The events that have transpired at Mars Hill Church over the last few months have been dramatic and to some extent, unprecedented.
For me personally, they’re still heartbreaking as I’m a huge believer in the mission and potential of the local church.
After the resignation of Pastor Mark Driscoll October 14th, it was recently announced that Mars Hill is dissolving from one centralized multi-site, video teaching church into local, independent churches.
At this point, it’s not clear if all local campuses will survive. The properties will be sold, the centralized support staff released, and each church will have the autonomy to decide its future. As this post acknowledges, the economics of Mars Hill moving forward are tenuous. (You can read the announcement from Mars Hill itself here and a summary of events here from Christianity Today.)
I am in no place to stand in judgment over anything that transpired at Mars Hill and as I said in this piece written after Mark Driscoll stepped down, I don’t know Mark Driscoll or the leadership personally.
Even as I pray for Mars Hill and the Driscoll family (as I hope you do too), I realize I don’t pray with clean hands. You don’t. I don’t. No one does. Everyone comes to this conversation with sins of their own.
Yet it’s also important to learn. And while it will take months to sort out the details of what happened and years to figure out what it means, there are a few lessons that leaders can glean even now that can help you and me lead more effectively in our churches
Some of them might challenge you deeply. At least they challenge me.
Many commentators will focus on the negatives of Mars Hill, but don’t miss the positives. There are more than a few.
So in the spirit of learning from the good and the not-quite-as-good, here are 5 early lessons from the events and the legacy of Mars Hill:
1. Your Context Is No Longer An Excuse
If you can plant a church that’s effective at reaching unchurched people in Seattle, you can plant one anywhere.
I talk to church leaders all the time who use their context as an excuse for their lack of effectiveness in ministry. The conversation goes like this:
Well, you just don’t understand my city/region/culture…it’s almost impossible to reach people here.
In 1996 Seattle was viewed as the most unchurched city in America, according to my friend Rob Cizek, executive pastor at Northshore Christian Church in nearby Everett Washington. If you’re ever been to Seattle (I’ve been there twice), you realize you are about as far away from the Bible Belt as you can get.
Mars Hill grew to as many as 13,000 in attendance and launched over a dozen campuses. It reached people that no one else was reaching. Frankly, it reached people no one thought were reachable.
Let that sink in. Your context might give you a reason it’s hard to grow a church in your area. It does not give you an excuse.
You can make excuses, or you can make progress, but you can’t make both.
Mars Hill dumped the excuses and made progress.
2. Counter-Cultural Works
If you were a consultant, advisor or leader advising an upstart church plant on how to reach people in left-leaning Seattle in 1996, you likely would not have said “Target men in their twenties with a hyper-conservative version of the Gospel.”
But it worked.
Love it or hate it, Mars Hill targeted young men stuck in an ever-extending adolescence and called them to faith and to responsibility. That direction changed the eternity and the lives of thousands of young men and many current and future families.
That’s a pretty amazing legacy and it shows you don’t need to cave to a culture to reach a culture.
The Christian message has always been counter-cultural. And whether you agree with the exact expression it took at Mars Hill or not, the Mars Hill story is a wake up call to the local church.
Don’t be afraid to be counter-cultural. It’s never held the church back in the past. It doesn’t need to in the future.
3. Personality Can Grow a Church, But Only An Infrastructure Can Sustain It
You’d be tempted to think that personality-based leadership is only a mega-church issue.
Personalities grow more than mega-churches. They also grow local churches, sometimes to their detriment.
I know many churches of 50, 100 and 500 who have grown because of the personality and charisma of a gifted leader. Small church leaders are not immune to placing themselves at the centre of all the life of their church.
The challenge of course, is when that leader leaves the church often collapses. Even small churches revert back to much smaller numbers and stumble along, waiting for the next leader to come along and rescue things.
The lesson here is one for all of us….as your ministry grows, leaders need to grow the infrastructure to sustain it.
So what can you do?
Make sure you’re not the sole communicator…build into others. Even use video teaching to supplement.
Recruit other leaders who are better than you. If you have really solid leadership beside you and around you, your absence is less dramatic.
There was a day as a young leader where I was happy to be the centre of almost every decision and up teaching almost every weekend. No more.
Something very selfish in me might still enjoy that, but that’s irrelevant. So I’ve had to learn to get over my insecurity, step back and let others lead, teach and employ their giftedness. It’s the only way to set up a mission to succeed long term.
4. It’s Never Too Early to Start Succession Planning
Mark Driscoll was only 44 when he resigned.
It’s so easy to think—especially when you’re young—that you’ll be doing what you do forever.
You won’t be. I won’t be.
In a future episode of my Leadership Podcast, I’ll be interviewing William Vandebloemen, author of Next: Pastoral Succession That Works. William is so right when he says you should start planning for succession as soon as you begin your job.
Replacing yourself is hard for many leaders. We’re a little too insecure to let go (I’m not saying that’s what’s Mark’s issue is…all I know is I wrestle with that tension). We’re a little too threatened and fragile to imagine that the world will spin without us one day.
But the leader who raises up other leaders who can lead as well or better isn’t less valuable to the organization—they become more valuable.
Start talking about your succession plan now.
5. Criticism is Easier Than Contribution
Let’s just say it. Most of the people who take pot shots at Mark Driscoll or Mars Hill have done far less with their lives than Mark has or than Mars Hill has.
I’m not saying there’s nothing to take note of, be concerned about or to learn from. But it should always be done in a spirit of humility.
It’s easy to think you’d do a better job.
It’s easy to think “I wouldn’t have been as arrogant”, which, in itself, is arrogant.
And it’s easy to think you’re smarter than the people who did something bigger than you did.
We live in a world in which so many of the people who criticize football calls and coaches have never put on cleats. Some can’t even walk across the living room without getting winded.
But we all know better.
Criticism is easier than contribution.
Leadership means contributing, not just criticizing. As the character Anton Ego said so poignantly in the movie Ratatouille:
In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.
What God has done so far through Mars Hill is remarkable in many ways. And as regrettable as the current direction of the story might be, the work done through Mars Hill has been life changing for thousands. That can’t be taken away. And who knows what might happen in the future, even in a smaller, yet significant, way?
What are you learning from what you’ve seen at Mars Hill?
Scroll down and leave a comment. And as I said in my first post on this issue, please know any harsh or unfair comments on Pastor Mark or Mars Hill will be deleted immediately.
No stones. Not one.
This is about all of us.
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