17 Years at Mars Hill: Life After Disillusionment

I’m glad to be off the energy-drink-Christianity bullet train, and my overall health is better off for it.

Matt Johnson / 1.5.22

In the final episode of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast, Jesse Bryan, a prominent interviewee and former Creative Director at Mars Hill Church, recalls recent experiences with panic attacks that he seemed confident were related to trauma he’d experienced at Mars Hill. I know from first-hand experience that he’s not exaggerating. 

It was late 2014, and I had just signed my name alongside 20 other former Mars Hill pastors to a document meant to recommend to the then-current Mars Hill elder board that Mark Driscoll was not fit for church leadership and should be removed. The day I signed my name I had an experience I’d never had before or since. 

I was standing in the kitchen washing dishes when suddenly a wave of panic hit me, and I began sobbing uncontrollably. I kept my back to my two little girls playing in the next room, and my wife, who automatically knew what was going on, invited me to take a break for as long as I needed. She’d take care of the girls. I went into our bedroom and sobbed into a pillow for at least an hour. And I’m not much of a crier. 

The Toll of Working With a Narcissistic Leader

I recounted this experience with another ex-pastor friend about a week later. I was baffled. Why was I feeling this way? “I felt like I had a target on my back,” I said. 

In episode 12, Chuck DeGroat gave a good description of what was a mystery to me at the time of my mini-meltdown. 

We used to talk about trauma as happening in extreme circumstances. Now we know that there really is very real chronic trauma that comes from serving within systems like this that get lodged in people’s bodies. So much so that if you served in a staff like this, you don’t really think it had an impact on you. 

But two years later, you find yourself in my office talking about a little bit of depression and a little bit of anxiety, and a little too much alcohol. And by the way, I have these constant headaches, and I never get more than four hours of sleep a night. And I say, “that’s trauma.” And they say, “what would I have to be traumatized about?” 

Then we’ll get back into their story, and we’ll start to connect the dots, and they’ll say, “Oh, that was the toll of the day in and day out work alongside a narcissistic leader. I didn’t know how much I was storing up inside my body. I didn’t know how much I was repressing.” We go into survival mode, but our bodies can only take it for so long.

For context, my wife and I regularly volunteered up to 20 hours per week at Mars Hill for years. I started attending Mars Hill regularly in 1997. I lived in Mark Driscoll’s basement between 1998 and 99. He officiated our wedding in 2001, I became a lay pastor in 2007, and I got hired on staff in 2011. My wife was close with Driscoll’s wife, Grace. 

I worked on staff for three years in the same creative department as Jesse Bryan and alongside many other people interviewed for the podcast. Many of the interviewees were or are close friends, and nearly all of them were people I knew. Each of their stories ring true. And while I wish we all had spent our time and energy on something other than working on building Mars Hill, it’s likely I wouldn’t have met so many wonderful, kind, creative people. 

Over the years, I’d seen Driscoll bully people into submission, publicly mock fellow pastors in team meetings, fire people for no reason other than questioning his authority, drive people out of the church and take thinly veiled pot shots from the pulpit aimed at fellow pastors (myself included), but I’d never experienced a hard confrontation with Driscoll firsthand myself. And yet, if Chuck DeGroat is correct in his assessment, I’d basically experienced forms of trauma by simply being in the Mars Hill environment. 

Rebuilding a life post Mars Hill hasn’t been easy. The Mars Hill community was like a family. Not only that, but I’d served as an associate volunteer pastor for seven years, and in the last three years Mars Hill was also my livelihood, which made leaving even more complex — especially when merely looking for another job could be grounds for getting fired (true story.) But as difficult as post-Mars Hill life recovery can be, I’m glad to be off the energy-drink-Christianity bullet train, and my overall health is better off for it. 

A few weeks ago, I had a check-in with my doctor to address some stress and anxiety-related issues. I have a couple of years’ history with this doctor, and I’m thankful that he takes a holistic approach to my health rather than just writing me a bunch of prescriptions willy-nilly. 

He asked how things had been going lately, and I was glad to report that the last couple of years had been better than the previous five. But to give a six or seven-year synopsis of what had been causing me stress, I rattled off a list of challenges I’d faced. Which included job insecurity, relationship challenges, and that oh, I’d left a cult that I was part of for 17 years. (By the way, the 17-year foray in the cult was likely the trigger to all the other stress-inducing issues.) 

We continued our conversation, but my admission didn’t go unnoticed. “You mentioned being part of a cult a few minutes ago,” he said, returning to the elephant in the room. “Can you tell me about that?”

I was sort of half-joking when I mentioned the cult thing. (I don’t think Mars Hill was a cult religiously, but cultish sociologically, and I think there’s a difference.) I went on to describe our near 20 year experience at Mars Hill, how toxic the community had become, and why we had to leave. 

Long story short, don’t join a cultish church, kids. It’s bad for your health. 

I’ve been asking myself many hard questions over the last couple of years. Why did I become a part of Mars Hill? How could I have been so blind to the subtle and not so subtle shifts within the culture that became harmful to so many? My family and I left Mars Hill in January of 2014, but the warning signs were there much earlier. Why did we stay, and did our involvement make us complicit in the harm so many experienced? These have been hard questions to ask, and with the help of friends and a good counselor, I’m starting to learn self-kindness, and I’ve reconciled with people I’ve hurt. I imagine there are more relationships to repair in the future. 

Sadly, I’ve also seen many friends and acquaintances so hurt and disillusioned by their experience at Mars Hill that they’ve said goodbye to church and sometimes the faith altogether. In my more cynical moments, I’m tempted to roll my eyes at what seems like a knee jerk faith deconstruction trend, but the more I consider how deeply the Mars Hill experience affected me, I’m gaining more empathy for those who feel misgivings toward Christianity. 

Glimpses of Hope Amid Growing Cynicism 

For my part, I experienced a profound theological shift that gave me hope back in 2009 that helps keep me grounded to this day. A pastor friend in the Mars Hill-o-sphere recommended I read Forde’s On Being a Theologian of the Cross, and Paul Zahl’s Grace in Practice. Around the same time I was introduced to Mockingbird, which has been a treasure trove of good news ever since. 

I can’t overstate how important these resources were (and are) for helping me reframe my faith in a way that gives me a glimpse of a more realistic and ultimately more hopeful faith in Jesus, and how he’s working under the radar in my own life, and the life of the church. 

At that time, it was becoming clear to me that the Mars Hill culture was over-identifying with the possibilities of power and influence which was in contradiction to a cross-shaped outlook on life and church. The Mockingbird glossary on a theology of the cross explains well our common assumptions around power and how they get mingled with our ideas of spiritual aspirations and success. 

A ‘theology of the cross’ … contradicts the assumptions we normally have about life. It says that God is most reliably present not in our strengths or our successes or the things we like best about ourselves. Rather, God is present and working in the world exactly in the place where a person is falling apart, where they are discovering the limits of their power instead of its possibilities. It also means that God is always involved with people and situations exactly as they currently are, instead of as they could be or might be or used to be.

Forde’s take on Luther’s theology of the cross gave me a language for how the Mars Hill culture was changing from the Mars Hill I once knew. There were exceptionally talented people at Mars Hill, and Driscoll knew how to recruit those people to a vision — which was a good thing. But over time it seemed like the exceptionalism that Driscoll happened upon all those years ago solidified into a quality that God could finally bless. As if God were waiting around for the right people to come around and lead the mission — finally! The problem is, God uses the weak and despised things of the world to shame the wise. Something was amiss. 

What at one time had felt like a gospel saturated environment that sparked free creativity within a collaborative community was beginning to feel like a Mark Driscoll one man show as he fought to centralize power for himself. 

The Early Days of Mars Hill: Happy, Creative Collaboration

In the early years I never sensed that anyone — including Mark Driscoll himself — ever imagined Mars Hill becoming a behemoth church planting and media machine. But somewhere along the way, Driscoll — and the entire Mars Hill community with him — started believing its own press. But it wasn’t always that way. 

 I began attending Mars Hill regularly sometime in 1997. My “career” as a touring indie rock / punk musician was about to wind down, and figuring out the balancing act of a rock and roll lifestyle with my faith was feeling complicated. Fortunately, the Mars Hill community welcomed artists and musicians. Reaching out to the arts community was a key feature of Mars Hill culture at the time. I felt welcomed, at home, valued, and given permission to hold onto my art for art’s sake position without having to apologize for why my bands weren’t using our music as a vehicle for evangelism. 

My friend Jeff and I (who you may have heard in several Rise and Fall episodes) immediately started volunteering in the music ministry. The teams of musicians that formed were given free rein to create as they saw fit, and it was refreshing to have the backing of church leadership. What we created together was congruent with the post-grunge Seattle indie scene, complete with Mars Hill backing an all-ages music venue called the Paradox that ran music programming throughout the week and Sunday evening worship services. 

The folks in charge of running technology were given free reign to figure out creative solutions too. Over a couple of years the creative and technology teams were dabbling in new forms of media to find innovative solutions for making the gospel message accessible online. We were genuinely surprised that the church’s ministry was connecting with others outside the Seattle area. 

The creative department alone developed into a world-class creative machine, and it was a privilege to work with so many of them. But in the early days of Mars Hill, it felt like excellence was achieved from an overflow of grace. But later on it became a law of exceptionalism for Driscoll to wield. The form of excellence that originally developed organically at Mars Hill became co-opted for Driscoll’s empire building program, and that wasn’t the program any of us had signed up for.

The Covert Contracts Between Narcissistic Leaders and Their Followers

In other words, Driscoll was building an empire on the backs of good people. And when those individual people either wore out their usefulness to him or suggested healthier ways of operating a church, they were silenced, bullied, pushed out, demonized, and often shunned. I’d seen it happen repeatedly, and the closer I got to the center of power at Mars Hill — first as a volunteer, small group leader, volunteer pastor, and eventually a full-time staffer — the more I experienced the dysfunction first hand. 

But there was an odd dynamic at work. The church was growing exponentially — surely that must have meant that God was blessing it, right? Despite the controversies Driscoll stirred up year by year and the bullying tactics he used to push out leaders who took issue with him, the Mars Hill community was able to gloss over the character defects because “look at how many people are meeting Jesus!” To put it in theological shorthand, the glory story was in full effect. 

Maybe it’s just me, but I think there is an underlying contract between congregations like Mars Hill and their charismatic leaders. Being part of an exceptional community with an exceptional leader provides an antidote to the sting of being normal in a time and culture when “normal” is practically a sin. In her incredibly perceptive talk “Narcissism and the Systems it Breeds,” Diane Langberg rightfully observes that leaders with special qualities attract followers who are flattered to be led by them — as though they were chosen to match the specialness of their leader. If this isn’t a recipe for collective codependence between a leader and the community, I don’t know what is. 

Sadly, visionary leaders like Driscoll run the deadly risk of not loving their church as it exists in the present. Rather, they love a church of their imagination: a bigger and better church of the future. That’s not love for a congregation, that’s love of one’s ego.

The bigger-and-better theme had become a bit of a joke in our home. More and more often, we’d hear Driscoll in staff meetings and the pulpit humble bragging about the latest membership and attendance numbers and the new church campus locations that had started. He’d even gush over details of his personal life. Eventually, Driscoll’s bragging became a sort of symbiotic flattery. He was in the best shape of his life, he and his family were the closest they’d ever been, he had new friends in high places who were teaching him so much, and the list went on and on. How lucky we all were to have such a rock star as a pastor. 

All the numbers were inflated, but all the flattery became increasingly awkward. The people the flattery was intended to encourage were starting to wake up to the fact that they were becoming mere human capital for Driscoll’s empire, putting Driscoll on the map as the most influential pastor in the biggest church in the country — a title he was intentionally gunning for. 

And while the orthodox gospel message of Jesus coming into the world, living a sinless life, dying for the sins of the world, and rising again were key to Driscoll’s preaching, the implied message was to get your act together and start producing results. Because more butts in seats meant more lives were going to be changed, the community would experience a radical shift, begin living for Jesus, which would change the entire culture! 

To get all of that done, the congregation was going to have to stop being churchy consumers and “get on mission” as the saying went. The pressure placed upon volunteers was exhausting too — something I know first hand, having volunteered for 14 year before coming on staff. So, as “gospel-saturated” as the by-the-books messaging may have been on the “about” page of the Mars Hill website or in the sermons, the free gift of the gospel had strings attached. The “gospel” was inextricably attached to Driscoll’s “get on mission” marching orders, and that’s no gospel at all. 

Life After Mars Hill “Exceptionalism” 

As much as I’ve internalized a glory versus cross theology and a low anthropology, it’s taken several years for my eyes to refocus on the softer hues of real life outside the hyper-colored megachurch spectacle. In my book, Getting Jesus Wrong, I recount meeting with a Mars Hill friend who had a difficult time finding a new church: 

As we sat together sipping our coffee, he described the kind of church he longed for again: one where the church facility was nice and had ample parking, where the children’s ministry was fun for the kids. But the big ticket item on his wish list was: the church had to be led by an entertaining and dynamic pastor. He wanted to be at a church where he felt like he was a part of an exciting move of the spirit. He wanted to be a part of the kind of place he’d always become accustomed to.

I don’t blame him. The entire wishlist he outlined makes complete sense to me. I’d rather be in a pleasing space with good music and pleasant aesthetics on a Sunday morning. I’d rather listen to a message with personality than get lulled to sleep by a monotone delivery. And yet, aside from the wish list, there was an undercurrent to our conversation. He didn’t like the idea of not belonging to an exciting movement of God. What he’d experienced at his old church felt vital. But of all the churches he visited, he couldn’t quite find that same exciting quality. Over the next year, I heard similar complaints from others who were exiled from the community because our church had shut down. There was a general feeling of displacement due to not having a home within the extraordinary. Like a popular kid who moves to a new town who assumes their innate specialness, but then realizes they have to start over again at a new high school and elbow their way into a new caste system.

We ex-Mars Hill folk had become so accustomed to high intensity, performance-oriented church life. Anything less than that seemed dull. Like it didn’t matter as much. 

Over the first couple years after our Mars Hill breakup, some days my wife and I wondered what we were doing with our lives anymore. It turns out, we were doing exactly what everyone else was doing — working ordinary jobs, raising kids, cutting the grass, eating pre-packaged Trader Joe’s meals, scrubbing the toilet, and occasionally going to church on Sundays. As the saying goes, everybody wants a revolution. But as it turns out, no one wants to do the dishes

The intensity of the law to do more, be more and achieve wasn’t prodding us like in the days of Mars Hill and it took time for our nervous systems to slow down to match the ordinary rhythms of life. But “ordinary” is healthy. Both for our faith and, as it turns out, our mental and physical health too. 

I don’t know if Driscoll was building a church empire to prove his self-worth. If so, it would have been better for everyone involved if he’d built a used car sales empire instead. But it does seem reasonable to say that Driscoll was driven by the law of exceptionalism that caused him to blurt out all the bloated flattery-inducing stats whenever he had the chance. That Mars Hill was doing great things for the kingdom, and there was no stopping us. It was time to get on board and get to work. Either that or, as Driscoll said himself, “get run over by the Mars Hill bus.

For my part, I’d much rather know I’m loved and welcomed by God just as I am in the sanctuary of a boring old church with tacky décor and a crappy praise band rather than being flattered into believing how lucky I was to be a part of the coolest, fastest growing church around and get run over anyway. 

It might seem reasonable that building a church “right” would require striving for excellence, cultural reach and getting the most talented people to hop on the bus. That’s certainly the tact Mars Hill eventually adopted. In the form of exceptionalism Mars Hill “matured” into — only growth, triumph, and conquest were allowed. But in this glory story, there’s no room to lose or die. No room for failure; no room for Jesus. 

Whatever lofty striving we choose for ourselves, every single person will be on the losing end one day. And as Capon put it, “[Jesus] came simply to be the resurrection and the life of those who will take their stand on a death he can use instead of on a life he cannot.” The road to glory might look flashy and exciting, but the thrill ultimately leads to a doctor’s office. You might eventually get run over by the bus, but fortunately the greatest of physicians knows how to raise the dead. 

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