09 Conclusions: Lessons to Learn from the Meltdown of Mars Hill


Since January 2009, I have been developing a curriculum for churches, social enterprises, start-ups, and non-profits. I’m covering topics that help their participants identify and avoid problems which will harm people, as they seek to create healthy endeavors that are designed to help people through personal and social transformation. And this past year, Mars Hill Church became a sort of “negative checklist” for this project, helping me ensure that I cover the system of potential problems that could arise, along with practical solutions and preventive measures.

My studies led me to conclude that, basically, just about everything that potentially could go wrong at every level and aspect of Mars Hill Church’s existence as a tax-exempt, non-profit, multi-campus, church-and-ministry-network entity, did go wrong. And, overall, no one heeded the warning signs, or the witnesses from both insiders and outsiders.

So, what was once a 15-branch multi-campus entity, valued at $28 million on their books, ended up in dissolution. It left the scene as brick and mortar, but there are still significant questions about potential ethical and legal issues hanging over the heads of the former executive leaders, board members, and staff – plus over each and every surviving spin-off/start-up congregation that was due to receive “seed money” from the shutting-down of Mars Hill and distribution of its remaining assets. Those issues may well still boomerang back upon these men and their followers, but so be it. That may become an unavoidable consequence of their avoidable decisions.

Although I’ve had Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church on my radar since 1997, I’ve only been paying very close attention to him/it since March 2014. This article offers a series of conclusions related to their personal/corporate meltdowns in 2014, based on my research writing.

It is not my purpose here to make the case for support for any of my conclusions. You can find such the evidence in detailed documentation and scriptural justification in my observations, analysis, and reflections in the Mark Driscoll/Mars Hill Research Guide and Capstone Article Series – plus reading the various articles linked there – plus reading the related series on Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse and Deconstructing the Christian Industrial Complex.

I’ve addressed my conclusions and concerns about Mark Driscoll in this capstone article on Mark Driscoll’s Culture of Contempt. The purposes here are to provide a capstone analysis and interpretation about Mars Hill Church:

  1. Offer my conclusions about abuse of authority at Mars Hill Church, and identify some of the consequences.
  2. Provide an overarching framework as a way of thinking about how to identify various warning indicators in other situations.
  3. Spark prevention of such extreme malignancy before it can take root elsewhere in the future.

In laying out those issues, I hope to also “externalize” (describe) some of my thinking process, and not just download my conclusions. Maybe that helps role model what investigative research looks like, and how it contributes to eventual discernment and decision-making.

Asking Good Questions and Finding a Framework from the Answers

In writing my curriculum, I’ve found that crafting the individual pieces is usually the easiest part. The most difficult aspect is often figuring out a framework to show students how all those pieces fit together. But, when you’ve got that, it usually helps shoe-horn them into a global perspective so they can find their way from there down to the details. It’s like having the box lid with a picture for what a reassembled jigsaw puzzle looks like.

For the conclusions and recommendations from my Mars Hill Case Study, the following presents my best efforts at providing that big-picture framework. I’m using a systems approach, searching for relevant elements and perspectives that give us a three-dimensional evaluation of the situation. This means I work from what is probably a more comprehensive set of questions to explore than most people might have. (And to see some of those questions, check out my initial list on the FAQs page.)

And to me, the specifics of our questions are important – because the ways we ask our questions precondition the answers. For instance, if my question is: “How did bloggers cause the demise of Mars Hill?” that contains a predetermined conclusion and doesn’t exactly challenge me to consider other potential people, problems, or principles that just maybe contributed to the ultimate shut-down of the church. But I’d find it legit to ask things like, “How did bloggers contribute to raising the internal issues that caused the demise of Mars Hill Church? How did whistle-blowers and bloggers interact? How was online ‘digital dissent’ a part of this investigative process?”

Anyway, here are some of my starting questions that shaped my creation of an interpretive framework for my research findings. I used the traditional journalistic questions of who, what, when, where, why, and how.

  • Who caused or contributed to the problem(s)? Was it Mark Driscoll? Him plus his executive elders? Adoring under-leaders who are culpable for carrying out evil demands and commands? People in the pews who were complicit through attending and giving and doing as they were told? People who attacked Mars Hill out of jealousy, envy, bitterness?
  • What were the problems? Misunderstandings? Personal issues? Power and control? Not enough transparency? Too much information and/or opinion online? Insubordination? Passivity and uncritical submission?
  • When were the turning points that indicated trouble? When were there tipping points that indicated irreversible direction toward this downfall?
  • Where is/are the solution(s)? The evidence? The accountability and responsibility?
  • Why did this happen? Why didn’t it seem like God was stopping the abuse?
  • How did it come to pass? And how do we do what we can to keep things like this from happening again?

Not only did I have a lot of questions, I’m always considering various elements in a system, issues they create alone and through how they interconnect, and potential solutions. This is where I came up with the following framework for categorizing details in an accessible way:

The theoretical/theological factors, such as how people process information, what they value and why, what they believe and why, and how all of this affects the ways they configure their organizations, cultures, and social interactions.

The personal and social factors, such as who the people involved are as individuals and in groups, as producers and consumers, in internal teams and external collaborations, as leaders and participants.

The organizational factors, such as dimensions that involved strategies and infrastructures, processes and procedures, leadership styles and expectations of participants.

The institutional and legal factors, such as the larger Christian support network of businesses (e.g., publishers, speaking events, marketing), associations (e.g., formal denominations, informal networks based on common interests and tasks like church planting), and media/marketing venues. Also included are political, legal, and regulatory entities that have civil authority over individuals and organizations.

The transformational and providential factors, such as how all these layers of factors interconnect and interact, indicators of health and toxicity, how change comes about, and where God’s presence and providence might be lurking in all of this.

I’ll save the description of how I developed this set of elements, and related indicators of health or toxicity, for the curriculum. Meanwhile, below are my findings about the Mars Hill Church situation in most of those categories of factors. To help me be concise, I’m primarily using a bullet-point list format. Also, to reiterate, if you are interested in expansion of detailed documentation, or scriptural justification, those are included in the Mark Driscoll/Mars Hill Research Guide and Capstone Article Series, plus related series on Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse and Deconstructing the Christian Industrial Complex.

Research Findings About Failures of Mars Hill Church and Mark Driscoll

All of the following conclusions represent my own opinions in interpreting what the preponderance of evidence I viewed seems to point to. This is based on 10 months of research into allegations and documentation about behaviors of Mark Driscoll and others at Mars Hill Church. I did not read every new article or blog post on the subject, but certainly far more than enough to keep expanding my database of information and the framework for interpreting it.

The Central Failure: Mark Driscoll Created a Toxic, Authoritarian Culture of Contempt at Mars Hill Church and an Entire System Perpetuated It

As I interpret what I have studied, my most basic finding is that Mark Driscoll spearheaded what I consider to be a highly toxic authoritarian culture of contempt at Mars Hill Church. There, participants were directly and indirectly used to promote the personal benefit of Mark Driscoll and other Mars Hill leaders in power, prestige, and (for some) financially. Those actions and inactions that were the responsibility of these leaders created a culture of victimization for both leaders and parishioners, through the widespread abuse of spiritual authority in the church.

In a single phrase, I would label Mars Hill Church as promoting a culture of contempt – a willful scorn for people, morals, ethics, and laws. More specifically, the culture – as embodied by its leaders, from the example role-modeled by Mark Driscoll – demonstrated:

  • Lack of conscience about right/wrong, resulting in harm to people and to the reputation of the organization.
  • Lack of self-control and over-promotion of self, particularly the “brands” of Mark Driscoll personally, Resurgence and Young Restless Reformed (YRR) theologically, and Mars Hill Church organizationally.
  • Lack of compassion toward the suffering of others, especially when the leaders and their congregational enforcers of conformity were the agents of damage.
  • Lack of forthright, timely, and/or conscientious fulfillment of civic responsibilities to legal entities and regulatory agencies that are our due as individual citizens and government-acknowledged corporate organizations.
  • Lack of kindness and tolerance that allows people to grow – and requiring conformity through perfectionism and reductionism (i.e., treating people more like machine parts than human beings) – instead of developing providential diversity and complexity among disciples.

While insiders were the ones primarily responsible for creation of this toxic culture, meanwhile, outside individuals and organizations also contributed to its perpetuation through a culture of undiscerning commendation – propping up undeserving individuals and organizations through verbal, financial, and relational support. (For details, see the series on Deconstructing the Christian Industrial Complex.) This maintenance of the power and influence of untrustworthy individuals and entities included:

  • Giving uncritical positive exposure through promotion (e.g., publishing or speaking contracts), offering positions of public leadership in organizations, and/or commending their roles as exemplary Christians or Christian organizations.
  • Lack of private challenges and/or of public censure, or open support and defense, of what proved to be un-Christlike behaviors by Mark Driscoll and questionably unethical or potentially illegal actions of Mars Hill Church.

None of these attributes should characterize us as Christians or any of the organizations we create, participate in, or support with our gifts of finances, time, and volunteering. So, take the above general list and the following more detailed lists as my suggested lessons to learn from what happened with Mars Hill Church.

System Lessons to Learn from the Meltdown of Mars Hill Church

Mars Hill failed in its core paradigm.

I posted the following comment as part of a thread on Warren Throckmorton’s blog – “Say Good-Bye to Mars Hill Church’s Web Presence Tonight” – analyzing the meltdown of Mars Hill Church. I present it here basically unedited, except to correct typos that some friends saw when they previewed this essay.

For what it’s worth, my working theory is that when it’s *not* mostly about a highly charismatic leader who wields power over people, then it *is* about something deeper than just the doctrine going on. It’s about the entire system, and some kind of “poison pill” that eventually corrupts and kills the entire paradigm.

The kinds of paradigms that are most susceptible to this kind of authoritarian control and abuse of power are those which at the deepest levels of our processing are too hung up on black-and-white, either/or analyzing, categorizing, and dividing this from that. One or the other side gets valued, the other fully marginalized. Call it fundamentalism or reductionism, it influences every aspect of faith and practice — values, theology, strategies and structures of our organizations, the cultures and lifestyles we affirm or vilify, the kinds of collaborations we engage in or avoid.

In these systems, there is no room for anything in-between, for both/and paradox. It’s about analyzing and separating, not synthesizing and integrating. “Leaders” are divided from “laypeople”; Shepherding Movement. “Right” theology from “wrong-evil-heretical” theology; perfectionism. Men over women, and parents over children; patriarchy. Church and Christendom over the world and culture; dominionism. Whites over blacks; racism (as in apartheid South Africa, a system which happened to be justified by a Calvinistic system).

So, if it’s a paradigm thing, then Calvinism is *not* the only susceptible system. It just so happens that, in the last 15-20 years in North America, perverse forms of “New Calvinism” have become one of the prominent doctrinal approaches that seems to want us all to have perfect theology — as if that will automatically lead to perfect praxeology (although I wonder if only abstract faith is valued over concrete practice). It’s been captured by Western reductionist philosophy and the quest for the perfect theology.

And unfortunately, some forms of Calvinism seem to have become among the most prominent forces within church planting movements. So, while there is talk of replicating churches, it often seems to end up as perpetuating authoritarian-leader, theologically-correct, conformity-oriented places.

The doctrinal view doesn’t guarantee toxicity. But add someone who apparently has severe personal pathology into the mix with a tends-toward-corruption-trajectory theology, and you end up with something like Mars Hill Church. And, in terms of system recovery for the survivors of abuse and host cultures in which these despotic leaders played their perfect black-and-white paradigm, sadly, it may take an extra generation or two to overcome the dire impact.

If interested, the following linked post contains more, with a focus on the “New Calvinism” of Mark Driscoll and his “Resurgence” paradigm.

Mars Hill failed in pastoral care for people and in leading them.
  • Mark Driscoll has severe character issues and behavior patterns that harm others, for which he has been repeatedly confronted by insiders and outsiders, over at least 15 years, but has refused to address. Thus, he did not provide a Christlike role model of personal repentance and growth to emulate.
  • These personal character issues have instead resulted in significant harm to other individuals and to the Church. As long as they remain undealt with, they perpetually disqualify him from leadership roles in public ministry, regardless of any good he has done and regardless of how gifted he may be.
  • According to numerous personal testimonies available online, at least some Mars Hill community groups – which were supposedly designed to help people grow in Christ – instead sought conformity through legalism and intimidation, and thus inflicted harm.
Mars Hill failed organizationally in transparency and accountability.
  • Mark Driscoll and his hand-picked executive elders ran their organization in an authoritarian way that apparently removed any real transparency, accountability, or taking responsibility.
  • Mark Driscoll removed any leader who challenged him or even merely questioned him, such that the only people left were relatively passive and/or on-board with his bullying tactics. These individuals bear complicity as his accomplices in pastoral and organizational control.
  • The installation of a Board of Advisors and Accountability gave a false appearance of objective oversight, as did securing membership in Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) whose certification likewise gave Mars Hill Church the veneer of compliance with high ethical standards for non-profit ministry finances and governance.
  • When criticized in the media, Mars Hill leaders consistently responded with deflections (ignore, ridicule, provide the minimum possible required information, correct or change website without notice of update, etc.) instead of showing considered transparency and respectfully offering sufficient details.
  • The overall organizational model mimicked secular business methods for “success,” while attempting to use biblical justifications for demonstratedly harmful practices.
Mars Hill failed in complying with civic responsibilities. This allegedly included:
  • Local laws, such as where Mars Hill violated local zoning laws for their Orange County campus, even after receiving warnings from the civil authorities that they were supposed to be responsive and responsible to.
  • State regulations, such as not following Washington state laws for non-profits on having their current by-laws available for reasonable inspection, until complaints and/or exposure of their failure brought about compliance.
  • Federal regulations for tax-exempt non-profits organizations, such as related to misuse of restricted designated funds, conflicts of interest among board members, and inurement (personal benefit to private individual from non-profit assets, or excessive benefit).
Nevertheless, I believe that God was present and providential, despite the failures of Mark Driscoll and other Mars Hillites.
  • From earliest times of Mark Driscoll’s ministry, there were apparently people who took up their responsibility to challenge him on his personal issues and sins, and hold him accountable. They did the right thing, even if they suffered being reviled for it. That was Christlike. I believe God made His presence known through their faithful actions, regardless of Mark Driscoll’s continued refusals to take confrontation seriously, as shown by his range of repeated and irresponsible responses: silence, reviling outbursts of anger, weak apologies, firing the questioner, denying there was a problem, claiming he didn’t know (when later revelations strongly evidenced that he did), etc.
  • Mark Driscoll’s plans were apparently to grow into the largest multi-campus church in America, with over 50,000 attenders, their own training programs and seminary, and additional publications and products. That goal was thwarted. I believe this was God’s grace in restraining evil, so that fewer people were harmed through his authoritarian abuses as carried out in and through Mars Hill Church. This is a pattern I have witnessed happening many times over the past 40 years, where those who wanted to be “big fish in a big pond” ended up as the “lead fish in a big barrel” instead. For each of them, I saw that eventually the consequences of their sinful, evil actions caught up with them (1 Timothy 5:24).

Final Thoughts: Taking Responsibility in Christian Community

One question for readers: Do you want your personal legacy or organizational impact to look like what happened with Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church? Basically, all of the above points in this essay raise issues about accountability and consequences. In apparently all instances, individuals and organizational leaders involved were challenged to make course corrections in their trajectories. Ultimately, this was to little avail in changing the overall direction of Mars Hill Church, although a number of elders and staff did so. However, it appears all of them were either fired from their roles or otherwise left Mars Hill.

One final thought: If we observe damaging patterns in a person, ministry, or church like those analyzed in this case study, and we let them continue unchallenged, we are complicit – accomplices – to the damage these perpetrators inflict. Going forward, I believe both insider and outsider whistleblowers need to consider their opportunities – and responsibilities – to “go public” with their observations. If their evidence is correct, and if no one comes forward, it lets evil be perpetuated there, and propagated elsewhere (e.g., through additional books, speaking engagements, associations, church plants, etc.).

Although going public does not guarantee resolution of issues or removal of disqualified decision makers, it does hold out the hope of prevention so that, in the future, fewer people get taken in by those who abuse their spiritual authority. And isn’t this kind of protection for God’s flock essential, so disciples can grow and mature through becoming Bereans – engaging in their own discernment and decision-making? If we don’t share our concerns about malignant ministers and sick organizational systems, who will?