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“We want to make this a great city where everyone flourishes and that means loving everyone of different backgrounds and beliefs. Actually, we have a lot of gay people coming to the church.”
To be clear, GLBT are welcome to attend and participate at Mars Hill Downtown. They are not able to become members of the church.
There are three services each Sunday at the new Mars Hill location, 9:00, 11:00 and 5:00. At about 75 percent of the services, the sermon portion is a message — via audio on a big screen — from Mars Hill’s founding pastor, Mark Driscoll. The other 25 percent of the time the sermon is live, usually given by Gaydos.
One of the church’s strongest ministries is what they call “Community Groups.” These are groups of 12 to 14 people that meet in homes, offices and restaurants weekly for prayer, discussion of a sermon, sharing and fellowship. Overall, Mars Hill Downtown has about 65 such groups, involving over 800 people. A half-dozen of the community groups are up and running in downtown homeless shelters. These are generally led by formerly homeless people, who have gotten back on their feet and out of a shelter.
Given the numbers at Mars Hill Downtown and other Mars Hill locations, I asked, “To what do you attribute such high attendance and participation, given that many other congregations appear to be struggling to fill the pews?” “Jesus,” answered the pastor.
If the answer seems a little enigmatic or pious, Gaydos wasn’t attempting to be glib or deceptive. As we spoke, it became clear he was saying two things. First, while acknowledging, “Yeah, we work hard,” still church growth, “is a spiritual thing, it’s a God thing,” meaning that God is active here, in this ministry, in bringing the people.
Second, Gaydos enlarged upon his response by adding, “At Mars Hills, we say, ‘It’s all about Jesus.’ We find that many people don’t understand religion or find it all kinds of confusing. Or they think religion is mostly about a bunch of rules. So saying ‘It’s all about Jesus,’ cuts through that. For a lot of people Jesus, his way of life, his love, his compassion, are really appealing.” An example of the old KISS formula, or “Keep It Simple Stupid” in action.
The Mars Hill story is really a remarkable one. From its beginnings in the basement of Seattle’s First Presbyterian Church in the 1990’s (a church building that is now rumored to be for sale), Mars Hill has grown to be one of the Northwest’s and America’s largest congregations. It has pioneered the “multi-site church,” which features one church meeting in multiple locations. Today over half of all America’s mega-churches embrace the multi-site model, making use of sophisticated internet technology as they do.
Many liberal Seattlites tend toward negative views of Mars Hill, citing its more conservative positions on GLBT issues, as well as women’s issues. Gaydos acknowledges these, but says they are complex and don’t boil down well to the “sound-bites” in which they are often reported or discussed. “We believe that men and women are equal, but with different roles to play” at home and in the church. At the downtown church, the seven elders are all men, while the 70 deacons are both men and women.
My own view, as someone who has led churches and works with many as a teacher and consultant, is that Mars Hill is doing effective work. It is helping people to turn their lives around and offering spiritual meaning and community in an often confusing world. While I too disagree with Mars Hill on some particulars, and there are deeper theological questions to be engaged, the positives and accomplishments of Mars Hill, which include enthusiasm and joy in faith, commitment and hard work, and the ability to reach young people, cannot be and should not be overlooked.
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