For a while, it seemed like everyone on Twitter was talking about The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. Judging by what various people were saying, I knew the podcast was intriguing, compelling, and at least a little bit disturbing. Beth Moore even said, jokingly, she wanted to throw herself in front of a truck after listening to it. When I did tune in, I found myself understanding what she meant.
The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill is produced by Christianity Today and details the small beginnings, crazy, explosive growth, and public implosion that led to the Seattle megachurch closing its doors after 18 years of ministry.
The focus throughout the 12 episodes (not including a few “bonus content” episodes) is Mars Hill’s charismatic, narcissistic pastor, Mark Driscoll. I grew so weary of Mark Driscoll and his screaming, his misogyny, his anger, and his god complex that I almost stopped listening. But I pressed on.
Because this reckoning—for that’s what this is, a reckoning with how far Evangelicals have fallen prey to toxic masculinity, narcissism, and the allure of celebrity—is for anyone who cares about the health of the church. It’s also a good and prudent reminder that growth and numbers are important, but character and humility are much more so.
In Driscoll’s case, his platform grew much faster than his character. The fact that many hundreds of thousands of people bought into his teachings is disturbing. His view of men—that they were to be rugged, manly, and gun-toting—left no room for any other kind of man. Women, on the other hand, were painted as helpless, dependent, sexual objects who exist to submit and serve the interests of their men. (Women at Mars Hill were discouraged from working outside the home.) Driscoll was often crude, vulgar, and wildly inappropriate from the pulpit and in interviews.
Yet the podcast, hosted by the pastoral and mellifluous Mike Cosper, is careful to draw out Driscoll’s humanity. He’s not all bad, and he definitely started out on a more sincere path when he launched Mars Hill. Driscoll could be incredibly generous, compassionate, and very funny. (I found myself appalled when laughing out loud at his jokes a couple of times. Well, they were funny!) When those elements of him were sketched in, it was easier to see why so many people believed in him and got behind his ministry.
This podcast is a cautionary tale for any one of us who has ever turned a blind eye to unhealthy patterns in our church leaders and Christian authors and singers. Though we serve a gentle shepherd, we seem to crave power and charisma in our leaders. Why? Can we repent and return to a humbler, character-driven model for ourselves and those who lead us? We must, or the fall of Mars Hill will happen again and again everywhere.
Drawing on interviews with former church members and leading thinkers such as Kristin Kobes DuMez and Chuck DeGroat, this podcast is expertly crafted, a tremendous journalistic achievement. It ends on a hopeful, redemptive note, though not everything is tied into a silvery bow. (It’s upsetting that the villain in this piece, Driscoll, is seemingly not really vanquished but enjoying a luxury backyard pool in Arizona, where he has a new, gleaming church.)
As always, God has the final word. God can and will work his ways in Mark Driscoll and people who have been gutted by this kind of spiritual abuse. This podcast is a great reminder that kingdoms may rise and fall, but Christ will be exalted above all the earth, forevermore.