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5 Early Leadership Lessons from the Dissolution of Mars Hill Church

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.

Photo: Mars Hill Church

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.

Replace yourself.

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.


Subscribed for free yet to my Leadership Podcast? Don’t miss exclusive interviews with leaders like Andy Stanley, Perry Noble, Kara Powell, Casey Graham, Tony Morgan and more. Subscribe for free today by clicking here. 

Ever Wish You Could Pick the Brain of Your Favourite Leaders? (I've Got a Brand New Podcast Coming!)

As you’ve heard me mention all summer, we have exciting things planned to help you lead like never before.

And one of them is this. I’ll be launching a brand new podcast next month.

You can subscribe right now to get access to exclusive content and new episodes.

Can I tell you why I’m so excited about it?

As a young leader, I always wished I could just pick the brain of leaders I admired.But I didn’t know many. And the ones I listened to from afar were always on stage and inaccessible to me. You know the drill. Been there, right?

Over the years I’ve been able to meet some of the leaders I used to watch from the back row —plus a ton of leaders whose names you might not recognize who have some amazing insights.

So many times when I’ve been talking to those leaders I think to myself “I wish ________ could be in on this conversation!” or “I wish everyone could hear this!”

Well, starting next month, you (and your team) can!

The guest list is pretty amazing (I’m so excited…I’ll reveal it in a few weeks…earlier if you subscribe).

The podcast will feature some of the top names in leadership today as well as people you may never have heard of but who offer some exceptional leadership insights (I love that part!).

My goal…to bring you some of the best conversations happening in leadership today. And all of it’s designed to help you and your team lead like never before.

So…if you want inside access and want to be the first to hear what’s coming down the pipe, subscribe to my podcast today by clicking the button below.

Can’t wait!

Anyone you’d like to see me interview on the show?

Leave a comment!

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Is Church Online a Front Door—Or a Back Door—for Your Church?

It wasn’t that long ago you actually had to work hard to access anything you missed at the church you attended.

You had to show up in person to pick up a CD (or cassette…remember those??) or ask someone to mail you a copy. Or you simply missed out.

Fast forward to now, and almost every church has their messages available online.

Many also have podcasts and even apps. At Connexus, where I serve, we have all three.

And like a growing number of other churches, next year we’ll launch on online campus—a full broadcast of our morning services like North Point Online or Cross Point’s Internet Campus.

It’s always good to ask some questions when things are changing quickly.

What are the rapid rise of messages online and experiences online doing to the church and to people’s faith?

Are they acting as a front door to ministry and attracting people, or are they acting as a back door for people slowly leaving the church?

In other words, is the option of church online moving people closer to Christ, or further away?

It’s a great question every church leader should think through.


So What’s Happening, Exactly?

When the option of churches podcasting and launching online campuses became real 6-8 years ago, it looked like it was all upside for the local church

A chance to reach more people.

An opportunity to get the Word out.

A chance to reach people who are scared of walking through a church door.

More exposure.

And, in many ways, all that upside is still there and amazing.

But another trend has emerged that no one really saw coming. Or at least I didn’t.

A growing number of Christians seem to be watching the local church rather than being engaged in the local church.

It’s not usually a huge number, but talk to even the mega-church people behind the scenes and they’ll tell you that as many as several thousand who used to attend in person aren’t any more. They’re watching from the comfort of a bed or beach instead.

While this hasn’t killed attendance by any stretch, it has dented it. The churches that offer numerous online gateways are still growing, but they are also seeing a smaller exodus of Christians no one is sure what to do with.

And it’s alarming for many more reasons than it being downward pressure on a growth curve.


4 Questions About Church Online For Christians

If you’re a Christian and your primary experience of church is online, my question is “why”?

Here are 4 questions I would ask:

Read more

5 Things Netflix Is Showing Church Leaders About the Future

Netflix and other on-demand video providers, have already changed the culture more than you think.

And they’ve probably changed you more than you think.

Remember the good old days, back in say, 2007,  when people would gather around a set together to watch a TV show live when it was first broadcast?

Barely, right?

Whenever culture shifts, church leaders should pay attention.

Prudent leaders are taking notes now, because while the change will come later in the church (it always does), change is inevitable and it will be unkind to the unprepared.

5 Things Netflix Is Showing Church Leaders About the Future

So what can we learn from this? Plenty.

While it’s hard to say exactly how things will play out, the shifts are significant enough that you can begin to craft a strategy now. All of which serves the larger purpose of reaching your community with the message of Christ.

Respond, and you won’t be left wondering what happened.

Ignore the change, and you’ll be like an encyclopedia salesperson wondering why no one wants to answer the door anymore.

Church leaders who see the future can seize the future.

So, here are 5 things ways the changes Netflix (and the like) have brought about will impact the future church:

Read more

8 Leadership Lessons from Facebook's First Decade

Facebook has been around for a decade now.

Imagine that.

It’s changed the way hundreds of millions of people live every day, and whether you’re on Facebook or not, it’s impacted how you live.

While the stats are interesting and still a bit staggering, the first decade of Facebook also gives us leadership insights into what happens to any organization as it grows and develops.

The insights can help you learn what you can expect and how to adapt in your organization as well.


8 Facebook Leadership Lessons That Apply To Your Organization

Okay…the lessons here might seem a bit harsh, but truth is a good teacher. And sometimes when you look closely at why some things work and others don’t, you learn.

So I’m offering these lessons (and inviting you to leave a comment with others) in the hopes that they will make you and I better leaders.

Ready? Set. Go….
Read more

Revivals Are Dead: 5 Things That Will Never Be the Same Again

You might think “things will never be the same again” is a conversation reserved for people over 70.

But my guess is you’re struggling with that in ministry leadership right now.

Even if you don’t realize it. And you’re probably struggling with it more than you think.

Wise leaders pay attention to those instincts and jump on any insights right away, because the key to the future lies within them.

Even if you’re a young leader, the change you’re seeing around you is radical. And it will require a radical response from you.

 things that will never be the same again

Ch-ch-changes All Around You

Think about what’s changed in the last 20 years. Back in the early 90s:

Less than .5% of the world’s population was on the internet.

Wifi and broadband didn’t exist.

We watched movies at home on a VHS and went to a store to rent them.

95 % of music sold was on CD.

If you wanted to go somewhere, you used a paper map to plot your route.

Google’s founders were in college.

There was no such thing as text messaging.

Remember the world most of us were born into? It doesn’t exist anymore.

So no one should be surprised that the church is changing, rapidly.

How you respond to it will determine your ability to effectively lead the mission of the church into the next 20 years.


5 Things That Will Never Be the Same Again

Here are five things that will never be the same again in the church:

Read more

5 Trends You Won't Be Able to Dismiss in 2014

Sometimes you can dismiss a trend as a fad. Like Crocs, the Harlem Shake, or flash mobs. 

At other times to dismiss a trend is just a mistake.

As in every era, some of today’s trends will become tomorrow’s reality.

Innovative leaders aren’t afraid to embrace change and to be some of the first in on the shifts they see around them. 

In that spirit, here are 5 trends you’ll no longer be able to dismiss in 2014.

5 Ministry Trends You Won't Be Able to Dismiss 2014 careynieuwhof.com

If you want more on the way church and culture are changing, check out:

11 Traits of Churches That Will Impact the Future

12 Cultural Trends Church Leaders Can’t Ignore (But Might)

15 Characteristics of Today’s Unchurched Person

7 Ways to Respond As People Attend Church Less Often

Got questions or a comment? Over to you….

Want to share this? Click the share button on the left side of this column. Or just click on the infographic itself and scroll to the bottom to share it directly via Facebook or even quickly grab the code to embed it on your site.

7 Things You Can Learn About Change from the Launch of iOS7

It happens every time Apple launches a new iOS (its basic mobile operating system). People complain.

The old icons were better.
The new design is hard to use.

The colours are weird. 
It’s ugly.

The font is too think/thick/visible/invisible.

Then, inevitably, they ask: Why do they have to keep changing things?

It’s not just Apple. It happens every time Facebook gets redesigned (remember the Bring Back the Old Facebook campaign?). Instagram, Google, Twitter and almost everyone else faces a similar resistance to change.

So what can you learn about the dynamic of change from all this? Plenty.

Here are seven insights that I hope can help every leader better navigate change.

Keep reading…

Announcing the Orange Tour 2013…and a Discount for You

Carey Nieuwhof Speaking

One of the things I most love about blogging interacting with you.

On that note, this fall I’m going to be in several US cities along with leaders like Reggie Joiner, Bob Goff, Mark Batterson, Jeff Henderson and Doug Fieldson the 2013 Orange Tour.

The Orange Tour is a gathering of top leaders united around the cause influencing the next generation through the local church. I’ll be giving several talks, including a talk outlining 5 of the most important characteristic of churches that will make an impact in the future.

If you’ve never been to Tour, I promise you it’s a lot of fun as well as a lot of leadership development. And because it’s nearby, it’s easy to bring your team.

I’ve got a special discount available exclusively for readers of my blog.

From now until September 16th, use the code OT13CAREYSBLOG when you register for the Orange Tour and get a special $49 flat rate – that’s a $30 saving off the $79 regular rate.

You can register here.

In all, the Tour will be coming to 12 cities (see the list here). The speakers change on different stops (here’s the speaker itinerary), but I’m confirmed for the following stops:

Tampa Bay, FL September 13th
Los Angeles, CA September 20th
Washington DC October 11th
Detroit, MI  October 15th
Indianapolis, IN October 18th
Dallas TX November 5th
Houston TX, November 8th

Have a great week. Hope we can meet on the Tour!

Remember this coupon is only valid until September 16th, and unfortunately, previously purchased tickets cannot be refunded.

Can I Get Your Input? Take the 2013 Blog Readership Survey

2013 reader survey careynieuwhof.com

I’d love to get your feedback.

This summer, I want to make my blog even better. As a blog reader, you can help with that!

Could you answer this short 10 question survey? It won’t take more than 5 minutes.

Take the Survey

Yesterday I gave the 1100+ people who subscribe to the blog via email the first chance at input and it’s been amazing. I have learned so much about what’s resonating with them and where they’d like the blog to go. Thank you so much to every subscriber who’s responded so far. Your input is so helpful. 

Oh, and by the way, subscribers also have a chance to win one of 5 prizes for filling out the survey (Starbucks gift cards). Not a subscriber? Just sign up today under my pic on the top right of the page.

As we move forward, subscribers will get an increasing number of sneak peaks, bonuses and advance notice on things.

Today I’m opening the survey to everyone.

I hope as a result of this we can all help each other lead better.

Thanks so much. I feel privileged to be part of this community of leaders together with you. And I look forward to making this blog even more helpful as we move forward together.

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