Seattle is among the least churched cities in America.
By Ronald E. Keener
Seattle is among the least churched cities in America. It‘s a comment often said of the city and much of the Northwest, so when Mark Driscoll started Mars Hill Church in 1996 at age 25 he knew he had his work cut out for himself. If he had to catch the enthusiasm and interest of the people of Seattle, he apparently has done so and more. “The city itself tends to be very young. Most people are single, non-Christian, and in their 20s; that’s probably the majority of the city,” says Driscoll. “I think the denominations and the networks really thrived on the East Coast and in the South. It just seems like the denominations never really made it up to the Northwest.
“I grew up in Seattle. I think the church attendance here is about the same as Communist China. There are more dogs than Christians in the city.” Driscoll says. “So we have a lot of work to do.”
“Most churches in the city are very small, very liberal. A large portion of the churches in the city have gay pastors. Not just mainline, I mean the American Baptists, the Episcopalians, the Lutherans, all of them.”
Driscoll can be blunt and disarmingly honest, which occasionally gets him into trouble. Like the time a couple years ago when Ted Haggard left New Life Church in Colorado under a morals cloud and Driscoll raised a furor with a comment about pastors’ wives letting themselves go in appearance.
Did he recall that? “Yes, unfortunately, I do.” Was there a time when he wished he hadn’t said it? “Yes, that would be a classic example of foot-in-mouth.”
In addition to a church planting organization, Acts 29 Network [Acts29Network.org], the Mars Hill Church has the Resurgence Missional Cooperative, where pastors and church leaders can go for resources and references. And there are conferences, the Web site and books written with Crossway Publishing.
Seattle magazine says you’re one of the 25 most powerful people in Seattle. How do you wield that power?
I don’t know. I’m just trying to serve Jesus, teach the Bible, love my wife and love my kids. I mean I’m a pretty simple guy. It’s been amazing what God’s done. We capped out at about 8,000 for Easter, which was the high point for us this year, attendance-wise. In our area that’s very unusual. I don’t think there’s ever been a church in our city that got anywhere near that.
How is it that your church is so different than every other church in town?
God has been gracious to us. I tend to be a Bible preacher, I preach for an hour- plus. We preach long, we have 16 services on six campuses.
The city created a zoning restriction just against churches. You’re not allowed to build a church more than 20,000-square-feet so you can build anything you want, except for a big church in Seattle. We had to spread across multiple locations, use video technology, live stream the sermon via television broadcast satellite. It’s been pretty complicated.
In the U.S. alone we’ve planted 125 churches; we also have churches overseas that we’ve started.
You’ve been called a cultural liberal while being theologically conservative. How does that play out in real life?
For us it means we take the Bible very, very, very seriously and everything to which the Bible speaks we absolutely believe. So we believe getting drunk is a sin, we believe sex outside of heterosexual marriage is a sin. We’re conservatives biblically.
When it comes to cultural issues like our music, we write most of our own songs and we use a lot of technology. I’m big on Facebook and MySpace, YouTube and iTunes. We’ll have 100,000 downloads of the sermon each week just off the Internet.
We don’t care if somebody’s got a tattoo. I don’t care if they’ve got a hog or are covered in piercings, I don’t care if they play in a band — the Bible doesn’t speak about those things — so we tend not to worry about them.
How literal do you get? The old Jonah and the whale thing, what do you make of that literalism?
Yep, Jonah was literally in a whale. Jesus says as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, he’d be in the grave. So it’s just as literal as Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection to me.
We take it all literally, literal creation, literal Adam and Eve. We are a very conservative Bible-believing church, but if you walk in a lot of our people have Mohawks and piercings and tattoos and they’re smoking cigarettes and just became Christians. So they don’t look like your typical church crowd.
The demographics of your community are just the opposite. You’re literal and they’re very liberal. It doesn’t seem like it fits in your community.
It’s interesting because we’re telling them something they’ve never heard, we’re telling them something that they’ve never considered and they’re finding it appealing. Well over half of our church is single, but about a third of the people at our church, as far as we can tell, were raped or molested, they were sexually abused, most of them grew up in broken homes, their parents got divorced, they’ve used drugs and alcohol, they’ve got a history with pornography. And by the time we see them they’ve realized it’s just not a very happy, joy filled, satisfying way of life. And they tend to be open to something different.
What part of living the Christian life do young people just not get? What’s really on their minds?
I think they get the idea of community and being in relationships, of being part of a church and I think they understand sin. I think the things that they struggle with are believing that Jesus is the only way to salvation, that other religions are not equally right. The other thing they struggle with is gender issues and sexuality. Almost everybody we get is in sexual sin, homosexuality, adultery, fornication. Pornography is an epidemic. So the sexual sins are really the big ones that we deal with continually.
You’ve even had death threats as a result of your ministry?
At the church services we’ve had occasions where guys wanted to give death threats, we’ve have people try to get up on the stage to fight me, we had one guy pull out a machete and try to kill me while I was preaching. So now I’ve got security around the building and security off the stage.
You’re a specialist in multi-site. How is multi-site changing the Christian church?
They say that 80 percent of churches are plateaued or declining, that 3,500 die and close every year, yet we’re starting to see more and more large churches. So the hope is that the large churches would be able to adopt some of the struggling and smaller churches and revitalize them so that they won’t die. I think that one of the great points for multi-site is resourcing and helping struggling and dying churches.
For us we just saw so many people become Christians so fast that we couldn’t add any more services and the city wouldn’t let us get another building. We baptized a couple hundred people on any given day at various times in the history of the church, so for us multi-site campusing is necessary.
Multi-site media has worked very, very well for us. It has allowed us to spread out across the region, reach different parts of the city. Now we’re looking to going out of state and out of country with campuses. Ultimately it’s a new form of church planting where new congregations get started that are more than just overflow rooms for churches that have too much attendance.
What trends do you see in the Christian church in America, how should Christians look at the growth of the Muslim faith, the Mormons and secular humanism in the coming years?
It is distressing. I think what’s happened though is, particularly in urban centers, fewer and fewer people are having children and raising families. More and more I think you’ll see Muslims taking over major American cities.
It is the same with Mormonism. It keeps trying to reposition itself as just another Christian denomination. They’re trying to make it more like a denomination in appearance even though it’s not theologically.
I think too the biggest issue in the coming years is the younger generation doesn’t see the problem with things such as homosexuality and sex outside of marriage. And so you’re going to see the media pushing more and more to have gay pastors and to have same-sex marriages, even if they say they’re Christian.
What does it mean to “reach one’s community by living culturally accessible and biblically faithful lives”?
Our theme is that Christians need to function as missionaries. They need to imbed themselves in the culture, they need to love the people there, and they need to learn the culture, understand it and serve it. So our thinking is that when it comes to missions, missionaries are not people we send overseas. We need to keep sending them overseas, but we also need to send missionaries into American cities and neighborhoods as the cities are completely lost and don’t know Jesus.
We encourage our people to move into the city, live in the city, love the city, serve the city, start Bible studies, do ministry and bring the Gospel to the city.
Some people feel that living in the world, in the city, can be a corrupting influence, being in the world but not of it?
I think people are sinful whether they live in the country, the suburbs, or the city. Sinners are everywhere and the city tends to have more people so they tend to have more sin. But I think that means that it’s also a great opportunity for the Gospel because people there really need Jesus. And if we don’t reach the cities we’re not going to reach the young people, the universities, the politicians, the culture makers-as the cities get more and more secular the culture gets more and more secular.
Are there compromises to living in the city?
We’ve got five kids and it’s amazing at the grocery store or the restaurant when people come up and rebuke us for having too many kids.
In our area there are a lot of people who are committed to radical environmentalism, homosexuality and saving the planet. They feel it’s already over-populated and better just to be gay and not have any children and save the planet.
Your services are downloaded more than a million times a year?
Actually, millions and millions of times.
Because you’ve got great messages or good marketing?
We don’t do any marketing; we’ve actually never done any advertising. We’ve never hired an advertising firm or sent out mailers. I just preach and we put it on the Internet and I hope people download it because they want to learn the Bible and learn about Jesus.
How do you keep up with sermon preparations and still have time for media, conferences, writing books and magazine articles? Are you super organized?
I tend to be very personally organized and I’m really blessed to have a very good personal staff who takes the e-mails and the phone calls. I think the e-mail and the phone calls alone, those two things, can kill you if you’re a pastor.
The truth is I’m not that great at managing the staff. I did okay until the church was maybe 5,000-6,000 and then I just completely burned out. I don’t have the administrative gifts to take it beyond that, so I just have to be humble and back away, trust other people, give them power and authority, set them up for success, and stay out of the way.
For all your media coverage and notoriety, what do you wish people really understood about you?
That I’m a sinner who Jesus has been really good to and anything good that’s happened is because of Him and anything bad that’s happened is because of me.
Leveraging the Internet: Virtual pastor-parishioner relationships
Ask Mark Driscoll a question and he’ll give you an answer — immediately, directly, bluntly and biblically. It began as a sermon series called “Ask Anything.”
“I get all kinds of questions and so we let people post their questions on a Web site. We then allowed them to vote on the 893 questions and more than 300,000 votes were cast.
“We took the top nine questions that people voted for and I preached a sermon answering each of those questions.
“That was so popular that we opened up our services to text messaging where people can text message questions on the sermon while it is in progress. I take 10 minutes at the end of the Sunday evening service and answer their questions.
“We try to keep it on point. One of the more difficult ones was the first week when a woman text messaged me anonymously asking ‘I was raped and I’m pregnant, can I get an abortion?’ We get those kinds of questions — very intense.
“A guy text messaged asking, ‘I’ve been sleeping with a woman I’m not married to; she’s married, I’m committing adultery. What should I do?’
“We deal with those kinds of issues. It’s pretty raw, it’s pretty intense. A lot of churches wouldn’t want to deal with such issues of a controversial nature.”
This fall in a new series a period of time will be reserved for text messaging Q&As following each service.
For another example of leveraging the Internet go to idoubtgod.com hosted by Next Level Church in Charlotte, NC, where Todd Hahn is lead pastor.
Campus Crusade for Christ also has the site everystudent.com, where five young people respond to questions and concerns on a personal basis. The site is in 29 languages, including seven different versions of English, and attracts 6 million visits from all over the world.