It is in the Top Ten most-listened to podcasts on Apple and Spotify right now. The Christianity Today-produced series called The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill is a searing spiritual autopsy of the Seattle-based Mars Hill Church, led by Mark Driscoll. The church launched in 1996, and at its peak, the in first years of this millennium, it had 15 locations and more than a quarter of a million people watching Driscoll’s sermons online every week. At his apex, Driscoll was a Reformed shock jock superstar preacher who also happened to be (spoiler alert!) an abusive, cruel bully, functioning as a dictator in the organization he created.
Seven episodes of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast series have been released as of this writing. The production quality is first-rate (think NPR’s This American Life or Serial), and does an excellent job asking listeners to interrogate the destructive effect of narcissistic alphas like Driscoll and challenging them to ask themselves why so many of us are drawn to leaders like this. The list of fallen Christian leaders is long (Bill Hybels, James MacDonald, Ravi Zacharias, Jerry Falwell, Jr., just for starters).There is plenty of triggering content in this podcast for those who are survivors of abusive churches/leaders and bad teaching, particularly around issues of sex and marriage. This is not “safe for the whole family” material, but then again, neither was Driscoll.
I knew it was going to be rough going when I started to cry listening to the opening song montage in the first episode. The song Sticks and Stones by King’s Kaleidescope is cut with sound clips drawn from the podcast series either from or talking about Driscoll. The one that undid me was Driscoll screaming: “How dare you! Who the hell do you think you are?”
Suddenly, it was the early 1990’s, and I was sitting at a table with my pastor, his wife, his right-hand man, and his wife, sharing a contemporary script I’d written for our non-denominational Charismatic church’s Good Friday service. I didn’t realize that the subject matter of the play, which included a pastor character with some secrets he’d kept hidden from those around him, was too close to home for him. It would be more than a decade before those secrets spilled out. But that night, this man I’d trusted to be a caring shepherd screamed at me for 45 minutes straight, questioning my faith, challenging my theology, and branding me as someone not to be trusted. I respected him too much to stand up and walk out when he first raised his voice, and no one else sitting at the table that evening chose to intervene on my behalf. Driscoll’s screamed, “How dare you! Who the hell do you think you are?” was like a two-sentence summation of the worst 45 minutes I’ve ever spent in a church. But in the end, my former pastor’s screamed accusations – and the gossip and destruction of my reputation that followed in that church before we left a year later – stole far more than my trust from me.
It stole my community. People from church shunned us as if we were radioactive. My kids stopped receiving invitations for playdates. Our calendar was empty and our hearts were broken. As I told a counselor years later, I counted on that church to be my family after my newfound faith in Jesus the Messiah was a dividing wall in my family of origin. That aching need left me vulnerable to spiritual abuse, which I now recognize didn’t start the night I presented my script to the pastor. It started with the ongoing messaging we heard from both leadership and other members: that this church was the only church in town where God was alive and at work, where questioning God’s anointed leaders was the sin of witchcraft and rebellion, and where we were pressured to high levels of time and financial commitment in order to be a part of what God was doing. Oh, and that they loved us unconditionally.
Just like Jesus did.
I needed it all to be true.
But it wasn’t.
Episode 7 of the Mars Hill podcast describes how a couple of key leaders were forced out of the church because they broke the only rule that mattered: Don’t get in Mark Driscoll’s way. Paul Petri did, and was one of the church leaders who lost his job, was shamed from Mark’s pulpit, and then targeted for shunning by the entire Mars Hill community. He noted in the podcast that if he’d been caught in a moral sin like being caught with a prostitute, the women of the church would have shown up for his wife and family with casseroles and comfort. But because he raised a question that threatened Mark’s control, the family was cast off from the church like used cat litter. Petri, who’d been a core member of the church’s leadership team for years said, “These people we loved and counted on as a friends didn’t even call.” I heard the pain in his voice. It was as familiar as my own story, though his experience was on a much larger and more public scale because of the size and influence of the church.
Losing one friend is excruciating. But losing your entire community of friends at once is life altering. Scripture prescribes shunning as a last-resort discipline meant to return a wayward person to fellowship with God and others (here and here). Shunning is not meant to be punitive, but aimed at restoration. In my case, and certainly the way in which “church discipline” was practiced at Mars Hill, punishment was the goal.
In the silence that filled our life after we left that toxic church, it occurred to me that though I had no regrets about becoming an unintentional whistle-blower, I was left with no clear way to grieve the loss. There’s no funeral when your church leaves you. There is just the passing of time, and, if the experience didn’t totally destroy your faith, perhaps a slow, guarded entry into a new church community. And even then, no matter how much you’ve processed it, and forgiven and forgiven and forgiven some more, the old aching trauma resurfaces in a single sound bite: “How dare you! Who the hell do you think you are?”
Have you been listening to the Mars Hill podcast? If so, what are your impressions? Have you ever been shunned or punished in some way by a church leader? What was the effect of the experience on your faith?