I took the hour required to watch this video. It wasn’t long into it when I realized I needed to be taking notes. This is important! It became obvious that, for many, Mars Hill is still a lesson waiting to be learned.
Dr. Paul Tripp, who headed up the Board of Advisors and Accountability, summarized his findings, that Mars Hill Church was:
”without a doubt, the most abusive, coercive ministry culture I’ve ever been involved with.”
Listening to Blaney and Dean, one wouldn’t have a clue this was the case. In fact, in typical fashion of not understanding abuse and bullying, they not only draw on the usual excuses, alibis, and justifications for Mars Hill Church, but also employ the usual defenses against those who criticized it. I’m sure they don’t mean to, but in brief, they defend the abuse and dismiss its victims and their supporters. This interview inadvertently illustrates why phenomena like Driscoll and Mars Hill happen and will continue to happen.
I want to show how they did it.
- MINIMIZE THE DAMAGE: Dean says Mars Hill made some mistakes. He wonders why people were coming after them. Driscoll hadn’t slept with another woman, and he didn’t embezzle money. There’s no one event that you can point to. They didn’t mean to hurt anybody. They had good intentions. They tried. They were doing good things. Nobody’s perfect. There’s a lot of room for error. Sure, there were a lot of little things, little mistakes or oversights, but nothing big enough to cause the destruction of such a successful ministry. On the one hand, they acknowledge some people were hurt, but the overwhelming success of the ministry should somehow excuse it. They seem to be completely unaware that peoples’ lives, ministries, vocations, and even families were destroyed, that people suffered unbelievable abuse and bullying, and that many people are in therapy recovering from an extremely abusive and coercive ministry. Never mind what this did to the church’s reputation. That people were severely hurt and that the church itself suffered incredible disrepute seems to be completely off the radar for them. No one was strangled to death in public by a leader, but the toxic environment slowly cut off the air supply to all of its members. This is what we cannot or are not willing to see.
- REINFORCE THE GOOD: Over and over, Dean and Blaney praise the ministry of Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll. They were doing good things. People were getting saved. The church was growing. More people were being reached. Lots of people were meeting Jesus. The gospel was being spread. Their campaigns enjoyed incredible success, such as quickly gaining 3,000 members. They were just starting to come into a season of learning how to be a community church rather than just a teaching one. But, they are perplexed by the backlash of criticism. Abusers and bullies always seem to think there is good reason to hurt people. The mission is so important and the results are so fantastic that human sacrifice is not only a necessary ingredient to its success, but a desirable and inescapable one. The mission is so noble that if people get hurt in the process, so be it. It seems that the positive outweighs the negative and therefore justifies the negative.
- CONTROL THE NARRATIVE: One of the severest criticisms Mars Hill received was its lack of transparency. Dean somewhat agrees that they made mistakes in that area, and that more transparency would have been helpful and important to prevent Mars Hill’s downfall. However, Dean has an interesting slant on what transparency looks like. It’s not about being more forthcoming with information, but being more selective with the information. In fact, concerning the issues that needed more transparency, Dean says that he would give the reasons why he is not being more transparent. What goes on inside the church is nobody else’s business. But instead of making no comment, they should have said why they were making no comment. Dean also goes into quite a bit of detail on how to control the narrative, correcting or silencing misinformation or criticism in its earliest stages, both inside and outside of the church, leaking information on a need to know basis only, and controlling the media as much as possible.
This leads me to the most interesting aspect of the interview, and that’s the attitudes about the critics of Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church, and by implication any other leader or group that resembles them. At around the 20 minute mark, Blaney and Dean have an exchange about the media. I’ll quote them in full because it is so important to me, to other bloggers, and to their readers:
”Sometimes it’s hard to win when you have a lot of people looking for traffic… they’re looking for eyeballs on their blogs, on their newspapers, on their websites… that’s why people, any famous person has a difficult relationship with the media… Because it’s that love hate… sure we’ll promote you here, but as soon as we get a chance we’re gonna put a knife in your back because it’s going to help me get me a few more readers. I think that was definitely… I think there were so many people that were hoping to get a little bit of traffic, get a little bit of attention, to their blogs, to their newspapers, and, you know, Mark was a great target for that.”
A little later, Dean responds:
”I would talk to these bloggers, I would talk to these journalists, who were kind of coming after us… it would seem sometimes that they were just trying to build their own platform, trying to, you know, make ad revenue, whatever… They’re going after something that’s intriguing and they know that they’re going to get a lot of hits for it. But I think for a lot of them it was something more. I think they believed that they were trying to do good. They really thought that we were wolves and that (announce) that to the world and protect Christians.”
This is what I think they mean:
- SHAME THE OPPOSITION: They suggest that the only reason bloggers were critiquing Driscoll and Mars Hill were for selfish, ambitious, or financial reasons. Even those who thought they were doing good were misinformed, mislead, or ignorant of the facts, deluded into imagining they were protecting other Christians from wolves in sheep’s clothing. In their minds, it really had nothing to do with what was happening. A couple of times Blaney asked Dean whether the downfall had to do with what actually happened or with the failure of good PR. No answer was forthcoming because we can’t point to any one event terrible enough to bring it all down, but just a series of small annoyances. The fact that there were reports of abuse, bullying, sexism, and other questionable practices, seem beside the point. For Dean, criticism was never justified, but always self-serving and needlessly destructive of a good ministry. He calls Driscoll’s and Mars Hill’s critics, “a lot of evil people out there” who were probably more interested in building their own fan base than the gospel of Jesus Christ.
- SILENCE DISSENT: It becomes apparent through the interview that bloggers were a nuisance to Driscoll and Mars Hill. Not only were they just critiquing for selfish reasons, but because they weren’t a part of that church, it was none of their business anyway. Like many leaders and their businesses, or pastors and their churches, they want total unaccountability free from dissent. Everyone knows that dissent within Mars Hill was never welcomed but in fact was silenced. Of course, they would spread this attitude to those who were outside the family and who therefore have no right to criticize something they’re not a part of. Silencing dissent is a popular and sometimes successful strategy for today’s Christian leaders. Much to these leaders’ frustration, bloggers are hard to control, and it should stay that way.
- INTIMIDATE CRITICS: At one point (30:20), Dean says, “Nobody wants to write something that’s not true, except for bloggers.” I’m not sure who he’s talking about. I’m a blogger. I know a lot of bloggers. Not one of us is making a living from blogging. In fact, the bloggers I know who critique the abuses of spiritual power are not in it for money or fame, but because they care about truth and people. They are passionate about justice and equality. They courageously call out abuse and bullying even when others are praising and protecting it. It is interesting to me that these so-called leaders who seem to value their reputation and revenue over all impute the same values onto others… that we care about our reputation and revenue in the same way. The fact is, most of us have nothing to lose… no reputation and no revenue. This is what gives bloggers like me the willingness to take the risk and speak up about the abuses of power. This post, for example, is written without any revenue. I have no idea who’s going to read it. I’m writing this for myself mainly, to articulate to myself what I found so disturbing about this video, and hopefully for others because I think that what is being said and not being said is harmful for people and destructive to our communities. To these leaders, it no longer matters how small the blogger is. Next time Dean would go after them because it could escalate if it gets shared by a larger blogger or newspaper. As a blogger, I can’t tell you how chilling these words sound. It is a veiled but very real threat to the freedom of speech of bloggers and journalists who’s mission is to expose the privileges and abuses of power.
I found this interview to be one of the most discouraging things I’ve ever listened to. As the interview dragged on, I became painfully aware that we still don’t get it! We’re not seeing the forest for the trees. As long as this attitude persists, the church will continue to be a place where bullies can run free and abuse can run rampant, all in the name of Jesus. As long as the gospel is being spread, people are getting saved, and the church is growing, then abusers and bullies can not only have a seat, but they can run the whole show.
So this is also a call out to you brave bloggers! Keep writing your truth. Keep challenging the principalities and powers that would dehumanize us and destroy the communities we create.