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Inside Mars Hill’s massive meltdown

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.

In the late 1990s, when the church was just a few years old, Mars Hill got a massive boost in street cred when cofounder Lief Moi purchased an old movie theater in the University District, the Paradox, and turned it over to be used as an all-ages music venue, hosting shows for secular local bands almost every night.

It was a rock n' roll ministry, with rock n' roll preachers and a rock n' roll Jesus. Here and there, talented local musicians were recruited to play in the church's worship bands, so that instead of organ music or gospel choirs, church-goers were greeted by electric guitar riffs, bass lines and young Christians with full sleeve tattoos crooning into the mic. A lot of Seattle's 20-somethings started turning out for services.

A member is baptized during Easter service at Mars Hill's Samammish location. Photo: Mars Hill Church

Recently, this alt-music fueled strategy backfired after Mary Lambert, who once attended Mars Hill, wound up singing about the church in Macklemore's hit "Same Love." Lambert used to listen to Driscoll's sermons railing against homosexuality and feel miserable, but after leaving the church, her pain lifted. "And I can't change, even if I tried, even if I wanted to. My love, my love, my love, she keeps me warm," she sings in a gorgeous melodic refrain.

At right: Lambert performs "She Keeps Me Warm" at SXSW 2014. Photo: WFUV

The hit single now has 122 million views on YouTube. "Love is patient, love is kind, I'm not crying on Sundays, not crying on Sundays."

If they came for the music, or if they came for the message, what many people also found at church was overwhelming attention. Church-goers are quickly assigned to community groups that meet weekly. They also get pulled into informal counseling and mentoring sessions, trainings and classes, to the point that church can become like another job, taking up all of a person's spare time. But these structured activities also help foster deep friendships and emotional bonds.

The church is apparently able to provide an intensely emotional ambiance, such that many people interpret their experience there as how they "met Jesus."

At first, many people feel embraced, as if by family, perhaps the family they dreamed of but never had. But somewhere along the way, the hug turns into a stranglehold, a vice-grip that tightens every time a person asks a question, voices an opinion or stands up against mistreatment or abuse.

Patterns of abuse, particularly the psychologically damaging practice of shunning, first came to widespread attention for many outside Mars Hill with reporter Brendan Riley's 2012 expose, "Church or Cult?" published by the Stranger, which detailed the shunning of a young man for not repenting to the degree that church authorities thought he should.

"To them, repentence is groveling at their feet as if they are god," said former member Rob Thain Smith — who was pushed out of the church and has a blog, Musings from Underneath the Bus.

Merle and Rob Thain Smith, in their 40s when they joined in 2002, initially found the church's youthful energy to be exciting, engaging and dynamic. They were attracted to Driscoll's take on "freedom," and to the church's original structure which shared power and decision-making among two dozen male elders. From South Africa, the couple knew the dangers of repressive governments from apartheid. "I fled that environment," says Thain Smith, who builds boats and also runs a non-profit providing aid to African orphans.

At church, the Smiths were recruited to serve as informal marriage counselors, with Merle also mentoring women one-on-one. She worked closely with a pastor named Bent Meyer, whom she describes as a gentle man.

Like many others, the troubles for the Smiths began in 2007, when Driscoll decided to suspend the voting powers of the 24 elders, and consolidate power into the hands of a few hand-picked men. For disagreeing with this massive change, Meyer was fired and another pastor, Paul Petry, was put on trial. Smith recalls how, after he sent an email to the elders about the trial seeming unfair, Driscoll called him at 7 in the morning and told him he would destroy him. Then, on the same call, "he apologized," recounts Smith, "even sounding teary. Then he would start up say the same things again. It was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."

Smith's reputation was destroyed, he said, when Driscoll labeled him "divisive." In the highly charged environment of Mars Hill, this became one of the most feared words in the English language, akin to being labeled a counter-revolutionary in Maoist China. Repentence trials seemed more like class struggle meetings. Still, many stayed quiet, out of fear or misplaced loyalty, sometimes even coming to believe the charges against them, and quietly leaving the church in shame. Though the only weapons were words, the words were like a spiritual death sentence.

People are genuinely afraid of Driscoll, especially the men, said Smith. Women have often been the first to stand up to Driscoll.

"He's calling on men to be men," Smith said, "and all the men are cowering."

At right: Mark Driscoll's moment of high school yearbook fame. Photo: Cheryl Hammond

It was during this period, around the mid-2000s that Driscoll started using more violent language to discredit people.

"I think these guys were trying to do due diligence and to rein Mark in in a healthy way, and at some point he got tired of being reined in," said Wendy Alsup, who led theology classes for women at Mars Hill. She recently helped start the website "We Love Mars Hill," one of many sites where former members are posting stories, and has her own blog Theology for Women.

Driscoll would talk about an ex-elder having been "put through the wood chipper." He also likened someone to "a fart in an elevator." At one point, on a church social networking site, he told a man to "shut up your wife or I'll do it for you."

"He was just brutal," she said. "When he said these things, we all just hung our heads."

Alsup quickly learned to fear the power of group disapproval.

"They're going to project onto me that I am a bitter, nagging, contentious, gossip, manipulator. I learned to rein in my own voice."

Church cofounder Lief Moi has recently published an account of his departure from the church, also during the 2007 period. He is the one who describes himself as acting out of narcissism, and describes a philosophy of growth at any cost. "It has been written, spoke of and declared, that in order for a church to be 'On Mission' that sometimes people need to be 'Run over by the bus' and a large pile of bodies is a good thing. I know where this kind of thinking came from because I believed it to be true and was in full agreement," Moi writes. "I tell you this because this is who I was when I helped plant MH and I believe some of the values and practices of MH have come from this perspective."

Driscoll demonstrates a passing familiarity with narcissism in his most recent book, Real Marriage.

"As a pastor, I recognize that in theological terms, narcissists want to be the center of attention, like a god," Driscoll writes, "and have people worship them by paying attention to them, buying the products they promote, and emulating their behavior."

The book gained notoriety when leaked documents showed that the only reason it skyrocketed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list was because church executives used church money to pay a marketing firm to game the system. For $210,000 in tithing funds, the company purchased thousands of copies of the book, lending it the false appearance of influential popularity.

Church executive pastor, Sutton Turner, later allegedly sent an email to a member, asking for a pardon. "Please forgive me for my poor stewardship," Turner wrote in the message, which was posted online. "I take that very seriously as a King."

The fear that church members felt when Driscoll's anger is centered on them is palpable.

"If Mark had had ecclesiastical power to burn Paul at the stake I believe he would have," writes Jonna Petry, at Joyful Exiles. It was standing up for Petry's husband that caused the Smiths to be put under church discipline and leave.

Petry describes how she and her family were eventually shunned by all but a few friends, but, before she knew the pain of being the receiving end, she also describes practicing it herself, when a friend of hers was fired by Driscoll.

"Regretfully, I treated my friend, Karen, horribly," Petry writes. "After she was fired I stopped seeing her altogether. I was afraid of what it might mean for me if I continued as her friend. It was never spoken but rather understood that to remain in contact with her would be unwise. So with fear and pride in tow I conformed to the toxic system in order to show respect and loyalty."

Merle Smith describes how, even six years after leaving the church, she's still recovering.

"After we left Mars Hill, I found myself in a very hard place. I really didn't want relationships," she said. "I didn't want to go [to church], and I didn't want to see anybody." Her isolation also drew her into a closer spiritual communion with Jesus, she said, but still, she's lonely.

"These years since we left Mars Hill have really been some of the hardest of my life."

SEX

It was also around the mid-2000s that members noticed Driscoll's growing preoccupation with sex.

Driscoll also started to preach more about male privilege and sexual entitlement. This had a damaging impact on many marriages, said Rob Thain Smith, who, with Merle, was acting as an informal marriage counselor to many young couples.

"He created enormous abuse of wives," Smith said. "He helped young men objectify women, by his over emphasis of sexualization of women and subservience."

"The way Driscoll talked, you thought that he was getting it every night. All these men are seeing his hot wife, and are thinking he's got it made."

Mark and Grace Driscoll and their kids are honored for Mark's 15 years of service to the church at a 2011 Mars Hill service.  Photo: Mars Hill Church.

In Real Marriage, Driscoll bitterly describes a largely sexless marriage, and seems to imply that he's been acting out all these years because he was sexually frustrated at home.

Smith discouraged me from reading the book. "I don't recommend it," he said. "It's disturbing."

REAL MARRIAGE

Even the subtitle of Real Marriage — "The Truth About Sex, Friendship & Love" — implies that reality has, until now, been in short supply.

In the book, co-written by Grace Driscoll, she is frank and forthcoming about the abusive relationship she was in prior to meeting Mark in high school. This previous boyfriend was possessive, controlled her schedule, stalked her, and sexually assaulted her.

This abuse contributed to her emotional numbness and dissassociation during sex, she said, and she kept the story hidden for most of her life, out of a sense of shame. She seems to be in the middle of her healing process, and does not seem to have a clear idea that being sexually assaulted was not her fault.

While Mrs. Driscoll is bravely bringing to light extremely personal struggles in her life, Mr. Driscoll seems more interested in focusing on other people.

About his childhood, he mentions a series of disturbing influences.

"Ted Bundy and the Green River Killer picked up many of their victims in my neighborhood, even dumping at least two of their bodies at my Little League field," says Driscoll, who grew up in the Sea-Tac area.

"The men on my father's side include uneducated alcoholics, mental patients, and women beaters," Driscoll begins. "This includes an uncle who died of gangrene and his sons, roughly my age, who have been in prison for beating women … One of the main reasons my parents moved from North Dakota to Seattle was to get away from some family members when I was a very young boy."

Driscoll fails to acknowledge that running away rarely stops the cycle of abuse. How did his family deal with it? Was Driscoll's father among the men who were abusive? As one member put it: "Crickets."

Parsing out the things that Driscoll says can quickly lead a person down the rabbit hole, where everything is upside-down, backwards or distorted. In a portion of the book about the dangers of consuming pornography, Driscoll again brings up Ted Bundy, providing an excerpt of Bundy's last interview as a cautionary tale against consuming pornography.

"I grew up in a wonderful home with two dedicated and loving parents," begins the quoted passage. Driscoll presents Bundy's account of blaming his serial murders solely on his addiction to porn as credible, and does not reveal important context about Bundy's true exposure to family abuse. According to Bundy's defense lawyer, his mother was living in a home for unmarried pregnant women when she gave birth to him, and that family members speculated that Bundy's grandfather, who was highly abusive to Bundy's grandmother, could also be his father.

It would be perverse understatement to say that Driscoll and other elders at Mars Hill seem ill-equipped to counsel people who have been sexually abused. The church seems to equate being abused with doling it out. "We are all made dirty and defiled through the sins we commit and the sins committed against us. Jesus makes us clean," reads a church Facebook post on the matter.

Blogger Matthew Paul Turner has posted another disturbing account by another exile of Mars Hill, a woman who under the psuedonym "Amy" describes what it was like to get marital advice from Driscoll.

"Once, when I shared with Mark that I felt neglected in my marriage, he told [me] that I was being a nagging wife and that I needed to suck it up. That was something Mark preached about a lot — the nagging wife.”

Later, Driscoll told her and her husband that she was beset by sex demons.

"Mark stared hard at Amy and began yelling questions at her 'sex demons'. His fierce glare seemed to look past her as he screamed his questions at her face. He asked the demons what their names were. He asked them about sex. He asked them about Amy’s past sexual sins. He asked them about Amy’s current lustful thoughts. He asked them if they were planning to destroy marriages in his church. And then he asked whose marriages were they planning to destroy and how. And then, according to Amy, Mark cast the demons out."

After Amy filed for divorce, she, too, was shunned.

With all of the bad things happening to people at church, it begs the question, why do people stay?

Warren Throckmorton, a professor at a Christian college outside Pittsburgh, Penn., who first started blogging about Mars Hill while looking into allegations of plagiarism in Driscoll's books said that what kept his interest were Driscoll's claims that he can see other people's sins.

"You can keep people in a movement by making them responsible," said Throckmorton, who has studied new religious movements, "by giving them a position and telling them 'You'd be letting people down if you quit. You'd be hurting people. You've already commiteed to this, you're going to look like you don't know what you believe.'"

"People think to themselves, 'How can I go against what I've said in public? I just stood up last month and said what a great church this is.' On the cognitive end of things, it's been a comfortable viewpoint. You think, 'This makes sense, it gives me a purpose.'"

"People go through a period of questioning before they ever leave anything."

Jonna Petry describes what it feels like to be caught in a delusion. "I have come to believe that when idolatry is at play, it often creates and allows for an unreality to take hold of those who participate, as if under a spell, unable to see or hear the truth because it is all filtered through a projected 'reality.' But it is a false reality — a delusion. I believe this dynamic is often true in cults where there is one dominant, charismatic, controlling leader," she writes.

After the mass exodus of 2007, the church continued to grow. In 2009, Driscoll's growing celebrity led to a profile in the New York Times Magazine, "Who Would Jesus Smackdown?", where he was portrayed as at the zeitgeist of an emerging "New Calvinist" movement. Mars Hill claims 14,000 members, and, in a missionary effort, hundreds of enthusiastic Mars Hill adopters have dispersed around the world, like dandelion seeds on a breeze, creating a network of over 400 loosely affiliated churches. Driscoll has stepped down from leading the Acts 29 Network, and no longer sits on the board of directors.

Currently, attendance is down by 1000 people at the church's Bellevue meetinghouse, a former member told me. Almost the entire staff has turned over, with an estimated 40 pastors and hundreds of staff who quit, fired or were laid off in the last two years.

Nevertheless, the church is advertising a new meetinghouse set to open in Spokane.

At the Bellevue meetinghouse, situated next door to Barnes and Noble and near Bellevue Square mall, with its clusters of Edison bulbs and contemporary minimalist furniture, the church feels kind of like an Ikea showroom. A week ago, when I attended a service, Driscoll wasn't there. Instead another pastor, Dave Bruskas was video-streamed in from someplace else.

Right: Greeters at Mars Hill's Bellevue location. Photo: Mars Hill Church.

He humble-bragged about not being cool enough to watch trendy TV shows, except "Breaking Bad," a reference I found interesting because several bloggers have called Driscoll the Walter White of organized religion. In what felt like blatant grasping to connect with the young audience, he talked about the recent tearful conversion of a man named "Buck," whom he portrayed as a super cool alternative Albuquerque D.J., but who in reality does the morning show for a Clear Channel station. Bruskas said the word "Jesus" so many times, I felt like I might be going into a hypnotic trance.

The sermon was prefaced and book-ended by a six-piece Christian indie-rock band. One young man in the audience kept putting his hand up in the air. At first, I thought he had a question, but later other people did it too, and I realized he must be feeling the music.

Paradoxically, many of the Christian values that attracted members to Mars Hill in the first place, have been found after leaving the church.

Former members are using the anarchy of the internet to take responsibility for their lives, telling their stories and seeking forgiveness directly from each other. They are by-passing clergymen and confessing to the world at large.

"People are apologizing to each other left and right," Alsup told me, "each one of us understanding that we were all afraid. … We're a lot bolder and blunter than we've ever been with each other. It's been neat to find our voice again."

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