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"...if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, "What have you that you did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7), and, "But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor. 15:10). (Council of Orange: Canon 6)

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  • « Images of the Savior (46 -- The Second Confirmation of the Covenant) | Main | C. H. Spurgeon on Divine Election »

    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 Pike’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 people’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 Driscoll’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 “stole” 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 – 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 – 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 lawyer’s office. There was a door which read “Trial: 8 Witnesses From 1&2 Peter” 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 “Trial” theme was taken from Peter’s epistles since these letters teach that God uses “trials” 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 “radical reformission” 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 “No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.” 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, “…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.” 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 Lord’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 Driscoll’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 “T” and dot every “I”, 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 good… 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 Driscoll’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.

    Posted by John on February 27, 2009 05:11 PM

    Comments

    I'll bet most every reader of this post had their idea of the regulative principle of worship as a background noise in their head as they immersed in your experience at Mars Hill.

    For me, the regulative principle of worship has been one of the hardest things to nail down. I agree in principle of course. But the application of the principle in churches seems to be as broad as it is long. You're liable to see everything from exclusive accapella psalmody to rock music, Power Point and videos to churches without even a cross displayed, and everything in between.

    Personally, I believe that the means of grace and congregational singing satisfy our worship needs visually, emotionally and intellectually, and simpler is better, as all focus is on our Triune God.

    John, thanks for this thorough review of your experience at MH Ballard. I'm glad his preaching nourished your soul. I agree; his preaching has been a blessing to my family as well. I also agree with your prayer that God will continue to bless that ministry. Thanks for the post.

    Phil Henry

    Hi John,

    Thanks for the review/report. I currently reside in Southern California but I'm up in Portland for the weekend looking at prospective homes to live in. We're taking a Reformed teaching ministry to Portland in April. We considered driving up to Seattle for the same reasons you did, but we're not going to make the trip after all. So the report came to us in time!

    Thanks a bunch, and I hope to get together with you and other Reformed ministries once we get settled in.

    In Jesus,

    Stephen

    P.S. "We" is about six families or so moving from SoCal to Portland.

    Oh man Piroshky Piroshky! I haven't had one of their ooey gooey cheese rolls in a long time. Thanks for the reminder!!

    Oh goodness!! I'm currently a student at University of Oregon in Eugene so I can definitely relate to how wonderful it is to finally feel & see sunshine. haha.

    This post came in such a great time since I will be taking a short trip to visit a friend in Seattle & also Mark Driscoll's church. I'm pretty excited to see how Mars Hill conducts their services and this was a great little sneak preview of what I may experience.

    Thanks!!

    John,

    Thank you for this review. To me personally, this is very welcome, after having read blog after blog, comment after comment of the Reformed slamming Driscoll for many of his statements in the public realm in various interviews recently. He was blamed by many for not being thorough enough in his answers. All I have to say is the shows he participated in only gave him about 30 seconds (on average) to respond to their quick-fire inquiries, which does not lend itself to giving a thorough response from his end. He did the best with what he was given I believe. I would just like to see a lot of the same people criticizing him give better responses in the same context.

    All of that to say, I was very glad to read this and appreciate your thoughtful concerns as well.

    When they did communion at the conclusion of service, did people come forward to serve themselves or was it served to them at their seats? Could you explain how they navigated this, especially with such a large congregation

    Thanks

    Erik

    Thanks for your inquiry. At communion everyone got up and stood in a line and dipped the bread in the wine cups which people were holding at the front of the rows.

    J

    Great review of MHC! I've been a member for a couple months now and it's good to see it from the perspective of an objective visitor (especially one not on a mission to find something to criticize).

    FYI, Pastor Mark has preached on his view of the regulative principle in a sermon available here: http://www.marshillchurch.org/media/religionsaves/regulative-principle

    I believe he will also expand on this content in a chapter in the forthcoming book Religion Saves, which should be out sometime in June.

    Hey Miranda - how did you enjoy your visit to Mars HIll? I hope that it didn't bother you too much that women can't be pastors or elders?

    Thank you John for that thorough and thoughtfully written review of your visit to Mars Hill Church. I read it from the perspective of a father assisting his 20 year old son decide on short term direction. He has finished his second year of College,but remains hesitant to declare a major. He loves the Northwest and we worship at a reformed Bible Church in Fort Worth, Tx., I would love for him to follow some of his desires and trust God to guide him as he strikes out, so we were looking for like-minded believers for him to join in ministry as he goes.

    By the way what church do you and your wife belong to in Portland?

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