The Barnabas Ministry
Book Review

Confessions of a Reformission Rev.- Hard Lessons From an Emerging, Missional Church
By Mark Driscoll (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI. 2006.)

Mark Driscoll is the founding and current pastor of the Mars Hill Church in Seattle, WA. Confessions  is aptly named, as Driscoll candidly discusses the various steps and events along the way from the very beginning of this congregation to the present and even its intended future. Driscoll has an entertaining and informal writing style that goes behind the scenes of how he and his church came to where they are now.

Mars Hill, a leading congregation in what might be called the "emerging church movement" is unique and worthy of discussion. Though fairly large (reportly about 4000 members at this time), Mars Hill is not exactly like the typical suburban megachurch. Located in a city that reportedly has more dogs than children, it is one of the "least churched" cities in the nation. He relates how Mars Hill had its beginnings:

So, I decided to start a church for three reasons. First, I hated going to church and wanted one I liked, so I thought I would just start my own. Second, God had spoken to me in one of those weird charismatic moments and told me to start a church. Third, I am scared of God and try to do what he says (p. 39).

In my imagination, however, I saw an entirely different church, one that did not have a beat-up old couch or a foosball table in the sanctuary. I envisioned a large church that hosts concerts for non-Christian bands and fans on a phat sound system, embraced the arts, trained young men to be godly husbands and fathers, planted other churches, and led people to work with Jesus Christ as missionaries to our city (p. 40).

I find good and not-so-good in this story. I think it's great that he had a vision of building a congregation that would reach his city (though I'm always apprehensive when I hear somebody say "God gave me a vision" for something). I've been involved in planting several churches and I respect the efforts that go into such a venture. I think it's important that churches connect with their cultures, and the big-city, younger generation culture is seemingly waiting to be evangelized. Interestingly, there are times when Driscoll talks about how they embraced the culture to a point, and other times when they stood their ground on moral or theological issues and let those more interested in culture than God walk out the door.

Driscoll is candid as he discusses how the church migrated from informal to more formal leadership structures. He wrestled with following the Lord and the vision for the church while dealing with people who wanted to hijack the church in various stages. In fact, this whole "wrestling with issues and tough decisions" aspect is a big part of the book. Driscoll's recollections provide a useful insight into these things.

Along the way, he also discusses how his own views and perspectives on certain things changed through his experiences. For example:

.... after reading more books and articles than I cared to, I decided to just start asking some of the new converts who had met Christ in our church what would most help them to grow in their relationship with Jesus. Each young person I spoke to said they wanted to be connected with people younger and older than themselves. The young urban arty types God had burdened me to build a church for generally came from jacked-up homes, which they wanted to overcome in hopes of one day having a decent future for themselves and their kids. But they had no idea what a decent Christian family looked like. So what they needed was a friendship with godly older families to learn about marriage and parenting. The last thing they needed was a mono-generational church.

... That Sunday, I repented before out church for my dumb idea of having a Generation X church, which was good because it set the precedent of me standing up to recant my dumb ideas so that we an get unstuck on our mission of bringing the gospel of Jesus to our city. So we started running a nursery for small children during our service. Curiously, the singles and college students really enjoyed getting to know children and their families and began volunteering to play with the kids. It dawned on me that by working with the kids, a lot of our young people were learning from the kids about parenting and were learning from friendships with the parents what kind of person they would need to become to marry and begin a family of their own. (p. 65-66)

To me, the most troubling thing in the book are the tales of how people left his congregation. Now some people leaving I don't have a problem with, like the story Driscoll relates about the musicians who wanted other religious leaders to teach at the church so they could embrace post-modernism better. Driscoll says, "Because these musicians were not teachable, I kicked them out that night, and we went more than a month without any worship music in the services (p. 77)." While concerned about the Scripturality of such an action, it sounds like a parting of the ways was appropriate at that time.

There were other stories about other people who had ambitions to lead and hijack the church in varying ways. Driscoll makes the point that there are wolves who want to make people followers of themselves and the church should be protected from them.

However, there were also stories of people who left because the church was getting bigger and things were changing. These are the ones I found troubling. For example:

I hit a particularly low point one day when a young couple knocked on the door of our home. We had invested hundreds of hours in the young woman, dating back to our college ministry. Her husband was a new Christian whom she had met in the church. We had done their premarital counseling, and I had officiated their wedding. When they got married, they could not even afford a couch, so I drove one of ours over in my truck and gave it to them. We considered them friends until they came over to tell us they had left the church. They complained that since the church had grown a bit bigger and things a bit busier, my wife and I had become less available to them.

My wife and I were both working other jobs because the church could not pay me and were volunteering more than forty hours a week to the church. Being rejected by friends felt like a punch in the gut.

We were stunned. We needed couples like this to help the church survive, not jump ship just because my wife could not drop everything to take this woman out to tea whenever was convenient for her. The odd thing was that they transferred to a megachurch in the suburbs, which made no sense because they would get no closer to that pastor and his wife than they had to Grace and me. Yet they knocked on the door unannounced to tell us we were not doing enough for them. It seemed obvious to me that they wanted us to bend over backward and promise to do anything to make them happy in order to keep them in the church. But I simply gave up and sent them on their way because they were not on our mission to bring the gospel to Seattle. For them, the mission was to get Grace and I to jump like trained dogs on command (p. 80-81).

Now I wasn't there and I don't know the people involved personally. But this whole thing smells a little bit to me. Driscoll says he was hurt by this couple doing what they did, and I take him at his word. But, I wonder if he thinks this couple was hurt by what they were experiencing too? He laments how much he "invested" in them, but does he recognize that this couple also invested several years of their lives with this church?

In the early days of a church, part of what makes such a church special is the closeness and connectedness. It hurts when people you were close to (that is, Driscoll and his wife) effectively dump you to pursue more and more people, a larger church, more impact, etc. Was this couple friends, a brother and sister in the Lord or were they merely an "investment" towards something bigger?

And why should Christian friendships be conditional upon membership in a church? Is that more important than following Christ? Putting the church at the center of relationships can be a form of emotional control or manipulation to get people to go along with a church program.

It sounds convenient to say this couple didn't have the "same mission" as he did. Was that really true, or just an easy way to excuse the bait and switch that these people felt as the church was changing from a small church to a large institution? To Driscoll's credit, he discusses the situation openly and honestly (at least as far as we know, anyway), but for him to say this couple wanted him and his wife to be "trained dogs" makes we wonder if Driscoll really understands what was going on with these people. It also makes me wonder what these people would say if given the chance.

Similarly, Driscoll speaks of hiring an executive pastor, a young man who fired some staff and reorganized "everything" at one point. Driscoll received heat for these actions and had people threatening to leave if he did not reign this young man in. Driscoll says, "I chose to support Jamie for better or worse and just accept that some people would would leave the church (p. 146)."

What strikes me as troubling about these stories (and there are many more in the book) is the "churn" among members and staff. It appears that at any given point in time, the present "components" of his church (people) were functionally expendible towards getting bigger. As Mars Hill grew, Driscoll sometimes comes out looking more like a wheeler-dealer baseball general manager than a pastor, and Mars Hill looks more like the New York Yankees than a church.

Here's the point that everybody ought to be concerned about. If one is expendible, then anyone is expendible. Would Driscoll trade two of his children to another family for a baby and a future "draft pick?" Of course not. But faithful church members and staff are part of a church family. How is it that some people are expendible and others aren't? Is Driscoll himself expendible?  It slays me when leaders use the "family" idea to keep hurt people from leaving, but don't treat members as "family"-- this is what usually led to the hurt in the first place.

If I was in such a size-ambitious church, I'd want to be told how expendible I was up front, so I would be careful not to invest my heart and time in something that I would be "expended" from at some future point just to make a bigger thing for the people in control. But people who are having a great time in a church don't normally think of things like this, and they get blind-sided and deeply hurt when it happens. They ought to keep their eyes open and if they see people being treated poorly and leaving, they should know it can and probably will happen to them at some point.

The church-builder type people may say, "A bigger church means more people are being reached." But if you reach them just to expend them in favor of somebody else, what are you doing besides exploiting them? When does the exploitation end? Leaders like Driscoll need to know that people really matter, and to treat them otherwise is not Christian. A church that grows by throwing away people that were formerly useful has big problems.

This isn't to say there shouldn't be some changes for strategic reasons. Driscoll uses the phrase "blowing up the church" to discuss the need to create change instead of having change happen to them. I can appreciate the need to do this from time to time. Churches are wise to choose change strategically rather than reactively.

But you just don't dump people who are part of your family. Part of being a good church leader is bringing people you lead along on the grand mission; every part of the body is important. What these churches gain in size, they lose in churn and intrinsic quality. They may end up with a bigger or more "effective" church machine, but also a church that is a lot less diverse and healthy than meets the eye. Not to mention a trail of hurt people by the wayside.

Now later on in the history of Mars Hill, Driscoll relates the story of how one of the founding elders and two other elders spun off the service they were most closely associated with into a separate church plant.

In the end, we decided that what was in the best interests of our mission to the city was not in the best interests of each of our elders. ... Mike and two elders chose to take their church service out as a separate church plant. This decision was tough because I genuinely loved Mike, and I still do. He was an older man who had faithfully encouraged and supported me through the toughest times in our church. But he wanted his own pulpit and felt called to a mission in a different part of the city and would need to be released so that we could each follow the mission Jesus had called us to. Many of our people loved Mike and would leave with him, which meant we might take a hit in terms of leaders and dollars. But it was the right thing to do for the gospel (p. 147-148).

This is a far more healthy way to deal with these sort of issues. I don't know why more churches don't do this sort of thing. Well, actually, I think I know some of the reasons why this happens; that was a rhetorical remark. I think top church leaders don't like giving up control or part of what they perceive is "their" empire. They have warped ideas about unity, are stuck on themselves being "right" or in charge, or feel that losing a part of their empire diminishes them somehow. Or perhaps it comes down to cold, hard cash and losing contribution money from spun-off groups. Maybe they think that their underling "isn't ready" yet, forgetting that they themselves were not ready when they set out. Not being entirely ready is part of the adventure of life, God hardly prevents us from doing things for which we are not ready.

Anyway, this is the kind of healthy departure that I think God loves. God made kids to grow up and move out of the house and have their own families, but somehow we expect Christians to remain spiritual children to some leader and his vision and agenda for their entire lives. It's a shame that sometimes it takes some hurtful, destructive event to bring about God's intended will. God calls people to maturity, and that means that leaders have to release people to be what God has called them to be at some point.

In short, I recommend this book as a great and candid insight and discussion of this the new generation of churches and issues related to them. It is a stimulating behind-the-scenes look at this new generation of megachurches.

Copyright © 2007 John Engler. All rights reserved.

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