I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris (published in 1997), the emerging church movement (1990s-early 2000s), and the rapid rise of Internet-famous megachurch pastors.
A compelling exploration of a church case study that should be meaningful and cautionary to us all
I would strongly recommend listening to the series. It’s a compelling—sometimes heavy, but very thought-provoking—exploration of a church case study that should be meaningful and cautionary to us all.
If there’s one passage of Scripture the podcast series reminds me of, it’s this: “For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” 1 Corinthians 3:3-7 (emphasis mine)
We crave people and things that give us direction, fulfilment, and meaning. This comes naturally to us as humans, doesn’t it? John Calvin said it well: “The human heart is a perpetual idol factory.” Sadly, we often elevate charismatic leaders—including gifted people in the church—and place them on pedestals, so to speak, although they are merely broken humans like us.
But Paul poses a pointed question in that 1 Corinthians passage: why orient your life around a church leader? After all, it’s God who ultimately brings fruit or success to any ministry. Compared to Him, no matter how many sermons we’ve given or churches we’ve planted, we are nothing. Everything good comes from Him (James 1:17).
Another truth the podcast reminds me of is that reality is often more nuanced and complicated than we think. Though the Mars Hill/Driscoll story was by and large a tragic disaster and terrible blemish on Christianity, it is undeniable that people came to Christ through Driscoll’s teaching.
Many lives were changed—for the better. The Acts 29 Network that Driscoll helped start continues to reach countless people—including a couple that have blessed me recently—and plant solid missional churches around the world. So, I appreciate how CT’s podcast explores both sides of that coin.
Reality is often more nuanced and complicated than we think
All in all, when you listen to this series, you will be better equipped to process and make sense of other falls from grace—whether in the past or the future, local or high-profile. You’ll also be reminded that we live in a broken world full of tangled webs, complex testimonies, and ministry success that’s all too often tainted by sinful humanity.
I’ll close with this classic passage from Philippians, where Paul reminds us that Jesus, who was God Himself in the flesh, was Himself not domineering, oppressive, or abusive. What a beautiful truth to cling to, especially when those around us—people we look up to—fail us! “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:5-11).
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