By Matt Gordon
There is a popular podcast out right now called The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. It is compelling, and much of it centers on the leader of the Seattle-based megachurch, Mark Driscoll. He is a fiery guy who attempted to build an empire without a routine examination of the foundation of self. And both it, and he, toppled dramatically.
Since we love stories about empire-building nearly as much as we do ones about empires toppling, it is easy to observe the dynamite being set, ignited, and exploding, and then to poke about the rubble but fail to see our own reflection in the shattered mess.
And here is what I mean: I’ve interacted with people engaging in this podcast and I’ve felt the stirring of my own soul in tuning in. The prevailing sentiment? Thank God I’m not like Mark Driscoll. Or, in speaking about our local churches: thank God we are not like that. I guess that statement is fine, but is it true? Or, a better question perhaps, why am I not like Mark Driscoll? Why aren’t we? This is where we approach what is so easy to miss.
The podcast is clear that we often choose charisma over character, or at least let one run way out in front of the other. In this formula, it is clear—Driscoll was and is charismatic. He is a talented orator, quick-witted and even speedier in preparation. Meaning he can say a lot, fast. He can have a crowd laughing, then crying, then praying, and all in the same paragraph. Sometimes in the same sentence. He’s been called a chauvinist, a misogynist, a tyrant, an agitator, and more. And how we’ve become aware of both the good and bad of Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll is owed mostly to one aspect: his overwhelming gifting. Like him or hate him, the man is gifted. One definition of leadership is to start walking, turn around, and if people are following, you are a leader. Driscoll has repeatedly been able—has had the unique instinct and ability—to accrue masses. I’m neither praising nor demeaning this nor weighing in on the direction of the leading, but merely declaring the fact of it—as the kids say, it is what it is. Take it or leave it, part of what it is—is gifting.
So what do I miss when I hear the story of a talented, misguided leader and I say, Thank God I’m not like Mark Driscoll? Unfortunately, I measure the statement solely on an outer outcome basis, rather than any sort of inner process. The part of me that is least like Driscoll has little to do with character, I’m afraid. More often, I am not like Mark Driscoll simply because I am not gifted like Mark Driscoll. I can do a few things well and am average at a few others. The rest I leave undone or outsource or hope someone competent comes along and navigates. The reason I don’t have podcasts chronicling my fall is because I don’t have podcasts chronicling my rise. No book deals. Dozens of followers rather than denizens, and most of those are probably relatives. I am an average person with average gifting. And this is just fine.
What isn’t fine is that somehow I will listen to the fall of another and miss the warning of destruction because my building will not topple explosively but decay slowly, or because the structure is not lofty enough to garner much attention when it does fall. I am not Mark Driscoll because I’m not as talented as Mark Driscoll. This declaration is not due to humility permeating my heart—it hasn’t. It is not covering myself with accountability—I haven’t. It is not putting to death selfish ambition—I’m a rising king in my own eyes. And it is not because I don’t desperately want to build and dream and do and make and control like Driscoll—I do. I want to avoid all the consequences, and so I listen to the warning signs about Mars Hill and similar tales of fallen leaders, trying to avoid their pitfalls without ever glancing at the ultimate pitfall, the one which resides within myself, not in some mega church a world away. The whole thing becomes not an exercise in cultivating a better being but in being better at building. To put more simply, I am not as “bad” as Mark Driscoll at leading simply because I’m not as “good” at naturally leading (or writing or tweeting or speaking or whatever other out-front gifts you point to). It has far too little to do with refining a Christ-like character of humility and more to do with a talent-governed impact.
So I listen and the takeaways become surface level—have a better sexual ethic, be kinder, allow for process; check, check, check. In my empire people will be heard. In my empire we won’t yell or shame. In my empire there will be plurality or diversity or inclusivity or equality or peaceability or seeker-sensitivity or whatever catchword gets people to trust me. I catalogue all the tactics to employ and avoid, and I march off to continue building or desiring a little empire without realizing the problem never was tactical in nature. The problem was the empire-building heart itself.
One can listen to The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill and change all sorts of practices. He or she can better mask manipulation and double-down on the dogged commitment to appear humble. One can continue lording over their hill, albeit a much smaller one than Driscoll’s, and they will count it a success because the destruction went unnoticed. But destruction is destruction. If the realities of power dynamics and authority and leadership and humility and gospel, gospel, gospel, don’t plumb the depths of the heart, we go about wearing the same clothes called by a different name.
In the rubble is a mirror. I’m trying not to miss it. It appears broken, but as I move closer I find the brokenness is really the true reflection of who I am if left to my own desires. I hope you find a mirror too, and together we learn from a cautionary tale not just what behaviors to avoid, but, rather, who we are called, at the heart-level essence, to be.