A recent outpouring of accounts by former church members of Mars Hill, Seattle's own homegrown megachurch, are painting a picture, both fascinating and horrifying, of outrageous and psychologically damaging behavior that's been happening inside the church for many years.
Women's Training Day at one of Mars Hill's Seattle meetinghouses. Photo: Mars Hill Church
There are emerging stories of sensational kangaroo courts and "sex demon" trials, like something out of the Salem witch hunts of the 1600s. Even more devastating to individual members are the ways in which they are shamed, taught to blame themselves and each other when they see problems, and to formally shun people who step out of favor with church leaders. Shunnings, both formal and informal, have caused the outcast to spend years in isolation, cut off from friends, sometimes suffering deep clinical depression, nightmares, disillusionment and shattered faith.
New heartbreaking stories are emerging almost every week, some told by people who were once prominent leaders, including a cofounder and former pastor of Mars Hill, who describes himself at Mars Hill as "driven by Narcissism and anti-social tendencies."
As insiders begin to open up, financial scandals are also rising to the surface. Former pastors say the church is being run more like a cutthroat business, where people who give up their secular jobs to serve the church are then abruptly fired on a whim. The threat of witholding severance pay is used to secure their silence in the form of non-disclosure agreements and non-complete clauses. But several former pastors have now refused to comply.
Recently, a former member started a petition at change.org requesting financial transparency. It asks Driscoll to reveal his salary, which is estimated by a few insiders I spoke to to be somewhere in the ballpark of $900,000, and it raises questions about how much of the $2 million donated to the church's Global Fund in the 2012-2013 fiscal year actually made it to Ethiopia and India.
A few days ago, the church sent an email to members. "Mars Hill has now admitted that money given to the Global Fund actually went in the church’s General Fund and mostly was spent on expanding Mars Hill video sites," writes Warren Throckmorton, whose blog at Patheos.com has become a major conduit of information about the church.
As of publication time, requests for comment on these and other issues went unanswered.
Collectively, the stories that are emerging help explain how a whole community came under the control of one man, and why, even years after leaving the fold, most have chosen to remain silent, until now.
The problems in the church haven't always been so obvious. In the beginning, Mars Hill church was a grassroots Seattle start-up with a 90s indie rock approach to organized religion.
Exuding charisma, the church's young leader, Mark Driscoll, managed to make stories from the Bible entertaining and accessible. Unlike many other Christian evangelicals, he did not think that beer, electric guitars, married sex and mixed martial arts were at odds with Jesus.
Driscoll preaches a theology that counts homosexuality as a sin. He casts females as destined to play a supporting role, always orbitting the male lead. Though many didn't like what Driscoll had to say, or how he said it, quite a few people did.
Married to his highschool sweetheart, Grace, Driscoll presents himself, then and now, as having a lockdown on what it means to be a card-carrying godly heterosexual man's man. Brash and bossy, a smooth operator with sharp edges, he has what one former member describes as "Chris Rock talent." He made people laugh, and it drew them to him. As it turns out, once they were close, he also made a lot of people cry.
But somehow, despite the rocky road including a mass exodus of an estimated 1000 people in 2007 — a period which many point to as a dark turning point — Mars Hill transformed from a scrappy enterprise with meetings in Driscoll's living room into an expansive multi-million dollar enterprise, with 15 campuses in five states and headquarters in downtown Bellevue. Driscoll's lively and at times alarming Sunday sermons are live-streamed to rapt audiences, amplified through high quality sound systems and projected onto drop-down movie screens.
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