Saturday, August 30, 2014

8 Signs That Your Church Is Unhealthy: Lessons From Mars Hill

This blog post is not directly about Mars Hill (it is more general), but the thoughts have been triggered by the on-going issues that are emerging from Mars Hill. In my first blog post about Mars Hill, I argued that the primary issue is one of church government and that this was relevant because, "The whole modern evangelical movement is infected with the same issues that are emerging in Mars Hill." This seems to have resonated with some readers, one reader of the blog contacted me with concerns he was having in his own church-- concerns that related to issues surrounding an unhealthy church culture.

In light of this, I thought I would take some time to mark up eight signs that indicate a church is not healthy. I do this simply because it is often the case that  those who are caught up in the culture of an unhealthy church, usually don't realise it. In fact, they often feel guilty for questioning their church and its leadership-- this in itself is actually a sign that the culture is not right. There should always be freedom to respectfully question practices in the light of scripture.

So here are eight indications that a church has serious health problems-- of course, no church is perfect, and this list is not exhaustive, but if a number of these signs are present it is a strong indication that the church in question has an unhealthy culture.

1) Internal problems are covered up by means of spin

One of the most alarming issues emerging in Mars Hill is the discrepancy between official statements by church leaders and what is actually taking place behind closed doors. All churches have problems, all churches get it wrong, but when facts are hidden and information is massaged in order to make the situation look less awful than it is -- the church is flirting with the Father of Lies and has ceased to walk in the light.

2) Biblical eldership is hijacked and one man has complete power over the church's vision and direction

Most people don't even think about church leadership, they will choose a church on the basis of its friendliness, liveliness, and relevance to their needs. However, unless we ask the tough questions about governance, a church which looks open and friendly on the outside, may in fact be closed and domineering on the inside. Very often you won't know there is a problem until you have a problem, and if there are no procedures in place, you may find that you are now the problem.

Many churches have good governance structures in place, Baptists are governed congregationally, Anglicans have vicars and bishops, Presbyterians have elders -- all of these established denominations have good structures of accountability, however, many contemporary and independent churches do not. While on the surface they may claim to have a team of elders, very often the team of elders is subject to one man-- usually called the pastor or senior pastor. If the pastor is not subject to anyone, there are no safeguards in place for the congregation or the pastor. As I have mentioned elsewhere, a wise man once said, 'power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.'

3) The congregation is not consulted in any significant decisions

Other than the official statements from MH leadership, it seems that MH members are often kept in the dark about many important issues. This is often the case in many churches. However, if congregations are not involved in essential issues such as the calling of a minister, large financial decisions, significant changes in structure and organisation, doctrinal developments, and to some extent church discipline procedures-- there is a real issue concerning the DNA of that particular church. To what extent do the members have ownership of the church? To what extent do they belong to the church? To what extent is the priesthood of all believers being acknowledged?

4) There seems to be a revolving door

Many churches seem to have a revolving door. A common pattern exists. There is an influx of people, all seems wonderful, then there is an exodus-- and so the pattern repeats itself. It's not only the average member of the congregation either. How many church plants which begin with half-a-dozen members will continue to keep their founding members (other than the pastor and his wife) for ten or twenty years? How many of these founding members move on for positive reasons? In Mars Hill, Mark and Grace Driscoll are the only founders who are left, the other founders have been written out of the story.

Why do so many churches have a revolving door? Well, often the blame will be placed on the people who leave. MH has had a tendency to accuse those who have left of 'no longer being on mission'-- despite the fact that many who leave often had good reputations when they were in the church. It's easy to accuse the leavers of having lost the vision, or not being committed or spiritual enough. It is easier to do this than to examine the culture of the church. What systems are in place for dealing with conflict? If the leadership style is 'my way or the high-way' there is really nowhere for members to go other than out the back-door.

5) Members of the congregation are afraid to raise concerns with leadership

MH has been accused of creating a culture of fear. A culture where leaders and members aren't allowed to ask questions. Sadly, this is too often the case in many churches. If a church is run by a dictator who is surrounded by 'yes men', make no mistake about it, there will be no room for dissenting opinions. Very often this leadership style is defended by the most loyal followers, but it is not healthy. People should be free to ask questions and raise concerns without fear of being shunned or tagged as being rebellious or sinful. In some charismatic churches, there is a tendency to tag people who think or question issues as having a 'Jezebel spirit', this is simply spiritual abuse and manipulation.

6) Good elders are forced to resign or are fired because they attempt to bring biblical correction

With no accountability procedures in place, elders, ministers and members have no safe-place to resolve conflict. If there is conflict with an eldership, that eldership needs outside help. The MH leaders who were involved in investigating charges brought against two fellow elders where not objective enough to do so. Hence the accusations of MH conducting kangaroo courts. When there are no higher courts of appeal, good men will have to resign or be fired.

7) Keeping the machine running has become more important than truth, integrity and Christ-likeness

This is one of the issues that can emerge when a church has gone off-course. Church becomes a matter of keeping up appearances. It becomes about keeping up a show rather than a gathering of God's people, in fellowship with one another, who are gathered for the glory of God. When this happens, the prime motive is survival. Character takes second place to ability, as long as there are people to perform 'praise and worship', lead services and organise events-- that's all that matters. As long as it looks like we are on mission and on fire for God, that's all that matters, of course, the discerning see it for what it is. 'the emperor has no clothes.'

8) Leaders lead through manipulation

There is a man with a vision, and that vision needs people if it is to be carried out. Consequently, encouragement towards service is no longer about a pastoral desire for God's people to walk in God's will, instead church members become a means to an end. Pastors become experts in people management. They learn to exploit the desires and fears of the people in their congregations. Consequently service is no longer Spirit inspired, but manipulated by man. When this happens members are being exploited. Church members exist to fulfil the pastor's church vision rather than the pastoral ministry existing to serve and care for the church.  In this culture what you can do for the church is more important than the well-being  of your soul.

Concluding thoughts

Whenever the church hits the spot-light and the media broadcasts the failings of the church, Christ's name is maligned. However, God cares for the broken, and he hates unjust systems that oppress the weak. He also hates it when shepherds care more about their own appetites than they do the well-being of the flock. God is a good God, and He has many good churches. While he is grieved when his name is blasphemed because of church scandals, He is just and he will not allow harm which is carried out in His name to go unpunished. As the scriptures teach us, 'Judgement begins in the house of God.'

Why Christian Rock Concerts Won't Win Young People To Christ: Re-thinking Regeneration

The ‘Big Event’ is a common characteristic of youth ministry. The programme usually follows a popular pattern: the first part of the event is similar to a concert, sometimes there will be some audience interaction, then someone will take the stage and deliver a talk  which in turn leads to what churches have traditionally referred to as the ’altar call’. At this point in the meeting, young people will be encouraged to respond to the message by repeating a prayer which indicates they want to commit their life to Christ; or they will be asked to raise their hand; or walk to the front of the platform to receive prayer or speak to a counsellor. Sometimes the response involves a combination of all four.

I’ve attended these events as a young Christian, I’ve also been involved in the planning of them, and I have spoken at them. At every level of involvement, from participant to speaker, I have always felt uneasy about the whole process. As a young person I struggled with the sense that something was missing; as a youth worker I had doubts about the authenticity of the conversions; and as a Bible teacher and preacher I now question the biblical basis of the methodology. The passing of time has only confirmed my doubts; in my time as a youth worker, I witnessed quite a number of the young people I was working with respond to invitations at events; on the surface it all looked very good. But the tragic fact is that many of the young people fell away in less than twelve months.

In order for an entertainment event to be successful it needs to be exciting, hyped and buzzing with a positive vibe. The big event is a celebration: it is festive; therefore, introducing topics such as sin, judgement and repentance into the big event is guaranteed to spoil the party and dampen the atmosphere. As one 22-year old student perceptively said, ‘No one will listen to a preacher at a rave.’

One of the greatest challenges for the big event approach to evangelism is that the performance model incorporates competing factors into its programme. Sometimes the gospel does make an impact in these environments, but the emotional appeal, along with the music and the hyped up atmosphere, can actually conflict with the work of God’s Spirit. Regarding the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing people to Christ, Jesus said: ‘And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement.’ (John 16:8) Big event outreaches often short-circuit the good they do through contradictory actions. On the one hand, leaders will bring a message which they hope will challenge and convert, but on the other hand, they are so afraid of saying anything negative or convicting that might reduce the euphoric atmosphere which they have worked so hard to create.

One of the worst examples of this I ever witnessed was at a Christian youth music festival. Each night included an impressive line-up of bands, and the message was to be delivered by a popular youth conference speaker and music artist. I was no longer in full-time youth work at this point, but given my background, I had been asked to be a counsellor in order to assist any young people who wanted to respond to the message.

The night was buzzing, the bands were a mixture; some very good and some not so good. The turnout was okay; there were perhaps about 100 people at the event. The time arrived, the music faded, the speaker delivered his animated talk and it was time to draw in the nets. It was time to call young people to respond to the message. This guy was quite innovative; rather than asking only the young people who were not Christians to pray a prayer of commitment, he just led the whole crowd in a prayer of commitment. He then asked if there was anyone who had prayed that prayer for the first time. The room went quiet as almost every hand in the room was raised (even some professing Christians had their hands raised). As the last hand was raised, the silence was broken as the speaker shouted, ‘C’mon! Give yourselves a round of applause!’ The room erupted, the band started up and it was back to party time. At some point in the course of events, it was mentioned that the ominous-looking adults wearing the high visibility jackets were there to speak to anyone who had made a commitment. No one approached the ministry team and there was no evidence that anyone had experienced a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ.

The music was good, the message had just enough gospel content, but the invitation was a mockery. This experience confirmed to me that youth ministry is becoming more and more of a parody. That night I pretty much resolved that I would no longer be involved in this type of evangelism. I am sure that the ministries involved in this type of approach are sincere. I am also convinced that they are not intending to undermine the work of the gospel, but that is exactly what these methods do. The theme of this chapter is regeneration and conversion. An understanding of the conflicting nature of a hyped up crowd and the convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit is essential if we are serious about young people responding to the gospel. If youth ministries are serious about seeing young people saved, and they want to continue to use the big event model, they need to be brave enough to allow space for silence and seriousness. They need to be so surrendered to the Lord that they are willing for the Holy Spirit to gate crash the party.

A.W Tozer touches on the issues surrounding genuine regeneration, conversion and repentance in the following statement:

I consider it a good sign that some people are still asking questions like these in our churches: "What should happen in a genuine conversion to Christ?" and "What should a man or woman feel in the transaction of the new birth?" If I am asked, my answer is this: "There ought to be a real and genuine cry of pain!" That is why I am not impressed with the kind of evangelism that tries to invite people into the fellowship of God by signing a card. There should be a birth within, a birth from above. There should be the terror of seeing ourselves in violent contrast to the holy, holy God! Unless we come into this place of conviction and pain concerning our sin, I am not sure how deep and real our repentance will ever be. The man whom God will use must be undone, humble and pliable. He must be, like the astonished Isaiah, a man who has seen the King in His beauty![1]

The call to reach young people with the gospel is just as urgent as it ever was. The battle for their souls is very real. Many like David, have stepped up to join the battle hoping to win a generation for Christ, but they are weighed down with cultural baggage in the same way that David was weighed down with Saul’s armour. There is a great need to rediscover God’s weapons for reaching the world. Instead of seeing a generation of young people baptised in the Spirit of God we have seen ministries of the church baptised in the spirit of the world. As youth leaders we like to see ourselves as inheritors of a legacy of trail blazers and pioneers; yet too often Christian youth ministry simply reflects the culture of the day instead of challenging it. When youth ministry adopts the values and attitudes of secular society, it becomes the purveyor of the status quo rather than a prophetic voice for the kingdom of God.

[1] AW Tozer, Conviction and Pain”, The Alliance, (accessed 13 March 2014).

This blog post is an extract from an un-published manuscript: 'Gospel-Centred Youth Work and Ministry'

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Resurgence: Will Driscoll's Ministry Have a Funeral or Future?

Prior to the Mars Hill and Driscoll media storm, Driscoll was in the process of publishing his new book: Resurgence: Will Christianity have a Funeral or a Future?  I haven't read any of Driscoll's stuff since he released Vintage Jesus but I have to confess, the title jarred me. It jarred me because the title is ridiculous. Christianity is safe in the hands of Jesus, with or without the 'Resurgence'. The Lord said, "I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." There is also a degree of tragic irony in the fact that just some months ago when Driscoll was asking if Christianity would have a funeral or a future, many have now written their own personal obituary for Mark Driscoll. There is a common thread which runs through most of the 'hand-washing' posts relating to Driscoll. Many of the posts talk about Driscoll as if he is finished. There is talk of 'the rise and fall of Mark Driscoll', and 'Mark Driscoll's Fall from Grace'. We have Challies weighing in and saying, "I doubt we will see another Mark Driscoll anytime soon."

Is Mark Driscoll finished? Has he 'fallen from grace?' No, I don't think so. Although, he has certainly fallen from the evangelical celebrity pedal stool. And poor church leadership structures and decisions have certainly caught up with him. However, one cannot help but wonder how much of the 'hand washing' by those who previously endorsed him, and were associated with him, are doing so out of self-preservation rather than a genuine desire for biblical correction? With the present media storm, Driscoll is not a name that any credibility seeking evangelical leader or movement wants to be associated with.

Will Driscoll's ministry have a funeral or a future? That remains to be seen. Mars Hill isn't finished yet. It's inevitable that bloggers (myself included) are commenting on the scenario, and stating whether we have positioned ourselves as having washed our hands with Driscoll, or standing by him-- however--  all of us who know Christ (and especially those of us who have endorsed Driscoll at one time or another) have a responsibility to pray for Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill church. As I've said before, I've not been following his teaching since around 2008. I think the church structure at Mars Hill is unbiblical and unhealthy (as are many contemporary evangelical churches), however, I do believe Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill have been uniquely used by God, are probably still being used by God and may still be used by God in the future -- with or without the approval of the evangelical celebrity mainstream. Will Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill have a funeral or a future? It remains to be seen, but let's remember that the God we serve is more gracious than men, and is in the business of healing the terminally ill-- and even raising the dead. Before we start to write our eulogies, just remember --it wouldn't be the first funeral that Jesus has spoiled.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Mark Driscoll, Contemporary Christianity and Presbyterianism

I've been quietly keeping tabs on the issues surrounding Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill over the last few months. Ever since Driscoll crashed John MacArthur's strange fire conference things seem to have gone from bad to worse for him. He gets called out for immaturity, he then gets accused of plagiarism, he gets exposed for buying his way into the New York Times Best Seller list with church funds and to top it off the trickling exit of members and leaders from Mars Hill have snowballed into something of an avalanche resulting in several websites devoted solely to exposing, rebuking and calling for the removal of Mark Driscoll from leadership. And if all that wasn't bad enough Acts 29, the church planting network which Driscoll co-founded, have excommunicated him and all Mars Hill churches.

I've resisted weighing into the Mark Driscoll controversy for several reasons. The main reason being that I'm saddened by the whole thing. Driscoll has been an amazing influence in many Christians' lives, not least my own. Consequently, I'm not overly enthusiastic about weighing in on the latest Christian blogosphere melodrama. On a similar vein, I don't intend to write in-depth or for an extended period of time. David Robertson has written an excellent article on many of the major issues surrounding the Driscoll controversy, and he has expressed many of my own thoughts far more effectively than I ever could. I do however, want to pick up and expand on some of the key things that he highlighted.

His article seeks to address What the Church can learn from Pastor Mark's Fall from Grace. He highlights five important principles to learn from the Driscoll and Mars Hill scenario, four of them, directly relate to Mark and one of them is directed towards his critics, particularly those who are revelling in his downfall. The five points are as follows:

Lesson 1 – We don't need Protestant Popes
Lesson 2 – We don't need Protestant Pop Stars
Lesson 3 – We don't need Protestant Professionals
Lesson 4  – We don't need Protestant Pharisees
Lesson 5 – We do need Protestant Pastors

His points really amount to one key issue, and it is this issue that I have felt is the major issue in the present Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll crisis: church government. Mars Hill is in crisis largely because the church and Mark's ministry are not built upon a more biblical framework.

A number of years ago, when I was at the height of my Driscoll excitement, my wife bought me a book(let), written by Driscoll  on church leadership: A book on Church Leadership You'll Actually Read. I've always had an interest in church government, and not just a theoretical interest, thanks to my first few years as a Christian with the brethren movement, I've always had an understanding that ecclesiology is important. Yet, it was exactly at this point that Driscoll's book jarred with me. At the end of the book Driscoll deals with the question: What should I do if I disagree with how my church is organised? This was an essential question for me, at this time in my walk I had spent many years in the independent charismatic church scene and I was deeply aware of the problems caused by poor church government and fellowships which were built upon the personality and authority of one man. So, here was Driscoll, my theological hero, the guy who would contend ferociously for biblical truth about to answer a question which I desperately needed answered. What did he have to say about church organisation? Well after a few sentences about checking the scriptures, checking your motives, respectfully speaking to the elders, and giving the options of respectfully stay and submit or peacefully leave the church, he concluded by saying:

"I offer one final word of caution for the idealistic neatniks who may read this: every church is filled with imperfect people like you who are led by imperfect leaders like me and governed by imperfect systems like the ones outlined in this book. The goal for yourself, your church and its leaders must be faithfulness and not perfection, so it behoves you to start drinking decaf and to lighten up in Jesus' name."

 And that was it. Simply put, if we are unsure about the government of our church, we need to put up or shut up-- and if we are concerned about church government, we really need to chill out-- it's not all that important because all the systems of church government are imperfect anyway.

Of course, it's true, there is no perfect system, but it is possible that some are less perfect than others. In fact, it is certainly the case. It's also no accident that Driscoll wrote this book in 2008 because it was in 2007 that Driscoll changed the bylaws of Marshill which shifted the church from an elder-led model to a CEO model which gave Driscoll more authority. This decision was rolled through despite opposition from key leaders, a stance which caused two of the leaders to be fired.*

The shift from being an elder-led church to a CEO model has led to internal division, misuse of power, and a culture of spiritual abuse, it is also this new leadership structure that is hindering the church from moving on from its present struggles. The old adage is true, power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Mark Driscoll is man of God, but he, like the rest of us, is a sinner. Sinful men in imperfect systems are likely to cause problems, sinful men in really bad systems are guaranteed to wreak havoc. I wholeheartedly agree with David Robertson when he says:

"How I wish that Driscoll had belonged to an established denomination with suitable accountability and liberty for him to develop and use his undoubted gifts. How I hate the 'machine' that eats up preachers, and the Christian sub-culture that rejoices in shooting its own wounded."

This, for me, is the key truth to take out of the whole Driscoll and Mars Hill crisis. Why? Because it's not just Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll. The whole modern evangelical movement is infected with the same issues that are emerging in Mars Hill. David Robertson expresses this well: "We have lots of small churches that have Protestant popes – the only difference with Driscoll is one of scale and thus able to do greater damage."

Presbyterianism, and other established denominations are not perfect, but they do have accountability structures in place. For many years, as a charismatic, I prided myself in the 'fact' (myth) that the churches I belonged to had rediscovered apostolic and team ministry, whereas the traditional churches were stuck in a one-man ministry model. The tragic irony was the fact that the new apostolic model and 'team ministry' model was actually more of a 'one-man ministry' than the Presbyterian churches I was critiquing. Within Presbyterianism, there is no room for the super-apostle, the celebrity or the one-man show. Ministers are held accountable to the Kirk Session and the Presbytery. There are procedures. Stuffy, painful, laborious, yet  gloriously liberating procedures. Perhaps the New Calvinism, that Driscoll helped to spread globally needs to evolve into the old Calvinism. Perhaps it's time we read the other books in Calvin's institutes, he did not only write about soteriology, he had a heck of a lot to say about the church and how it should be governed. Perhaps the Radical Reformission needs to become more radical, so radical that it rejects the
market driven church model and rediscovers the church of the reformation, the church led by shepherds of the flock of Christ.

Edit 17/8/04
* An alternative reading of the events in 2007 which led to the firing of two elders can be found in the following document which was released by Mars Hill and includes a letter from Mark Driscoll