A tale of two churches: Mars Hill vs. University Baptist

The booming Mars Hill Church recently bought University Baptist's building for $2.5 million, underscoring a surprising trend away from liberal congregations in Seattle.
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University Baptist Church

The booming Mars Hill Church recently bought University Baptist's building for $2.5 million, underscoring a surprising trend away from liberal congregations in Seattle.

For area church-watchers, the recent news that the Ballard-based Mars Hill Church has purchased the University Baptist Church building may not be surprising, but it is noteworthy, even striking. The tale of these two churches — the decline of one and the ascent of the other — tells a story of larger shifts in the Northwest.

University Baptist Church, near the University of Washington, had long been a standard bearer for progressive religion and social-activist politics. In the 1980s and 1990s, University Baptist was led by Donovan Cook. A charismatic minister, Cook often could be found in the forefront of demonstrations and protests against wars and for social equality. But Cook'ꀙs pastorate ended badly. He was charged with having been involved in a string of sexual affairs, some with members of the congregation.

Cook was followed by Tim Phillips, now senior minister at First Baptist Church, just east of downtown on First Hill. The University congregation, under Phillips' leadership, tried to find its way forward. But it was relatively small, had already eroded, and had aged. Questions about its future and its capacity to support its current building loomed large as the '90s ended and the first decade of the new century passed.

Meanwhile, in the 1990s Mark Driscoll was creating Mars Hill Church in the basement of First Presbyterian Church, adjacent to Interstate-5 just east of downtown Seattle. From the beginning, Driscoll has been driven by a concern for reaching marginalized and floundering young men to change their lives. He connected with this group, in part, because of his own often raw personal style. At the time, he became known in Emergent Church circles as 'ꀜthe cussing pastor.'ꀝ

The 'ꀜMars Hill'ꀝ name is further evidence of a confrontational spirit. In the New Testament book of 'ꀜActs,'ꀝ Mars Hill is the setting where the first-generation Christian leader and missionary, Paul, took on the philosophers of Athens and the religious world of the ancient Greeks. As a name, 'ꀜMars Hill'ꀝ signals a willingness to challenge the prevailing ethos, something Driscoll thrives on.

The effort to reach and transform the lives of aimless young men has continued for Driscoll, whose Mars Hill Church looks to the University location as its 10th 'ꀜcampus.'ꀝ For a least a year, Mars Hill has been holding services in a rented Kane Hall on the UW campus to establish a beachhead at the university.

Meanwhile, University Baptist embodied a quite different spirit and ethos. It was a spirit that was at home with the modern and tolerant ethos associated with a university. Again, the name, University Baptist Church, is in its way telling. Rather than an oppositional name like 'ꀜMars Hill,'ꀝ this congregation — like most founded in the same era and location — embraced its neighborhood and sought to fit in to the university setting. In that spirit, it increasingly emphasized social justice, changing social structures, and society itself, rather than personal change or regeneration.

As some sort of barometer of religion'ꀙs changing role, these two churches evidence a shift. Once, in the not too distant past, Protestant Christianity was the religious expression of the prevailing culture and its values. Increasingly, it seems that Christianity, at least in its currently thriving expressions like Mars Hill, plays a more oppositional role in relation to the prevailing culture and its values.

What will happen with the remaining congregation of University Baptist remains to be seen. In June the congregation called a new pastor. There have been discussions between that congregation and nearby University Disciples Church. The latter has a large neo-gothic home on the corner of 15th Avenue Northeast and Northeast 50th Street. That congregation, too, is small and aging. It already rents out substantial portions of its building to support various community programs and gain revenue.

If there is a congregation in the University District that might see Mars Hill as competition, if not exactly a threat, then it might be University Presbyterian Church. UPC has long been the largest church in the district (between 2,000 and 3,000 members), with a significant presence among UW students. UPC also has tended to be more theologically conservative than other university area churches and thus closer to Mars Hill in that respect.

Mars Hill'ꀙs acquisition of University Baptist, for $2.5 million, would seem to confirm the recent research of UW Professor James Wellman, in "Evangelical vs. Liberal: The Clash of Culture in the Pacific Northwest." Among other things, Wellman argued that the common characterization of the Northwest as secular or churchless may not be accurate.

In his study, Wellman found that innovative and entrepreneurial evangelical churches, of which Mars Hill is certainly a leading example, were thriving in the Northwest. It was the more liberal churches that faced the toughest challenges and were struggling here. As Wellman comments, it seems paradoxical that liberal churches would struggle, given the generally liberal ethos of Seattle.

It may be that relatively comfortable liberals, so long dominant in Seattle, simply feel little need for religion. Meanwhile, the people Mars Hill is reaching may have experienced more of the rough edges of contemporary society and are receptive to a different direction.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.