Our Recent Visit to Mars Hill Church, Seattle
This last weekend on the spur of the moment my wife and I decided to drive up to Seattle for the weekend. It is a 3 hour drive from Portland and a badly needed getaway from our daily routine. After arriving in our downtown Seattle hotel our first stop was Piroshky Piroshky, a hole in the wall on the waterfront at Pikeâ€™s Market which sells incredible Russian pastries. My wife and I both love the meat-filled pastries the best and we ate a couple while we enjoyed the rare sunny afternoon on the park bench overlooking the water. It was really a blessing to sit in the sun after a solid month of grey skies. We had a lot to be thankful for. We were excited to be there and saw this as an opportunity for a time of refreshment. We were not disappointed.
For those of you who do not know, the Northwest is probably the most secular part of the country and Seattle the most unchurched and post-Christian city in the United States. There is a lot of skepticism toward Christianity in this part of the country and it is not unlike a mission field where the extent of most peopleâ€™s understanding of Christianity is what they have heard second or third hand through the media. If not outright hostile to Christianity then it is as least indifferent to it.
Along with having a great time walking around the bustling city, eating good food and catching the sights, we decided that, since we were in Seattle, we would go the next day to worship with the people of Seattle at Mars Hill Church where Mark Driscoll pastors the largest church in the area. On Sunday morning, after a breakfast of pastries and Hungarian sausages we headed over to the church. As our car was winding around a small business district on the north part of town we spotted the church on the left and pulled into a parking spot right in what looked like a massive slickly re-designed warehouse that was converted into a gathering place for worship. It immediately caught my eye that the building was painted in a tasteful dark grey, almost black with a cleanly designed font on the exterior. We knew it would be a cultural experience for us so we were already prepared for just about anything.
As we walked in the doors we saw scores of people and sensed an undertone of excitement. The foyer design was a northern European clean, sharp looking room. Someone had obviously put a great deal of effort in producing the effect of what felt like a modern theater or playhouse. Modern art decked the walls and interesting artistic triangular shapes stood out in the middle of the lobby. To the left was they were selling books in the open air and, of course, this immediately caught our attention because we were very interested in what they were encouraging their congregation to read. Along with some of Mark Driscollâ€™s books, they were all good theologically sound titles, mostly what we carry in our Portland store. That was actually very encouraging and hopeful to us. As we were browsing the titles, in our peripheral vision we caught sight of Mark Driscoll greeting people in a separate room designed to meet visitors. So we walked over there and waited to introduce ourselves. As we waited we noticed all kinds of tasteful and unusual art lining the walls of the room with some free materials related to the sermon series the church was currently studying. When Driscoll finished speaking with other visitors he came over to greet us. We began talking and we let him know that we had driven up from Portland for the weekend. The first question Pastor Mark asked us how long we had been married and discovered that, like us, he also had been married for 16 years. Later when reading his bio I noticed that another element we had in common was that he also had been converted at the age of 19 when reading through the book of Romans, both elements of my own conversion story. When discussing what we did I mentioned to him that we produced Monergism.com so he quipped that he had often â€œstoleâ€ materials from our site when preparing for sermons. This information prompted Driscoll to turn aside to an assistant to call over Mike from backstage who was introduced to us as the person who produces their well-known Resurgence blog. Was glad to meet him and find out about their continued efforts to improve their blog. After taking with Mike for a few minutes we exchanged information and decided that we should later take the time to get together and exchange ideas about our respective Web ministries.
Soon after it sounded like the service was starting so we headed over to the main sanctuary. All around us were scores of mostly young people in their 20s and 30s making their way to their seats. They looked like regular city dwellers to us so we felt comfortable, and not stand-outish, with the crowd. As we edged our way in the room itself was literally pulsating with energy. The seats stretched way back with what looked like well over 1000 seats. The entire sanctuary was tastefully painted black with relatively low ceilings with rafters that looked like converted warehouse with the feeling of a night club. Not quite what one might expect from a church â€“ in fact it did not appear to be a church at all except for the large cross on the stage. Ahead of us were four giant video screens â€“ two up front and two further back for people who could not see that far. So we made our way to the front of the auditorium and found some seats on the right edge. The stage itself gave the impression of a Hollywood sound studio where you might expect the live filming of a late night talk show. The anticipation in the air grew more palpable as crowds pushed in toward the front eager to hear what the pastor might say. The room was dimly lit and the lights were directed at the stage where an interview table was front and center and a kind of pulsating beat was set as background noise.
As the service started a rock band began jamming on stage, who I must admit were very talented. The video screens with edgy graphics and lyrics lit up with lyrics to the songs. Although it was rock music, the lyrics themselves were decidedly Christ centered and not self-centered as many seeker friendly services are. But because the band was jamming so hard, the songs were not easy to sing along with and as I glanced around not many in the congregation were singing along, just enjoying being sung to.
I noticed that to the left of where the band was playing there were stage props in what looked like a lawyerâ€™s office. There was a door which read â€œTrial: 8 Witnesses From 1&2 Peterâ€ and I realized that the lawyer theme was meant to dramatize the current sermon series that Pastor Driscoll was taking the congregation through. Apparently the â€œTrialâ€ theme was taken from Peterâ€™s epistles since these letters teach that God uses â€œtrialsâ€ to help us come to saving faith and mature in Christ. This is to highlight the fact that each of the trials bears witness to the authenticity of our faith as Christians, giving us assurance that God has done a work of grace in us, and in turn gives witness to the world that Christ is the true Lord.
On a side note, just so you know, I have long been skeptical and even privately somewhat critical of Driscoll but, wanting to be objective, I have spent some time reading a recent book he wrote and listening carefully to what he really has to say. Driscoll was hardcore emergent at one time, touring with the likes of Brian McLaren, but had a â€œradical reformissionâ€ in his life where he has become much more soteriologically Reformed and has since left the emerging scene. Some of their communication style has remained with him but I was surprised to find that his theology is now much more Christ-centered and biblical. Although I clearly differ with him on his view of particular redemption and some of his ecclesiology, I find his blunt edged confrontational God-centered approach to be refreshing. He now does conferences with the likes of John Piper, Tim Keller, D.A. Carson, as he will be participating in the Gospel Coalition Conference in Chicago this April.
Just before Pastor Driscoll went on stage, a video clip introduced the sermon showing soldiers walking through the woods who were suddenly engaged by the enemy in a volley of rifle exchanges. Apparently Mars Hill has a production team which puts these films and sets together each week to reflect the current series and particular sermon Driscoll is preaching through. The video was truly realistic and obviously took some effort to put together. Whether I understood how video fits into church, unlike other places I have seen that do video, the quality was not tacky in the least, but professionally and artistically done. However, I was not quite sure how this particular film related to the issue of submission to authority. Perhaps it meant to reflect 2 Timothy 2:4 which says â€œNo soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.â€ But this, of course, is from the apostle Paul and not Peter. In any case, with the theme being submission I think I vaguely got the connection.
So as the film ends, Mark Driscoll walks on from the backstage in a three piece suit and sits down at the table in front of him. My wife turned to me, noting his outfit, and commented that he looked different than everyone in the audience who were mostly casual. Apparently she had not yet picked up on the fact that he was dressing the part of a lawyer to highlight the current series. It took me a while to figure that out as well. Apparently his style of dress and the stage are changed for every new sermon series he does. Prior to delivering his sermons he sits down at the table at the front edge of the stage. As an introduction, he explained that he was looking for 900 men and 100 campuses in the next 10 years to plant churches around the U.S. Driscoll already has one of the biggest church planting networks in the U.S. having already planted well over 100 churches so it is encouraging to see that the church continues to have such an aggressive vision for church planting. In a nutshell he said, â€œâ€¦we need men who love their wives, pastor their children, submit to scripture, bleed the gospel, and have steel in their spine, love in their hearts and the lost in their sights.â€ Then he prayed and then got up to preach his sermon which was clearly was meant to be the climax of the service. The importance and gravity of the word in this church immediately became evident. The Text he read was from 1 Peter 2:13-17:
Be subject for the Lordâ€™s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
I immediately appreciated his handling of the Text and was moved deeply many times as he exegeted the Scripture and pastorally applied the above Text to the real life situations of the members of his congregation who have struggled with the issue of authority. Pastor Driscoll struck the right balance between the indicatives and the imperatives of Scripture, knowing that we do not obey in order to be saved but because we are; that regeneration and renewal of heart necessitates a desire for godly living. To strike this balance right takes a degree of maturity in understanding that many pastors miss. Some pastors so emphasize the grace of God that we have in Christ that they skip over the commands of Scriptures, often resulting in antinomianism. Others so emphasize the commands that they end up teaching that moral and behavior modification is the essence of Christianity, leading to moralism. But the gospel falls prey to neither of these extremes and I sensed that Pastor Driscoll had a fairly good grasp of this as he opened up the text. I did not know what to suspect since I have been skeptical of him but I have to acknowledge that Driscollâ€™s sermon on authority was both challenging and Christ-honoring, which nourished my soul. He began by pointing to the economic submission that Jesus had to the Father during his incarnation on earth. Pastor Driscoll, I have learned, is not afraid to tell it like it is and I have come to see that he takes sin very seriously and does not tolerate it in the lives of his people. There is strength in him that makes him a source of health for those he shepherds because he calls people away from their sin and points to the true source of strength: Jesus Christ. He connected our rebellious instinct to our solidarity with Adam and connected it with our various relationships. He also explained it as our American cultural ethos but went on to show that the life we are called to in Christ will characterize us as submissive to authority over us which the world will see as genuine.
As the sermon closed the band played again and, as a response to the word, there was an obvious and deep mood of worship that filled the room. I was doubly pleased to see them celebrate communion and even did it by intinction which is what we are accustomed to. He really is reaching the people of Seattle (especially young people) who would probably never quite fit into the average traditional evangelical church. As a Presbyterian by conviction, nor do I, even though I might not choose the emerging-style church as an answer.
Now, if you are the type that likes to cross every theological â€œTâ€ and dot every â€œIâ€, then Mars Hill is certainly going to fall short of your expectations. But this, I have found, is the case with all churches to differing extents. I do have a word of caution for Mars Hill: First, the content of the worship was goodâ€¦ God centered and Christ-honoring. However, I felt that the band was really singing at the congregation rather than leading it in responsive worship, and so there was little audience participation. I am used to a lot more interaction in worship but I mention it as something I noticed as an outsider that might be tweaked or improved. But hey, maybe this is my personal preference. Second, the regulative principle of Scripture allows for no human innovations in worship, and the correlative doctrine of the sufficiency of the Bible in all matters of faith including worship, needs to be vigorously considered. The regulative principle of worship (which is sola scriptura applied to the worship conducted by the church) is one of the greatest achievements of the Reformation. The Reformers often referred to sola scriptura passages (e.g., Dt. 4:2, Pr. 30:6) as proof texts for the regulative principle of worship. That being said, I truly found Driscollâ€™s exposition to be convicting and the whole time of worship to be meaningful. His preaching content was so good that I kind of overlooked these other aspects. Both me and my wife were blessed by the service and truly worshiped God there. I only pray that Mars Hill continue to minister to people with the word as they do now and not slip into a church driven by entertainment, which it may have the tendency toward. We would all agree that none of us should ever presume to be wiser than God who wants us to be instructed through the preaching of His word (Rom 10:14-15, 17; 2 Tim 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:19). The use of video was more tasteful than I have seen in other Mega Churches but I wonder whether God would have us ever use images in a worship service as a means of mediating His grace. God quickens and sanctifies his people through the word and not images. It is the Word (read, preached, taught and understood) and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord Supper, that are the only means of communicating grace that God has revealed in Scripture. We cannot worship the correct God incorrectly. This being said, overall I was pleased to see such emphasis placed on the word and sacraments at Mars Hill and pray the Lord continue to richly bless that ministry.