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Mark Driscoll is an example of how not to lead, and that is not news to those privy to his meteoric rise and fall. As someone who grew up in Driscoll’s wrecking-ball orbit in Washington State, I watched mentors take on his brash cadences, speak about their wives as ‘hot gifts from the Lord,’ and orient their teaching toward theological grenade tossing.

It was only a matter of time until Driscoll’s quicksand empire collapsed, and even his most loyal allies likely knew it.

A new Christianity Today podcastThe Rise and Fall of Mars Hill — asks, however, why we keep doing it.

Why do we keep elevating leaders like Driscoll to a pulpit that quickly becomes our coffin?

Reasons abound, some of which CT addresses: we adore ministry growth at all costs, we value charisma more than character, we have a never-ending patience for arrogance if it gives us relevance. Some reasons stayed off the table: the damage of complementarian theologies.

Quite honestly, we do love a man — and it’s almost always a man — who cuts brashly through the Christian bullshit.

And one more thing: we rally around someone who seems genuinely committed to loving the outcasts, and we’re desperate for leaders who point us toward this better way. It’s the cycle of how the liberators — young, bold, good-hearted — become the oppressors. From Sandanistas to Seattle’s punk-rock-church-scene, good-hearted beginnings turn to love for power and control.

This hits particularly close to home. As someone who is founding a ministry, charting a vision, and pointing the church toward God’s work at the margins, Driscoll’s story–hearing how genuinely he seemed to begin–is more of a gut punch than I’d expected.

I would rather distance myself from ‘bad guys’ like Driscoll, remaining a safe distance from him as I offer hot takes, theologize and pontificate on his failure. But his failure could quite easily become my failure. His heart in 2001 may not have been that far off from my heart in 2021.

So this story left me asking, how could I fail as spectacularly as Driscoll? Well, here are a few possibilities:

I could surround myself with leaders who think like me, look like me, and act like me
My alma mater made this decision with the firing of their only Black professor from their flagship campus, a beloved voice of God’s love and justice. Diversity is fun to talk about, but egregiously difficult to achieve.

We actually love being in the room with people who think, act, and talk like us. It catapults churches, businesses, and ministries on all sides of the political spectrum to simpler success.

It also has devastating effects.

I say this confidently: if several women were placed in oversight of Driscoll’s emerging ministry, domineering and reckless leadership would have been checked. The gift and the curse of not overlooking the warning signs of power-hungry men has been forced on women looking over their shoulder as they walk sidewalks at sunset, pour coffee in church lobbies, and constantly wonder why their good ideas are tabled for the next meeting.

Where homogenous groups of men will tend toward extending grace at all costs, women spot power grabs like the scent of Axe body spray wafting out of a middle school locker room. How many men in recent years have been caught saying, I never would have imagined this about him, or him, or all of them?

I need to hear this truth over and over: we need women at all levels of leadership, and we need racially and theologically diverse people and perspectives at all levels of leadership. We’re playing with fire if we don’t.

I could ensure my theology is neat, tidy, and divorced from reality
As I lead a ministry which focuses on Christ’s love for the margins, I am keenly aware of those in Detroit left in homes with no running water, friends who have no access to healthcare, and social services which lack the political investment to support those recovering from addictions.

What good news is Christ to these neighbors? It is far easier to construct entire theologies and vibrant ministries than to act on that question. Dr. Gregory Thomson and Rev. Duke Kwon speak against the spiritualizing of our theologies by saying we have a “cultural inclination to imagine that one can talk meaningfully about theology apart from any substantive reflection on politics, economics, or culture […]. Historically speaking, the undeniable social effect of this spiritualizing tendency has been to allow Christians to talk rhapsodically about the spiritual glories of the gospel even as they leave transparently unjust social conditions unaddressed.”

I’ll never forget the voice of a Cohort Detroit alum who retorted during a conversation: “I don’t want your ‘handouts’ or your ‘advice,’ I want you to make me your neighbor, literally.” Talking is one thing, but inviting people into our privilege is another. Hand over the code to your lakehouse. Hand over the keys to my car. That is theology in action. That is hard.

If I want my ministry to fail, I will ignore our incarnational call, our call to serve like Jesus, who humiliated himself to enter into our world, offering us the grace that we offer to others.

I could succeed
Finally, if I want to fail spectacularly, I could succeed. I could forget how the Holy Spirit and countless co-leaders were the primary catalysts, and then franchise my success across North America. The latter piece is quite literally what one Atlanta-based professional coach told me to do.

Near the end of Driscoll’s Mars Hill ministry, he made clear to his campus pastors that he was the ‘brand.’ That their role was only to get people in the door so that he could teach them. We don’t say this as bluntly, but we do say it: when we cannot stop working, when we ensure perfection, when we fail to let others lead.

As I lead, I pray for open doors, for the Spirit to work, for a collaboration in vision. But I’ve also begun to pray for setbacks and slow transformation. If we were to come into a windfall of one million dollars and one hundred young leaders ready to plunge into mission and justice-oriented Detroit programming alongside all indications of worldly success, I would probably just break. Or become a monster.

That breaking point is a grace that every leader might hope for at one point or another. As the prayer attributed to Archbishop Romero says, we may always remember: “We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future that is not our own.”

And so we go out humbly, or we will be humbled.

Nathan Groenewold

Nathan Groenewold is a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church and founding director of Cohort Detroit, an emerging ministry which aims to raise up a new generation of young leaders who love God deeply, work for justice, and humbly serve marginalized Detroit communities. Come join us this fall

10 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Excellent

  • mstair says:

    “After he stepped down, Mars Hill church disbanded, with many of the sites closing or becoming their own independent church.” (CT June 25, 2021)

    How about, no failure here except to try and make Christ’s church about a corporate success through acquisition of assets? The U.S. corporate church model is doomed to fail (in its own eyes) because the only “brand” Our Father accepts is “Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
    Jesus says HE will build HIS church and the gates of hell will not prevail… not – hell will not get through it’s gates. Christ’s church is designed to be fluid, to move, to split, to pop up where needed and to dissolve and move on somewhere else. It is us humans who want to make it a lasting legacy with a corporate headquarters…

  • Rev. Nolan Palsma says:

    Ditto on the excellent article response. Basically we need to be in covenant with one another in ministry.

  • Kathryn VanRees says:

    Fine piece, Nathan. Thank you.

  • Thank you for this wonderful writing. I have always observed that “group think” leads to destruction. Diverse thought lead to longevity.

  • Cathy Smith says:

    This is a keeper. Thank you for many valid points I need to ponder … like not “spiritualizing my theology.”

  • Harry Weidenaar says:

    I was the pastor of Seattle CRC when Mars Hill exploded into a mega church. I’ve heard Driscoll preach. He led chapel at Shoreline Christian School once, It was a tour de force. His message was incisive and brilliant. His personality charismatic. He mesmerized his teen age audience, which was the secret of his success. He captivated high school students, a tough crowd in secular Seattle, and after a while their parents followed them to Mars Hill. He was also a public relations genius. Baptizing 500 people at one time at Alki Beach on Elliot Bay brought massive media coverage and even more lookie-loos to Mars Hill. Driscoll was brash, outspoken, a plagiarist, a power maniac, but never dull. Don’t be an evangellyfish, to use one of his favorite words. Give the devil his due. How many of us can claim our pulpit work has never put people to sleep.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Nathan, for an insightful article, especially in regard to the nature of the Christian church or more specifically, how to fail as a church leader. Have you noticed how cult-like Mars Hill and Driscoll’s endeavors are? When you think of conspiracy theories (as well as cults) they seem to have many similarities to some of these mega churches. They promise much, require great sacrifice, and most often are based on half truths or false hood. But isn’t that the nature of the Christian church? Wonderful promises based on unsubstantiated claims. The claims, although unsubstantiated, are believed by the members of this cult or followers of this conspiracy theory. No one has actually met the head or leader of the church, except, perhaps, in a subjective experience or pretend reality. But in objective reality? No. Like other religions, Christianity asks its followers to base their lives on unsubstantiated teachings, as though they are absolutely true. How much this is like a conspiracy theory. As we’ve seen with the Covid virus, we don’t need religion to make great gains toward eradicating this plight. Secular society has done what you might expect of the church, sacrifice for the benefit of others. Thanks, Nathan, for sharing your thoughts. Sounds like you may have an axe to grind. Where better than here.

  • Ruth says:

    Deep and real incarnation. Deep and real diversity. Deep and real humility. Thanks, Nathan, for the always needed reminders!!

  • Lynn Japinga says:

    Thanks for a thought-provoking essay. Since reading Jesus and John Wayne, I’ve been wondering how much Mark Driscoll has influenced the current conflict in the RCA. Driscoll was involved in the Acts 29 movement, and so was the RCA’s staff person for church growth. The topic of Acts 29 came up regularly, but despite being reasonably in the loop on current church issues, I didn’t realize that Driscoll was involved in it. I suspect that a number of the RCA clergy currently threatening to leave or already gone or preparing to enter into the ARC, have deeply influenced by Driscoll … brash, opinionated, little sense of nuance and complexity, my way or the highway, etc. It is not easy to track this stuff down. How did Tim Vink get hired? Why? How explicit was he about the Driscoll connection? Did anybody in “leadership” in the RCA ever raise questions?

    The cautions you raised about congregational life are also true for denominational life. When a leader is surrounded by like-minded people, and the voices of the critics are muted by the very structure of the leadership group (Carver Governance), and when the checks and balances seem to disappear and there is little accountability, a denomination can head in the same direction as Driscoll and his church.

    I keep wondering how the RCA has gotten itself into such a mess, and thank you for illuminating one of the possible reasons.

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