The last few months have brought some amazing contemporary case studies into the public realm of online scrutiny and also “digital dissent” with online push-back by survivors of spiritually abusive ministries and movements. This includes both Mars Hill Church and what I’ve been calling the Emergent movement that arose from the embers of what used to be Emergent Village. I’ve written far above my usual output because of how these two real-world examples illustrate the final material I’ve been writing for a forthcoming volume in my imprint on Do Good Plus Do No Harm. It’s a book for people associated with missional/social transformation endeavors, church plants, and non-profits.
The series I produced on Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse is from the first book in that imprint. I’m developing that book as a combination “field guide” plus workbook to explore why things go wrong in organizations, even when we want to do good, and processes to repair any damages we cause.
Mars Hill Church and Emergent Village Meltdowns
That series on Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse is cross-listed with the category on Mars Hill Church, which includes the series on Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church Research Guide. I wrote both series at the same time, and I was sharing some of this material with survivors of alleged spiritual abuse that happened in the Mars Hill system. I believe this helped ensure the material in this series was as practical as I could make it so the how-to’s here could be cross-referenced to the ongoing and unfolding story of authoritarian control at Mars Hill.
Meanwhile, I’ve also been tracking a rather remarkable post and comment thread all month on David Hayward’s nakedpastor blog. It started out as a post about theology and/or pathology, with a focus on key figures from Mars Hill Church and Emergent Village. But suddenly it turned into what appears to have become a “meltdown” focused on the Emergent movement. And, since I’ve done some studies on ancient metallurgy, I’d say that meltdown is a good analogy here. Removing dross is not a negative thing, though it requires some intense heat to get things moving, and then careful and repeated treatments to remove the slag, which improves the quality of the metal. (More about that truly historic post and comment thread in a moment.)
I have commented some there, and that thread seemed so important that I also created a category link for my few futuristguy posts on Emergent Village here. Two posts in that category set up my perspective on the larger context of the “emerging ministry movement” that started in the mid-1990s, one stream of which turned into Emergent Village and later a post-Emergent movement. One article addresses the fragmentation of contemporary evangelicalism into six streams, while the other gives more of a historical timeline, plus terminologies and descriptions, for these six streams.
Mars Hill Church spun out of the “emerging ministry movement” to become the theologically conservative wing of things with the New Calvinism/Resurgence movement. Emergent Village spun out as the theologically progressive wing and eventually turned into an Emergent movement as the Village eventually went defunct. As a long-time student of the dynamics of spiritual abuse, I would note this as evidence that apparent abuse of spiritual authority can happen in any theological system along the entire spectrum of Christianity, because every theology has “inherently abusive fault lines” which pathologically-inclined people can exploit for self-serving power and prestige.
Authority, Theology, and Pathology – and the Context of This Thread
So – on this nakedpastor thread – Tony Jones on Mark Driscoll: What came first, the thug or the theology? – the Emergent movement has been going through a sort of deconstructive meltdown from critiques that include early-on and more-recent insiders plus long-term and short-time outside observers. The comment thread has been highly insightful and relatively civil and constructive, all things considered. And though it addresses mostly Emergent Village and the post E.V. Emergent movement, periodically someone makes connections between Emergent and Mars Hill Church (along with some of the many other current situations of apparent abuse of spiritual authority).
In the month of September 2014, this post ended up with nearly 800 comments, seemingly sparked in great part by some comments posted early in the thread by Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt, key figures in the now-defunct Emergent Village. Their comments raised pretty much the same set of questions again that were last seen in an online flurry during late 2009 and early 2010 – about alleged hypocrisy in the Emergent movement and character issues among some of its celebrities – as noted first in this comment by Julie McMahon, ex-wife of Tony Jones, whom he divorced in 2009.
Those questions and issues raised by Julie and others were not answered in 2009/2010. In my opinion (as one who observed and also commented back then), the questions were ignored or deflected, and/or the questioners berated. Had serious questions of theology and pathology, and resulting allegations of severe spiritual abuse, been addressed then, this current thread might not have gone the direction it did. For more context on my perspective, I quote the first comment I posted in that thread plus the earlier comment from blogger Kingdom Grace Linda that inspired mine:
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An obvious lesson from the Mars Hill situation is that obfuscation escalates and prolongs a situation that humility and transparency could quickly resolve. An opportunity to resolve long-standing pain could be embraced as a gift.
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Picking up on what Linda said a few comments ago, about how failure to resolve prolongs the pain …
Initially, I was caught off guard that this thread turned into being about public figures from Emergent Village who gained some degree of national-level prominence coming out of the “emerging church” movement. But my surprise dissipated. Some critical disputes revealed here came up before. Had those situations been addressed more directly the last time they erupted, they might not even be under discussion now or maybe wouldn’t seem so volatile for the recipients of Julie McMahon’s pointed narrative and challenges.
As best I can remember, much of this same information of Julie’s account about apparently very destructive behaviors and enablement by certain individuals within Emergent Village was online around four years ago — late 2009, early 2010. But that time it was in bits and pieces, scattered across various blogs in both posts and comments, over a period of months. And then it seemed to disappear before there was any indication of resolution.
I recall there was a lot of what I could only interpret as shut-up type push-back and protection like, “You don’t know my life!” and “Why are you doing this to him?” and “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” And there was also a lot of silence in response to legitimate questions raised about people who have put themselves in the public spotlight, questions about their behaviors and their qualifications to be seen as “leaders.” And there was a flurry in deletion of comments, and edits in posts, and attempts to capture or summarize details before they disappeared. And apparently a lot was going on behind the scenes, though from the various tidbit trails left, I wonder how much (if any) of it could be considered “Christian diplomacy.”
So here it is, four-plus years later. This time, much of the case is all in one place, which lets it be more concise and coherent. And Julie, I’m glad you’ve had this opportunity to expand your thoughts and be more specific — and also that this time, thankfully, you’ve not been deleted, nor so denigrated and gaslighted and marginalized like last time. Who knows, perhaps you’ll receive direct and public responses from those who’ve been unkind to you or worse, either in person, behind the scenes, or in the blogs. Regardless, I’m thankful you’re having your say, sharing your story of spiritual abuse and survival, and advocating for light to shine into the dark.
And thank you, David Hayward, for hosting this uncomfortable but crucial conversation. You’re offering an opportunity for, as Linda said, “humility and transparency” in the here-and-now that could’ve and should’ve been entered into lo, those many years ago. This gives me more hope about other historically dark situations coming into the light.
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It appears that many additional factual details from documents and eye-witnesses have been posted, along with important perspectives that help offer far more of a 360-degree evaluation than probably anyone could have anticipated. But it’s transformed into more than just a progressive investigation. But what, exactly?
A Populist Place? A Sacred Space?
More than just an Emergent meltdown, there is something unusual about how this has all unfolded. Is this even possibly a Spirit-sparked incident of virtual/online “revival”? Some are commenting about how it’s created a sort of “sacred space” that’s given an uncensored and uncensured place that welcomes those who had been voiceless to give voice to their questions and opinions and wounds. It’s offered a place to ask for apologies, to correct factual misunderstandings, to fill in crucial gaps in the history, to reconnect, to receive apologies and forgive, to encourage, to minister to, to educate.
However exactly this came about, surely it has proven to be something no person could force into existence, maybe not even intentionally facilitate it happening – though perhaps intuitively let it happen if/when the Spirit so happens thus to move. (David Hayward, host to the thread, has been as astonished as anyone at what it’s become!)
This thread makes for reading that is truly uncomfortable, challenging, triggering, relieving, inspiring, and probably a score of other kinds of emotional, rational, volitional, and relational responses, depending on whatever personal history and perspective you bring to the table. Still, I encourage you to read, reflect, and pray to see patterns for how people in conflict: listen in/tune out, soften up/close up, reach out/drop out, share/deflect, advocate/castigate, expand/silence. Consider at what point you believe this Spirit-morphed conversation that started from far more angry outbursts due to destructive events in the past, sharpened into a far more constructive and connective dialogue.
It’s its own case study of imperfect people diving right into the dynamics of power differentials, and public figures seemingly wanting to keep things private, and alleged victims attempting to bring about transparency. And it seems to me this thread has served to return a sense of populist participation that was supposedly a hallmark of the original “emerging movement” – but which degenerated to a culture of consumerism with celebrities and an interlocking directories of elites. It also seems to have removed some blockages to freedom. And, as a missional Christian, I believe liberty in the Holy Spirit is important to the embodiment of personal Christlike character and social Kingdom culture.
The Spirit of Freedom
Maybe this is a one-off liturgy – literally “the work of the people” of God – or maybe this is something the Spirit will do this again sometime. Maybe it is even somewhat akin to the emphasis of a book the amazingly prophetic missiologist Roland Allen wrote nearly 90 years ago: The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church: And the Causes That Hinder It. (Perhaps read this substituting conflict reconciliation for spontaneous expansion.)
Spontaneous expansion must be free: it cannot be under our control; and consequently it is utterly vain to say, as I constantly hear men say, that we desire to see spontaneous expansion, and yet must maintain our control. If we want to see spontaneous expansion we must establish native churches free from our control. […] If my reader does not bear this in mind, I fear that he will utterly misinterpret all those chapters which deal with doctrine and morals and organization and read them as though I was dealing with these questions in themselves. It is only in relation to the spontaneous expansion of the Church that they have any place in my argument. Finally I attempt to suggest a way of escape from our present position. (Introduction to 1927 edition, page 5.)
But, in the midst of all the current malignancy in the North American Church, I am convinced these meltdowns were miracles that we needed in order to recapture freedom instead of submerging conflict. Spiritual tyranny, in our heart or ministry, never dissipates in the dark. It only releases its grip in the light. For however long this thread lasts, the light will be shining at new angles into the darkness – sometimes harshly, sometimes softly. Hopefully the sense of freedom being released therein will find fulfillment in the paradoxical character qualities I believe reside in those Jesus would call “people of peace” – both a spirit of hospitality that welcomes people of all tribes, and also a spirit of justice that advocates for the marginalized. May these current meltdowns at Mars Hill and the Emergent movement refine us all to become better people of peace, so we can present and represent Christ wherever the Spirit plants us.
“[W]here the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” 2 Corinthians 3:17, NIV
UPDATE NOTES: Minor changes made to final paragraph for clarification 10-01-2014.