Christianity Today’s (CT) documentary “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” is all the rage these days in the evangelical world—and understandably so, given the influence of Mars Hill and Mark Drsicoll, and the quality of CT’s production. The host, Mike Cosper, skillfully weaves together storytelling, interviews, and analysis, as he unveils the backstory of the church’s founding, chronicles its exponential growth, and details its eventual collapse.
Some evangelicals are avoiding the podcast altogether, likening it to an op-ed hit piece. I sympathize with the sentiment. But I hope the documentary generates healthy discussion among church leaders regarding issues like pastoral training, credentialing and ordination, church polity, Christian celebrity, and abusive and narcissistic leadership. And may the fruit of these discussions lead to solutions.
I make no claim to dispensing much sought-after wisdom in this post. But I would like to address two of the issues listed above and offer some unoriginal solutions.
The first issue is the importance of church membership, pastoral training, and credentialing and ordination, while the second is the danger of Christian celebrity, and how pastors might actively avoid it.
Related to the first issue: I found it troubling that Mark Driscoll planted Mars Hill at age twenty-six, having never been a church member or properly ordained by an official ecclesiastical body. You don’t have tell me that this cannot prevent abusive leadership or moral failure. I know that. But it can provide oversight, structure, and accountability for pastoral candidates.
I believe this is important because the local church is where aspiring pastors and church planters make trial of their gifts (to use the language of the Book of Church Order). We need to remember that aspiring ministers of the Word must prove that they can faithfully handle the Word of God (2 Tim. 2:15) and that they meet the character qualifications found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. And here’s the thing: This takes time. This is a lengthy process.
I believe this model is resisted by aspiring pastors and church planters because it goes against the instant gratification, have-it-your-way, entrepreneurial spirit so prevalent in American culture. (For more on this point, I highly recommend reading Nathan Hatch’s award-winning book The Democratization of American Christianity).
Credentialing and ordination are a lengthy process—and intentionally so. It tests one’s patience. I know it did for me. I made my aspirations to the ministry known to the pastors of my church at seventeen. I was not ordained until thirty-one! While a tedious process, I now see that God was chipping away at my pride, teaching me humility, and refining my character. I am thankful I stuck with it.
Would this process have altered the outcome of Mars Hill? I don’t know. But I think aspiring pastors and church planters should join churches, submit to their elders, and serve humbly and quietly. Read the pastoral epistles (1 & 2 Timothy, and Titus), and then read them again. Cultivate your love for God by reading the Bible and the classics of the Christian tradition. (See my reading recommendations below.)
Related to the second issue, the podcast disclosed a disturbing revelation: After delivering a series of lectures in England, crowds of people surrounded Driscoll and one of his associates—to the point that they had to be escorted to a vehicle waiting to whisk them away from the mob. When they plopped down in their seats, Driscoll turned to his friend and said, “I’m kind of a big deal.”
We might chalk up the statement to nothing more than playful banter between friends. But I’m not so sure. Everyone wants recognition and pastors are no exception. (My counseling professor in seminary said, “Pastors are people whores.”)
I believe pastors must do more than merely resist celebrity and fame. I believe pastors must proactively take steps to avoid it.
Here are two unpopular suggestions:
First, I strongly urge pastors to permanently deactivate all of their social media accounts. Churches may use Facebook and others social media outlets to post pictures, announcements, updates, prayer requests, and livestream their services. Fine. But someone other than the pastor should oversee this.
Pastors might push back and say, “But I use social media to encourage people by posting a Scripture or a quote from a book I’m reading.” Fine. But why not send these directly to people in your church through an email or text?
Second, I would encourage younger pastors (particularly those who desire fame) to consider serving in a smaller, struggling church in relative obscurity. Run away from a church where people will fawn all over you and run toward the one where the people aren’t impressed by you.
Avoid a church where everything will be handed to you on a silver platter and opt for the one where you’ll have to chase down and cajole the treasurer to purchase a new printer.
Steer clear of a church where the young people regard you as a celebrity and serve the one where they look bored on Sunday mornings—and pray that the Holy Spirit will quicken their love for Christ (even though they’ll probably still doze off in your sermon).
I guess what I’m saying is: Go to the church that will relieve you of your messiah complex. After all, we already have a Messiah.
My suggestions probably don’t count as exciting, but maybe they’ll help aspiring pastors answer a crucial question: Do I actually want to be a pastor? If the Mars Hill fiasco teaches us one thing, it’s that something has to change. And maybe—just maybe—retrieving the older patterns of church life would help.
**You didn’t ask for my suggestions, but If I taught a class on pastoral ministry, I would require students to read the following books and articles:
Barbara Miller Juliani, ed. The Heart of a Servant Leader: Letters from Jack Miller.
Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel.
Matthew Henry, The Quest for Meekness and Quietness of Spirit.
Kent and Barbara Hughes, Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome.
Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan, The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision.
Douglas A. Sweeney, Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word: A Model of Faith and Thought.