On the Mars Hill Church Phenomenon

Now and then over the past several years, I have been asked what I think about Mars Hill Church, based here in Seattle, or about their founder and main pastor, Mark Driscoll. For the most part, Mr. Driscoll has written enough inflammatory, self-incriminating remarks that are a part of the public record that he has made it fairly easy for me to justify my deep apprehension about the damage I believe he is doing to those who listen to his preaching on a regular basis. I have also listened to a half-dozen or so sermons of his online just to make sure I was giving him a fair shake. They only confirmed my fears.

However, the one argument in favor of the work he is doing that has always caused me to hesitate on feeling more justified about the worries I have for those in his congregation has been the sheer numbers of people who are flocking to his church. As has been said to me, and even by me at times, "We ought to be grateful that all those people are hearing the Word of the Lord." I know that the vast majority of those same people would never be attracted to a congregation that I serve as a pastor. So, why not just say, "God bless Mark Driscoll for the work he is doing;" and move on? But I have never been able to make peace with that sentiment; and, it seemed like it was because of more than pure envy alone (though I know some of that was/is mixed in too). I just couldn't figure out why it felt wrong to leave it at that. I think I now know why.

This Sunday marks the day on the Church calendar that we call "Palm Sunday." It commemorates the occasion of Jesus entering Jerusalem at the beginning of what we now call Holy Week. Many of the English translations of this story in the Gospels headline this section, "The Triumphal Entry." And, why not? It is estimated that 10's of thousands, if not, 100's of thousands, flocked to the road upon which Jesus was entering the city, waving palm branches (a sign of welcoming a victorious hero), and crying out, "Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the Name of the Lord!" In John's retelling of the event, he notes that the people even added, "Blessed is the King of Israel! (John 12:13, NIV) Meanwhile, the frustrated mainline pastors, otherwise known as the Pharisees, looked on in total exasperation, even commenting, "The whole world has gone after him!"

It sounds and looks a lot like many of us current mainline pastors as we look on at what is happening at Mars Hill, and in total exasperation think "the whole world" is now going there! So, again, why can't we just be thankful for the crowds worshipping Jesus and move on? My answer is the same as that that the writer's of the Gospel's came to after watching the full story of Holy Week play out. As the week went on, the multitude of people, the thousands upon thousands who were hailing Jesus as the Messiah, the King, ended up realizing that he wasn't at all what they were told he was; and, when they found out who he really was, they ALL left him. The number of disciples who stood with Jesus at the cross at the end of the week was down to single digits!

The expectation of the crowds waving palm branches was that Jesus was a kick-ass stud who was going to pummel the Roman occupiers, throw out the namby-pamby religious leaders and take over like a real-man should! But that is not what happened at all, because that is not who Jesus is. It's not who he was or will be. In fact, Jesus specifically rode into town, NOT on a horse, which would have been a sign that he was coming to kick some ass, but he rode in on a donkey, as a sign that he came in peace. Later in the week, when the authorities came to arrest him and Peter pulled out his sword and sliced off the ear of one of the guards, presaging the "God-given" American right to bear arms, Jesus specifically and thoroughly renounced exactly that way of doing things! "Put your sword back in its place...for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?" (Matthew 26:52-54, NIV) Rather than "man-up" like some fighter in MMA, Jesus allowed himself, chose, to be led to his crucifixion "...like a sheep to the slaughter." (Acts 8:32, NIV) This is the same Jesus who shocked similar crowds of people earlier in his career by proclaiming,

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3-10, NIV)

Now, either he was lying, or he really meant that these are the "blessed" ones, not the strong, the arrogant, or the mocking. This is also the same Jesus who showed his own sensitivity by openly crying in overwhelming sympathy for his friends Martha and Mary as they mourned the death of their brother, Lazarus. And, this was no mere trickle of a tear down his cheek as he stoically "manned-up." As Bible scholar, F. Dale Bruner puts it, "I think 'bawling' fairly captures Jesus' genuine heartbreak with and compassion for those around him." (p.678, The Gospel of John: A Commentary)

My fear is that the crowds of people, the literally thousands of people, who are attending Mars Hill Church, Sunday after Sunday, are being sold a false Jesus. I think they are being taught that Jesus is powerful and victorious in an "we-are-better-than-the-pagans-and-weak-Christians" way, a way that Jesus condemned over and over and over again when he saw it in the serious, religious leaders of his day; rather than being taught the Jesus of the Gospels, who is powerful and victorious but powerful and victorious over prejudice, elitism, sin that separates, and death. I fear they are following after a triumphantly, nationalistic Christ that is, in fact, a blasphemy; rather than following the one who came because God so loved the WORLD, that he gave his only begotten Son. I simply do not believe that the Jesus being proclaimed by a man who encouraged his followers on Facebook to share their favorite stories of "effeminate, anatomicaly-male, worshipper leaders," is the same Jesus of the Gospels I believe in. And, simply because there are thousands and thousands of people lining up to hear him doesn't mean they are hearing the true Word of God, or following the King, as Jesus defined himself. Look no further than the crowds lining the road to Jerusalem that "triumphant" day. Come the crucifixion, will they still be there?