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A Train Wreck in Slow Motion

Review of the podcast: The Rise & Fall of Mars Hill by Mike Cosper.

“HOW DARE YOU? WHO IN THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?” screams Pastor Mark Driscoll at full volume, the spiritual father of thousands of young men. He hounds them to get out of their video games, away from their girlfriend’s bed, and grow up in Christ into a redemptive mission of renewing a messed-up culture.

These screams front-end every episode of one of the hottest podcasts out there, one only half-way through its slated run. It’s not for children, as the regular warnings suggest. It’s dramatic, critical, intense, and wide-ranging in its exploration of the collapse of an evangelical megachurch and its megapersonality. Its production is stellar, and it’s both a trenchant and candid exposé.

“It’s a story of power, platform and fame,” says the trailer, but also “an unflinching look at the cost,” including the spiritual trauma experienced by devotees and spectators. Hosted and written by Christianity Today’s Mike Cosper, the podcast takes a broad and simultaneously intimate look at the sensational rise and spectacular fall of firebrand Mark Driscoll and his mighty Mars Hill empire in Seattle, an empire centred around his 15-site megachurch crossing four states with its 15,000 attendees and more than 260,000 sermon views per week.

Driscoll’s myth starts enthusiastically with God’s audible call to “marry Grace (his wife), plant a church, train men, and preach the Bible” in 1996 and ends in shambles with his resignation in 2014 after accusations of bullying, fraud, and spiritual abuse. How could such domineering leadership be so popular and avoid any significant accountability?

Here is one sordid example of Driscoll’s abusive behaviour. Driscoll manipulates to have two elders removed from his board – both who are leaders employed by the church – when they start naively requesting a revision of some by-laws. Soon after their dismissal, speaking to a group of church planters, Driscoll brags:

“Too many guys waste too much time trying to move stiff-necked, stubborn, obstinate people. I am all about blessed subtraction. There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus and by God’s grace it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done. You either get on the bus or you get run over by the bus. Those are the options; but the bus ain’t gonna stop.”

He then looks at the church planters in front of him. He advises: “This will be the defining issue as to whether or not you succeed or fail.”

The podcast promises that the story is not just about Driscoll or Mars Hill. It’s a window into church life and leadership today, into the shaking foundations of the evangelical matrix, and, most intimately, into the wily self-deceptive character of the human heart.

It borders on sensationalism at times, as Driscoll was known as the “cussing pastor Mark” in his early years, and his inspiration came from the punk rock scene and the movie Fight Club. Episodes investigate his “demon trials,” his shocking dismissal of a female staff member for heresy, and his X-rated sermons, where he preaches that wives are commanded by God to give oral sex to their husbands.

Oh, did I mention he identified as Reformed in a certain sort of masculinist American way? Yes, he was young, restless, and “Reformissional” in his vision, with a focus on getting the doctrine right and bringing in the crowds. Thus his 400-page book entitled Doctrine. He was a defender of the definition of the gospel, a watchdog against the encroaching wimpy liberal elite. He did preach about young men being “creators and cultivators” – an endorsement of the cultural mandate – but it seemed to come with a narrow focus on being a leader, growing a big family, and being a tough Christian man.

Don’t be too cynical about this story. Lives were transformed at Mars Hill. Driscoll took young men under his wing, let them live in his basement for a season, and he bought groceries for single mothers. Young men testify that they were drinking beer and watching TV until Driscoll gave them a sense of purpose – a vision for making a difference, taking responsibility for women and family. Driscoll can be easily demonized, but he was no demon.

This is deep, slow journalism in the aftermath of an ecclesiological train wreck. It’s a post-mortem with the victims and experts, and it’s especially aware of the role of the internet. Cosper shows how this “first internet pastor” hyperlinked his way to infamy – how his speaking and visioning ability got broadcast to thousands and completely outstripped his character. Then in the court of the internet, through bloggers (insiders and outsider critics), this megachurch tyrant was brought to unofficial trial.

As a post-mortem with disillusioned former Mars Hill staff, it gives voice to those who were wounded and abandoned by their unapologetic leader. This behind-the-scenes exposé will resonate with many who have been bruised by an unrepentant charismatic leader. The confusion, the mixed emotions, the sense of betrayal – it will sound familiar to many church-goers. Maybe even the hyper-masculinist teachings will be revealed, in this analytical context, for the rigid stereotypes that they are.

Canadian writer Sarah Bessey describes this as an apocalypse – both a destruction and a revelation. It lifts the curtain on the deconstruction of aberrant evangelical networks.

Listeners beware. By putting this podcast in your ear, you participate in a secular trope and the extension of Driscoll’s charismatic wave. The secular trope is the cynical assessment that all megachurches, and even all Christian religion, is an Elmer Gantry tale of manipulation, fraud, and chauvinism. This is nothing less than a prejudice, as there are 1,800 megachurches in North America and they are no more abusive than small churches, political parties or basketball teams. The book High on God, a study of a dozen megachurches, critiques the soft patriarchalism of such churches but concludes, on the whole, megachurches are “wells of goodness, satisfaction, generosity, and inspiration.”

In the episode “Who Killed Mars Hill?” they rightly put responsibility on Driscoll’s ego, insider alarm bells, outsider critics, but most importantly, they end by saying “We all did it.” When we ask why this happens, they say, “shouldn’t we ask why we keep doing it, why we seem to like charismatic figures whose character doesn’t align with their gifts, giving them platforms and adulation?” There is no big leader without a staff who prop them up and a crowd of adulators who attend, fund and applaud. We’re in it. By making this podcast, Driscoll’s infamy is extended. By writing this review, I’m building on it. By reading this, you are now part of the ripples of another charismatic leader’s wave.

Charisma is not just celebrity fame, though, and future podcasts ought to sharpen their concepts. Charisma is a gift of grace, and it comes to everyone, in a variety of ways, for the building up of the body of Christ and his kingdom. Charisma is biblical, and sociological, and not just a media edifice. Don’t be turned off from charisma, but be wary, as it can come as a servant and as a dictator.

I’ve noted two opposite reactions to the podcast. One says its not biblical enough, biased against complementarians, and tipped towards progressive Christianity. The other view says the podcast doesn’t give enough voice to the victims, and that it triggers rather than treats their wounds. It is certainly more for the tough-minded than the tender-hearted. We’ll see where the next episodes take the narrative. Maybe Driscoll himself will respond. Maybe they will look at the contrasting story of Bruxy Cavey, the hippie pacifist beta male pastor, chronicled by yours truly in my book The Subversive Evangelical. Driscoll doesn’t define the territory.

So beware. Is it sensational and unintentionally feeding a stereotype of right-wing Reformed Christianity? Yes. Is it a window into the corruption of American evangelicalism? Yes. Is it a revelation of the universal human capacity for self-deception? Indeed.

  • Peter is Executive Director of Global Scholars Canada, a transnational guild of Christian scholars. He preaches, teaches and writes – having written columns, editorials, news and features for CC since 1997. His book The Subversive Evangelical: The Ironic Charisma of an Irreligious Megachurch (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019) is an ethnographic journey into the life of a megachurch and its “irreligious” charismatic leader. He loves stories that cross boundaries while maintaining integrity.

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