is it possible to compete with the likes of mars hill?

My friend Murph sent me a link a few days ago to an article on Salon about a fellow named Mark Driscoll who operates a church in Seattle called Mars Hill. For the most part, the article didn’t tell me a lot that I didn’t already know about the modern evangelical movement. This church, like many others in the mega-church movement, is run by a young, charismatic leader who preaches Hell fire and damnation, talks with relish about the end times, and urges his flock to multiply prodigiously. The twist is, this particular pastor has had a great deal of success with the young, tattooed and pierced set. The writer of the piece, it seems, feels as though this is what makes the story interesting — the fact that Driscoll has been successful in packaging and selling an “edgy” Jesus to disenfranchised hipsters on the margins of society. When I read it, however, the thing that most strikes me is the depth and the sophistication of the infrastructure supporting Driscoll’s followers, and how seductive it all sounds. They haven’t just constructed a stern yet cool, father-like Jesus that resonates with today’s young adults (who, according to the artice, crave discipline), but they have created a real, thriving community network that ties together their followers and reinforces them.

Single church members live in dormitories, or rent rooms in the houses of married church members. Every opportunity is taken to introduce single male and female members to one another. (On average, the Mars Hill congregation sees 100 marriages a year between members.) Meals are shared. Childcare is provided. And people, generally speaking, are looked out for. If not for all the talk of an angry God, women being subsurviant to their husbands, and the rest of it, I’d find it pretty appealing. (Of course, I also think that Jim Jones was really on to something in Guyana.)

(For an interesting perspective, read the blog of a former Mars Hill member here. While he had to leave, once he began to question the fundamentalism of the church, you can tell that he really misses the social aspects.)

Anyway, the piece led to a good discussion between Murph and I on the nature of community, the importance of inter-personal connections, and the seeming inability of the non-fundamentalist left to build similar models. And I was thinking that perhaps it would be a good discussion to have here.

And, here, in the way of introduction, is a clip from the Salon article:

“Driscoll promises his followers they don’t have to reprogram their iTunes catalog along with their beliefs — culture from outside the Christian fold isn’t just tolerated here, it’s cherished. Hipster culture is what sweetens the proverbial Kool-Aid, which parishioners here seem to gulp by the gallon. This is a land where housewives cradle babies in tattooed arms, where young men balance responsibilities as breadwinners in their families and lead guitarists in their local rock bands, and where biblical orthodoxy rules as strictly as in Hasidism or Opus Dei”…

He riffs about waiting in a supermarket checkout line behind a woman who said to him, “You sure got a lot of kids! I hope you’ve figured out what causes that.”

“Yeah,” he flipped back. “A blessed wife. I bet you don’t have any kids.” The congregation hoots and hollers. “That shut her up,” he mutters….

The stand-up routine-like delivery no doubt has them rolling in the aisles, but, again, that’s not the thing that interests me about Mars Hill. It’s not the fact that they’re selling religion as entertainment, or that they’re pushing the “full quiver” brand of birth control, but that the people seem so genuinely happy in the tightly-knit community they’ve built together. When you join the church, you truly join a family, in the best sense of the word. Yes, they’re religious fanatics obsessed with repopulating their city (and the country) with Christian warriors, but they seem truly content. Clearly there’s a hunger for this type of community, and they seem to have found a way to address that need.

And this model is growing. Through the organization Acts 29, 60 new churches have been accepted into the Mars Hill network over the past year.

So, my question is this: How can we, the non-Biblical-literalists, compete? What do we offer in terms of real community? And, even if we did offer some sort of sustainable infrastructure here on Earth, what do we have for people to look forward to on the other side? Having read this article, I’m finding it hard to imagine a competitive model. And, even if we had a competitive vision and the community infrastructure to pull it off, we’d still lose on the grounds of fertility (unless we really get serious about those condomless progressive orgies I’ve been advocating). So, with all that said, I’m very sad to have to present this next piece of prophecy… It is my belief that so-called progressives are headed toward extinction.

[This post was brought to you by Jesus Camp.]

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  1. Dirtgrain
    Posted September 18, 2006 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    Maybe a good place to start would be to figure out why Unitarian Universalism hasn’t spread. I think you once mentioned that it just didn’t quite seem to hit you right–that somehow you wanted something more certain in a church. Perhaps that is a limiting factor. Also, the name just doesn’t inspire. It’s esoteric, and maybe it’s suspect in the eyes of many.

    The UU’s offer all kinds of social networks and meeting vehicles. I don’t think they fall short in that regard. We did notice that there weren’t many younger people at the church we visited.

    I think the UU church might be lacking a “growth” doctrine. I don’t know for sure. Perhaps a fast-growing church requires a cult-like, brainwashed following.

    Does such a fast-growing entity require a strong emphasis on the supernatural and mystical? Then, are the science-minded at a disadvantage?

  2. murph
    Posted September 18, 2006 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    I’ve always considered the Quakers and liberal Judaism to be pretty appealing. Partially, because calling your relgious brethren “Friends” is cool. Partially because both of those groups seem to be fairly laid-back on the question of a deity, even if they technically believe in one. Partially just because of the sample I have.

    Unitarians have a less catchy name, and just seem too, I don’t know, *earnest* is the best word I can come up with.

  3. Lisa
    Posted September 18, 2006 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    I also saw this article last week, and found it fascinating, I think because the group gets it right in as many ways as they get it wrong. People are really hungry for community, meaning, and cooperation, and feeling part of something larger than themselves. They’re looking to churches like this because they’re not finding communities practicing these beliefs anywhere else. A church like the UU church, regardless of their beliefs and social clubs, can only fill that need so much. It’s more of a guiding philosophy and approach to life and community that is shared with others that churches like the one profiled provide.

    One of the things that I’ve wanted to do for a few years now is to form a spiritual community that is actually quite similar to Mars Hill in the way it works (though obviously quite different values!). It would be a community that shares some spiritual beliefs and practices as a common foundation but provides for some slightly different beliefs/practices as well. For instance, practicing mindfullness, loving-kindness, and interconnectedness come from Buddhism but are pretty univeral to all religions/ spiritual beliefs.

  4. Ted Glass
    Posted September 18, 2006 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    People long for community. They’re desperate for it. They want to contribute to something bigger than themselves and they want to be appreciated for the skills that they have. They also long for the feeling of security that comes with being part of something larger. This is especially true in a time of uncertainty like the one we find ourselves in now. Unfortunately, however, most of us on the non-fundamentalist, pro-science, pro-reality side of the fence don’t see ourselves as joiners. We’re reluctant to jump into any one thing completely because we acknowledge the complexity of a situation and know that no one system holds all the answers. We’re too fragmented. For something like this to work, it has to be cult-like (Amway-like). People have to live and breath what it is that they’re doing and they need to place it above everything else. It needs to seep into everything else that you’re doing. Otherwise the best you can hope for is a nice little community where you’re friendly with your neighbors. You can’t have that level of intimacy that they’re experiencing at Mars Hill.

  5. Dr Cherry
    Posted September 18, 2006 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    We’ve got one of those “edgy” churches in Hamtramck. (

    Pastor Chilly and his staff are mostly from Indianapolis (they still have IN plates on their cars).

    They have a coffee shop in the front of the church and a state-of-the-art sound/recording system.

    Of course the lost kids who show up there are filled with carefully crafted dogma to ready them for “end times”.

    I did a little digging and found that they whole thing is being funded by Assemblies of God.

    So the mega-stadium churches are funding the new hip churches to suck the kids in early before they have time to realize that there are no easy answers, and dogma is just a lot of words.

  6. DM
    Posted September 18, 2006 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    The original Mars Hill is down the street from where I lived in Ballard. I was disappointed when the Ernst Hardware ( and then the marine supply store that followed) closed. The building sat empty for a while and then one day they started painting the building black. A few weeks later this stainless steel Mars Hill logo appears on the building with a few suggestive words over the entry portal , negating my first impression that it was a club. After I learned that they were a church, my first thought was they were a fringe sect that had something to do with the hill shaped like a face on Mars. I was prepared for that, but was surprised to find out they were christians. I believe they have three churches now.

    The topic of consumer religion has been discussed here already, so I’m not sure there is much to add to that. However, on the more general topic of organized religion I would say that it seems that Jesus was opposed to it. There are plenty of passages in the NT that support this.

    My personal feelings about organized religion is that they are all divisive ulimately. They all require some kind of exclusive belief system. The best solution to this problem, ironically, is the teaching of Jesus- that we are more than material ( that we have a spiritual side that is incorporeal but real ), that this spiritual side is not a whole but rather a part of a whole, that this whole is God, that God is within us, that the true kingdom of God is the incorporeal total of all spiritual life, that the practice of love is the only requirement of the spirit for membership, and that good and evil originate from the spirit influencing the material.

    The Kingdom of God in this sense is the church that Jesus speaks of when he tells the priests that he will rebuild the church if they follow his instruction to tear it down.

    All churches are political bodies that claim some sort of exclusion by conceit of knowledge, and are governed by laws – loose or restrictive. Some are closer to the spirit of Jesus than others, but are still exclusive.

    It is such a simple request – to love and have love in your heart. It has got to be the most difficult thing to put into practice though. The result is the concept of communion.

    Leo Tolstoy wrote a book called ” The Gospels in Brief ” that talks about this idea. It got him in a lot of trouble with the church and the state.

  7. doulicia
    Posted September 18, 2006 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    I was too pressed for time to read the article (how do you find the time, you father of a toddler?) but I wonder what’s the financial sacrifice of these families? If its a mega-church, I expect there’s a siginifican cost to the dorm housing, etc.? If not, then this seems like any other communisitic life.

    As for what we do to counter it, well, call me a New Urbanist, but we restructure revenue and disbursement of education, transportation and housing funds to promote viable urban neighborhoods, schools and employment. Good, old-fashioned community, in other words.

    But good old-fashioned community was fueled by fear of communism and united by WWII. We don’t have that equivalent. Unless we can rally folks around climate change…

    I’m thin on details, alas. And rambling…

  8. danandkitty
    Posted September 18, 2006 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    I think Rosie and I are trying to do this with Church of Brunch, but it hasn’t exploded like the damn mega-churches. I do think that the Christian “community” churches do benefit from ingrained fear of hell and guilt about Jesus and so on. The non-christian, non-religious versions don’t have the built-in drivers that the others do.

  9. Tony Buttons Esq.
    Posted September 18, 2006 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    Labor unions once provided that same kind of support and infrastructure.

  10. Dr Cherry
    Posted September 18, 2006 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    I’ll be constructing a temple to Saturn if anyone would like to join me.

  11. egpenet
    Posted September 18, 2006 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    We have a reality-based community built around the intersection of Michigan Avenue and North Huron that is better than any one church … we accept all churches, all men, all women, all children, all dogs, all cats, all birds, all bats and bugs, all Democrats, all Republicans, even Libertarians, all short, fat, ugly, lovely and awkward, all handicapped, all aged, all feminist, all gays, all drunks, all prostitutes, all history buffs, all actors, all forms of music … white, black, brown … people of all BMI measures … and much, much more … name it, it can live here in peace and be a member of a Neighborhood Association … why, we even have idiot bloggers … and, yes … yes, even English majors!

  12. egpenet
    Posted September 18, 2006 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    Seems that all “orthodoxies” have at one time or another produced its mystics, who “saw through” the dogmas and found some truths.

    The today has an ARTs & Design article on Sikh history/art “stolen here below” you may find “speaking” to the unity many writers have addressed to date. Here it is, in part …

    “But what about Sikhism itself? Few Westerners have even basic information.

    How many people are aware that it was conceived as a universalist, open-door religion?

    Or that its view of society was radically egalitarian? Or that its holy book, the Adi Granth, far from being a catalog of sectarian dos and don

  13. ol' e cross
    Posted September 18, 2006 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

    I guess I’d start by saying not to envy the community at Mars Hill, like all utopian visions, whether secular or religious, it will decompose leaving some members disillusioned, some wiser, and others scrambling for the next quick fix. Maybe we can envy them for the moment they’re experiencing, like we envy those who were at Woodstock before the 60s devolved into the 80s; as delightful as the moment is, in my debatable definition of community, it has to last to qualify.

    My grandparents were/are (grandpa, RIP) members of the same church for more than 50 years. They stuck with the church through its cyclical decades of inspiration, hope, scandal and hypocrisy. Both came from the worst of depression era poverty (abusive, alcoholic great-grandma poisoned great-grandpa with arsenic, etc.). Last time I visited grandma (been too long … commence guilt) it happened to be mother’s day and I dutifully accompanied her to church. The preacher asked folks to give tribute to their moms. A few gave the usual eulogies, then, person after person, aged 30s to 60s, stood up and, all weepy of course, spoke of how my simple, life-worn grandmother had been their mother. With her family scattered, these are the folks who go out of their way to care for her now. She’s not remarkable, she just believes that by loving Christ she’s loving others and has been muddling at it, in the same place, for a very long time.

    The dogma of self-sacrifice and love of the other (left unperverted) is tough to compete with for lasting community. Whether grandma Kimble-style Christians suffer from mass delusion and psychological manipulation or whether they suffer from a mystical commonality through the Spirit of Christ, I can’t say for sure. I can say to put up with the years of exhausting, heartbreaking shit my grandparents did in that church requires a strong ideology, imaginary or real.

    In short, don

  14. terrygilmer
    Posted September 19, 2006 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    Hey Mark, I like your condomless progressive orgies idea but short of that is which could yield the same results. Also, don’t forget the new cycle of America’s Next Top Model premieres tomorrow. I hear there’s nudity starting with the first episode.

  15. Tony Buttons Esq.
    Posted September 19, 2006 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    If only that show ended with the winner being thrown into an active volcano.

  16. dorothy
    Posted September 19, 2006 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    that jesus camp is the scariest goddam thing i’ve seen since the jim jones fiasco. the problem is that most people don’t want to do the hard work of thinking for themselves and asking hard questions. they want to be told what to think and what to do by a self assured father image. none of them actually read the bible critically or they would run screaming. cut off hands for stealing? WTF!!

  17. ol' e cross
    Posted September 19, 2006 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    The bible doesn

  18. mark
    Posted September 19, 2006 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

    I want to leave a comment – I really do – but my battery is dying and I’m not near a plug.

    I promise to come back tomorrow and say something.


  19. dorothy
    Posted September 20, 2006 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    deuteronomy 21 orders the stoning of rebellious sons. in the new testement (can’t remember where—perhaps paul) people are told “if thy right hand offends thee, cut it off. if thy eye offends, pluck it out.” the bible is full of smitings and smotings along with vengefulness and destruction. i’ll take buddhism any day.

  20. ol' e cross
    Posted September 20, 2006 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    When we read the bible one-dimensionally, without considering history, context, metaphor, etc. we read it like fundamentalists. From my perspective, the best way to battle fundamentalism is to challenge, rather than affirm, their interpretations. If you convince fundamentalists that the bible is sexist, you

  21. mark
    Posted September 22, 2006 at 1:01 am | Permalink

    I know that I promised that I’d come back to this thread and respond to some of the things you’ve written, but it’s 1:00 AM and I need to go to sleep. Sorry… I will get back to this thread though.

  22. Ellie Taintz
    Posted March 14, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    Greetings from Ohio! I’m so bored at work that I can’t even masturbate. So i’ve come to to look for photos of adorable cats, but I can’t find any of those. No I’m thinking about slamming my fingers in a desk drawer.

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