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A MAJOR PRESENCE. Mars Hill Church has come a long way since it was founded in 1996 with just 12 members. Despite the fact that Washington State has the second lowest church attendance in the country, Mars Hill is one of the fastest growing congregations nationwide. Photo by Steve Shay

Mars Hill Church one of nation's fastest growing

Monday, July 14, 2008

It's Sunday morning at 9 a.m. and Mark Driscoll is positioned center stage at Mars Hill Church in Ballard. Dressed in torn jeans and an untucked black shirt, the 36-year-old stands comfortably holding the Bible in one hand while actively illustrating his words with the other.

The parishioners at Mars Hill are no more traditional than their pastor. Services are attended by 20-something indie rockers as well as grandparents, and every generation in between.

On stage before a crowd of nearly 1,000 he jokingly thanks the two people who have sat through all 13 weeks of his latest sermon series titled "Doctrine."

In reality, Driscoll's teachings have reached more than a few ears. On this Sunday over 7,000 parishioners at five other campuses covering Wedgwood, West Seattle, Shoreline, Bellevue and Downtown Seattle will hear Driscoll's message via satellite video.

Mars Hill has come a long way since Driscoll founded the church with just 12 members in 1996. Despite the fact that Washington State has the second lowest church attendance in the country, Mars Hill is one of the fastest growing congregations nationwide. In a 2007 report by Church Report magazine, the church was named the eighth most influential in the United States.

"The numbers are important only because we want more people to meet Jesus," said Ian Sanderson, a staff member at Mars Hill. "We don't care if a million people are here, if they're not meeting Jesus and they're not growing in a healthy church, then that's not a good thing for us."

Perhaps what's most surprising about Mars Hill's popularity is the conservative theology that has drawn so many in a predominately liberal city. Attendants of Mars Hill won't hear a soft Biblical interpretation that emphasizes the good in all of humanity; instead they are confronted by the message that salvation is only possible through Jesus and that living as a Christian will take them far out of their comfort zone.

So why are so many laid back Seattleites drawn to a church that demands so much from them?

According to Rob Wall, a professor at Seattle Pacific University who once participated in an on-campus debate with the pastor, it is Driscoll's direct answers to complicated spiritual questions.

"Mark himself is the sort of voice that the searcher listens to because he speaks without equivocation," Wall said. "His style of public rhetoric is very authoritative. Whether it's about the Bible, or about culture, he is very clear and definitive."

Driscoll's teachings are also backed by years of intense biblical study. Gerry Breshears, Driscoll's former professor at Western Washington University and accompanying author on four books, admires the pastor's deep commitment to following the Bible no matter where it leads. Whenever at the pulpit, Driscoll has his Bible with him, constantly referring back to the text.

"When it comes to celebrity church leaders, that (level of commitment) is fairly unusual. They are typically more interested in their church and their agenda," Breshears said.

Describing Driscoll as a "fanatic for Jesus," Breshears believes the pastor has a gift for teaching the Bible in a manner that addresses Seattle's spiritual hunger.

"People are meeting Jesus there, and they like him," Breshears said. "Even when he upsets their life big time."

Undoubtedly members of Mars Hill have all been drawn to a Church that is deeply embedded in the culture of Seattle and a teacher that makes the Bible applicable to their everyday lives.

"Mark is gifted in communicating (the gospel) in a relevant manner," said Bill Simmonds, a pastor from the West Seattle campus. "He takes time understanding the local culture and speaks its language, so people can relate to what he says."

To further connect with the local community, Mars Hill launched a new campus in March at the former downtown nightclub Tabella. The church has since partnered with neighborhood organizations to host events such as a block party on the Fourth of July. Parishioners frequently meet after services at the downtown campus for happy hour at one of the nearby bars.

"Mars Hill's very externally focused," Sanderson said. "We want to be in culture reaching the people. It's not just about having a feel good time; it's about being out there and interact in the world around us."

While reaching out to the city of Seattle is Mars Hill's primary focus, new technology has provided the church an international audience that outnumbers their Seattle parishioners. The church offers videos of each sermon free online and has even built their own social networking site called "The City."

"They don't let the technology shape them, they use the technology to extend (their ministry)," Breshears said.

Driscoll in currently traveling in Europe and will be in Australia through August. At the Sydney Exhibition Center on Aug. 28 the pastor is expected to address his largest crowd to date.

"Truth rings true whether you are a politically liberal, coffee-drinking indie rocker from Seattle or you're a Sikh living in Dubai," Sanderson said. "Anywhere in the world truth always rings true."

But not everyone has the Mars Hill fever. Many churches have rejected Driscoll's sarcasm and opposition to traditional religious practices.

"They talk about the potty-mouth-pastor because Mark really believes that the language of Seattle is the language of the pulpit," Breshears said. "A lot of people think you can't do that in church, but Mark disagrees."

Perhaps the most criticism towards Driscoll has been in response to the role of women at Mars Hill. While the Church has women in leadership positions, their pastoral staff in completely male.

In her 2006 book "Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement" Lauren Sandler described life at Mars Hill in the chapter "Come As You Are." Sandler referred to Sarah Dietz, a stay-at-home mother and member of Mars Hill Church, expressing disdain for the domestic role that kept Dietz from returning to school and earning her master's degree.

Driscoll addressed the text in his blog, writing, "I do believe that men and women were both made equal as God's image-bearers and, though different, maintain equality. I also believe that marriage is a good thing and that children are a blessing."

For some women at Mars Hill, the emphasis on male leadership is appreciated. Linda Kelso, who attends the Wedgwood campus, found the church's insistence that men "step up" refreshing.

"I have seen all my life very passive men, and I think the men at Mars Hill have a focus and are pursuing something," Kelso said. "I've never felt any pressure to assume certain domestic roles or become a wife."

The staff at Mars Hill supports Driscoll's biblical interpretation that describes women as equal to men, yet different.

"While we do take a biblical view that women have different talents and roles, we don't in anyway consider them second class in ministry," Sanderson said.

Despite such criticism Mars Hill continues to grow. The church anticipates is will have 3,000 committed members by September, when Driscoll returns to Seattle.

"I honestly don't think this is a passing thing," Wall said. "I don't think this is a flash in the pan. I think Mark Driscoll is here to stay and that his ministry will continue to flourish."

In the meantime the Ballard Campus will be hosting a community barbeque and baptizing new Christians at Golden Gardens Park on July 17.

Rose Egge may be contacted at rosee@robinsonnews.com

Please share your point of view on this story. Comments posted with First and Last names will be considered for publication in the print edition. You may request that your name not be published. You may also send your comment directly to the editor at bnteditor@robinsonnews.com.

Nathan wrote on Jul 18, 2008 11:56 AM:

" I find it interesting that people view the church as a business... the church is a movement not a business, something bigger than than just mars hill, a whole movement of Jesus and his people. I applaud Mark Driscoll for the truth of Jesus that he brings to Seattle. "

alex wrote on Jul 16, 2008 10:20 AM:

" This isn't an article. It's an advertisement with repeated talking points. "

Pragmatist wrote on Jul 15, 2008 5:41 PM:

" While I commend the Ballard Tribune for writing an article about a local business, it was too politically correct and frankly appears to be authored by a member of the congregation, if not a supporter. Much emphasis has been placed on the infringement of the industrial businesses along the waterfront with pedestrian traffic. The impact on the traditional staple of Ballard was not covered in this article--which I might add is an essential argument against the Trader Joe's opening next door. The issue of women's role in the church was not clear -if this author had done their research, it's very clear from the businesses website that they view women in a domestic role(inferior) and do NOT hold positions in the ministry in the church. This was a sad little piece of rhetoric. "

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