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A church failure becomes a case study to learn from

The online edition of Leadership Journal December 2014 contains an insightful article, “The Painful Lessons of Mars Hill.” Having lived and ministered in Seattle, and pastored a church not far from the Mars Hill main campus, I have followed the church’s story with great interest, concern, and empathy. While perhaps not the final word on the subject, the author, Ben Tertin, has added some wise insights as to why things went downhill.

(Bill) Clem pastored alongside Driscoll for more than half a decade, and he refuses to single out Driscoll, church structure, staff culture, or any problem as the one that “necessitated wrapping the car around the pole,” as he puts it. Perhaps no singular, simple answer will ever emerge.

Nevertheless, Clem says, the structure of Mars Hill—which over time consolidated power and financial decisions in the central organization—did play a role. “As the structure became more refined, the driving motive became efficiency and growth, and those two factors began dictating church policy.”

Tim Gaydos, pastor and elder at Mars Hill’s downtown Seattle campus from 2006-2013, sees principles from Galatians 2 playing out here. “This all began as a work of the Spirit,” he comments, “but we quickly started to push harder and harder, trying to accomplish it with human efforts—bigger, better, faster, stronger.”

“One of the things that drew my wife and me in early was being involved in a particular neighborhood context, operating with a strong theology of time and place,” Gaydos says. “But that started to shift significantly—to focus more on expansion to wherever we could find podcasters to set up a new site.”

Welcome to the whole Seattle mindset, Clem says. “Some say, ‘Let’s deliver packages,’ but Seattle says, ‘No. Let’s make it Amazon.’ Some say, ‘Let’s have coffee,’ but Seattle says, ‘No. Let’s make it Starbucks.’ ‘Let’s have a grocery store.’ ‘No! Let’s make it Costco.’ Microsoft. Google. Boeing. Seattle is about power, expansion, and world domination.”

The principle held true when that corporate drive took hold of Mars Hill.

His analysis of the Seattle mindset of “bigger is always better” is certainly spot on. The culture of Costco, Microsoft, Amazon, Boeing, etc., certainly added a unique pressure to ministry and especially to people’s expectations.

The author closes his article with four wise observations and principles for churches and pastors to keep in mind.

The Mars Hill empire has collapsed, under the weight of business principles gone wrong and the lie of celebrity ministry. But the key rot in the Mars Hill roots wasn’t just the structure; it was the source of dependence.

“When it is dependent upon one charismatic leader,” says McKnight, “it is not dependent on Jesus.”

What if Mars Hill’s elder board had been able to keep things properly Christ-centered? What if, from the onset, the church’s DNA actively demanded Christian maturity and biblical wisdom over celebrity, expansion, and influence? We can only speculate, and seek to learn from the rubble of the Mars Hill collapse. Four key principles emerge:

1. A pastor’s character shapes the church.

Pastors and leaders need to stop obsessing over methodology and cultivate the fruit of the Spirit in their lives. Schlaepfer says, “You need to realize the fact that you are going to reproduce your soul in your church, whether you intend to or not. And if you are sarcastic and defensive and arrogant, that’s going to be reproduced in your people. Your soul, the fruit of the Spirit that’s in your life, your strength and weaknesses as a leader, are going to be reproduced in that church.”

2. “Submitted” does not mean “quiet.”

“I am wrestling now with what loyalty means,” says Clem, looking back on his days as a Mars Hill pastor. “I feel like I kept quiet as a pastor and elder at Mars Hill in a commitment to ‘unity.’ I put up with stuff I probably should not have put up with because I thought I was submitting to authority.

“But you know, Paul ironically writes ‘submit to authorities’ while he was in prison! For him, submission looked like ‘I’m going to do what I need to do under God, and you do what you need to do; you have the right to it.’ Whereas non-submission is ‘I get to do whatever I want, and you don’t have any right to punish me for it.'”

3. Beware of false “success.”

Statements like, “Good leaders have followers” or “Living things grow” become mantras at churches like Mars Hill, says Gaydos. This logic extrapolates quickly to “great leaders have tons of followers” and “the faster things grow, the more alive they are.” Soon, small attendance numbers and slow growth become problems to conquer.

“Beware of the theology of victory, which I think is very prominent in America,” Gaydos says. “This victory theology is ‘get upstream,’ ‘let’s change culture,’ ‘let’s change the world,’ ‘let’s start a movement’ kind of thinking. We become more concerned with ‘doing something great’ and less concerned with simply living as a faithful presence and witness in our neighborhoods and cities.

“If you are finding yourself worrying about ‘leaving a legacy’ or ‘What does the city think about what we’re doing’ or ‘What will you leave behind,’ soon it will be all about your movement and not about your relationship with Jesus at all, simply receiving his love and presence.”

Every young pastor needs to have a mentor relationship with a pastor who has been pastoring for at least 25 years in a church that is ‘not’ a megachurch. “You first need to know what it means to be a godly church, and then figure out how that affects the city,” says Clem. “Do not say, ‘Our number one goal is to impact the city, and hopefully we won’t compromise being the church while doing that.'”

4) Emulate Christ’s servant-leadership.

McKnight comments, “Jesus offers what I think is the most significant statement about leadership in the entire Bible that will lead us toward a gospel culture. He uses language that we are all afraid of. He says that you are not to be called Rabbi, you are not to call anyone father, you are not to be called instructors, because you have one teacher—Jesus, and you have one Father—God the Father, and you have one instructor—the Messiah. The greatest will be your servant.

“So, a gospel culture is created when the pastor is the most submissive to Jesus in the culture itself. When he models discipleship the most, he will never suffer from creating a toxic culture.

“For this reason, every young pastor needs to have a mentor relationship with a pastor who has been pastoring for at least 25 years in a church that is not a megachurch. They will learn what true pastoring is really like, not celebrity pastoring.”

 
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Posted by on December 9, 2014 in Church, News stories, Seattle

 

Curious trends

City of Houston demands pastors turn over sermons – “The city of Houston has issued subpoenas demanding a group of pastors turn over any sermons dealing with homosexuality, gender identity or Annise Parker, the city’s first openly lesbian mayor. And those ministers who fail to comply could be held in contempt of court.”

Synod14 – Eleventh General Assembly: “Relatio post disceptationem” of the General Rapporteur, Card. Péter Erdő, 13.10.2014 - A recent press release from the Vatican states that there is a call for priests to note the benefits of cohabitation of unmarried couples, and a rhetorical (?) question asking if the church can accept and value the sexual orientation of homosexuals without violating church teaching. In neither case is either acts condemned but they seem to lean more toward arguing for each.

In “Burning Bridges,” (Season 5, Episode 3) of the CBS drama, Blue Bloods, NYPD Commissioner Frank Regan, played by Tom Selleck, makes a passing comment to the press that the Catholic Church is behind the times on its stance on homosexuality. This, despite the fact that his character is a staunch Catholic.

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Followers of Christ are once again faced with the question – Who sets the standards for faith and practice–culture, the Christian community, or the commandments of God? Do we follow society, saints, or the Scriptures?

It may become increasingly lonely to be an evangelical and to hold fast to what Scripture teaches.

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John 15:18–19 – “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.

Luke 18:8 – I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

 
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Posted by on October 15, 2014 in Church, Culture, News stories, Scripture

 

Watch out for scams

This afternoon I received a robo call on my cell phone. The recording said my B of A debit card had been locked and that I was to press “1” to be transferred to the department that could help me resolve the problem. It sounded too much like a scam, so I hung up. I then called B of A directly and talked to a real person. Sure enough, it was a scam, and one that the bank has received a number of calls about. I’m not sure how they got my cell number or knew which bank I was with, but it was cause for caution and a healthy skepticism.

 
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Posted by on October 2, 2014 in Culture, News stories

 

ISIS

If you, like me, want a better understanding of ISIS–the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, read the New York Times article, “How ISIS works.” It provides a helpful overview of the organization, territory, financing, governing, military, and weapons.

 
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Posted by on September 19, 2014 in News stories

 

Tired of waiting?

Tired of waiting in line? Got better things to do with your time? Short of patience yet filled with places to be and things to do? Then hire a professional line sitter!

Hate long lines? Consider a professional line sitter” tells the story of Robert Samuel, who founded S.O.L.D. or Same Old Line Dudes, a professional line sitting company that fields requests to wait (and wait and wait) for everything from sneaker launches to concert tickets. “Whatever you want, we wait for it,” he said, provided you’re willing to pay $25 for the first hour and $10 for each additional half hour.

In a culture where time is worth more than money, it’s not surprising a business like this sprang up. However, I doubt very seriously whether or not God will allow someone else to take our place when he wants to work in our lives.

Psalm 130:5–6 (ESV)   I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.

 
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Posted by on June 21, 2014 in Culture, News stories, Scripture, Time

 

Ripples that touch our lives

On Thursday, June 5, our country endured yet another school shooting. Paul Lee, a 19-year-old student at Seattle Pacific University was killed when a gunman walked into Otto Miller Hall and opened fire. Kudos to Jon Meis, the 22-year-old engineering student working as a building monitor who took down the gunman.

Although the tragedy occurred on the other side of the US from where we live, Carol and grieve with the SPU family. We know several SPU professors personally as they attended the two churches we served in Seattle. We have friends who are alumni of the school. As it turns out, Paul Lee, the student who was killed, was part of Carol’s sister’s church in Beaverton, OR. Sometimes we live in a very small world indeed and we discover there are very few degrees of separation.

One member of the SPU family has written “an open letter to the SPU gunman” expressing the range of emotions one feels after an incident like this while at the same time demonstrating grace and a deep faith in God.

Pray for SPU

 
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Posted by on June 7, 2014 in News stories, Seattle

 

Is it OK to be an “ordinary” Christian?

Are we creating a new brand of legalism by pushing Christ followers to be “radical” and “missional”? Are we telling people it’s not enough to simply love God and love people (Matthew 22:34-40)? Are we contradicting Paul’s instruction to “live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands” (1 Thessalonians 4:11)? Are we communicating the impression that you are a second-rate Christian if you have an ordinary job, get married and raise a family, and live in the suburbs? These are the questions posed by Action Institute Power blogger Anthony Edwards in an article entitled, “The New Legalism: How the push to be ‘radical’ and ‘missional’ discourages ordinary people in ordinary places from doing ordinary things to the glory of God.” It is a thought provoking article. I’m not sure if I agree with all of his conclusions, but it is making me rethink what I communicate about what it means to follow Christ wholeheartedly.

 
 
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