5 Lessons from ‘The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill’ 

By Mike Cosper

Five crucial takeaways pastors and church leaders should glean from the podcast, “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” 

My podcast series, “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill,” takes you inside the story of Mars Hill Church in Seattle – from its founding as part of one of the largest church planting movements in American history to its very public dissolution – and the aftermath that followed. NAMB’s Trevin Wax invited me to discuss the series on the New Churches podcast (Part 1 and Part 2), and in our discussion, several crucial takeaways for pastors and church planters rose to the top.  

Here are five lessons I believe church leaders should glean from “Rise and Fall.” 

1. Good Polity Won’t Fix Bad Practice

One temptation for pastors and church leaders who listen to “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” would be to say, “The way we keep our church from being driven by a cult of personality is by implementing a certain kind of church polity.”  

This isn’t the case.  

Just about any church polity that’s been around for a while – tried and tested – can operate in both healthy and unhealthy ways. At the end of the day, whatever your church leadership structure looks like, it has to be a place in which the people involved and invested can trust one another, without fear that someone wants to game the system and take control of the church. 

2. Pro-Accountability Environments are Vital 

Christian cultures are sometimes slow to require accountability.  

We’re slow to fire pastors when they abuse their leadership, and at the same time we’re slow to call out and discipline leaders at lower levels inside the church or Christian organization. We want to give people the benefit of the doubt – and to some extent, that’s good – but unfortunately what you saw at Mars Hill has happened many times in many churches of all sizes. Abuse of leadership is more common than it should be.  

In this case, seasoned, older leaders with proximity to Mark Driscoll saw his talent and hoped for the best possible future, and so they overlooked problems for a long period of time. They hoped their investment in a young guy would return value. Mark didn’t have enough people around him who had permission to call him out and prevent his abuses of his leadership.  

Whether we’re the leader or part of the team, God puts us in situations to use the wisdom and discernment he’s given us to make judgment calls. It’s not unloving to make judgment calls, no matter how culturally odd that feels sometimes. You can’t ignore real concerns out of hope that “everything will work itself out.”  

3. Beware of domineering Leaders Alienate Those They are Meant to Serve 

There’s a story in Episode 7 of the podcast, “State of Emergency,” in which Mark is making jokes on-stage about “beating up his elders” because he’s angry they’ve raised questions about his leadership. After the sermon, the elders all go upstairs and he blasts them with profanity and fires two of them. It’s unclear whether or not he could even do that, so the situation leads to a trial before the other elders. The guys who were berated are upset about how Mark shamed them and trashed their reputation. The humiliated elders are disciplined and removed as elders, and effectively excommunicated from the church. 

It’s easy for people to focus on the transformation of the polity at Mars Hill and to assume the real problems began when Mark consolidated power. That’s not what happened. The bigger problem was that Mark assumed personal control of the church instead of sharing leadership with the other elders. And over time, more and more leaders who pushed back were alienated in the process. The lesson here is to watch out for leaders who view opposition as enmity. 

4. You Shouldn’t Always Get Your Way 

The church leader should come back to the core idea that “I don’t have to get my way all the time.” Pastors and church leaders need to understand they don’t always have all the right answers.  

When it comes to church structure, polity can’t fix a pastor who thinks he’s always right. As a pastor or church planter – especially in those rough seasons in which help is hard to find and it feels like you’re constantly working – it is incredibly important to find two or three people (elders or otherwise) and give them permission to be totally honest at any time about your leadership and friendship. Pastors need to own when they aren’t right and always be open to trusted people having the opportunity to critique them when they need it. 

5. Shortsightedness Leads to Folly 

It’s important to keep a long-term perspective on leading and planting a church. It’s easy to see stories like Mars Hill and be discouraged, because your church isn’t that size or because you aren’t seeing dozens of people come to Christ every week.  

Having a short-term view of a church or church plant is likely to lead to leadership foolishness. If you have a long-term view of your church, you will recognize that you may never even personally see the fruit of that church. Your church plant may send five church planters out in five years and then dissolve. Consider measuring the effectiveness of your ministry by visits to hospitals and meals served to the hungry, rather than Sunday attendance and giving totals. That will help you keep perspective and recognize the long-term mission of your church, instead of focusing on short-term metrics that impress other pastors. 

Mike Cosper’s Mars Hill podcast series can be heard here.

Published February 22, 2022

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Mike Cosper

Mike Cosper is director of podcasting for Christianity Today, where he hosts The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill and Cultivated: A Podcast about Faith and WorkHe's also the author of several books, including Recapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted World (Intervarsity Press). Mike also served as one of the founding pastors at Sojourn Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky, with his wife, Sarah, and their daughters, Dorothy and Maggie.