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Mark Driscoll
Mars Hill Church
Mark Driscoll

Changing course?

Religion | After a public apology and the adoption of a softer tone from the pulpit, star pastor Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church face new challenges

Issue: "Border gridlock," Aug. 9, 2014

On a hazy Sunday morning in downtown Seattle, cars crawled around a century-old, terra cotta–domed church, one of the city’s oldest church buildings. The reason: Seattle’s 40th annual gay pride parade closed a portion of 4th Avenue near the historic church. Police officers in kilts and colorful beads patrolled the area, and volunteers set up purple balloons and rainbow flags in preparation for the thousands that would swarm downtown that afternoon.

But before the parade, drivers, cops, and volunteers got a good blast of Mars Hill Church’s rock ’n’ roll remix of the classic hymn “Nothing but the Blood of Jesus.” Mars Hill moved its downtown location to this old church a year and a half ago to be a local church amid a community, and “preach the Bible clearly, without compromise, without excuse, but still loving our neighbors,” said Justin Dean, deacon and communications director of Mars Hill.

The church’s rugged black cross with the bold words “Jesus Saves” is hard to miss, and so is the aroma of coffee and soy milk from the welcome station, both parked at the top stairs to the entrance. Sometimes, Dean said, passersby enter the church to use the bathroom or score free hot coffee—and then stay for the service. When trend watchers want to point to a successful example of hipster Christianity, they often cite Mars Hill Church because of its rapid growth.

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Mars Hill and its pastor Mark Driscoll are also known for controversy: brash, in-your-face preaching, and Driscoll’s own sometimes unfiltered language. Lately, the controversy includes behavior that stepped over ethical boundaries. Last year, a plagiarism controversy forced Driscoll and his publisher Tyndale House to issue a joint statement admitting “mistakes were made.” This year, WORLD reported Mars Hill Church spent a quarter-million dollars in church funds to put his book Real Marriage on The New York Times bestseller list. Former staff members have increasingly taken to the internet to voice their grievances with what some have called Driscoll’s overbearing management style.

These controversies came to a head in March, when Driscoll made a remarkable public apology. In a letter to his congregation that received national coverage, he said his “angry-young-prophet days are over” and he would take steps to become “a helpful, Bible-teaching spiritual father.” Among the steps Driscoll planned to take included refraining from posting on social media until “at least the end of the year” and to doing few, if any, media interviews.

Driscoll has kept his word in at least one area: The normally media-hungry pastor would not agree to an interview for this story. But in other ways, Driscoll’s critics charge, it’s business as usual. Just weeks after Driscoll’s public confession, the executive elders (Mark Driscoll, Sutton Turner, and Dave Bruskas) surprised Mars Hill staff by announcing a new document retention policy that would destroy all staff emails more than three months old. The plan was dropped only after a group of former staff, elders, and members sent a letter to the church saying the new policy was an attempt to destroy documents that might be used in litigation against the church. The group’s attorney, Brian Fahling, asked the church to “preserve electronically stored information that may contain evidence” for legal action in which the church, Driscoll, and others in church leadership “will be named as defendants.” The letter lists anticipated litigation in the areas of “RICO [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act], Fraud, Conspiracy, Libel, Slander, Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress.”

In late May, Phil Smidt, a respected Mars Hill elder and pastor, refused to sign a non-compete agreement that prevented him from serving in a leadership position of any other church within 10 miles of a Mars Hill location if he left the church. Such non-compete agreements have become common for departing staff. Given Mars Hill’s many locations in the Seattle area, the agreement would make it difficult for him to find a church anywhere in western Washington—the most populated area in the state—where he could serve as a pastor, deacon, or elder. For refusing to sign such a restrictive document, the church fired Smidt without severance compensation.

It is common for churches to require departing staff to sign non-disparage agreements, but “non-compete agreements cross over into paranoia,” said Clint Pressley, pastor of the large Hickory Grove Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C. Pressley said he could name nearly a dozen former staff members of his church who were on church staffs within a 10-mile radius. “The Kingdom of God is big enough for us all,” he said.

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