Life After Mars Hill: a book review

“Two years ago if you would have told me that the next big book project I was involved with was to be co-authored with Rob Bell, I would have asked what you were smoking,” says Mark Driscoll (from the Introduction, ix). At the time, Driscoll was at the helm of Mars Hill Church in the Rainier Valley in Seattle and on the board of Acts 29, a missional church planting network, he helped co-found. In 2013 there were criticisms and intimations of trouble, but Driscoll had always been a polarizing figure with his critics. Comes with the territory when you are a bombastic communicator and a man of strong convictions. He was under near constant criticism for what he said and how he said it. Yet in 2013 the new criticisms began to mount. Driscoll was accused of plagiarism, faulted for unethical marketing, had formal charges filed against him by a former elder, was protested against by a number of former members and got his name dragged through the mud for a decade-old-internet-rant. By September of 2014, Driscoll was forced to resign and his once thriving church dissolved.

Mark Driscoll & Rob BellThree years earlier, in September 2011, Rob Bell left his own Mars Hill. At its zenith, Mars Hill Bible Church had a weekly attendance of 10,000 people. However Bell’s bestseller Love Wins had made him a pariah to many in the evangelical world and hurt the attendance of his congregation. Bell was under constant fire for not holding the doctrine of hell dearer and for suggesting that perhaps, maybe, ‘Jesus will save everyone.’ Since leaving MHBC, Bell has found a new home on the Oprah Winfrey Network and has self-consciously sought to ‘pastor those outside the church.’

Temperamentally, theologically and stylistically, Bell and Driscoll couldn’t be more different. Yet both of these charismatic leaders and church planters, found themselves forced to resign their respective Mars Hills. So how did these two get  together and decide to collaborate on a new book, Life After Mars Hill (forthcoming, HarperOne)?

Driscoll tells the story:

When I left Mars Hill, I was given an ultimatum. I was forced to retire. All of my old friends and allies didn’t answer any of my calls. My conference dates were all cancelled. My publisher dropped me. Of course Grace stuck by me, but it was really hard. When I felt totally abandoned by everyone, even God, I got a phone call. It was Rob. He said he was praying for me and wanted to know how I was doing. I had been critical of Rob but when I needed someone to remind me of God’s grace, he was the one that was there for me. We met several times and discussed life, our mutual struggles and God. Rob had the idea of recording our conversations. When we listened to the terrain we covered, we both knew it would be interesting and helpful terrain for the church as a whole (6-7).

That is how the two struck up their unlikely friendship. The book  tells the story of the hurt and isolation both of these men felt after their fall from evangelical super-stardom. The format for the book is dialogue between the two former pastors (with a couple of brief chapters describing Driscoll’s and Bell’s personal journeys..

That the two men now call each other friends shouldn’t diminish the significant differences between their respective Christian visions. Bell  still finds Driscoll’s Christianity narrow, legalistic and he finds Driscoll’s complementarian views and authoritarianism troubling (39-40). Driscoll still faults Bell for his lack of doctrinal precision, and his utter lack of manliness (43). The two also find themselves on different sides on a number of social issues (such as marriage equality). At one point, Driscoll kids Bell, “You have the style’ while I am the  one with substance” (89). In response, Bell quips, “Jesus came full of grace and truth. You cling to  truth. I love the truth but have sought to err on the side of grace” (90).

But this is not a raging debate. Driscoll and Bell  speak respectfully and humbly to one another. Critics of Driscoll will likely see him, in these pages, as stubborn and chauvinist as ever. Critics of Bell may still find his lack of doctrinal clarity aggravating and his teaching dangerous and pernicious. But there is movement on both sides. Bell is gracious and Driscoll reciprocates.I think the real value of this book is the conversation itself. Rachel Held Evans endorsed this book saying, “Rob Bell has done what I never could arrange. He sat down and had a civil conversation with Mark Driscoll. While I find Driscoll’s Christianity problematic, I came away with a deeper appreciation of the man, his story and God’s graciousness to him.” I highly recommend this book for anyone troubled by the legacy of either of these former ‘Mars Hill Pastors.’ I give this book five stars!

Notice of material connection: I received this book as a complete fabrication. I was not asked to write a positive review. But don’t you want to read this book? Happy April Fools.

Its not the Size it is the Motion: a book review

Steeple Envy by Vic Cuccia

Vic Cuccia had a cushy ministry job at a popular mega-church but realized something was amiss. He had bought into the commodified, American-Dream-Infected vision of life in ministry which said BIGGER is better and MEGA is majorly better. He had bought into the idea that in order to minister to the people who were coming to his church, people in a certain tax bracket, than he needed to keep up a certain standard of living, have a nice home, drive a nice car, etc. And then he had an uh-huh moment and realized that somewhere along the way his Americanized/commodified vision of the gospel was compromised in several respects.

Now Cuccia is the leader of a small community (around 75 people) and has started 12X12 Love Project, a ministry which builds homes for the needy in Guatemala.  Steeple Envy is his story of learning to see and discovering that as he unplugged from the mega-church, he saw just how prosperity infected and off base it was. Far from building his own empire, Cuccia is now engaged in extending the mission of God to those in his community and abroad. They are moving out, trusting in God to provide and seeing that provision in miraculous ways.

But please note that this not a book that is bent of criticizing mega churches per say. Some of Cuccia’s heros are or were mega church pastors (i.e. Rob Bell, Mark Driscoll, Francis Chan, etc.). He isn’t saying a big sized church is necessarily bad; what he is saying is that in his own experience on being on staff with a mega church, he got off track in his understanding of the gospel getting caught up in the cultural trappings in that setting. This is his story about re-discovering what it means to live faithful to his calling as a minister of the gospel.

I liked this book. I really liked the first half of the book where he confronts the soul deadening elements of his ecclesial life.  The title chapter (chapter six) talks about ‘Steeple Envy’ and the whole temptation towards Christian empire building. Cuccia’s critique is profound if laden with double entendres The second half the book is good, and it is interesting to see how Cuccia’s  re-thinking of how to do church has led him to lead a community which gives sacrificially and is delightfully not polished.  Cuccia left a successful ministry job to work on the margins in ways that he felt were more faithful to the gospel. I am grateful that he saw fit to share some of the insights he’s gained on his journey.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

That would be a great name for a. . .church?

You’ve seen and participated in conversations like this:

1st person: Ugh-you’re breath smells like haggis!!!
2nd person (with bad breath) Sorry, You got any gum?
3rd person: Hmmm…”Haggis Breath,” that would be a great name for a band!

Of course, almost always, as in the above example, it is not actually a great name for a band. It is a horrible, horrible name. You would not listen to this band and if you did, you would not sneak backstage at their concert.

For those of us reared in the Christian subculture, we have our own bad band names. In younger days, I was briefly the mascot for a local Christian band called “Frolic Like A Heifer” based on (Malachi 4:2). Another friend and I, toyed with the idea of starting a band called “Nero’s Torches” based on Nero’s alleged burning of Christians to light his garden parties (we never used it, so if you want it’s yours for free). There are a thousand ‘great’ Christian band names, but for the non-musically inclined you don’t need to think of band names, you can also think of great church names.

Once upon a time, church names told you two things, where the church was and its denominational affiliation. There are still a lot of churches like this (I go to one), but in a world of mass marketing and suspicion of institutions, churches increasingly hide their denominational affiliation in their name. My wife and I attended a Baptist church in Vancouver for a couple of months before we heard that it was Baptist (at the time we were trying to avoid Baptists so it was a bit of a shock). There are mega-churches that don’t tell you their denominational affiliation at all unless you go hunting and even then their relationship to their denomination is not particularly significant.

And so churches get creative with their names. Growing up on Oahu, one of the big churches on the Island was a Foursquare church called Hope Chapel. The Irony was not lost when its prominence was superseded by ‘New Hope’ a church from the same denomination. Other churches pick up words and phrases and locations from the Bible in their names. Think of an important location in the Bible (where good things happened) and chances are there is a church with that in its name. Titles of God and Jesus are also popular, as are significant moments in Christ’s earthly ministry (i.e. Calvary, Bethel, Mt. of Olives, Galilee, Bethlehem, nativity, resurrection, Road to Emmaus, ascension, etc).

But the most creative names seem to come from the seeker sensitive mega-churches, the emergent collective, and the hyper charismatic churches. Each of these churches names themselves something catchy and cool, that says something about how they see themselves and their mission. The ‘Mars Hill’ churches (both Rob Bell and Mark Driscoll’s churches) named themselves what they did, because they saw themselves as churches engaging the culture (like Paul in Acts, plus neither Bell or Driscoll could spell Areopagus). Other churches name themselves things like Imago Dei, Solomon’s Portico, Mosaic, the Haven in hopes of saying something about the quality of community and what they are about. Some churches try to appeal to people on their pilgrimage by calling their church Journey or Quest. Other churches get creative and provocative naming themselves things like “Scum of the Earth.” Best church name I’ve ever seen is “The Perfect Church” but from what I’ve heard, it didn’t live up to its name.

So as an exercise of creativity, what do you think are great names for a church? Note: like names of bands these don’t need to be ‘actually’ good names, but have fun with it. Here is my starting list:

The Chronic
Opiate of the Masses
Abraham’s Bosom
Meggido
House of Rahab
Bloodbath Church of Christ (Are you washed in the blood?)
First Church of My Co-Pilot
Flaming Christian Fellowship
Passionate Embrace
White As Snow Christian Reformed Church
Aaron’s Rod
Rolling Stone Church of the Resurrection
A Little Leaven Bible Church
A Bunch of Hypocrites
Capture and Rapture Evangelical Fellowship
Seedy Church

What about you? What do you got…let’s get an interesting list going!