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?
Cover photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash
Thank you for this. I can so relate! We had to leave our church of 23 years (the only church our children ever knew). We blunted the worst of things for the congregation, but in the end, we could not stay under the leadership of a man who lied, bullied and abused his authority. We were not able to say why we actually left. We lost our friends, community, and family. We were so alone. It also trigged some hidden trauma my husband had. We have not yet been able to find a church that we feel we can fully trust again. People think we have given up the faith, but we have not left God or the faith. We have only left the “faith” of the American Evangelical organized church.
I’m so sorry. 23 years is a lifetime. You will likely never be able to trust the same way you once did, I hope you’ll find rest for your souls during this time, and a couple of trusted friends who will walk alongside of you. This is hard, hard stuff.
It seems so harsh and difficult but I tell you those who escape false religious sects are far better off even if shunned. I could write a book about this topic, I know this story so well. I’m 74 and my testimony goes all the way back to 1956 when I was 9. Imagine all this time, growing up, raising a family of three kids, helping with 7 grands, and I’ve never lost the important lesson I gained when my family was cast out of our Baptist church because my mother dared to speak a truth. I started reading the Bible on my own. I said to God, I am yours, teach me what you want me to know. I taught my kids and theirs to do the same.
Six plus decades later I am still learning. With one exception – that I know so completely – modern religion does not easily allow for one on one individual relationships with Christ. That’s not what it says in Scripture though, but I tell you from a lifetime of living surrendered, I don’t need a pastor, a priest an elder, a mentor or any other higher up to be my go between. You do not have to have an organization to have a relationship with Christ.
I seek, listen, obey and trust. Since I acknowledge my path is not for everyone, I do not share this very often.
I so appreciate your insight, April. I think my own relationship with Jesus has sustained me even when his people have behaved badly. I am curious: Do you ever gather with another believer or two for Bible study, communion, or prayer?
I have attended different churches for different reasons, though never needed to join one. I’m part of an unorganized intercessory prayer group that is just individuals who each are committed to petitioning for specific requests. We don’t meet anywhere. Though I have been part of Bible study groups that met in person but I am a sower not a harvester and I could not teach or learn in those circumstances. That doesn’t mean Bible study groups should not exist.
God is infinite variety even as humans prefer defined, boxed and tidy.
Over the years I’ve had amazing connections with others who also had to find their own paths. God called me to be individual so that I would not be bogged down in manmade precepts. If you think about it, and are conscious of the historic patterns in Scripture you would notice that God always has a remnant of outliers who simply cannot worship religion instead of Him. My ‘calling’ though is not definable in human terms. I have no worldly acknowledged credentials or title. I’m the hearty weed in a well managed garden of hybrids.
When I was younger I had to learn how to dodge the inevitable question from well-meaning Christians – What church do you belong to? “Belonging” to a congregation, a doctrine, a dogma is a natural human expectation of proof of commitment to the title ‘Christian’. But it isn’t necessary to know Christ, to be able to discern His voice. That is a tough sell to those who believe God can’t be worshipped any other way than every Sunday in a building.
I also know how easy it is to fall prey to the wrong voice and convince yourself it is a “Thus Sayeth the Lord!” truth. That’s the root of all false religions actually- one self-righteous individual who needs to be seen as the all knowing authority who then easily finds those who desperately want/need someone to tell them what to believe.
Each maverick and outlier, who finds his/her own path, who wants to know how to recognize the still small voice, comes to understand that Christ did not come to start a new religion but a way of life, one on One with Him. This is not a path for the faint of heart though. Humans tend to be tribal.
You have a calling in your writing. If you knew that it was exactly enough to please Christ, would that fill the empty place that comes from living here but not being of here?
Like you, I write and let God choose whom He wishes to read.
Thanks for your thoughtful answer, April. I respect your path, and know others who are living a similar faith journey to yours. When I first came to faith in Christ, I had no choice but to walk the journey alone as my parents forbade me from attending church. When a community operates well, a church is a remarkable place to be. I’ve had that experience as well as the terrible ones, as recognize that I do not have all the spiritual gifts – I need the gifts of others, and I believe others need what I nave to offer, and so I recognize that community is a part of that picture of Jesus here on earth.
Thanks so much for sharing this, Michelle. So devastating. The fallout of these experiences is lifelong. And you just know that there are probably others who were treated similarly. So sad and shameful.
Michelle, thank you for your honesty in expressing what amounts to a grief that far too many of us experience. I often think that we should encourage a culture of ‘leaving well’ in our churches, and only then as a last resort, instead of the faith-damaging, hurt-inducing way that these traumas are handled.
Yes, I agree, and I’ve been trying to offer the encouragement of the alternative, quietly, slowly, for decades so I have dozens of stories I could tell of speaking and being misunderstood as well as not being heard at all. I’ve come to expect this, in fact. I often wonder if it’s just me not being good enough at the task.
I once mentored a young woman who grew up conditioned to believe you have to be a member of a congregation that meets in a building in order to be a real Christian. Over the period of 10 years she joined 3 different denominations and each time she was required to be baptized, but each time she was disappointed and left, not receiving the meat she craved. I asked her if she received Jesus as her savior, all three times. She said yes. I asked her if Christ entered her front door and she asked Him what church she should belong to, what if His answer was, “If you can ask that, you do not know Me.”
Do those words ring a bell? Matthew 7:23
I am not against joining, being part of a community of believers. I have known individuals as well as groups that are genuinely surrendered to Christ, not just a doctrine or charismatic leader. It doesn’t have to be either/or. I have been writing about these experiences for years but I am tired now. I feel as though I am mostly just talking to myself now. I relate to Jeremiah weeping in the ruins of the first Temple because God’s people did not listen.
Matthew 18:20 – For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. This Scripture has no qualifiers about where and when to meet. When it was written the world had no concept of the Internet.
We were never shunned, but we did leave a church with a pastor who abused his authority. I remember feeling so very lost. It takes a long time to establish trust and relationships within a local church. Thankfully, God directed us to a healthier church, not perfect, but definitely more full of grace. We’re still there 21 years later!