Reflecting on Mark Driscoll: Failure is a Lesson - It’s not the Future

Like many of my ministry colleagues, I have been listening to the “Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” podcast. It’s not just because of the Sydney lockdown, working from home and looking for something to fill my time. It’s an enthralling tale recounted brilliantly by Mike Cosper from the US Christianity Today magazine.

For those who have not heard of the podcast, it tells the story of the ministry of Mark Driscoll who planted the Mars Hill Church in Seattle in 1996. This church grew quickly to have multiple congregations and an attendance of 14,000. Driscoll and the church had a much wider influence as he also headed up the Acts 29 Global church planting movement and was a highly sought-after speaker across the globe.

This looked like a ministry that would continue to grow but in 2014, Driscoll stepped down in the midst of a review of his management style with significant accusations of abusive leadership. After Driscoll left, the Mars Hill Church closed its doors, almost overnight. Driscoll has since gone on to plant Trinity Church in Scottsdale, Arizona and similar stories of inappropriate leadership are emerging from his new church. It seems this may not end well.

The podcast is not just entertainment or as some leaders have described it, ‘failure porn’ but it’s trying to undercover very significant lessons that the evangelical church across the world must learn.

The series of 12 episodes unpacks what occurred, notes the challenges of Driscoll’s personality and seeks to give lessons for every church leader. There are clearly things to be learnt by the global church in this period of time.

In my 30+ years in Christian ministry, I don’t think I call recall a more depressing set of stories of failure than have emerged in the past 5-10 years.

The Mark Driscoll story is just one of many. The indiscretions of Bill Hybels and the appalling abuse of women and the misuse of funds by Ravi Zacharias. Add to that the poor ministry ethics of James McDonald (ex-Harvest Bible Chapel, Rowing Meadows Illinois) and the abusive leadership of Steve Timmis from The Crowded House Church and Acts 29. There has been the misuse of ministry funds by both Dr Paul Yogi Cho (Seoul, South Korea) and Kong Hee (Singapore) which has resulted in both these church leaders doing time in jail. The list is painfully long. The issues encompass sexual failure, abusive leadership and the misuse of money.

It is clear that changes are needed within the church. But there is also a danger in the constant review of these cases. The danger is that the church and the next generation of leadership become ‘voyeurs of failure’ rather than focused on mission.

Christ promised He would build His church. That is as true today as it was when Jesus first uttered those words.

The church has always had to deal with the failure of leadership and lack of integrity or Godly values. Surely this was at the heart of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses nailed to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg in 1517. It was not just a failure of theology but a failure of ethical standards. While it is helpful to look at the underlying values that have allowed leaders like Driscoll to continue in ministry when they were clearly behaving badly, the danger is that we will create a culture of introspection as we sift through stories of failure and end up retreating from what God has called us to, which is mission to a world in need of the Gospel.

With a Global pandemic raging through countries around the world, with people feeling alone in lockdowns, many desperate in crippling economic times and fearing for their future, surely there has not been a better time to talk about the life-giving message of Jesus. Right now, our grave danger is seeing a generation of church leaders so absorbed by leadership failure that they neglect to focus on the opportunity of mission.

Many fear for the future of the church but let’s remember the wonderful and insightful quote from GK Chesterton to give us hope. Chesterton reviewed several periods of church history when it looked like the church would fail and people feared the church would not survive. But the truth is the church not only survived but went on to flourish.

Chesterton, in reflecting on these events wrote…. “At least five times … the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs. In each of these five cases, it was the dog that died.”

Learning from the leadership failures of the past decade, including Mark Driscoll, is important, but let’s not get stuck there. Christ promised He would build His church. That is as true today as it was when Jesus first uttered those words. Let’s be sure that we co-operate in building the church, being on mission, with a focus on the Gospel rather than spend our time wallowing in the demise of others and failing to live out the Great Commission before us today.

Karl Faase

CEO, Olive Tree Media