Friday, April 13, 2012

"Mars Hill Departed" Story, Part 1

This story will be posted in two parts, consisting of my email conversation with "Mars Hill Departed". ~ Sophia

My wife and I have attended Mars Hill for 7 and 5 years respectively. We met at Mars Hill, got married in the church, were community group leaders, employees of the church, hosted community groups, gave regularly and sacrificially, led accountability groups, and served in numerous serving roles. We absolutely loved what God was doing through Mars Hill and have benefitted very much from their teaching.

But as the years went by, we saw how the church was changing and we eventually realized that we could no longer call Mars Hill home. Rather than tell our whole story, we thought we would just enclose the letter we wrote to our community group leaders, explaining why we were leaving. This letter is a follow up explanation to a brief and polite email declaring our decision to leave. Only after our group leader pressured us, accused us of "hidden sin", told us we were liars, and declared that he believed we were trying to do harm to the group, did we send this detailed email with our reasons for leaving.

Hey [group leader],

Thanks for writing. I really would like to iron out as much as possible so that we can have as much unity as possible in the Body. By the way, in this email, when I say "church" I mean the lowercase 'c', brick & mortar, locally organization church. When I refer to the capital 'C' Church, Bride of Christ I'll say "Body".

I'm sorry our decision hurt your feelings and made you feel slighted. That wasn't our intent, though we knew that could happen. That's why I called right away to talk so that I could explain beyond just that basic email outlining our decision. I also spoke with [group apprentice] that evening as I didn't want just that email to be the only contact or discussion.

We have talked and prayed about attending a new church for a while, off and on for several years. I may have told you that at one point we "took a break" for 5 or so months to try to decide what to do. At that point we felt it was best to continue attending Mars Hill, at least for a time, even though we saw things that we felt were concerns/differences in our beliefs, convictions and callings.

I can give more info about the differences I mentioned and if you'd like more specifics, feel free to ask. We've been careful not to call these differences, "sin", as we don't believe that most of it is. We see most of them more as "differences" between how we feel called to share our lives, preach the Gospel, reach out to others, serve the church, the role of the church, and the structure of the church. These are the kind of differences I believe Paul was talking about in 1 Corinthian 12:12-31 when he describes the diversity in the body of Christ. Different churches/people have different callings and sometimes their greatest strength can also start to become a weakness. We feel very hesitant to criticize things that Mars Hill is doing as we know that God has built up Mars Hill and is using Mars Hill for the furthering of the Gospel. We do feel ok with saying that we feel differently called though. Please keep that in mind when you read the details below.

We feel that MH's focus/calling is more on growing the number of people it reaches, often at the expense of growing mature disciples of Christ. The number of campuses, attendees, conversions and baptisms seems to be the priority at the sacrifice of maturity, genuine relationships, and discipleship. We see a very few serving and giving while the vast majority does and gives nothing, well beyond the 80/20 ratio that is common in churches. Add to that the extreme turnover in attendance we see at Mars Hill and it just makes the situation harder. One concern is that in the parable of the sower, Jesus talks about how the number of conversions don't equal mature saved souls, the goal.

* Because of MH's calling of church growth, we feel MH and it's leadership is more controlling over the lives of it's congregation, in ways that we don't see in scripture. A concern in this area is that we feel that control is more often used instead of love, exhorting, relationship and mutual submission.

* Because of MH's calling of church growth, we feel that Mars Hill is more called to serving new Christians rather than also taking care of more mature Christians. We feel that more mature Christians are leaned on more heavily and forcefully than necessary to reach conversion/baptism/attendance goals.

* Because of MH's calling of church growth, we feel that Mars Hill is appointing less mature/able leaders and those that lead through the methods I mentioned in the first item.

* Because of MH's calling of church growth, we feel that structure that Mars Hill uses for primary, intensive, and maturity-building Christian community (community groups) sacrifices/is at the expense of the relationships that we feel are more beneficial, genuine, natural and enjoyable. Mars Hill member's time spent with and choice of Christian friendship is largely decided by The City, service teams, group replications and formal CG activities. Little flexibility of time is given to those with smaller social "plates" or those with existing outside relational commitments. We don't feel that formal "bible-studies" and church activities can/should replace or take away significant time from natural affinities and relationships. Even Jesus spent more time with the people he liked best.

* For Mars Hill's calling toward training men, we feel like women have become less considered and a bit neglected.

* We feel that Mars Hill places too much control and power in the church into the hands of too little. When we first started attending Mars Hill there was only around 2,000 people but 40 or so voting elders. There are now around 12,000 people and 3 voting elders.

* We feel saddened by the loss of dozens of mature, strong, wise, experienced, loving, shepherding pastors that Mars Hill has been losing over the last few years. Many of these Pastors have been key leaders in founding the church, serving the congregation and bringing different and valuable gifts and abilities to MH. We've really benefitted from them and often knew them personally and are saddened by the leaving/firings of people like Pastor Lief Moi, Pastor Bent Meyer, Pastor Paul Petry, Pastor Jamie Munson and Pastor Tim Beltz as well as other leaders in the church. We feel saddened by the replacements of leaders which are usually immature, young, inexperienced, arrogant, and controlling.

* We feel that Mars Hill has gone from "being all things to all men" to adopting more of an "us vs them" mentality over that last few years ("city within a city", at times making fun of the city and the lost). We feel like Mars Hill has forgotten how to be as missional and speak to the majority of the unsaved in Seattle area as they used to be.

* We feel concerned by the often inflammatory things that Pastor Mark says from the pulpit which we don't see in scripture. Most recent examples: That Jesus was beaten all night, that masturbation is a form of homosexuality, that "nice" guys are bad, that Seattleites are strange to think that having a king would be a bad thing (see: all of world history, 1 Samuel 8:9-18). We've tried to bring non/new Christians to Mars Hill and they get offended by things other than the Gospel, and never want to come back. We are bothered that we are unable to have influence over our isolated pastor who is at such a high level.

* We feel sad and repulsed by Mars Hills emphasis on, fascination with, and treatment of, the gore and torture of Jesus' death. We feel like the degree to which the Bible talks about these matters should be the degree to which the Body does and that Hollywood gore films should not be the guide. Children returning from Sunday school should never be forced to watch a man representing Jesus being shredded to pieces onscreen while underscored by a band rocking out. The most beautiful aspect of all eternity should be treated with the utmost sensitivity and reverence and not used as what appears to have become a manipulative gimmick. During all of Jesus' suffering, the only point at which He cried out was when the Father turned his back on Him, yet we rarely seem to hear about the suffering He endured then.

* We feel like Mars Hill has gone from treating Pastor Mark as "one of the pastors at Mars Hill" to become too focused on him. Things that disturb us are the constant fascination and fanaticism in the church over him, the church's website, and Pastor Mark main menu items on church sites. We are wary of any one man being such a figurehead and representative for our community of equals under Christ. The church has begun in ways to remind us too much of a cult-of-personality rather than a community of humble, mutually submitting believers who are completely obsessed with Jesus.

I hope these examples give you a understanding of why we have decided that Mars Hill isn't the right fit for us anymore. The reason we haven't brought all of these things up with you is that: they don't mostly involve you, we don't want to discourage others who feel called to Mars Hill's mission, we didn't feel it would have (or should have?) changed these issues. In the past we've brought issues like these up with church leaders and haven't been considered and haven't seen change.

About our commitment to the Body/church, we are no longer concerned with our membership commitment since we are no longer Mars Hill members. We have left the church because we want to abide by the commitments and covenants we make. You can call it running away if you like, I can't control that. I understand it as leaving the church after years of commitment and service upon realizing that Mars Hill, as well as we, have changed. Feel free to share my comments with leaders at the church. As I said, several of these things have already been expressed by us to past community group leaders, deacons and elders. I doubt any of it ever reached the top. Again, I don't know that it's my job to tell Mars Hill to change things that seem to be largely issues of calling. I'm not called to be a missionary to The Congo, but I'm not going to try to change those that are.

In regard to the discussion we had the other night, I've shared my concerns/questions on this issue already and still haven't seen the scripture come through that you and [community group coach] said you would send that would clearly show how Mars Hill's requirements, methodology and authority are absolutely biblical in regard to the restrictiveness of attendance and participation. In any case, it doesn't matter now. I actually agree with you on this issue, but for different reasons. I agree with the practical reasons brought up by folks the other evening, that largely being committed to one church is better for the body as a whole. But just because something is practical hardly makes it a close-handed issue. I continue to believe that visiting other Christians and churches occasionally is allowed by the Bible.

This issue of unrepentant sin has come up quite a bit all of a sudden now that we have started to leave. This wouldn't be controlling manipulation would it? If you believe that we are in sin somehow then tell us what sin you see. Otherwise, why do you bring it up?

I'm sorry if you don't believe us when we said we've been talking and praying about this, that it's been a hard decision for us or that we care about how it would affect others in the group. We really do and it isn't a lie when we say these things.

I hope this letter only helps things and that you understand that all of these things are being said in love and respect. We're praying that God will use this for whatever purposes He has and that He will be glorified. We love Mars Hill including the Pastors and attendees and we support their mission of making sure that the Gospel is heard by as many people as possible. Mars Hill needs people who are similarly-called on this mission to continue to join them and we will pray for God to continue to use Mars Hill. We should also do as the Bible says and appreciate the differences in the Body of Christ and not assume that they are simply sin.

One thing I want to make sure to emphasis is that our decision to leave has almost nothing to do with our personal feelings and relationships with people in our community group. Sure, there might be a few things we can work on together to help each other mature and strengthen our friendship, but I hope we will do these things anyway, remaining in friendship with each other going forward. None of us are perfect and [my wife] and I both still consider the [other group members] our friends and hope you will still want to be involved in our lives and walk with us as brothers and sisters in Christ. This is one of the reasons I wanted to gradually transition out of Mars Hill initially, because I didn't want it to appear that we didn't love, care about and enjoy all of you guys! But our conversation the other night was enlightening to me that we needed to not delay our decision to change churches. Apart from going where we feel called and edifying the Body of Christ, what we are most concerned about is how this transition will affect our friendships with you all. Again, we really hope we can still be close and apart of each other's lives.

I'd also like to say that, while we care about Mars Hill and would like to continue to help how we can, since we've left the church, from here forward our aim will be unity with our Mars Hill brothers and sisters in Christ and we'll try to avoid engaging in "quarreling over words" or "irreverent babble" like Paul talks about. I'm sure you all know that I have a tendency to babble ; )

Thanks for taking the time to read this long letter.

Let's talk soon,

[Mars Hill Departed]



    Point of clarification, Tim Beltz is listed as Biblical Living Pastor at Mars Hill Downtown and has been since the first week of March. he was at Mars Hill West Seattle right up to the point where I blogged about his reference to materials written by James noriega on 2/27/2012.

    If Tim Beltz is no longer a pastor then MH's websites for the campuses must be inaccurate, which may be possible.

  2. I was told that Tim Beltz was originally one of the 5 executive elders, but was "let go" by Munson/Driscoll and replaced with several younger, much more inexperienced guys.

  3. As somone else who has suffered spiritual abuse at MH, I really appreciate your well laid out reasoning. For some of us it's so easy to cling to the personal hurt that we all have in our stories, but I really responded to your clear presentation of the major issuing ocurring at MH. I am so glad that, even though it was painful to go through, God pulled me out of there and opened my eyes to the truth. Not everyone will connect with the deeply personal stories, but the basic truths of what you lay out so clearly are hard to dispute.

  4. Man, who ever thought church could be so complicated? I've been reading these stories and one theme keeps coming to mind: Why are these people worshiping their church? It's much easier to just worship God.