A church failure becomes a case study to learn from

09 Dec

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


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