I have been wanting to write about my year at Mars Hill Church for quite some time, but have not felt the freedom to do so until recently. Or the clarity. Frankly, I think the grace of God has kept me silent in moments past when I was so certain I could speak into whatever new issue surfaced. Arrogant, I know. But protected. Each morning following the decision to refrain from speaking brought heartache as much of what I would have had to say, or the positivity that I tried to maintain, was stripped away. Proverbs 17:28 says that "even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues” so, foolish as I have felt, I hope that silence has been the Spirit at work.
In regard to clarity, though, there comes a time when every thought has been floating around in the air for so long that something needs to be brought down to the ground. Writing helps me clarify. I’ve probably spent 10+ hours trying to write this out, talking to different people about it, and going through a great many revisions so that I can make this novel of a post consistent in mercy and compassion towards those that have sinned against us, and consistently sympathetic in acknowledging those of us who have been sinned against. In the hope of achieving that end - the hope of some sort of unity - I have written two open letters: one to Mark Driscoll & the organizational structure that was Mars Hill Church, and one to the former pastors and members of that organization, preceded by the following personal history, as I hope that it will provide necessary context and clarity:
I don’t think that “The Rise & Fall Of Mars Hill Church” can be narrowed down to one man. Or three executives. Or an elder board. Or the BOA. I think that, to some degree, at least for members more intimately involved in the ins and outs of what our church was, there is a complicity we feel in the light. Many former pastors have acknowledged that complicity, and chosen to step away. For others, the complicity has been devastating and confusing, as many of us didn’t know we were in the dark. Of course, the idea of complicity to anyone who would rather be the victim under the infamous bus is enraging. And, at the same time, I do think that true victims exist. In short, it’s complicated, and no amount of devil’s advocacy will please anyone. You literally cannot win. Winning is not what I’m going for.
When Mars Hill Church came to Albuquerque, I was excited. My mom and I had been attending City On A Hill for a short time - a small, local congregation pastored by a man named Dave Bruskas, who later became an executive elder alongside Mark Driscoll and Sutton Turner. City On A Hill was humble and warm compared to where I’d come from. It was invested in the arts, and probably my first true introduction to any sort of reformed theology. I think it’s probably the first time I remember sitting beneath the teaching of a man who repented often and didn’t make much of himself, as well. When Dave announced that we were going to be merging with Mars Hill, I had already been listening to Mark Driscoll on tour. I had previously been the unchurched, disillusioned, porn-addicted, soon-to-be-fatherless young man in his prime for the Mars Hill demographic. So I was in. I was one of the first members. I was in the first community group. I was the first to replicate out with my would-be wife and our friend to start a group specifically for artists. I was sold.
I need to be clear, here. Whether or not Mars Hill had been - or would become - a machine by which to use gentile tactics for building an army of Driscollites (which, even at its worst, is a low-blow that I do not subscribe to) I know that what Jesus did in my life, and in the lives of my friends, was the work of the Spirit. I would even call it revival among a group of young men and women who were statistically opposed to the type of love and dedication we had for the church of Jesus Christ. Brandi and I saw friends that we’d prayed over for years, saved. We saw excitement and life and purpose in a group of people who simply didn’t have it - ourselves included. We saw the gospel go forth boldly from the ministry of Mars Hill Church. We began to understand the importance of the cross, the nature of God, local community, etc., through a clearly articulated presentation of the gospel. Our lives were changed, and largely by the Holy Spirit’s working in and through the preaching ministry of Mark Driscoll. I am eternally thankful for him.
Two reactions emerged as closets opened: some left; some stayed. I wonder what it means that I have stayed. Resilience? Compliance? Hope? Fear? There is a degree to which those that have stayed will, in the eyes of many, simply be guilty by association, and that will be that. I truly believe, though, that my wife and I were called to weather this storm, and I hope that we will get to see the sunrise. Perhaps others will even be able to accept that it could have been conviction that led us to stay, the same way it was conviction that led them to leave. And I don’t blame those that left, either. The amount of stones thrown from each “side” is miles high, and though I once stood with rock in hand, a lot of presumption clouded the truth of the matter, and I no longer want anything to do with it. This complicated mess is so much larger than anything that I will ever understand. Perhaps I should be thankful for that. Understanding is pain.
To be honest, I have struggled much in my faith during the last two years. That can be another post for another time. I am willing to acknowledge that I probably didn’t view much of what has transpired through the lens of our sovereign God, and there was much that I was confused about going into this collapse, let alone walking through and coming out of it. But I do know that there came a point where I began to experience a disconnect between what we were doing and what I thought we believed. Where we continued to condemn legalism and works while erring toward bullet points and extreme pragmatism. Where “reformed theology” was a core tenet of our church, but somehow God had gotten pretty lackadaisical in Esther. Where saving grace is Christ’s alone but somehow you can feel better about yourself through progress measurements by just looking at where you came from. Where Stephen’s martyrdom in Acts 7 somehow became a weirdly cultish sermon about Alpha Males.
And still, I hoped. On December 16th of last year, I wrote a blog on one of those hopeful days. The Evangelical Celebrity Machine (or, My Pastor). It is so hard to reconcile what I have seen this year with what I wrote in that blog. I guess I could have deleted it, but I’m pretty fed up with edits and PR. I’d rather let it be a part of my story, and pray that the repentance I praised then would manifest itself in more than worldly sorrow in the future.
Almost a year ago to this day - January 12th, 2014 - I have written in my notes, from the first sermon in our James’ series, “Not everyone carries the same load. Not everyone is a pillar that bears equivalent burdens. If the pillars up and leave, a lot falls with their leaving.” I remember it being an encouragement to me, in the midst of my winter despair, that I could not give up the fight. That, whether through a public “ministry” in Levi The Poet, or a private ministry to my wife, I wanted “my greatness to be a greatness of submission” - the way Mark described the Apostle Paul’s. I have a bit of a problem with this analogy now. Partly because I think some of those calls to “greatness” aka “submission” aka “do not ask questions” probably had the tendency to get pretty manipulative. Partly because I know that Jesus does not call pillars. He himself is the Pillar, and the Pillar does not fall. That’s part of the problem in this whole mess - men thinking they are pillars.
But I know what he meant, and to go along with it, he was right - a lot does fall.
I remember Strange Fire. I laughed about it when it happened. A friend wrote me with what has come to be prophecy about Mark’s time-clock nearing its end. I was so defensive. I accused him of being divisive. Judgmental. I thought "our Resurgence" was making headway in uniting tribes even though there we were - divisive and fragmenting, “Acting Like Men."
The irony with which things have transpired is divine.
There are so many questions. The year has been plagued with them. Have I led my family poorly? Did I drive my wife off of a cliff? Will she forgive my forked tongue? Do I have any discernment at all? Will this anger ever leave? Do I believe in anything? Will I always be afraid? Were we ever All About Jesus? Will these thoughts drive me to faith or unbelief? Will my entire worldview unravel if I start to look at aspects of it differently? Why am I so confused? Where is the perfect love that casts these things out?
God, if you can hear me, I’d rather have you than all of my answers.
I’ve been thinking about my dad. Before his suicide, when I tried to console him, his response was, “You are just like your pastors, Levi. They are making you into a harsh man.” I wrote a song about it. My dad told us that Driscoll does not understand mercy, and that the only way he will begin to is through suffering. Throughout this year, I’ve often wished my dad were alive so that I could talk through this collapse with him. Amazingly pointed, in hindsight. Maddening.
I have been a harsh man. I’ve been a furiously angry man. I have felt deep rage seep through my pores and leek out onto my friends and family. I have been a selfish man with the power of death on my tongue. I have manipulated compassion for gain. I know exactly how to twist words subtly enough to redirect worship toward myself.
And I know in my heart that if I am to learn a few more things from Mark in this season, they are that I see so much of myself in each and every accusation brought against him, that I have been so slow to repentance for the sins that are before my very eyes, and that I do not want to quench the Holy Spirit’s leading to change.
Mark Driscoll was fond of saying that “what you idolize, you will eventually demonize.” If he isn’t the case-study for it, i don’t know who is. I’d like to think that I’ve not idolized or demonized him, or others, or myself, but perhaps this all wouldn’t hurt so badly if that were true. I’m sure I’ve done both for Driscoll, probably only ever demonized Sutton Turner, and hoped more in Dave Bruskas than Christ as the solution. I’ve probably hated Throckmorton. I’ve pictured everyone with reservations about Mars Hill over the years, pointing fingers with I told you so written on their faces, and resented them all. I’ve resented the organization for letting us take sides for so long. I’ve led my wife into conversations I shouldn’t have been having, gossip and slander that only revealed the state of my heart, and probably damaged hers.
And I’m sorry for those things. I don’t want them anymore. Mark was also fond of saying that bitterness is a prison and a fire. I’d even go so far as to say it’s an exhausting one to maintain, especially since the only one locked up inside is the one holding onto the flame.
I want the gifts of repentance and forgiveness.
For those of us who have been withholding forgiveness until whatever ideological picture of repentance we’ve constructed in our minds appears: what happens if you never get your apology?
You don’t need an apology to extend forgiveness to anyone. The Lord Jesus did not wait for me or you or anybody to apologize before he came and, while we were enemies, reached out his hand to save us.
When Rick Warren taught the final sermon for Mars Hill, I was kind of annoyed. I love the guy, but I felt like we went out with an anti-climactic Christian-bookstore pep-talk. And then, I was kind of annoyed because he told all of us that maybe we should write thank-you letters to Pastor Mark, and let him know how much we appreciated his ministry. That exhortation sort of felt like pouring salt on a wound, but I’ve thought about it a lot since then. Every day, actually. And in spite of the defiance by which my heart of stone would seek to hold onto its betrayal, I cannot stop thinking of Romans 2:4, which declares that it is the kindness of God that leads us to repentance. It’s like the Spirit daily drilling it into my mind, begging me to let go. Pleading against the bitterness that could so easily strangle the forgiveness his gospel empowers in me. Reminding me that vengeance is his. Consoling me with the truth that the only time I have ever truly changed is when I have known his absurd kindness, and longed after him.
AN OPEN LETTER TO MARK DRISCOLL
Mark Driscoll, I love you. I forgive you.
I want to thank you for listening to the voice of the Spirit when he told you to marry Grace, start a church, and train men. The fruit of your labor is evident in the lives of thousands of Christians who love and worship Jesus through the ministry of the Lord Jesus through Mars Hill Church.
I am in the middle of crying over a conflicted letter that I struggle not to perceive as the anticlimactic consummation of a year’s worth of hoping for the best, and discovering the worst. I think about the people that left. I think about the people that stayed. All these people on both sides of whatever proverbial fence we built between us that absolutely love you. And I am heartbroken.
Thank you for inspiring me. Thank you for teaching me about the Bible. Thank you for calling me to something different than the trajectory I was headed toward. Thank you for being one of the only teachers that has ever been able to hold my wife’s attention for a full hour. Thank you for the way that I have seen her grow and flourish beneath those teachings. Thank you for calling me to love and cherish her. There are probably a few relational practicalities that I will not be taking into our future - aspects that I need to unlearn and Re:Train - but on the whole, I feel the glorious weight of responsibility for my bride, and I believe I owe much of that to you.
Thank you for being one of the boldest and clearest proclaimers of the gospel of Jesus Christ that I have ever experienced.
It’s true - I have been angry. At times, that anger has been righteous. Other times… no, far from it. Today, though, and more and more recently, I feel compassion. I feel heartbreak. I also feel hope and assurance that the same gospel you boldly proclaimed is the assurance of your future and hope.
After you resigned, Bruskas gave a sermon about one of your favorite topics - identity. He talked about how Jesus makes us righteous. I texted him to say that in spite of everything that I have done, or that he has done, or that you have done, or anyone who calls Jesus “savior” has done, he still calls us righteous. It’s so unbelievably amazing that a lot of times, I don’t believe it. And yet, the Spirit testifies to the saving grace of Christ within us.
So I wanted to tell you that I pray you would find joy in your righteous standing today. I wanted to tell you what you told me during my deepest season of darkness, when there were nothing but questions, and there was no one for comfort:
You are sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, the guarantee of your inheritance until you acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
Even with all of this blame stacked against you, there will come a day when you will stand before God, blameless. And it will not be because you were once a pillar of the faith, it will be because the object of your faith - the Pillar - upheld you before the Father. If my dad was right, and you haven’t understood mercy, I pray that you are beginning to. I pray that you are receiving it from him and I pray that others extend it to you.
My, does sin blind a man. I pray that Jesus would remove your cataracts, the way that I have been praying he will remove mine. I pray for you - literally - every single day.
As for me - us - I don’t know what the future holds. I hope that you still pray for us. I cannot imagine your own heartache to see this body that you have loved for eighteen years fragment, proverbially, overnight - and largely by the work of your hands. I wonder what your nights are like. I wonder how Grace and the kids are doing. I hope that you know that because of the absurdity of the gospel of Christ, there is no condemnation for you. What a beautiful absurdity it is. This absurdity that is my hope for your restoration.
Thank you, Mark, for teaching me to trust in Jesus. I pray that you would. I pray that his kindness leads you to a greatness of submission. I pray that his kindness leads you to the cross - where God poured out the wrath that he had toward you on his son, and clothed you in a new garment, perfect. I have faith that it will. His perseverance is relentless, and thank God.
AN OPEN LETTER TO THE FORMER PASTORS AND MEMBERS OF WHAT WAS ONCE CALLED MARS HILL CHURCH
To my beloved family,
Here we are, broken. Some of us have left. Some of us have stayed. All of us rebuilding. At some point during this process, I posted a relatively vague (highly passive-aggressive) status update that read, “There are still real life people that live and breathe inside of this glass house.” During the past few days, as I’ve written what this has become, I’ve thought most frequently of my friend and former MHC Downtown pastor, Jeff Bettger, who responded to that post with, “And you should not apologize for it. Jesus is doing exactly what he needs to do.” I appreciated that. I thought that maybe I was starting a war, but Jeff’s response was far more gracious than my motive for posting it had been. One of the most destructive results of the way Mars Hill Church handled this year was how long it allowed people to take sides against one another based upon misinformed, or uninformed, or half-informed content management, while the leaders / organization / whatever tried to save face.
I long for this to reflect my desire for unity, but I know that I cannot possibly sympathize with the circumstantial devastation that was uncovered by the men and families throughout the history of MHC in this process. I have read through them all. What weight is a post like this supposed to hold against their stories? I do not know. Perhaps I will always be as naive as I have felt during this process, and nothing, in this life, will remedy my hope for bringing the family together again.
I do know that mercy covers sin, but it does not minimize it. And I do think that though many of us have repenting to do for our parts played, it is also alright to acknowledge the ways that we have been sinned against.
I think that Mars Hill Church and the leaders representing it, as a whole, did not take the time they should have to acknowledge and discuss how deeply it has hurt the people in their care. There are exceptions to the rule, but I think that many of us feel swept under the rug. I know that this dust will be settling for a long time, and I pray that, in the individual bodies that Mars Hill Church has become, leaders will work together to address the pain that will linger, and apologize to their flock for negligence. I also know that we, as the flock, must extend grace, as leaders are people - human beings that are suffering through the same circumstances.
I know that we can’t walk into the future with these chains around our necks. I know that I believe Jeff was right. That this has been a work of Jesus, from beginning to end - through us, in spite of us, beyond us. I know that I am going to hold onto faith that Christ will redeem this in the end - that we will be a people united in the end - that we will be a people united to those that have hurt us the deepest in the end - and hope not to return to the chains of bitterness in the meantime.
There was a time when I told my friend and pastor, Donovan Medina, that I wished there would come a day when we just got back to Jesus as center, again. I appreciate the rebuke I received in response: Jesus is, has, always will be the center. And that’s proven true. Though the waters have been tumultuous, all that I have lost and gained and wrestled through has driven me back to him like the pull of the moon on the ocean’s tide. I pray that it is the same for you.
My dad was passionate about unity in the body of Christ. When he died, literally hundreds of people that he had served with in the ministry came to his funeral. Frankly, they were people that would never have wanted to be caught dead together, but I believe that my dad would have said that his death was worth it to see them reconciled. To use Mark’s language, I think that’s a part of my dad’s legacy that carries on in me.
I long for reconciliation. There are so many broken relationships related to Mars Hill Church. So many things that even if forgiven, I fear will never be made right on this side of eternity. Perhaps that is part of our body groaning within these tents, longing for what is mortal to be swallowed up by life.
I pray for life for us. Abundant life.
That will happen through forgiveness. To the thirteen churches that Mars Hill sent out during its final breath, and all of the people scattered during the “dispersion”, we are a people who have been forgiven according to the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. His forgiveness toward us frees us to forgive others.
Even if you never receive your apology, keep forgiving.
With love and sincerity and all that I have to offer,
North Church ABQ
“Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” - Hebrews 2:8-9