The Reckoning of Mars Hill

As an allegedly abusive megachurch implodes, former members and other Christians ask: What can we learn from this?

In a sprawling backyard in Everett last Wednesday, a dozen or so former Mars Hill Church members gather around a large firepit offering warmth and light as darkness falls. “In many ways, this has actually become like a church for us,” a bearded young man named Joel Thoen explains.

He’s referring to these weekly gatherings of Mars Hill exiles—usually male-only “beer and cigar” affairs. But on this night, given a reporter’s presence and recent dramatic events, the men have invited their wives and are holding off on cigars for a couple hours. A few days before, Mars Hill had announced that it was slashing staff and closing branches as a result of poor giving and attendance. Several thousand members had left the church, the attendance of which once numbered 13,000. Just weeks before, the church’s swaggering, charismatic leader, pastor Mark Driscoll, stepped down for a six-week sabbatical following various calls from former pastors and members for him to resign and his expulsion from Acts29, the network of churches around the country he founded.

The crisis followed a tsunami of damaging revelations about Driscoll, including allegations that he plagiarized another pastor for one of his books, misused church money for personal ends, made crass and misogynistic statements, and cruelly cast out anyone who dared question him. With astonishing speed, the church that had known nothing but explosive growth over the past 18 years has begun imploding.

For those here tonight, the downfall has been long coming. Many left years ago, some voluntarily, others after being ousted. And yet the scars seem fresh, the effect lasting.

“Some of us were abused and ostracized,” Thoen continues. “So for some of us, it’s not safe to walk into a building with ‘church’ on the front door.” Thoen himself isn’t one of them. Warily, after leaving Mars Hill two years ago, he and his wife soon joined a new church. Yet his reference to these weekly gatherings as analogous to “church” hints at an unwillingness to devote himself wholly again to a religious organization—an attitude shared by Dwayne Forehand, owner of this backyard.

“I think it’s hard for me to trust the church I’m at, and I’ve been there for five years,” Forehand says. He attempts to explain: “Mars Hill was one of the only places in my whole life where I was . . . ” Forehand casts about for words.

“Vulnerable?” asks Rob Smith, a generation older than many of these men and the instigating force behind these gatherings.

“Yeah, extremely vulnerable,” Forehand says. “Since then, I haven’t been that vulnerable with anyone.”

Hopefully, Smith asks whether Forehand feels that he’s at least allowed himself to be vulnerable at these gatherings. The truth, Forehand confesses: “No.”

People are just beginning to divine lessons from the Mars Hill saga. “This is going to be a fascinating case study, especially for sociologists,” Rose Madrid-Swetman, lead pastor of the Vineyard Community Church in Shoreline, tells me later by phone. A book, by University of Washington anthropology lecturer Jessica Johnson, is already in the works. Having become close to the people she’s studying, Johnson’s come to the Everett gathering, where she discloses that her working title is Biblical Porn.

There’s chuckling at that, but on a deeper level there’s a palpable sense of trauma among those assembled, which offers at least one lesson from Mars Hill: A beloved church can inflict profound psychological damage, and not just through glaring transgressions like the sexual-abuse scandals of the Catholic Church. Former Mars Hill members commonly talk about Driscoll’s “abuse”—but it’s of a different sort, one they describe as “spiritual” because of his use of religion to entrench his own power and repudiate those who fall out of favor.

“I’m not a therapist, but it feels to me like people have PTSD,” says Madrid-Swetman, who has sharply criticized Driscoll for his views on women, which she terms “evil,” and become a magnet for struggling Mars Hill outcasts seeking guidance. Paul Petry, a leading pastor at Mars Hill until Driscoll fired him in 2007, speaks of “Mars Hill stress syndrome.”

Karen Schaeffer, who served as Driscoll’s assistant in the early aughts, speculates that “thousands” have been hurt by the pastor, including herself. After she told some in the church that Driscoll needed other strong men around him, the pastor accused her of “heresy.” “I was terrified,” she recalls while sitting by the fire.

In an open letter to Driscoll posted recently on, one of many websites that have sprung up recently to follow and expose the goings-on at the church, she elaborates: “I was in desperate need of God’s reassurance that I had not deeply grieved him. To some degree, I was in shock and, with tears streaming down my face, I lay prostrate on the floor of my office and prayed.”

Out of all these emotions have come soul-searching and wrenching questions. “How in the world could something like this happen?” asks Petry, talking by phone the morning after the fireside gathering, which he attended. “How could something that started out so good, so full of promise and so full of fresh-scrubbed young people, go so sideways?”

Others are still trying to figure out how a conservative, “neo-Calvinist” church with anachronistic views on women became so powerful in the first place, especially in liberal Seattle. Driscoll was only in his 20s when he started the church in his home in 1996 with the blessing of his mentor, the now-deceased evangelical leader Ken Hutcherson. Yet he quickly rocketed to Christian stardom, eventually launching 15 branches in five states, founding Acts29 and drawing recognition from national religious leaders like Rick Warren. Madrid-Swetman says she still can’t understand it: “Somebody please tell me how this got so big.”

One answer comes from Seattle Pacific University sociologist Jennifer McKinney: It’s likely because Seattle is so liberal that many were drawn to Mars Hill. “Evangelicals thrive when they are seen as embattled,” says McKinney. (Not all evangelicals found Driscoll’s view palatable, however, she notes. As a religious sociologist at an evangelical school, she observes that many Christians were resentful of what they considered Mars Hill’s outsized and embarrassing voice.)

I think the evangelical community needs to take a good, hard look at themselves and how they view success.

Other answers come from around the Everett fire, where former Mars Hill members speak of the church’s incredible energy, its cool, hipster vibe—“They know how to dress; they know what cool music is,” Forehand says of parishioners—and its strong and accepting community. Thoen, who walked into Mars Hill for the first time a decade ago as a meth-addicted 20-year-old, describes the way Mars Hill members greeted him: “Hey, you’re super-jacked up. Welcome!” Like a few others here, still wrestling with the Mars Hill experience, he doesn’t want that good side of the church to be forgotten.

And then there was Driscoll’s view of the sexes. “Can I say for the record that I don’t agree with Mark’s view of women?” says Liam McPherson, expressing an opinion shared by those around the fire. McPherson says the pastor adopted an extreme, Fight Club type of machismo that was not Biblical. He laughs about the time that Driscoll convened a meeting of male parishioners at the Paradox nightclub, which the church founded. As Driscoll handed out rocks, he said, “Here’s your masculinity back.”

Actually, those were among the tamer words to come out of Driscoll’s mouth. The pastor also liked to talk about our “pussified nation” and once wrote, as his alter ego William Wallace II, that God created women to be a “home” for the penis.

McPherson admits, however, that there was something appealing about Driscoll’s masculinity. “It felt like I could be a man and love God at the same time, where at most churches I felt that I had to castrate myself,” he says.

Pressed to explain, he tells of how he became a Christian in 1995. “I’m a construction worker. I was pretty rough around the edges.” Most churches, he says, took a “really effeminate view” and expected him to be a “wishy-washy, milquetoast kind of guy.”

“I don’t know what ‘milquetoast’ means,” probes Joy Forehand, who is married to Dwayne. “Soft?” “Tender?” others ask.

“My Biblical definition of masculinity includes being soft and tender to the right people—wives and children,” McPherson responds.

“Not men, though?” asks Joy.

“If I’m talking to a man, I want him to act like a man,” McPherson responds. One gets the sense that the men’s thinking on the matter is not done, that they are still trying to reconcile the appeal they found in Driscoll with the pastor’s offensiveness. Some still believe in the notion of “complementarianism” that Driscoll preached, which relegates men and women to different, “complementary” roles.

At one point, Smith asks the women present if they have a female counterpart to these beer-and-cigar nights. “It’s harder for ladies,” his daughter, Corinne Wisniew, says, because they have kids to look after. Her husband, Dusty, promptly volunteers to watch them, but it’s clear that the women bear the primary responsibility in this regard. Although they’ve turned out tonight, the women are quieter than the men. Still, Wisniew offers this stab at Mars Hill’s appeal for her. “At first, I felt dignified as a woman,” she says. “What I wanted to do was to get married and have kids.” That wasn’t the life ambition of most of her peers, though. By the age of 30, already married for 10 years, she often felt out of step. Not at Mars Hill.

Mars Hill branch in Ballard, WA. By Frank Brown (Own work)
via Wikimedia Commons

That sense of ease didn’t last, however. She doesn’t mention Driscoll’s demeaning vulgarity, but instead cites her feeling that women weren’t being honest with each other in an apparent attempt to appear the perfect wife.

Schaeffer, Driscoll’s former assistant, adds that she’s had a lot of debriefing sessions with women—including one that lasted eight hours just the day before—who felt under agonizing pressure at Mars Hill to bounce right back after giving birth. It didn’t help that Driscoll, according to McPherson, let it be known that his wife underwent Caesarian sections because he didn’t like wide hips. Nor, one presumes, that Driscoll once seemed to suggest that the reason evangelical leader Ted Haggard dallied with a male prostitute was because his wife let herself go. Even single men worried whether women they were interested in would “let themselves go,” according to Smith, who once led an informal Mars Hill ministry that attempted to help men having trouble finding a wife.

Petry, staring into the fire, looks a little glum. “I don’t think this is necessarily all about Mars Hill being anti-woman,” he says at last. “That’s part of it, but it’s not 80 percent or 70 percent or even 60 percent.” There’s a larger lesson to be drawn, he insists, although he declines to name it now, saying that he wants to let other people talk.

The next day, though, he’s more forthcoming. “The issue,” he says, is having “somebody who’s able to amass so much control over an organization” that he’s able to destroy both himself and the organization. At Mars Hill, that came to pass in 2007, when Driscoll steamrolled a new set of bylaws through the church that gave him almost complete authority. That was the point at which Petry, who had given up his law practice to work for the church, challenged Driscoll and found himself unemployed and formally “shunned.” Petry wonders at the number of “good people” who went along with this, something he attributes in part to a “very strong behind-the-scenes campaign to dehumanize” Driscoll’s challengers.

But there was another phenomenon going on too, several observers have noted. Dee Parsons—the North Carolina co-founder of a blog, The Wartburg Watch, that writes often about Mars Hill—says that even prominent evangelical leaders around the country looked the other way because Driscoll was attracting large crowds in “godless Seattle.” “Therefore, we have a success story,” she says they reckoned.

An evangelical herself, she says, “I think the evangelical community needs to take a good, hard look at themselves and how they view success.” It is not, she asserts, “big money, big spaces, and hipster pastors.” Nothing less than a re-evaluation of the megachurch movement is called for, she argues.

Smith agrees. A megachurch—a model that took root in the late ’70s following the rise of Illinois’ Willow Creek Community Church—becomes “a business,” Smith says. What’s really important is the money that churches can raise to expand their stamp on the world. Leaders, he maintains, are chosen not for their character but for their ability to take charge, in the mode of CEOs. Whether Driscoll was a good CEO is open to debate—as a recently unearthed memo from an executive elder reveals, the church was constantly running in the red despite raking in tens of millions of dollars in donations—but he certainly knew how to take charge.

Mars Hill now says, in a statement, that it is investigating the allegations against Driscoll and reflecting on “past sins and mistakes.... As a church we are evaluating every aspect of our ministry and operations for ways we can improve.”

Smith contends, however, that even such a reckoning is driven by business. Despite countless stories of people hurt over the years, it’s only the drop in donations that has finally caused Mars Hill to act, he says.

A South African immigrant and businessman who was shunned by a church once before, Smith seems resolved to publicly air the grievances of the Mars Hill community. He spearheaded a protest outside a Mars Hill Bellevue branch last month. Now, he says, he’s thinking about finding a church or other venue to gather a larger group of former church members so that they can talk through their experiences.

“We’re going to keep forcing the questions,” he says. “What did we learn from this?”

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