Mark Driscoll will make you feel uncomfortable. With the end goal of convicting you, he's unapologetic for it. As the lead pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Driscoll has often taken heat for his provocative approach. He's been picketed and accused of bullying. In a 2009 article, The New York Times branded him the pastor with “the coolest style and the foulest mouth” and “American evangelicalism's bête noire.” But for Driscoll, controversy isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
In a 2006 sermon, he calls Jesus “the most important controversial and significant person who has ever lived.” And with more than 10,000 people in attendance on a given weekend, it’s a message that has found some resonance.
Receive, Reject, Redeem
Mars Hill Church wants to challenge, disciple, and teach church members how to engage culture. They provide resources for leaders at TheResurgence.com. “It takes discernment,” Driscoll says. “When it comes to music, to culture, and the arts, you can’t just say ‘well, we receive it all’ because not everything is going to be God-glorifying and helpful. You can’t say, ‘well, we reject it all,’ and go live on a mountain in a hut somewhere, avoiding the rest of the world that God has called us to.”
Our culture is full of distractions. Social media outlets flood us with information, diluting the important with noise. “We have more information, but that information tends to be trivial. We have become very selfish, very narcissistic, completely self-absorbed, and have a very small view of what’s actually going on in the world,” says Driscoll. “We’re more interested in what celebrities are wearing, what diets they’re on, who they’re dating, and what they’ve done with their hair than we are about human rights issues or political issues or economic issues or justice issues.”
Instead of just absorbing everything that comes our way, we need constantly ask how culture interacts with our faith: “How do we redeem? How do we have cultural engagement and creativity in a way that is faithful to God?”
Reaching the Unreachable
Driscoll’s “in-your-face” Christianity continues to draw crowds. The largest group at Mars Hill—college-educated men in their 20s—is the least-churched faction in Seattle, and the country at large. “Seattle has historically had the fewest churches in America,” says Driscoll. “The least likely person to go to church is a young, college-educated man in his 20s, and that was exactly who I was going for. In our minds, these guys constituted the least of the least. We were in the city, and I thought, ‘If this survives, it’ll be miraculous.’ It’s like moving into a vegan neighborhood and opening a steakhouse.”
“I was just hoping it would be viable. I mean, you dream big, but to me anything beyond 300–400 people would have been wildly successful. That would have been a huge deal. For the first three years, I worked outside jobs and raised support; I didn’t get paid—there was no money. It was very small and very young: a bunch of non-Christians, new Christians, college kids, and punk-rock musicians. I’ve seen Mars Hill go from literally just Grace and me to—well, we had almost 20,000 last Easter.”
Driscoll thinks crowds are drawn to Mars Hill for its authenticity. “We live in a culture where it’s all about being real and being authentic and being honest. And it’s not about hipster; it’s not about cool. What’s honest and relevant is what’s truthful. When Christians ask how they can be cool, they’re asking the wrong question.”
Mars Hill is frequently criticized by outsiders for being “too cool,” but Driscoll isn’t concerned: “For us it’s about showing the relevance of the gospel. We don’t try to make gospel relevant. There’s a big difference there. Making the gospel relevant is like saying, ‘hey, everybody’s got a new iPad—let’s talk about how God’s like an iPad,’ which is about the dumbest thing I can think of. And then you do a whole series on it, and call it iGod—that’s just dumb.”
Despite saying, “You know, I’m 40 with five kids, so cool is in the rear-view mirror for me,” Driscoll is willing to employ a Jersey Shore reference to illustrate the need for authenticity in our culture. “The most offensive thing they say to each other on that show, the biggest slam, is: ‘you’re fake.’ All of the problems these people have—and being fake is the worst thing of all. You can be totally screwed up, but if you’re honest and you’re screwed-up, you’re fine. It is so peculiar—these are people dealing with sexual addictions, drug and alcohol addictions, ridiculous narcissism, violence, lying, cheating, and stealing—that’s all okay, just don’t be fake.”
It would be easy to dismiss a church that streams its sermons via satellite from the central church as the opposite of authentic. They’ve even been referred to as television churches—implying an endeavor built solely on the charisma of a single leader. But Driscoll objects to this: “We try to be the kite instead of the hurricane. We don’t make the wind blow, we’re just trying to position ourselves to stay in the air. In the Northwest, for a lot of people, things aren’t working. Anyone who stands up and says that life is not great, and then gives another option—they may be offensive, but they’re compelling. It’s like, ‘huh, okay, well tell me what the options are.’ ”
And Driscoll has some stunning numbers to back his claim that the success of Mars Hill rests firmly with God. The satellite churches have teams of pastors running their own ministries and delivering sermons whenever Driscoll isn’t preaching. He says, “At the satellite churches, there’s a higher participation in small groups, higher participation in membership, more people give money, and more people serve. People who are consumers may come to watch me, but the majority of these satellite churches are full of people who want to reach their neighborhoods.”
According to a 2009 study by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, 59 percent of megachurch attendees regularly attend a small group1, but the Mars Hill churches are topping those numbers significantly: “The highest participation of small groups in the Mars Hill network is at our Bellevue church—over 80 percent of their people meet in small groups every week. They’re a church of 1,500, they just bought a new building, and they raised over a million dollars for it. That church is less than three years old, and I’ve never preached there.”
As the Mars Hill and Acts 29 church networks continue to surge in numbers, Driscoll admits that he’s still learning: “I’ve continually got room to grow. I’m just trying to talk about Jesus, talk about Jesus, talk about Jesus. And if we can stick to the message that it’s all about Jesus, I think that helps a lot. People can get excited about Jesus in a way that they don’t get excited about anything else.”1. Not Who You Think They Are: A Profile of the People Who Attend America’s Megachurches, June, 2009