Problems with American Evangelicalism: Asking hard questions, and seeking necessary change
THE RISE AND FALL OF MARS HILL CHURCH
Recently Mike Cosper from Christianity Today released a podcast entitled “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.” It traces the story of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, a church that I was never a member of. Nevertheless, I, with millions of others, tuned in regularly to hear Mark Driscoll’s sermons and absorb their ministry content online, and even glean from the church planting movement started by Mars Hill - The Acts 29 Network.
I’ll never forget sitting in my dorm room in 2007 at Cairn University, listening to Driscoll preach through Philippians. I was 20 years old, and I sat weeping, feeling so impacted by his sermon. For almost the next ten years, I was in the church planting network he helped to birth (Acts 29 Network), and in varying degrees of closeness through friends and pastors felt as if I was some sort of extended member of Mars Hill Church. This, I assume, was a normal feeling for many in my shoes.
I was as shocked as anyone else when Driscoll stepped down from Mars Hill, sidestepping the accountability process after accusations of arrogance, pride, violence and others were raised against him. Rather than undergoing church discipline, he resigned.
The result was one of America’s largest and most influential churches vanishing almost overnight. Yes, 15,000+ members and millions tuning in weekly online - all gone like a vapor in the wind.
Yes, I was shocked and personally crushed to see Mars Hill fold. To hear more of the story, I cannot recommend the podcast enough.
I could go on about my own experiences in Acts 29 and my own interactions and friendships with others who were actual members of Mars Hill, and perhaps that would be useful for a different time. Nevertheless, as I listen to this podcast series, I feel that in many ways I am listening to my own story, as well as (in many respects) the story of modern American evangelicalism, of which I am a part.
THE PROBLEM MIGHT BE YOU AND I
Cosper, through the newer art form of a podcast-documentary/storytelling, is indirectly ringing a bell that the American Church must listen to.
The problem was not only with Mars Hill, or Mark Driscoll, or Ravi Zacharias, James MacDonald, Perry Noble, CJ Mahaney, Bill Hybels, Jerry Falwell Jr., Tullian Tchividjian, Joshua Harris, Carl Lentz (and sadly, the list could be extended ten fold)…
The problem is bigger than just these leaders.
The problem lies with us.
It is easy to point fingers to these celebrity pastors who have fallen, while we forget that we are the ones that joined in giving them such a platform. We saw the warning signs, and of course these leaders bear responsibility.
But we do as well. The question I've asked continually is this: why do we do it? I believe the answer is multifauceted, and cannot be fully answered here.
At minimum, the result is this: American Evangelicalism needs drastic reforms in how we think about successful and meaningful ministry that is truly representative of the Gospel.
REIMAGINING A FLOURISHING AND HEALTHY CHURCH
Christianity in America is rapidly shrinking. In fact, we are just one generation or so away from seeing a massive closure of small churches all over the country.
The answer cannot be to start a new movement based off of a charismatic personality and a powerful national and worldwide ministry. The answer cannot be that we seek greater political organization and strength. It cannot be to seek a larger and greater online presence and influence.
Ultimately these are cheap answers, shortcuts to the actual hard work of really following Jesus and bearing the responsibility of this in our own neighborhoods and communities.
We must realize that our obsessions with big personalities and influential ministries are mere attempts to leverage some of the worst elements of American culture (we love our celebrities, we love power and idolize fame and fortune) and baptizing it, hoping to benefit from it through those in our own ranks that are wired and built to flourish in these parts of our American way of life. We love to shove them onto a platform, all for the excuse of making Jesus known.
It is amazing the things we can begin justifying away because of the “fruit” of attendance numbers and increased budgets. Arrogance, pride, financial impropriety, adultery… we can look the other way if only our churches are growing.
And are we curious as to the reasons why young people care less and less about Christianity in our nation? Don’t we realize that they see these things and the cheapness of it?
Let’s take this conversation and personalize it:
IMMANUEL'S JOURNEY OF REVITALIZATION
Right now, Immanuel Church is walking through a unique season that many old and historic churches inevitably reach: a time of revitalization. Therefore, these sorts of questions swirl through my mind constantly. As we seek to grow and become healthy and to flourish, one of the most important questions before us will be this: what will we consider growth? Health? Flourishing? What measure will we hold ourselves up against?
One option is to miniaturize and localize our obsession with the celebrity culture. We can try to latch on to a big local personality, or start a massive successful local ministry, obsess over numbers and budget amounts, try and steal that awesome family that goes to that other church on the corner if only ours can grow. We then can consider all of this as a success.
It will not work. Personalities cannot be the identity of our churches. A successful ministry cannot be the identity of our church. Our large budgets cannot define us. Our flashy facilities cannot define us. Numbers cannot define us. All of these things will vanish like a vapor in the wind in due time if they become our identities. Identities become foundations and goals and then they become the very measures of our (supposed) success.
However, Jesus asked us to make disciples. He set himself up as our Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4). The aim of our ministry is Jesus, he becomes our goal and our identity as we, his Body, embody him.
And how do we measure success on such a journey? Scripture gives us hard and much more difficult measures of health and success as a local church:
The New Testament calls us to be living sacrifices (Romans 12:1), to take up our cross daily and follow Jesus (Luke 9:23), to be willing to lay down our lives for one another in love like Jesus did for us (1 John 3:16), to embody his self-giving in the incarnation by considering others as more important than ourselves (Philippians 2). No one knows my own sin better than those in my own congregation. No one knows my strengths and my weakness more than those I live my life with. We walk and grow together in love. We engage the same kind of ministry that Jesus engaged while he was here - eating meals with sinners, healing the sick, serving the poor, preaching the Good News of the Kingdom and salvation in him.
This message will never be flashy. It’s nothing new. It’s not some new insight that will garner more followers for us as a church.
In fact, I'll be honest. I have fears that it "won't work." What I mean is this - much of the institutional American Church is sort of set up for large budgets and large attendance. Without them, much of it doesn't "work" and does not function. My salary is paid through tithes and offerings. A facility is maintained through the same. Yes, there can be a conflict of interest in pastoral ministry if I see my own pastoral leadership of a local church as an act of self preservation. Facilities can fall into neglect and eventually have to be sold if it cannot be afforded anymore. However, all of this is much bigger than staffing, salaries, attendance, facilities and budgets.
We know this to be true. It is time to ensure that our priorities as a church truly reflect these truths.
Growth in attendance and increased financial health of a church can be byproducts of a healthy church that is aimed towards Jesus. They are not the goal. A growing church is not necessarily signs of health. You can have a house church with zero staff and just a handful of members and fulfill the Great Commission. You can have a mega church and be fulfilling the Great Commission.
The question is not one of numbers and budgets but one of being a faithful local presence of Jesus Christ in our communities, making disciples in his name.
This is our time as the American Church to consider running in these directions with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength, even if no one notices initially.
We must run there as Immanuel Church. There is so much more that could be said, and perhaps I should write more in the oncoming weeks. But please pray with me, that we as Immanuel Church can aim for Jesus. I can promise you that the Holy Spirit longs to shape us into the image of Jesus. Nothing makes our Father more happy than his children looking like his Son. Let us consider these things, and run with endurance the race that is set before us.