A Visit to Mars Hill in Downtown Seattle

John ArmstrongEmergent Church

I mentioned twice last week my time in Seattle. I continue to process the information that I am learning from the Emergent Church, especially from Mark Driscoll at Mars Hill Church (www.marshillchurch.org). Mark Driscoll’s vision, and experience, is not exactly like that of other well known leaders in this movement, but his journey is one that is hugely insightful and quite instructive. There is little doubt that God is blessing this visionary pastor and his church. And scores of young pastors are following Mark’s leadership through the Acts 29 network. In addition to this his book, The Radical Reformission (Zondervan, 2004), is an important popular treatment of evangelism, mission and culture. It is a full-scale rejection of the cultural, and even theological, patterns of fundamentalism without rejecting anything essential to Christian orthodoxy. This, in itself, attracts me deeply since robust evangelical faith, outwardly focused upon a positive engagement of the world, is my vision too.

Mars Hill has four core values: truth, meaning, community and beauty. God’s truth is properly placed first. Mars Hill understands that truth is not “your truth” or “my truth” but God’s truth. There is no place for relativism here. Truth, says the written explanation of their core values, comes from God, in Christ alone, through Holy Scripture. This understanding is crucial to everything else.

Second, God is the only one who can give meaning to our lives, both corporately and individually. These two are inextricably linked. This is not the old individualism of Enlightenment modernity. In the words of their basic values statement “Mars Hill seeks to continually understand cultural and worldview shifts to effectively contextualize the gospel for new generations, cultures and races.” This point is one of several areas in which Mars Hill radically departs from the denominational models of church that have dominated American church history. But the way, Mars Hill does this in a manner that is in no meaningful way like the model of “seeker churches,” which tend to adopt the culture’s values at a number of points.

Third, since the one true God exists in the perfect community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and since this triune God created men and women to live in community, Mars Hill “seeks to model deep and personal faith by serving others in a loving and authentic church community.” This family model of the church is consciously rooted in the New Testament and seeks to build a church that is nothing like boomer congregations (“What’s in this for me?”) or fortress churches (“How can we preserve ourselves?”). By this I mean Mars Hill lives in the world, never escaping to the ghetto of church life. The people are gathered and nurtured into a community of faith and taught to live lives of truth and meaning so that they can truly live with power in the world. There is no oppositional feel to this church’s engagement of culture but there is a clear prophetical stance that also sees the church calling for an entirely new culture rooted in the gospel of grace.

Finally, out of a relational community beauty will always develop and grow. Believers living in community, under truth, must know and model God to the world around them. This is the very heart of worship at Mars Hill. Worship does not copy the world, nor cause us to reject the world. Worship causes participants to enter into community and live out their core values of faith.

This understanding means that corporate worship at Mars Hill is holistic. Modern forms are employed, but not as a means of entertainment or as expressions of cultural captivity. These means are used missionally, as part of the church’s “taking ownership” of the created order. Corporate worship is fundamentally about celebration. This includes gathering, serving (both believers and non-believers together), receiving biblical instruction, response, song, communion (every week), and corporate prayer. Acts 2:42-47 is clearly at work.

So, what is different about this model? First, it is self-consciously God-centered without being detached from people. This means Mars Hill’s ministry is not based upon the needs and opinions of consumers, but at the same time it is a people sensitive, people affirming ministry. Second, Mars Hill’s model keeps mission and worship connected in a way that has been missed for a very long time in American evangelicalism, especially by the boomer generation. You might not like the music at Mars Hill but you would not notice the style of music as much as you would the vision of God cast by the worship. The fact that communion is held weekly, and the gifts of the Spirit are first used to glorify God, all make this anything but a show for seekers. God is literally adding to his church daily at Mars Hill, just as he was in the church in Jerusalem. This happens because the love of Christ and the fear of God is part of the community itself.

One thing that is particularly striking about this Emergent model is that a church of 4,000 plus does not have a pastoral staff with dozens and dozens of professional ministers. Mars Hill is staffed at the size of about a 500 member boomer congregation. How can they do this and run a major ministry 24-7? By truly using many, many gifted people effectively and by emphasizing properly that no one who joins Mars Hill can watch the “professional” ministers do the ministry of the church. While boomers talked about this biblical reality in my generation, and kept building huge church staffs for every department under the sun, Mars Hill simply does it. Volunteerism is huge here.

I have personally resisted the “Church Growth model” since my seminary days in the early 1970’s. I actually studied it first-hand, as a young church planter, under Donald McGavran and Peter Wagner, the fathers of the movement, while doing an M. A. in missions at Wheaton  Graduate School in the early 1970’s. I have resisted the Church Growth emphasis, while all along I prayed and looked for a new model to emerge that would capture the minds of a new generation of church leaders. (My sense of my own call has always been to evangelism, thus to missions and revival, and this, I sincerely believe, has continually stirred this interest within me.) I thank God today that I have lived long enough to see my prayers answered. The future of this movement will be very interesting and I hope I can be part of it in some small way. I believe God is in this and this growing network could be putting down patterns that the Holy Spirit will powerfully use to renew the entire church in the West. I surely hope so.