Lessons from The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill

I don’t know about you, but the only thing I’ve been hooked on more than episodes of Loki is Christianity Today’s podcast on The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, written and produced by Michael Cosper.

For those who don’t know, the podcast is about the meteoric rise and tragic fall of Mark Driscoll and the Mars Hill Church in Seattle. It is truly mind-blowing!

Let me say that it is mandatory listening for anyone in Christian ministry or thinking about going to the ministry.

I have some key takeaways:

Always double-check a ministry’s origins story. When a leader claims that they have built up a magnificent ministry from scratch, from nothing, out of thin air, or ex nihilio, odds are that they took over something pre-existing, or pushed out former colleagues once they became rivals to the leader’s accession to supremacy. For every visionary mega-pastor there was often a “red wedding” behind him.

The importance of character over ability. Some great preachers could have been successful motivational speakers, business operators, or even comedians. They have the gift of the gab, they know to drop some righteous rhetoric, in person and in print, they know how to read the room and play the room. Great gift, but it is a trap without spiritual fruit, the imitation of Christ, and virtuous character.

Confusing narcissism and bullying with leadership and determination. It is possible to excuse the nastiness, narcissism, bullying, and sheer bastardry of a leader as taking decisive action and dogged determination. But it’s not! Bullying is bullying, gaslighting is gaslighting, verbal abuse is abuse etc. By tolerating such stuff you become an enabler of it.

The importance of honesty over loyalty. When a leader expects unqualified loyalty, even if it means silencing, denying, or covering-up the truth, you know something has gone wrong. Remember, the only thing worse than a mistake is trying to cover it up.

The importance of truth over tribe. Defining something as good or true because of the sake of the tribe, the platform, or the ministry, is a recipe for a moral disaster. Instead, tell the truth, even if it hurts, even if it ends careers, and even if it closes churches.

Non-denominational churches are great vehicles for a personality cult. Okay, I know this is going to rile some people up, but the elephant in the room is non-denominational churches. Yes, you can have a narcissistic leader and toxic church leadership in an established denomination, just as you can have healthy and wholesome non-denominational churches. However, you have to admit, that non-denominational churches - effectively baptist with a quasi-episcopal multi-campus structure - are particularly fit for the type of leadership abuses you got in Mars Hill.

When success is an idol, bullying becomes a sacrament. If the church’s size, offering, sermon downloads, and subscribers are the be-all and end-all, then, to keep that going people will put up with anything, bullying, sexual infidelity, and cover-ups. Or, as I once said in a tweet:

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