What Reformed Churches Can Learn from Mark Driscoll

I’ve been listening with great interest to the new series at Christianity Today, “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.” At the pinnacle of Mark Driscoll’s success, I was pastoring a Reformed church in Lynden, WA, about an hour and a half north of Seattle. It was a challenging time in the landscape of rural Christianity.

A new megachurch in Lynden was drawing out the boomers from classic Reformed churches by the thousands. This church purchased the local shopping mall and created the closest thing as they could achieve, in appearance and message, to Rick Warren’s Saddleback church, abandoning anything that reminded their members of their Reformed past. It was light, easy-going, unstructured, entertainment Christianity—at its best.

There was, at that time, across the spectrum, circa 2005, a reaction to anything in Christianity that was structured or formal. People loathed visiting a church with a pastor in a suit and old music. There was something psychologically repulsive that happened for people when they walked into a church and looked at anything formal, especially if the music did not achieve the rated quality of a good experience.

But it wasn’t just the look, it was the “sound” too. As a pastor, I had a hard time grasping what was driving people in every direction. The sad reality was, in many traditional churches across America, there had been, over the years, a lot of angry, legal preachers who turned the Christian pulpit into brow-beating sessions on how bad the culture had become. This created an “us versus them” kind of ministry that offered little hope of the gospel to free people from sin. Preaching became a giant exercise in the advancement of self-righteousness in the particular legal emphases of that ministry.

The prop was the law of God itself. The minister could gain control of the people through the power of guilt and shame by making them feel that they were never doing enough for the kingdom of God. As the pastor assured them, at least they were on the right side of the fence so long as they stayed under his ministry. But these kinds of legal ministries have breaking points and people snap, as they run somewhere else to get away from it all.

Mark Driscoll and The Power of Shame

This was the perfect moment for Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill church to capitalize on the problem. Generation X had little toleration for the Saddleback model; it was viewed as their parent’s vision for the church as an escape from perceived abuse. Driscoll, however, was able to create a strange paradox in mixing both worlds. He used ancient symbols, creating the sense of an authentic Christianity, while still being able to strip away the churchiness that drove young people away from the church to begin with.

Front and center were ancient light fixtures, dark and mysterious, without that stereotypical, crusty old man in a suit behind a wood pulpit. There was something esthetically pleasing that looked even more authentic than the traditional church and that remarkably provided a bridge back to the church for the disenfranchised. And the music? How could you mingle together an authentic church with music that pleased a punk rock generation? Driscoll achieved this and more.

As I’ve listened to Mike Cosper’s series on Mars Hill, there is one comment I have not been able to get out of my head. Cosper questioned how the power of shame is able to change anyone. Driscoll’s ministry was one of angrily shaming people into obedience. But herein lies the sad irony of Mars Hill.

During my time of pastoring in Washington State, we had numerous young people move to Seattle and attend Mars Hill. I can’t comment here on the damage done as it’s too personal to the families involved. But what’s often missed in the Mars Hill story is that those hit the hardest by the Mars Hill bus were young adults from previously churched rural America. Many of these had previously exited classic Christianity for the reasons mentioned above, and attended Mars Hill as their last hope for finding a place in the church.
To what did they run? A man who could re-create the church into something that they felt was their own. Here was a pastor who was masculine, (well, not really) and yet could preach to millennials in a mickey mouse t-shirt. Here was a pastor who could create an authentic looking sanctuary in the world’s most unchurched city of Seattle and exceed capacity on a given Sunday. Here was a pastor who broke down all conventional norms of speech on sexuality without any seeming consequence but success. Here was a pastor who didn’t worry about offending the culture but didn’t look the classic Bible-thumping preacher. Here was a pastor who gave the appearance of strength in a weak culture, who spoke with absolute authority without ever appearing to compromise. This had to be from God.

But Driscoll embodied the same anger and ability to hold people through the power of shame in the same way experienced by those who had left structured Christianity to begin with. As Cosper observes, Driscoll took a particular prop, women, and beat men into silent submission through guilt and shame. He controlled them with his own nuanced law of conformity, into his vision of manhood, and used the power of shame to hold people. He scripted angry sermon rants, clips that were played all over the internet, and downloaded by the millions. And it shouldn’t go without noting that Cosper exposes how Driscoll’s entire ministry ended in an “us versus them” angry ethos. The irony: Driscoll embodied the same ministry of an angry legal preacher that had driven many of out the church to begin with, only he did it in Vans and designer jeans with a subject that struck deeply into marital relationships that were in desperate need of help.

It’s no wonder that under Mars Hill bus are “a mountain of dead bodies” who will never return to the church. If people leave a form of structured Christianity due to angry legalism the solution will never be found in creating an updated version the same legalism even though its couched with all the aesthetics that make the new generation comfortable. The issue was Driscoll himself and the message he embodied.

What the Reformers actually taught about the Christian ministry is what we need to recover. As John Calvin once said,

Many other things, undoubtedly, are contained in the Gospel, but the principal object which God intends to accomplish by it is, to receive men into favor by not imputing their sins. If, therefore, we wish to show that we are faithful ministers of the Gospel, we must give our most earnest attention to this subject; for the chief point of difference between the Gospel and heathen philosophy lies in this, that the Gospel makes the salvation of men to consist in the forgiveness of sins through free grace.

What a tragedy if Reformed pulpits are attempting to control people through the power of shame, leaving the impression that God’s people are not doing enough good works to enter the kingdom of God. What a tragedy if the same goal of transforming the world looks and sounds a lot like Mark Driscoll’s vision of transforming Seattle. Did the reader hear the CT intro over an over: “How dare you…who do you think you are” as Driscoll screamed at his congregation in anger? How might our Reformed ministries compare to this same kind of ministry from the pulpit?

It’s a gospel-driven, gracious message that saves people and brings true change, especially in how we love our wives as Christ does the church. The pastor, too, must submit to that message, knowing that such a calling takes away his own control over the people, as it’s meant to do. Then the ministry is really all about Jesus, as Driscoll used to incessantly say. This is the lesson Reformed people can learn from the tragic account of the rise and fall of Mark Driscoll.

—Chris Gordon, Escondido


  1. Thank you for this article. This is a such a timely warning for us all to remember we are jars of clay.
    As a parent to teenagers, this was good personal reminder; I have no “control”over their hearts and should only be leading them patiently and gently to the rock that is greater than I, that Rock is Jesus Christ our Savior and our redeemer.
    Thank you and may the Lord continue to bless you in your calling.

  2. You are correct to point out that people leave traditional Reformed churches for some of the same reasons which caused the Mars Hill downfall. And yes sometimes people are leaving for Mars Hill style churches. But to be sure, most are not leaving for a “look or a sound”. I think what is missed, if we want to probe deeper, is the problem within Reformed churches of the lack of action within specific individual churches and denominations (and without via sister NAPARC denoms) of a lack of courage to confront serious wrongs in favor of a kind of over done professional courtesy toward other Reformed leaders. That is a nice way of saying it. A kind of “we will handle this in house to keep a lid on it” hiding behind the facade of church authority. There exists in the larger Reformed community a kind of attitude which always defers to the authority figures and status quo systems. Despite the claim on paper that there is a process for justice in that system, it has left many soured with the reality that a plurality of elders is often a technocratic shelter conducive for systemic leadership abuse like the kind described here in independent non- denominational churches. We can hardly blame those exasperated who reach a point of being fed up and therefore leave either one.

    Thank God our hope is in Christ not systems, traditions or denominations.
    It doesn’t make us anti-systems or anti-denominations to say so. It has us rightly putting Christ supreme over and above systems. This too is a lesson Reformed churches are in desperate need of learning from.

  3. Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and with severity you have dominated them. They were scattered for lack of a shepherd, and they became food for every beast of the field and were scattered. (Ezek. 34:4-6)

  4. You really pointed at the source of the problem in the churches, the abandoning of the gospel for pragmatic legalism, as an expedient to make people behave. This is not only true of Mark Driscoll, but as you point out, in traditional churches. The only true incentive to a God pleasing obedience, is the loving gratitude of regenerated Christian, who wants to please God by striving to obey the Law, not to be right with God, but because he trusts he has been accepted by God through the perfect, imputed passive and active righteousness of Christ alone.

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