Theology & Church

Charisma over character: life on Mars Hill

The podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill makes for compelling listening.  For those who don’t know, it tells the story of the mega-church in Seattle founded by Mark Driscoll in the mid-1990s.  The church grew rapidly, had an incredible online reach and exerted huge influence.

But, when Driscoll resigned in 2014 following disciplinary investigations, it collapsed almost overnight.

The podcast is brilliantly produced and tells a gripping story in a balanced, honest and fair way. Mark Driscoll certainly makes for good copy. He is a fascinating character: over-brimming with talent, passion and forthrightness.

As described in one episode, he was (and remains) ‘rocket-fuel’ for anything he is associated with.

Narcissistic bullying

As many testify on the podcast, Driscoll’s powerful abilities led to many positives in the life of the church. But it is also a key reason why those around him – often wise, experienced and faithful people – tolerated his narcissistic excesses, abusive and bullying behaviour for so long.

But what makes this podcast so good? After all, listening to a post-mortem of moral and spiritual failure has limitations. It could easily become salacious, judgemental and finger-pointy.

Challenge to us

What elevates this podcast is the challenge it brings to all Christians to think more deeply and act more authentically in response to charisma, celebrity and power.  For those in smaller churches in other countries, the context may feel light years away from our own, but this challenge is relevant everywhere.

The opening episode is titled Who Killed Mars Hill? Without reducing Driscoll’s culpability, the narrator challenges the tendency to elevate charisma over character:

‘Why do we keep doing this? Why are we regularly platforming people whose charisma outpaces their character and who leave devastation in their wake? Something attracts us, we buy in, and then we watch the collapse like spectators at a demolition-derby.’

The other Mars Hill…

Listening to this podcast reminded me of experiences I had 12 years ago with the other well-known church called Mars Hill. The one in Michigan, Mars Hill Bible Church established by Rob Bell.

At the time I led a team which helped churches develop community projects in deprived areas. Two senior staff from the church in Michigan came to a workshop run by myself and my colleague Adam Bonner at a Faithworks conference in 2009. Afterwards, they invited us out to lead 2 days with their staff team, which numbered around 50.

Exciting trip

We were used to working in more humble contexts, so it was an exciting to be asked to work with such a well-known church. Also, we had both appreciated Rob Bell’s books and liked his Nooma videos.

But the experience proved to be an eye-opener to how US mega churches operate.

We met Rob Bell briefly after a Sunday service but actually he played zero role in any of our work with the staff team.

‘Rock star’

I asked the church’s CEO why Bell would not come to even part of the sessions. I will never forget his reply:

‘Rob’s a rock-star man. He’ll never come to this kind of thing.’

Bell’s teaching was undoubtedly inspirational. It drew thousands of people into the church and it grew rapidly. But there little practical connection between this and the day to day operation of the church.

Gap

As our 2 days with the staff team proved, this gap between compelling vision and actual operation of the church was the most significant challenges facing the staff team. 

For example, just before we visited, Bell had preached an series on generous giving. In response, he asked the congregation to donate money and goods into white buckets which would then be distributed to poorer people. People gave generously and a huge amount of money and electronic goods were donated.

But little thought had been given as to how these were to be distributed.

In the days immediately after, the church was besieged by people asking for money, ipods and all kinds of things. We met staff who were traumatised by the stress of managing the fallout.

‘Vision wins’

It was shortly after Bell had published his book Love Wins and the phrase adorned stickers and posters around the church. But as one of the staff said to me:

‘The truth is, it’s not love that wins at this church. Its vision that wins’

Unhealthy

Of course, the controversies that have faced both Rob Bell and Mark Driscoll are very different.  Bell’s chiefly relate to the evangelical backlash at his theology and this is a completely different type of issue than Driscoll’s abusive bullying.

But, what is similar is that both pastors were treated as if they are rock stars. And this is simply not healthy.

The Mars Hill podcast is (yet another) reminder that power corrupts.  However talented, charismatic or powerful, Christian leaders must remain connected and properly accountable to the community of which they are a part. 

When they do, it gives them the best chance of remaining faithful to the humble person at the heart of whole enterprise of ‘Christianity’. When they don’t, all kinds of trouble starts to brew…

Related: ‘I am kind of a Big Deal’: insecure pride and humble confidence

13 thoughts on “Charisma over character: life on Mars Hill”

  1. Very good, as usual. 😊😊
    I want to ask a question about charisma, charismata and spiritual discernment but am not sure how to phrase it. Perhaps I’m interested to know if you think one can have charisma WITHOUT it being a charismatic gift? Or is it always a charismatic gift, but sometimes used with spiritual discernment or not (by Christians) and sometimes not (by not)? 🤔

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    1. Hi Neil, well, I think God created all things and this includes the abilities of charisma which enable leaders to inspire others. Hitler was probably one of the most charismatic men ever. I tend not to like emphasising a sacred-secular divide – so would probably say that these gifts can be used spiritually – to help people connect with God but too often, they puff people up and (in Mark Driscoll’s case) become corrupted and used to create a whole heap of harm. Does that answer your question?!

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  2. Thank you for the very useful quote to remember, “‘The truth is, it’s not love that wins at this church. Its vision that wins.”

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  3. “Why do we keep doing this? Why are we regularly platforming people whose charisma outpaces their character and who leave devastation in their wake?” Every theological college should address this.
    (Not sure about making ‘platform’ into a verb, but the point is very well made.)

    It is my insecurity which tempts me to elevate another and put myself in the lower place. It is also something of an ‘orphan heart’, so that I look for a ‘parent’ to take charge and I can cease to be an adult for a bit and slump back into hurt / adapted child. (To use the helpful model from Transactional Analysis).
    I suspect that lots of people try to do this to you Jon, and one of your amazing fresh gifts is that you refuse to be elevated and remain very human, personal, imperfect, approachable.

    The Church will continue to behave like this until I and we behave and believe differently.

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    1. thanks Matthew. I agree – managing the ego, especially in the world of church leadership where people project all kinds of things onto the leaders is a particular minefield.

      Your comments are kind but I think I largely avoid this mainly because I am not a talented preacher – I have the gift of enthusiasm rather than ‘inspiration’! If you are able through your rhetoric to lift and inspire a whole stadium of people then I imagine its easy to believe your own hype!

      But I like your comment – we must all behave differently for this to change,

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  4. Thank you for your timely reminders of the fact that it is within all of us to act like this – only Rob Bell and Mark Driscoll did it on a public stage.
    Like you, I will be praying that God will give us all true humility as we look to Him.

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  5. Wow Jon, time and again I see how we could just replace the word “church” with “politics” – God’s principles are not just for Christians, they are for humanity and the planet! Imagine if we voted for people with more character and less charisma…
    Great points you make.

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