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Mars Hill Downtown: There’s community amid all that controversy

Mars Hill's downtown Seattle branch is led by Pastor Time Gaydos. Credit: Mars Hill Church

On his first Sunday in a new location at Fifth and Marion in downtown Seattle (the former and historic building of First Methodist Church), Mars Hill pastor Tim Gaydos took note of post-election stories in which some more conservative people and Christians said they no longer felt comfortable in the Northwest (post legalization of gay marriage, post decriminalization of marijuana) and were thinking about heading for somewhere more congenial, say Texas.

“That is exactly the wrong response,” said Gaydos. He turned in his Bible to Jeremiah 29 to quote the word to the faithful centuries ago, “Seek the welfare of the city to which I have sent you.” It is the responsibility of Christians to do just that, said Pastor Gaydos, “to seek the welfare of their city, Seattle.” He called his congregation, “to be the very best citizens of the city in which we live.”

Seattle City Council member Sally Bagshaw confirms that this is her experience of Pastor Gaydos and the Mars Hill congregation. “I worked with Tim through the Belltown Business Association, [the church was formerly located in Belltown] and found him great to work with. … We have worked together to improve livability for all residents and businesses in Belltown, and actually picked up garbage together on a Greening Initiative and Neighborhood Clean-Up Day. Several hundred members of his church took part.”

Five years ago Seattle’s Mars Hill Church, founded by Mark Driscoll, opened a downtown location in Seattle’s Belltown, rehabbing an old night club for its first home. Leading up to that opening, Gaydos had been gathering people in his home in the neighborhood for over a year.

Last year the decision was announced to move to the former building of First Methodist Church in Seattle’s financial and government district. The Church entered into a ten-year lease of the site with owner and developer Kevin Daniels.

December 30 was opening Sunday at the new Mars Hill location. Even though the Sunday after Christmas is a low attendance Sunday in many churches, the turnout at Mars Hill Downtown was 1,100. Gaydos estimates the congregation to be between 1200 and 1400 members at present. It is one of the fourteen campuses of Seattle’s Mars Hill Church. Outside Washington, Mars Hill also has locations in Orange County, California, Albuquerque, New Mexico and Portland, Ore.

Gaydos describes himself as a person with “an urban sensibility,” who cares about city people and city problems. Though he grew up in Edmonds, he went to college and seminary in Los Angeles. His wife is from L.A. She, Gaydos and their two daughters live at the Queen Anne end of Belltown. They have a third child on the way, which makes them hopeful that the Seattle Schools will open a new school, as has been rumored, downtown.

Gaydos is, and wants his congregation to be, involved with the people of the city. He described his own participation first as a member, then Vice-President and finally President of the Belltown Business Association, a group with many projects of neighborhood improvement. Additionally, one of their church’s annual service projects is its “Coat Lunch,” where the congregation puts on a fine dining experience for 500 to 600 homeless people, after which all the guests leave with a new coat and a new pair of shoes.

Currently, Gaydos estimates that between 75 and 100 homeless or formerly homeless men, women and children are part of the Mars Hill downtown congregation. “To us, it's all about relationships, building relationships with people.”

Mars Hill is known as hip, but also theologically conservative. Two issues, in particular, tend to put Mars Hill at odds with much of liberal Seattle: views on homosexuality and the role of women.

So I asked Gaydos, “What about gay people and people of other faiths? Are you comfortable working with people like that?” “Absolutely,” said Gaydos.

“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.

My main take-away from a visit to Mars Hill’s new downtown site is the emphasis Gaydos places on being “civic-minded” and being engaged and involved in the city. “Our new home,” said Gaydos, “turns out to be the most densely populated city blocks west of the Mississippi. We want people to find solace and sanctuary here amid the challenges and chaos of life.” And that appears to be happening.

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