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'The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill': The abuses of a superstar pastor and megachurch ruins left behind

Mars Hill Church Lead Pastor Mark Driscoll poses outside of his office prior to an evening service at the church's flagship black warehouse in Seattle on Feb. 11, 2007. (Scott Cohen/AP)
Mars Hill Church Lead Pastor Mark Driscoll poses outside of his office prior to an evening service at the church's flagship black warehouse in Seattle on Feb. 11, 2007. (Scott Cohen/AP)

The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” podcast tells a dramatic story about a controversial megachurch in Seattle and the charismatic pastor who built it.

The podcast is about fame, faith and power converging in Mark Driscoll — one of the country’s first internet celebrity pastors. He built a church of more than 15,000 people.

As it turns out, the scandals that undermined the church are as compelling as a true-crime show. The story is told from inside the faith by the evangelical publication Christianity Today.

Part of Driscoll’s charisma came from his biting sense of humor. In one instance, Driscoll scolded men for not being good enough providers and protectors as he saw it to women and children. He doesn’t care if a man buys a truck or plays video games, he argued, but it’s “stupid” to let those things dominate your life.

“You work one part-time job so you could play more guitar. That’s dumb. That’s really, really dumb,” Driscoll said. “Some will say, ‘Well it’s not a sin.’ Neither is eating your lawnmower. It’s just dumb.”

Driscoll often told the story of growing up in a “rough” neighborhood in Seattle, reporter and host Mike Cosper says. Though he wasn’t raised Christian, Driscoll joined the faith after meeting his wife Grace Driscoll, a pastor’s daughter.

By his early 20s, Driscoll started talking about founding a church despite that he’d never been a member of one or received any seminary training, Cosper says.

“He just had these instincts,” Cosper says, “particularly with how to connect to guys like him that he didn’t think were interested in churches.”

Driscoll’s charisma made him the star of Mars Hill Church. He wasn’t accountable to any denominational hierarchy and could fire people at will.

In one instance, the church’s elders were asked to weigh in on a new governing document and a few of the men sent an email that raised concerns, Cosper says. In response, Driscoll walked off stage after giving a sermon and fired all of them the next day.

“There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus. By God’s grace, it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done,” Driscoll said. “Either get on the bus or you get run over by the bus, those are the options. But the bus ain’t gonna stop.”

One of the first stories told in the podcast was of an executive assistant who was fired for saying she hoped some of the older men in the church could confront Driscoll and help him mature, Cosper says.

“Over the years, there were quite a few people who were either directly fired by him for what was often in his mind sort of insubordination,” Cosper says, “What was often in their mind just general confrontation.”

The podcast showcases how Driscoll’s teachings on masculinity were toxic for women. He would go into graphic detail about sexual submission.

Jen Smidt, a blogger for the Mars Hill website and wife of one of the pastors, was ostracized for supposedly grasping for power. In one meeting, Driscoll wouldn’t speak directly to her.

“He would not even look me in the eye and acknowledge my plea to him to have some sort of relational restoration,” Smidt said on the podcast.

Smidt went on to explain that Driscoll turned to her husband and said, “I reserve the right to speak to the heads of households,” Cosper says.

On paper, Mars Hill was a cross between complementarianism — where men and women have equal dignity but different roles in the home and at church — and patriarchy, Cosper says. But in reality, the church was top-down and patriarchal.

“Even when he would talk about sex and sexuality, the responsibility of wives was to please and care for their husbands sexually,” Cosper says. “Every other woman in the world was a temptress and a danger to men, and he would speak very graphically about that as well.”

‘The Enron of churches’

Many people on the podcast express that they can’t believe how long they stayed with the church. Cosper compares it to why people stay in cults: community, friendships, relationships, family.

“You’d roll your eyes at something Mark [Driscoll] said on Sunday,” Cosper says. “But you were actually there because of the experience of community.”

From the outside, people wanted to align with the young and successful Driscoll because they agreed with him on biblical inerrancy, gender, salvation and spreading the gospel, Cosper says.

One pivotal moment in the fall of Mars Hill was when Driscoll got a book deal for “Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, and Life Together.”

“As part of the marketing and promotion scheme for the book, they contracted with a company called Result Source, who has this elaborate method of gaming the New York Times bestseller list,” Cosper says. “So the whole thing cost about $250,000. And then about a year, year and a half later, it started to leak that it had happened.”

Then in fall 2013, Driscoll did a radio interview with a woman named Janet Mefferd, who accused him of plagiarism, Cosper says. After that, several cases of plagiarism in his writing were exposed.

For the next nine months, nonstop coverage of the plagiarism and other controversies persisted, he says.

As the church folded, the people around Driscoll slowly left. And the dissenters became persona non grata when they left, like Jesse Bryan, who ran the media team for Mars Hill.

“When you leave, you’re dead,” Bryan said. “You’re a dead person, not only inside of all of your community but also from a career standpoint, because now you worked for the Enron of churches.”

After Driscoll left the church in 2014, he spent a year and a half making appearances at other churches across the West Coast and Southwest. People viewed him as a victim of angry, bitter staff members who were out to get him and gave him sympathy, Cosper says.

Driscoll maintained much of his online audience and relocated to Scottsdale, Arizona, where he started a new church and remains a pastor today, Cosper says.

At the same time, many former Mars Hill members in Seattle were so shattered by their experience they left Christianity altogether, while others found new churches. In the podcast, Diane Langberg, a Christian psychologist who works with trauma survivors and clergy, says that American Christians are forgetting to be like Christ and serve the “least of these.”

“That’s not what we’ve been doing. We’ve been garnering fame and numbers and money,” she said. “And it’s ugly and it’s divisive, and it’s really not about Christ at all. And it breaks, breaks God’s heart.’

The story of Mars Hill speaks to a broader story about evangelical America and celebrity pastors. Part of Cosper’s interest in the story stemmed from that everything happened online.

“But also a lot of us kind of agree that Mark said things very loudly that are said quietly in all kinds of churches related to power related to celebrity,” Cosper says. “At some point, I think the church needs to have a reckoning with its relationship to power and weakness.”

Historically, the church has served the poor and the sick through sacrifice — something places like Mars Hill invert by putting wealth in power in the hands of few individuals, Cosper says.

Driscoll didn’t respond to the podcast’s request for an interview — but if he wanted to talk, Cosper says he’d get on the next plane to Phoenix.

James Perkins Mastromarino produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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