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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Mars Hill, Church Leadership, and the Pastoral Office

Recent news of the “melt down” of Mars Hill Church in the Pacific Northwest has generated much commentary on the character of Mark Driscoll (see here, here, and here), the fate of Mars Hill Church, and the nature of multi-site megachurches. I live in a city with a very large church that is built upon a similar model, and I’m interested to understand the relationships between Mars Hill and Pinelake here in Jackson.

My generation of church leaders has found great success in the establishment and growth of multi-site churches. The Leadership Network has documented more than 5,000 multi-site churches in North America. Many of these congregations broadcast a sermon by a central preacher to the satellite campuses; at least one that I know of uses an internet-based metronome to control the tempo and timing of the worship music to best coordinate the live broadcast of that sermon.

The collapse of the Mars Hill network is, in a way, sad. I have at least one dear friend who has lost his ministerial position and will certainly be in a state of uncertainty and trouble because of the breakup of Mars Hill. I am sad for Driscoll and for his family, and for the thousands that will go through a period of mourning and transition as they (hopefully) look for a new church home. We should never celebrate the collapse of a ministry that was proclaiming salvation through Christ (Luke 9:49-50).

The breakup of the Mars Hill model reveals something else that I’m interested in: the relationship between the sustainability of a congregation or network of congregations and a single minister. There can be little doubt that Mars Hill Church’s decline has been directly related to Driscoll’s departure: attendance, giving, and momentum have all significantly declined since his announced leave of absence in August. Mars Hill, as it had existed, was unsustainable without the singular personality of Driscoll. It was the preacher’s personality, delivery, and activity that kept the organization not only thriving, but also alive. Once that personality was removed, the Network had no hope of staying together.

This (relatively) new model of ministry is the consequence of our departure from denominationalism. I can only competently speak of the Southern Baptist Convention and its offshoot organizations (BGCT, CBF, etc.), but I suspect that the situation in the PCA/PCUSA divide, the Anglican Communion, and the Lutheran organizations are similar. The Southern Baptist Convention is even now deciding how to fund that denomination’s Cooperative Program in the face of mega-churches being able to count their own missions work as CP giving.

As denominations crack and splinter over (important) social issues and react to new bureaucratic and management paradigms, large, multi-site churches are able to address missions and ministry directly. These congregations, though, are often built on the personality and preaching of one single minister. As these congregations invest in missions, buildings, and ministries of increasing scale and complexity, they increasingly risk catastrophic collapse if their lead pastor departs.

My primary concern is the congregational model of church leadership. The saga of Mars Hill’s collapse reads (at least in hindsight) as a story of the consolidation of power into a smaller and smaller group. Even though the staff and membership of the Network was growing numerically, authority over institutional decisions was placed into the hands of a shrinking group of Driscoll’s supporters. Congregational authority was diminished in two ways: the scale of the Network rendered the distance between a believer and institutional power too great to be meaningful to the member and the sheer quantity of worshippers reduced that authority so much that a single believer had little to do with the leadership of the church. Secondly, with Driscoll managing the entire network in a hardline authoritarian way, the congregation was effectively left out of ownership of the congregation, thus relegating them to some sort of “consumer” status.

If a church is to be congregationally led, that is, if the autonomy of the local church is to have any meaning in the 21st century, then believers must be given and must take responsibility for the institution itself. The pastors are certainly responsible for the spiritual care and leadership of the people, but power to make institutional decisions must not reside in the Senior Pastor or even in the Pastoral Staff. The congregation, whether through a committee structure or through a strong emphasis on lay leadership, must be cultivated to engage the work of being the church so that, regardless of pastoral leadership, the church may thrive.

In this way the congregation reflects what Baptists have believed for generations about the Priesthood of the Believer and the Autonomy of the Local Congregation. Our churches should not break apart when a pastor leaves; there should be such a strong sense of the congregation as the Body of Christ that, ministry, mission, and work exist independently and sustainably in partnership with preaching and pastoral leadership.

I worry about Pinelake and other multi-site mega-churches. When the charismatic pastor/preacher departs, who will fill the void?

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