Four years ago, Mars Hill Church in Seattle seemed too big to fail.
Just 17 years old, the church was drawing an average weekly attendance of 12,329 to 15 locations. In fiscal year 2013 alone, Mars Hill baptized more than 1,000 people, planted 53 churches in India, and supported 20 church planters and evangelists in Ethiopia. It released 50 new worship songs, gave away more than 3,000 Bibles in the United States and Ethiopia, and took in nearly $25 million in tithes and offerings.
Then, in a few breathtaking months, the whole thing collapsed. Founder and lead pastor Mark Driscoll’s bent toward the provocative, which was part of his draw, increasingly came under fire, fanned by a series of controversies.
Driscoll announced he was taking a break in August 2014, then resigned less than two months later. By the end of October, lead preaching pastor Dave Bruskas announced the whole thing was shutting down.
“We don’t have anything in church history this apocalyptic, as far as a behemoth like Mars Hill—not only a city but national and international voice—collapsing in a two-month period,” said Taproot Church pastor Dan Braga, who watched the whole thing from the adjacent suburb of Burien.
Mars Hill’s final announcement was optimistic: “With her final breath, Mars Hill gave birth to 11 newly independent churches where, by God’s grace, the gospel will continue to be preached, his name will be glorified, and thousands will be saved by Jesus.”
Technically, that was true. But the legacy of Mars Hill is a lot more complicated.
Tidal Wave of Hurt
The collapse of Mars Hill released a tidal wave of hurt, disillusioned people. Many quit Mars Hill; some quit church or Christianity altogether. Hundreds limped into other area churches, asking about church bylaws and pastoral pay structures before even introducing themselves.
“We had some serious trust issues,” said Neil Huck, who started attending Mars Hill in 2004. He spent a decade growing from “a baby Christian to a less baby Christian” under Driscoll’s leadership.
“It’s like your dad left, and your family is broken,” he said. “There is nothing healthy about that. You get through it, and your faith strengthens, and good has come from it. But it wasn’t healthy.”
Exodus from Ground Zero
Ground zero was the Mars Hill Bellevue campus, where Driscoll preached live and in person. Within weeks, the congregation of 3,000 plummeted to 700.
The church stayed in its building, joined by fellow Mars Hill campus Sammamish, and replanted as Doxa church on January 1, 2015. Their new pastor was Jeff Vanderstelt, who had been leading his own church plant about an hour south of the Bellevue campus.
After Bellevue called him, he asked every church leader he could find—and he found more than 70 both inside and outside his church—if the move was a wise one. They overwhelmingly told him to go.
“The experience of stepping in to care for the people that remained was better than I could have ever imagined,” Vanderstelt said.
Those who stayed were “eager to move forward but also knew they needed healing,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s because so many had left, so those who remained had a deep conviction about being the church. In their words, ‘[The church] wasn’t all about one man. It was about Jesus and his mission.’”
Still, they were hurting, and Vanderstelt spent a year sitting with church members, listening to questions and trying to help them make sense of what had happened. He also published his salary and documented clear guidelines on his submission to elders for any spiritual discipline.
“The biggest fear was that I going to walk away,” he said. “The thing that hurt the most, that they couldn’t believe, was that Mark would leave them. The feeling that they lost their pastor was a hard blow.”
That’s because “Mark called us his kids,” said Huck, for whom Driscoll was a father figure. “He up and left his kids. That’s the hard part we’re still dealing with. I don’t need a public apology, but it would be nice to be acknowledged. It’s like your dad left and started a new family, and you’re here with your brothers and sisters. And you’re just confused.”
About 16 miles away from Bellevue, the Mars Hill West Seattle campus took over its mortgage, renamed itself Trinity West Seattle, and continued as an independent congregation. Pastor David Fairchild watched his congregation drop from 800 to 400.
Members walked out in roughly three phases.
“The first wave [to leave] was younger folks, for whom this was their first real church,” Fairchild said. The second wave was those hurt or confused by the collapse; when their friends left, they had nothing to keep them around, he said.
Caleb Santana’s family was in that group. Santana plays bass guitar in the worship band; he “never considered” leaving. But his parents took his 16-year-old twin sisters to a local church with a functioning youth group after Trinity West Seattle’s dwindled to just a handful of participants.
The third, “which was unexpected and probably good,” took 18 months to leak out, Fairchild said. They were people driving in from a distance, passing local churches on the way. But with no megachurch to draw them in, they transitioned to closer congregations.
Departing Mars Hill members hit local churches like a tsunami in the fall of 2014. The first Sunday after the closure was announced, Adam Sinnett’s 250-member Downtown Cornerstone Church saw nearly 100 visitors.
“I had never been asked by so many people I don’t know—before I even heard their name—about bylaws and pastoral pay structures in my life,” Sinnett said.
The next week, another crowd showed up, “but they weren’t the same people,” he said. Unmoored, former Mars Hill congregants were bouncing between visiting churches, staying home, and returning to their now-independent Mars Hill campuses.
Adding roughly 100 hurting people a week was tough on the “pretty fragile ecosystem” of Sinnett’s three-year-old church plant. “They needed help, and they weren’t in the best place to be recruited as leaders,” he said.
Sinnett and his co-planter David Parker worked overtime for months, fielding questions and absorbing confusion, anger, and hurt over endless cups of coffee. Last year, they installed two additional pastors and then both took a sabbatical, “feeling the weight of everything that had taken place surpassed the bounds of our relational and emotional capacity.”
Mars Hill members Ryan and Mandi Plasch arrived at Downtown Cornerstone in September 2014, the same time Driscoll was going on sabbatical. “We were sitting in the [Mars Hill] Sunday services, but we were no longer thinking about Jesus,” Mandi said. “We were thinking, Is there going to be something about the elders in this sermon?”
Finally, they couldn’t do it anymore. Leery of leadership, they picked Downtown Cornerstone because they knew Sinnett and trusted him. And yes, they asked about his philosophy on church planting, on multiple campuses, and on elder accountability. “You’re super gun-shy, because you don’t want to get into a situation again where you hear one thing from the pulpit but find out its being handled differently behind your back,” Mandi said.
Downtown Cornerstone moved into the role of a foster family, Sinnett said. “We knew the Lord was calling us to pause and care for our brothers and sisters who were hurting. We told them, ‘We know this is hard. We aren’t expecting anything from you. Whether you want to run with us for a month, or for ten years, that’s awesome. We just want you to feel grace and to feel loved.’”
Another 100 former Mars Hill congregants hit Taproot’s 200-member congregation that first Sunday after the collapse. In 2007, Braga had replanted the church, which had previously been pastored by Driscoll’s father-in-law. So the congregation was just seven years old when ex-congregants from Mars Hill doubled their numbers.
“After Mars Hill was gone, there were body parts everywhere, and we said, ‘Let’s do triage on every situation God brings us,’” Braga said. “You go to the worst ones first, make sure they stay alive, and keep moving through.”
“People were very disillusioned, very confused,” said Union Gospel Mission director of church engagement Chris Gough, who networks with dozens of Seattle-area pastors. “Yet it’s still a beautiful story because the local church caught many of these folks, walked with them, and cared for them. It seemed like the body of Christ transcended organizational ties and it was really about Jesus, not about anything else.”
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SOURCE: The Gospel Coalition
Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra