Mars Hill Church, Ballard, Part 2


This Sunday evening, I trekked back to Mars Hill Church to give them a second look.  If you’ve been following my blog, you probably know that Mars Hill was the second church I visited, and I gave them a pretty bad score.  I also said some things about them that were pretty critical and not very positive.

You might also remember that I got some hate mail from them, and posted a rather strongly worded reply.  I took my reply down, because I didn’t feel it added anything useful to the conversation, and it was put out there during a time when I was receiving some rather emotionally charged email, and I kind of got caught up in that.  I’m a rather drama-averse person, and when I add to drama, I tend to feel that it’s a personal failure on my part.

Anyway, in all the drama, I also got some rather positive emails from the Mars Hillfolk, including several invitations to come back and give them a second look.  It was asserted to me by more than one person that all the focus on money that I encountered was due to timing.  I had simply showed up at a quarterly or annual point at which the church was asking for money and talking about money, and that if I showed up at a different time then the focus would be on something else.

So, I promised I’d go back.

Now, I’m a secular humanist (duh).  And the Mars Hill folks are Bible literalists (duh again).  There’s not a lot of common ground there.  You know that my grading criteria and my particular bent is just not going to find a lot of simpatico with this church.  But, if there’s a possibility that the score should change, then the score should change.  And who knows, maybe there’s a humanist message in there somewhere.  After all, the Adventists are usually considered fundamentalist, and they didn’t do too badly on my scale.

On with the review:

I went down to Ballard late Sunday afternoon, having spent my morning with the Disciples of Christ in the University District.  I really like the Ballard neighborhood.  Of all of Seattle’s distinctive little patches, Ballard really stands out the most because it used to be a city in its own right.  It’s an interesting mix of waterfront industrial, commercial, and residential spaces.  Walk a little ways in one direction, and there’s a street full of groovy little shops and restaurants and a theater.  Walk a little ways in another direction, and you find some of Seattle’s densest housing.  Walk towards the locks and canal, and there are ships, warehouses, and industrial manufacturing.   Mars Hill Church is in the industrial part.  Right near the drawbridge that goes over the canal and into Seattle’s Interbay and Queen Anne neighborhoods.

screens2Like last time, I walked into the main part of the big boxy former warehouse building, and found the book store.  They’ve expanded their offerings since I was last here.  There are now 24 books, DVD’s and CD collections on sale, and Pastor Driscoll’s name is on 11 of them.  I wonder how his sales are doing?

I was early enough to make use of the men’s room, and I found that over each urinal was a framed advertisement for something Driscoll was selling.  Four in all, and two more by the sinks.  It was nice to have something to read.

I went into the rearmost set of double doors into the sanctuary, by the large coffee dispensers, and availed myself of some coffee.  Now here’s a good idea.  A caffeinated flock is a happy flock.   Every church should have a cafe at the back of the chapel.

Last time, I sat right up front.  This time, I didn’t feel the need to do that, because I suspected the sermon would be a video presentation, and I thought I already knew what the band sounded like, so I took up a seat on one of the coffee shop couches in the back, near one of the four video screens, and pulled my clipboard and notepaper out of my backpack.  Mars Hill is the only place I’ve felt like I could sit and take notes without seeming rude.  That’s probably because this place doesn’t feel like a church so much as a concert venue.

The video screens were showing various announcements and an advertisement or two for various things.  Summer camp for Junior High school cost $275, and summer camp for High school cost $300.  Also, Pastor Driscoll’s book on Acts was still for sale, in case anyone hadn’t noticed.

One of the ads for the summer camp thing included this little gem, a quote from a 15 year old girl:  I learned I don’t have to be strong because Jesus is strong for me.  So, no need to worry about the kids getting too independent too soon I guess.

A guy named Chad appeared on stage, and said a few words of welcome, and fired up the music.  The band changed since last time.  Previously, the band was pretty good.  This band, however, was awesome.  There were seven people on stage.  In addition to the usual drums, keyboards, guitars, they had a trombone and a cello.

The music style was a punky mix of pop and folk and rock that sounded really good.  I’ve never heard of anyone putting a trombone in a rock and roll song before (except for maybe Chicago), but it really works.  The crowd loved it too, they were on their feet and dancing around.   They sang along, which was easy because the video screens showed the words to the songs.

When the crowd was sufficiently warmed up, Alex came on stage and reminded everyone to fill out their “connect” cards, which put you on the Mars Hill mailing and emailing lists, and through which you can become a member of the church.  He pointed out that on the back was a little story about Daniel,  and how important it is to get the true gospel in this increasingly violent world.

Then, a big screen came down over the stage, and someone pushed play, and Pastor Driscoll’s image appeared fivefold.

I moved to one of the really tall cafe tables with padded stools sitting around them, so I could be up a little higher and see better.  Also, I needed a place to set my coffee.

You know, one thing that would make this experience even better would be to make it a drive-in.  Remember back in the 1970’s when you’d park your car in a big lot and watch a movie on a giant screen with that tinny speaker held in place by your window?  If we did that for church, we could park near the concession stand so there would be plenty of popcorn and soda, and when the pastor needed confirmation, we could flash our headlights or honk the horn.  Can I get an amen? HONK

Update:  I have just been informed by Wearingabullseye that a drive-in church does, in fact, exist.

Driscoll was still doing his series on Acts, and was, I think, about halfway through his book at this point.  In this part, he talks about Peter and John going around and spreading the word.

Now, last time I was here, he stressed that we are on Jesus’ mission.  And that we really didn’t have a choice in the matter, that we were just supposed to fulfill the mission.  Not question it, but just do it.  He was adamant about that.

This time, however, he was stressing the fact that Jesus didn’t give orders, that he was here to serve us.  Because it’s through his grace and sacrifice that we get into heaven.  So I’m wondering if we’re still on the mission?  I was thinking about this, and being a little confused about it, when he said this:

Jesus is happy to serve you if you’re willing to obey him.

to-serve-manSo, that clears that up.

He goes on to say that we are all doomed, no matter what, and we can only get into heaven if Jesus agrees to let us in.  And that’s because we chose to be sinful.  But he also says we’re born in sin and so our choice doesn’t matter.  In the very next sentence.

So, we have chosen to sin, but we didn’t choose to do that, and if we obey Jesus then Jesus will serve us.  Got it.  I think I’m on board now.

Sarcasm aside, at least I can say that he’s not going on and on about money.  I mean, money is splashing all over the place around here, but at least he’s not preaching about how people should give him money like he did last time.  Maybe I was wrong.  Maybe this isn’t a scam.  Maybe this guy really is preaching what he believes.  And maybe the logic bomb I snarked about is just because of the way he happens to be telling it tonight, or maybe I just don’t get it.  I curbed my dogma, and waited patiently to find out.

He goes on to compare Christianity with other religions, and says that those other religions are wrong.  Not because they have bad people, he says the people are good, and do good things, and live good lives.  But since they don’t have Jesus, they’re all doomed.  But the good news is we all have Jesus, so we’re not doomed.  Well, not me I guess.  I think I’m doomed.

He goes on to conclude that being with Jesus is really all you need in life, and that things like therapy, psychology, and “self-help” would be totally unnecessary if everyone just had Jesus.

This is the first thing he’s said that hits on my criteria, and it’s a negative.  Discouraging people from seeing a therapist or a doctor of any kind is a bad thing, in my view.  Religious folk are well-meaning, but not necessarily equipped to help someone who’s suffering depression or some sort of mental illness.  For that, you need a medically trained professional.  Some folks will need spiritual or moral guidance as well, but the one shouldn’t rule out the other.

At this point, he strayed from topic a little to say something about women and men.  He wanted to go out of his way to say that the Bible is not in any way sexist.  When God says “You men….”  commands the men  to do things and ignores women, it’s not because God thinks any less of women.  It’s because God has burdened men with extra responsibilities that women just don’t have.  And that’s why sometimes things seem a little unequal.  They’re not, you see, because men have this Godly burden.

So, for all the women reading this blog, don’t you worry your pretty little heads about anything.  We men are ready to lift that burden so you don’t have to.  Isn’t that nice?  

And now we have another point, and it’s also negative.  Inequality and misogyny aren’t humanist values.

He then makes a wisecrack about voting and democracy, saying the reason we keep voting is we can’t seem to find a leader worth keeping.  The good news, he says, is pretty soon we’ll have a King and won’t have to vote anymore.  I presume he means Christ’s Kingdom on Earth, and not some sort of revocation of our independence from Great Britain.

Now he trundles back to his main point, and reveals his overarching theme for tonight’s sermon:  Christians, your faith must be public. You must go out there and be Christian and want to be Christian, and be proud of being Christian, and want everyone else to be Christian.  Get on social media, call your friends, tell your parents and neighbors.  Sing the gospel.

He says don’t worry when people tell you you’re being “pushy” or “intolerant.”  He says it’s not intolerant to push someone off the tracks when a train is coming.  Got a gay friend?  Push him off those tracks.  Know a doubter?  Shove away, he’ll thank you for it in the afterlife.  It’s the kindest, most tolerant, most loving thing you can do.  Go love the hell out of those people.

Are you in college?  Does your university (he sneered when he said it I swear to Dawkins – there’s no mistaking a sneer on a giant ten foot tall screen)… does your university have bad things to say about religion?  Stand up in class, and lovingly tell the professor why he’s wrong.

But, there’s a problem in all of this.  You have to be prepared to give the Gospel.  Christianity, he says, is a series of pop-quizzes and you have got to be ready for them.

Can you guess the best way to do this?  Did you guess “Buy Pastor Driscoll’s books?”  If so, you guessed correctly.

So, remember a few paragraphs back when I wondered if maybe the message wasn’t focused on money?  Well, I no longer wonder.  Almost every single thing he’s said built up to this point.  To set the stage and make the case that in order to be a good Christian and get into heaven, there would have to be some sort of financial transaction involved.

He concluded with a commercial about the Everett facility, which (praise God!) has raised $300,000 of its $750,000 goal for properly finishing it, and then the band came on to sing the offeratory song.  This time, they merged communion with offering, which I think is a mistake.  I think having communion at the same time you’re asking for money will cut into prophets.

The offeratory song was “Jesus Paid It All” and it went on for about nine full minutes.  It was a really rocking song.  There was another song after that, but I left.  I also didn’t do communion.  I already know what shortbread dipped in cheap box-a-wine tastes like, so there was no point.

So, the score.  I had actually thought that I might end up revising their score upwards.  I was not expecting to be revising it downwards.

Being good to your fellow human: -1 (misogyny)
Help your community: -1 (push your community into faith)
Be good to yourself: -1 (Jesus > therapy)
Good and timely advice: -1 (buy my books)

They have reclaimed their place of honor on the bottom.


43 thoughts on “Mars Hill Church, Ballard, Part 2

  1. That place sounds funnier than a stand-up comedy show.

    At least they don’t have a helicopter… yet.

  2. If I get up to Seattle in the near future, I may have to attend a service. While I don’t think that they qualify for a Two-She-Bears smiting, they might deserve a consolation “Tank of Man-Eating-Seals” award.

  3. I can’t decide whether my favourite snark is “Also, I needed a place to set my coffee,” or “Can I get an amen? HONK.” I expect with this new score, your stats will be soaring…

  4. Huh… I’d heard of atheists doing this kind of thing, but I’ve never read a review. I like this here: “That’s probably because this place doesn’t feel like a church so much as a concert venue.”

    …as well as:
    “Discouraging people from seeing a therapist or a doctor of any kind is a bad thing, in my view. ”

    I have the feeling (though I cannot know for certian) that Driscoll is part of the reformed tradition that endorses “Nouthic” counseling or whatever it is they call it. There was a malpractice suit based on it several years ago at Master’s College. They college was acquitted, but it still makes it wrong.

    For the record, I think Driscoll does believe what he preaches. He’s wrong. He’s stubborn. But there’s little reason to believe him insincere.

    Anyway, keep up the good work? I’d feel like a bit of a masochistic if I attended there. So I guess somebody has to go!

  5. ” I think having communion at the same time you’re asking for money will cut into prophets.”

    I, too, see what you did there! (It’s the sort of thing I would do, as a clergy person who thinks all of your points are right on!)

  6. These are the kind of reviews that, as a pastor, I find infuriating. Not because I think you’re being too harsh or biased, but because it is entirely believable, and this church and Driscoll are often seen as a face if not the face of Christianity for many people.

    Thank you for writing this and these other reviews. It’s reading things like this that are an incredibly helpful way for churches to learn where they are missing the mark. It’s rare to get feedback from those people who walk out the door and don’t come back, but ultimately that’s the feedback most needed.

    • Hi Eric,

      Thanks for your comments.

      I get some of my best support in comments and emails from pastors and other folks directly connected to churches, and I love that, and it’s really something I didn’t expect.

      Of course, I never expected to do anything but amuse and/or annoy a handful of Facebook friends, so what do I know? The amount of attention I’ve gotten has gobsmacked me.

      A few church-connected folks have said something that threw me for a loop: They are changing their message based on what they’ve read on this blog.

      Now that’s not my goal or plan. When I started this, I really didn’t have much of a plan. But it’s nice to think that maybe something of value might come out of this, other than just entertainment.

      • I think churches should pay you to visit and give this kind of insightful feedback. They should know what “outsiders” are seeing when they visit for the first time. I have walked out of churches before the music even started because of things that turned me off. Maybe a new career for you?

      • Ow. This is sad. If churches do change their sermon in hope to get more points on a blog… then your mission will be null; as the sermon will be based on hypocrisy… You should account for literatures and the community (i.e. how the congregation) live their religion between meetings, too. I would also grade the leaders’ integrity as well. After all, they are supposed to represent Christ, no?

      • Well, I respectfully disagree.

        One of the things I’ve noticed, is that church folk often have an idea about what their church is all about, but when it comes down to it, that church doesn’t preach it.

        That’s an awkward sentence. What I mean is, I’ve found that few churches preach what they say they practice. For example, check out my very post, the Methodist church, or the Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall. Their literature talked a good talk, but their pastors didn’t.

        I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a church pastor preaching the Gospel. That’s what a church is for, after all. But I think that churches that don’t actively tell folks to go out into the world and do good things and be good people is a missed opportunity. You might be surprised at just how few churches actually preach that.

        And everywhere I’ve gone, when I’ve talked to the parishioners and occasionally the pastors, they all tell me, without a single exception, that their church preaches that people should go out into the world and do good things. If that were true, then I would hear it more. I’ve been told that I showed up on the one day the pastor didn’t say that. I hear this over and over again. I sure must be lucky.

        Or, more likely, the reality of the church and the ideal image of the church don’t always match up.

        And that’s a shame, really.

        People need to be reminded, I think, to be good people. I don’t think they need to be reminded to praise God and be obedient. But the vast majority of what I hear being actually preached is the pastor telling the flock to praise God and be obedient. I rarely hear the pastor telling people to go out and help their community. At least, in the score of churches I’ve been to in Seattle, that message is lacking.

        There are exceptions, of course. The LDS church had two speakers talking about good stuff. The Catholic Priest said some good helpful things, and the Unitarians seemed to be preaching almost exactly what I would want to hear in a church.

        I really wish other churches were better at this. I think the world needs it.

      • Well, that I agree with, too. I just don’t wish that churches specifically teach things to get score when you visit them, that’s all. That would be hypocritical. This is the principle of the “anonymous buyer”; you don’t tell the store when an anonymous buyer will walk in, so you don’t render flawed your scoreboard and create false reports.

        I did read most of the articles your wrote and, I agree with you that some churches don’t preach enough what they believe; expecting their members to read and study their gospel themselves, then address other topics (i.e. praise God) instead, or whatnot, during meetings. However, and despite, the essence of that religion is about doing good things, etc.

        This is why I mentioned in another comment that, if I were to do an honest research, I would study not only the meetings but the literature and how the members actually put in practice what they believe. Especially the church’s leaders. After all, preaching by example is by far more powerful than by words alone.

  7. Well the thing that gets me is that you are writing from your perspective as a Secular Humanist. Now I don’t know much about that (I probably should, but I don’t, at least not right now). I gather that a couple of the really important things about Secular Humanism are people (both oneself and others), and social justice. Both of these are things that are foundational to who Jesus is. Jesus cared about people, not just Jews or Christians, all people, who they are, where they come from, what they have experienced, everything. And Jesus cared about people’s physical needs, hunger, healthcare (things he took care of personally).

    So it’s important for me to know where and how the church is missing the mark engaging someone like you who has similar passions (people and social justice) to Jesus.

    In my first read, I was really excited about the ways my church is different from Mars Hill. But as I continue to reflect it is just as important for me to learn how we are similar and how we can change that so we aren’t missing the mark on people.

    • Well, you’re right about Secular Humanism, it has a lot to do with the self and social justice, or at least, the Humanists that I know are interested in those things.

      And as for the teachings of Jesus, as a formerly religious person myself, I’m of course well aware of the things the Bible says he teaches.

      And really, that’s part of the reason I started doing this. It was to prove or disprove my vague notion that churches don’t actually tell their flock to go out and do good things, but instead focus on obedience and letting Jesus (or Allah, or God) handle everything for them.

      There’s been a lot of that, so I wasn’t wrong. But there has also been a surprising amount of humanism in there in some surprising places.

      Who knew the Mormons would have a humanist message? I suppose that doesn’t surprise them, but it surprised the heck out of me.

      Mars Hill really didn’t surprise me. Neither did the Scientologists. On the other end of the scale, the Unitarians didn’t surprise me either. But the Buddhists did. I would have thought they’d have gotten a higher score.

      So, I’m learning a lot from this experience.

      • There are a few reasons why humanism resonates with the Mormon message.

        The doctrines are personalized due to the fact that the talks in church are given by members of the congregation, and because the bishop who speaks only occasionally is a non-paid non-self-selected member of the congregation.

        Members of the church, though they receive assignments and priesthood ordinances through the hierarchal structure of the priesthood, believe in receiving personal revelation directly from God for their every-day affairs. In other words they believe in using your conscience and common sense.

        They believe that though their church is lead by a prophet of God, that he is human and is not infallible. They believe in their religion and forgive themselves and their leadership should the need arise. God has only dealt through imperfect human beings from the beginning of time. God deals with it, so should we.

        Mormons believe that God helps them who help themselves; that God can’t help steer our lives unless we give the engine some gas. They believe that everyone has the right to choose what they want to become and that we are responsible for the consequences of our choices.

        Mormons also believe in helping the poor. Each month they skip two meals and give the cost of those two meals to help pay for those who can’t afford meals.

        Mormons are both conservative and liberal, compassionate and prudent, people-loving, regular people. I like being one.

  8. Interesting thoughts in your review of Mars Hill. I don’t have much to really contribute because I’ve never been to a church like this, but I was struck by the following:

    “He goes on to conclude that being with Jesus is really all you need in life, and that things like therapy, psychology, and “self-help” would be totally unnecessary if everyone just had Jesus.”

    As a person who is deeply religious, I always get frustrated by this notion – that we just need Jesus…that we don’t need school, medicine, science…that only our faith will save us. It is my belief that truth is truth – and all truth will liberate us. Since I’m Christian, I also believe that Jesus knows and understands these truths, and He wants us to follow Him rather than cling to him, and ignoring the blessings (like knowledge, science, technology, etc) that we already have.

    I guess that I’m kind of used to having a more proactive outlook. Not that it diminishes my faith, but it is an exercise of my faith in the blessings that we have already been given.

    anyway-not sure if i’m making sense here, but thanks for the post. Reading through your experiences is very interesting.

  9. Thank you very much for posting this! A great read; poignant and insightful. I have recently researching so that I may I have my own, educated opinion of Driscoll. I have listened to a few podcasts and some of his book “Vintage Jesus,” but have never attended a Mars Hill church, so this was very interesting to me! Was it this past Sunday that you attended? I want to listen to his sermon and hear all that you have described!

    I too am disturbed by the “Jesus is all we need” remark. I have been wrestling with that idea and through research and personal experiences am slowly coming to the conclusion that that is WRONG. Some people NEED meds. MOST people need therapy. The fact that he is saying otherwise is scary and WILL hurt people.

    Thank you again for giving me a peak into a the gathering place of Driscoll-minions. Check me out on Twitter: @heatherdaybyday, I would love to hear your opinions on the ideas I am wrestling with, especially concerning religions.

    Blessings on you and your quest!

    • The “Jesus is all we need remark” reminds me of this famous (and probably clichéd and over-referenced) joke:
      A town is deluged by a flood. As the flood waters rose, a man was on the stoop of his house and another man in a row boat came by. The man in the row boat told the man on the stoop to get in and he’d save him. The man on the stoop said, no, he had faith in God and would wait for God to save him. The flood waters kept rising and the man had to go to the second floor of his house. A man in a motor boat came by and told the man in the house to get in because he had come to rescue him. The man in the house said no thank you. He had perfect faith in God and would wait for God to save him. The flood waters kept rising. Pretty soon they were up to the man’s roof and he got out on the roof. A helicopter then came by, lowered a rope and the pilot shouted down in the man in the house to climb up the rope. The man told the pilot that he had faith in God and would wait for God to rescue him. The flood waters kept rising and the man in the house drowned. When he got to heaven, he asked God where he went wrong. He told God that he had perfect faith in God, but God had let him drown.
      “What more do you want from me?” asked God. “I sent you two boats and a helicopter.”

  10. Love, love, love your blog! Keep it up! As a Christian universalist, I believe that if God exists (and who knows, really?), then you will meet him/her one day, and you will probably like him/her very much, and he/she will *definitely* like you. Visit a Mennonite church sometime; I have a feeling they would score very high 🙂 Book-marking you now!

  11. Hi Mark,
    Appreciate the blog post. It does provide some great insight. While I am a member of Mars Hill, I am mainly commenting from a psychological perspective. As a psychology practitioner (I cannot legally call myself a Psychologist in this state because I have a Masters and not a PhD) I put a high value on scientific rigor, so I simply have a few tips for improving the reliability and validity of your rating system.
    1. Visit these churches with several friends of yours. Give them the same rating scale that you have, have them perform the same inspection you do independently, and then come together as a group to discuss similarities/differences to assign a score. Inter-rater reliability is a great way to improve your rating system.
    2. Visit a church over an extended period of time, instead of just once (or twice). You will get a more complete look at the church with multiple visits (read your About section after writing this, so sorry about the repetition). For example, I once attended a service at a church following the death of the lead pastor. The entire church was still in a state of mourning. I owed it to myself to visit the church during a more “normal” season before making a decision to call that church my home. In the case of Mars Hill, attending the sermon immediately following the one mentioned here, you would have heard Pastor Mark talk about the importance of modern medicine in healing. Overall there is a message of care for the whole person, including physical and spiritual (the sermons are all posted online if you would like verification).

    Also, on a side note (since I noticed you are making updates to the post), the Acts book was not written by Pastor Mark. It was actually put together by several volunteers of the church. It is comprised of daily devotionals and group study questions for further study into the book of Acts.

    Thanks again for the blog, looking forward to more posts.

  12. “Inequality and misogyny aren’t humanist values.”

    They aren’t Christian values either, but it’s no mystery why that’s a common opinion.

  13. As someone who was raised in this type of system and didn’t get out for 26 years, I”m so grateful that someone who didn’t have to be savagely burned by this system can see through the utter misogyny, and control that is exerted by the pastors in these types of churches. Driscoll is also fond of bringing in teachers which tell people Jesus wants them to beat their children. Makes for a very traumatic childhood.

  14. Mark –
    you may need to return periodically to Mars Hill, to keep the buzz going. Of course, you may need a disguise now.

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