Evangelism meets Seattle: the view from Mars Hill

Both the burgeoning church and an (unrelated) graduate school provide a perspective on how postmodern Christian movement churches are striking up conversations — and sparks — with mainstream culture.
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A view of the <i>other</i> Mars Hill, the graduate school in Belltown.

Both the burgeoning church and an (unrelated) graduate school provide a perspective on how postmodern Christian movement churches are striking up conversations — and sparks — with mainstream culture.

Two years ago, Shannon Walker of Oakland Googled "Mars Hill," looking for the Seattle church she'd heard about. The search led her instead to the Web site of the city's graduate school of the same name. The 30-year-old speech pathologist discovered her error, but, intrigued, she decided to visit the school. She attended a lecture by a professor "incredibly passionate and vulnerable and heartbreakingly honest" and enrolled in the school's Master of Divinity program.

It's not the first time the two Mars Hills have been mixed up. They are not really related, though they share a name and a city, and they both belong more or less to the emerging church, a sort of decentralized postmodern Christian movement that seeks to live in conversation with the mainstream culture, rather than in isolation from it. If that sounds like a mouthful, fair enough: Insiders have been debating what it means for some 15 years without reaching consensus.

The similarities between the two Mars Hills end pretty quickly. When I meet students of the graduate school, they typically introduce themselves with a disclaimer: "It's not related to the church." They don't mention what the church is most known for — its charismatic, controversial pastor Mark Driscoll or his encouragement of married women to leave the workforce and raise children full-time — but it's a way to clear the air of preconceptions just in case.

For members of Mars Hill Church, distinguishing themselves from the Belltown seminary is less imperative. With 3,586 members and an average of 7,500 weekly attendees, the church is a far larger and better-known institution. It's added satellite campuses, pastors, and an organized network of active community groups swiftly enough to become Seattle's largest church just 12 years after it started in a rental home in Wallingford. So let's start with a look at the church.

A few weeks ago, I visited the church's Lake City campus, one of four the church has opened just since last fall (the others are in Belltown, Bellevue, and Olympia). In front of a large projection screen, Pastor James Harleman greeted the mostly white, mostly under-40 crowd. A well-rehearsed band led the gathering into folk-pop praise songs, and I listened for clues to the church's theology. They were impossible to miss. The second song, "Destruction," began:

From the first time you flooded the earth
To the last time you burned off the curse
To the way that you hated your Son,
When you hung all the sins of the earth

... Heaven will disappear with a roar
The host of God will come to destroy
Sin is a declaration of war
God will have his glory one way or another.

I'd been expecting to find that the church's hip, urban image, like its reputation for being unusually rigorous and demanding, was something of a veneer. I'd expected to see conventional suburban evangelicalism dressed up in tattoos and skinny jeans. But "the way that you hated your Son" — the notion of God the Father hating God the Son — you don't find that in most evangelical churches. The Sunday morning crowd sang right through it, though.

Pastor Harleman announced a film-and-discussion series. (The emerging church loves faith-meets-film discussions; so does the graduate school, and after ten minutes of local church, the projection screen transported us, through an anime-inspired short video, to Mark Driscoll.

The 38-year-old Driscoll has acquired the nickname "The Cussing Pastor," as if mere foul language were enough to build a following. (If it were that easy, the pastors of Seattle's struggling mainline churches would gladly salt-up their language.) But Driscoll's a tremendously skilled communicator. Pacing the stage at the main Ballard campus, he delivered a sermon on marriage roles as he saw them set forth in the Song of Solomon. He told stories from his own marriage, offered statistics, and dropped jokes without their feeling forced. Every few minutes he would sniff in a thoughtful, practiced sort of way. This untucked, down-to-earth demeanor was the opposite of a huckster televangelist, but polished in its own way. It makes the guy easy to listen to.

The words that seem to come easily to Driscoll have also gotten him into trouble, particularly through his blog. When prominent Evangelical leader Ted Haggard was accused of hiring a male prostitute and buying methamphetamine, Driscoll wrote, "A wife who lets herself go and is not sexually available to her husband in the ways that the Song of Songs is so frank about is not responsible for her husband's sin, but she may not be helping him either." When the Episcopal Church elected a woman as its presiding bishop, he wrote, "If Christian males do not man up soon, the Episcopalians may vote a fluffy bunny rabbit as their next bishop to lead God's men." Those comments, for which Driscoll later apologized under pressure, have told many all they need to know about the church.

At the October 5 service, Driscoll didn't skirt the issue that many find most offensive about his church, its teaching on gender roles. Nearly the whole sermon dealt with this. At one point Driscoll brought his wife, Grace, up to the front to help answer questions, which churchgoers at all seven campuses had text-messaged to him during the sermon.

"The Bible teaches in the New Testament that the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church," he said. "... What this means is he is supposed to lovingly, humbly, graciously, sacrificially lead his family. ... Many men wrongly take that doctrine and turn it into an abusive relationship meaning 'I'm the boss, she's property, I tell her what to do, and she is supposed to submit to me.' That's a misuse and abuse of a Biblical principal because it's nothing like Jesus treats the church."

I asked Shannon Walker about this. After moving to Seattle to study at Mars Hill Graduate School, she began attending the church as well. She also continued her work as a speech-language pathologist here. Mars Hill Church includes hundreds of married women who left professional careers to be stay-at-home mothers, per Driscoll's teaching, and I wondered what someone like Walker thought about this.

"Mark is very polarizing," she said. "It's not that I don't have strong disagreements, but it's the community groups, more often than not, that are the heart of the church. It's all well and good to visit a service, but Mark Driscoll is not the heart of the church. And he would say that as well."

After growing up in an Independent Baptist Fundamentalist church in California, Walker carried "a lot of anger" toward religion. Her community group of 20 or so gave her a place to decide if she could ever feel comfortable in a church, she said. It supported her through difficult personal times and helped carry her stuff when she moved across town this summer. She left the Mars Hill Graduate School after a year, but keeps meeting with the church community group.

"I'm going to disagree with something at any church," she said. "But that matters less and less if I'm with people who have loved me and carried me well. And that's really happened with my community group at Mars Hill Church. They've loved me in really beautiful ways."

So now let's shift back to the Graduate School, Seattle's other Mars Hill. If Mars Hill Church tolerates a diversity of viewpoints, Mars Hill Graduate School actively promotes that sort of diversity. You hear a lot about "conversations" and "dialogue" at the school and on its collection of student blogs. It's a place where the systematic theology course is titled "Constructing the Theological Mosaic" and world religions is about "Encountering Religious Otherness."

After starting as a branch of Western Seminary in Portland 11 years ago, the school became independent in 2002 and moved into a stylish red brick building in Belltown two years ago. Its tagline "text.soul.culture." hangs over Elliott Avenue. The school has carved a niche among seminaries by emphasizing the therapeutic aspect of pastoring, training students in both theology and counseling psychology. It sounds obvious that pastors should have a foundation in both of these fields, but the school's founders saw this lacking at many other seminaries. Professor Ron Carucci got at the heart of the school's thinking when he told The Post-Intelligencer, "If you can't read the human face, you cannot really read Scripture."

This non-traditional approach appeals to students like Walker and Cabe Matthews, a third-year student who hopes to enter the ministry full-time when he graduates. He described the school as a friendly place for "recovering evangelicals" — those who have been burned by institutional religion, but are willing to give it another chance.

The same outlook attracted Dwight Friesen, a pastor for a network of Eastside house churches, who joined the school's faculty five years ago. "I've seen enough church leaders who can [interpret] Scripture extraordinarily well but who can't see people as relational," he said. "That hermeneutic failure has, I think, created great harm." Friesen hopes the school's 300-some students will learn to "line up with those who have been most marginalized" in society. "We want our students to be readers of life," he said. "There's a theme throughout scripture that calls for people to line up with those who have been most marginalized. That means different things in different contexts, but we want our students to think about how they might live in such a way that those margins might be erased."

And what's the meaning of the odd name, Mars Hill? There was a Mars Hill in ancient Athens (Mars being the god of war), which became the center of debate and philosophy. There the Apostle Paul debated the city's great thinkers in the New Testament book of Acts. It's an appealing name for American Christians trying to shed their tradition's anti-intellectual tendencies. Accordingly, America has a lot of Mars Hills — a Mars Hill Bible church in Michigan, a Mars Hill school in Ohio, a Mars Hill audio journal, and a now-defunct Mars Hill literary journal.

And of course, two such names in Seattle, a city of many hills. "It's a classic case of feeling like you're innovative and then finding out others are using [the name] too," said Harleman, the church's Lake City pastor. "We stole it from a hill in Greece, so we can't really claim it's ours."

"It's kind of unfortunate," concedes the graduate school's Friesan. But it at least provides an opportunity to explain to secular Seattle that there are different kinds of Christians, he said. At one point the two institutions discussed the name together and decided they could coexist, Friesan said. "A good name is more desirable than riches," says the Book of Proverbs. For pursuing the kingdom of heaven in their different ways, they've each decided the name works, confusion be damned.


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