As you may or may not know, Mars Hill just planted 4 new churches as of January 15, 2012.  We ended up moving to one of the towns in which Mars Hill would be planting a church.  I was excited!  I had heard all the hype about Mars Hill from my friends.  I was moving to a town where I knew NOBODY, and I liked that Mars Hill had community groups, as most of my friends back home were from church and I knew this would be the main way I would make new friends.

So we started attending the “Core Group Gatherings” about 6 months before the launch.  We were really excited to meet people who we believed to be passionate about Jesus and furthering the gospel.  We attended regularly and joined a community group as soon as we arrived in our new town.

At the community group meetings, there was a lot of “theological sword play”, and not a whole lot of bible.  People would discuss doctrine and concepts, and I would find myself trying to figure out what they were talking about.  They were using a lot of words but saying nothing.  My husband and I participated as much as possible.  We often went home VERY frustrated, however we could reason that these were believers from many different churches coming together to be a part of a new church plant, and that it would take time for everyone to get on the same page.  We were determined to be the “salt and light” and would try to bring it back to the Word.

It came time for the community group to split into two groups, and the person who was chosen from our group to lead the new group was someone my husband and I felt was the least qualified in terms of having the integrity of someone who would be leading people.  He was, however, very similar in personality to the original leader and very enthusiastic about Mars Hill.  We decided to go ahead and break off with that leader as our good friends were going to that group and we thought perhaps we could bring balance.  We are in our mid 30’s and we were actually the oldest people in our groups.

It was later revealed to us by other group members that our original community group leader was actually the “keeper of the gate”.  He actually would report back to the two head pastors about the people in the group and whether or not he thought they were fit for leadership!  This guy was no more than 25 years old!

Over time it seemed that being involved with Mars Hill took over our lives.  I found myself with the women of my community group up to 4 days per week.  If there was an event or 3 day weekend, there was something to go to, all in the name of building “community” and “doing life” together.  At the beginning I welcomed it because I didn’t know anybody, and I was so anxious to try to recreate what I had left behind when we moved.  It began to take its toll, and I felt like I needed to establish some “margin”.  I pulled out of children’s ministry, took a break from playdates and bible studies, and spent A LOT of time in the Word. 

In the next week, all the troubling pieces of the puzzle began to come together:
  • A lot of time and attention is paid to the discussion of concepts and doctrine.  This is not bad in and of itself, however, it is not balanced with the LOVE of God, the GRACE of God, and there is very little emphasis (if any) on living a Spirit led life.  Whenever I bring up the Holy Spirit more than once, it seems to make people uncomfortable.  I sometimes feel like the weird "charismatic" because of this. It seems to be a worship of sound doctrine, of being right.
  • There is a definite sense of ELITISM.  Pride in Mars Hill, and it is clear that we have the “perfect” doctrine.  There is much talk of Christians who think they are saved but really aren't or sleepy Christians who need to be woken up (which leaves the unstated concept that if they switched over to MH then their doctrine would be right and they would really be saved or that we are the ones to help wake them with our doctrine).
  • The distinctive of complementarianism seems innocent enough on the surface.  It takes a position that we follow the bible when it comes to women preaching or teaching men.  But it is a constant thing (almost like reminding a woman of her place) and it feels like the church feels a need to "beat" us over the head with this.  The thing I have observed is almost all if not all of my friends at MH seem to be oppressed and do not exhibit the joy that should be theirs in Jesus.  My friends from back home are some of the most submitted women who honor their husbands, not because a church beats them over the head with it but because they are living Spirit led lives, and their husbands are not trying to lord it over them.  The Holy Spirit working in them guides them to mutual submission, and they are able to joyfully submit.  They do not seem oppressed by it but blessed by it.
  • MH preaches freedom...freedom to drink beer or wine or go to the pub, to engage with culture, to be sexually free within the context of marriage.  However, I feel that there is a legalistic overtone to MH.  You are free to do those things but there does not seem to be a freedom in worship, freedom to operate in the gifts, or freedom to hold the elders accountable.
  • The worship feels dead.  Very few people lift their hands, or seem to feel free to worship as they feel led.  MH has basically said that it does not embrace most mainstream Christian music but prefers to use its own music and revamped traditional hymns.  They categorize most contemporary Christian music as doctrinally off.  EVERYTHING always comes back to DOCTRINE, not JESUS
  • The membership covenant emphasized submission to elder authority and being held accountable and church discipline. There is no provision for how one can hold a leader or elder accountable or question them in regards to inappropriate behavior. (read it
  • “Doctrinal Statement”- specifically the section about spiritual gifts (read it ) UPDATE: This link has been changed since original posting
  • That _______  was the "gatekeeper" who reported back to the leadership on his evaluation of individuals and their suitability for leadership. What if he didn’t like you?
  • Community group is spent discussing concepts from the sermon and tends to be an intellectual or theological wrestling match that does not include much scripture. When challenged often does not fly, especially if challenged by me (a woman, with a bible in my hand)
  • Hyper focus on idolatry
  •  Hyper focus on accountability
The Exodus
We were in the midst of the “Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe” sermon series.  One of the sermons and subsequent community groups talked about covenants.  The term was used very loosely, and it was explained that members were required to sign a membership “covenant”.  Our old church did not believe in membership, and so we had some questions about this.  We knew that if we did not become members, we would be limited in what we could do as far as service.

We asked some friends about the membership process as they had already completed it.  They informed us that you did the “Doctrine” series and then you did a membership interview.  In that interview they talked with you, I believe you made your giving pledge, and you had to confess a sin that you still struggle with. At some point we were told that your community group leader would “hold you accountable” (aka question you) if you were not meeting your pledge.

I finally (reluctantly) asked my husband if he had any concerns/red flags about Mars Hill.  I say reluctantly because I knew he would, and I knew that these were irreconcilable and that we would probably leave over them.  I feared that I would lose the only friends I had made in this new town. When he began to raise the same concerns I had written in my journal, we both decided we would pray about it for a while.  The next week we both spent a lot of time in prayer and the word.  We weren’t sure if we were just rebels (that spiritual manipulation thing is no joke) or if what we were seeing was our sign to get out.

Due to the whole “will not be devisive” clause in their documents, we both decided that we wanted to keep our reasons private and not cause division among our community group by raising questions on “secondary” or “open handed” issues.  We sent an email (cut and paste so there was no confusion and everyone got the same story) to our leaders and anyone whom we felt we owed at least a goodbye because of the “close” relationships we had built in community group.

Our email was kind, we said that we felt we were being called elsewhere (we had not found another church yet), and that we loved them and wished them well.  We were optimistic in thinking that the church is universal and that we would maintain the friendships we had built.

A few friends responded passionately and immediately, wanting reasons.  We did not feel it was wise to share reasons so we said that we disagreed on some of what Mars Hill considered “open handed” issues and for us they were held tightly in our “closed hand”.  We were trying very hard to leave well.

None of the leaders that I emailed responded to me.  Our community group leader emailed my husband and asked/pushed that my husband call him so they could talk.  My husband, quite frankly, did not feel that he needed to make himself accountable to this person.  He has a team of older men from different churches to whom he makes himself accountable. Based on the leader’s personality, we knew that it would not end well.  My husband informed the leader that he was welcome to email him his questions, but that we both felt resolute in our decision.  He wanted my husband to meet with him so they could discuss all our reasons, and based on our experiences (theological swordplay and doctrinal debates) and some of the other experiences we read on the internet, chose not to subject ourselves to such a meeting.

We did not hear anything for a few days.  The silence from the leadership, and some of the people I considered friends, was deafening. I was crushed!  This was my only group of friends in this town and I felt like I was getting everything taken from me and having to start all over. I was pressed for reasons again by a well meaning friend and I came unglued (I later apologized to her).  I left for the weekend.

About a week later,  my husband and I finally received an absolutely horrible email from our community group leader.  Apparently, although we never became members, they were trying to require us to explain so they could “bless us and send us out joyfully”.  Based on my interactions thus far, we knew going to community group to be on the hot seat so they could decide if they agreed that the Holy Spirit was, in fact, leading us elsewhere was a very bad idea. 

In a nutshell, he questioned our ability to discern God’s leading, suggested that it might be our own motives (huh?)  and if so, we were endangering our family and hurting the church.  It was apparent in the email that all of the community group members (our friends) had compared notes on their interactions with us.  We had not found a new church (we were new to the area and had only attended Mars Hill), and were told that not having a church was isolation from God’s people (because I have no other Christian friends?).  My husband’s ability to lead our family was questioned.  It was implied that we were “consumer Christians” and that although we had not become members, because we were attending there we still needed to answer to them. 

We were then accused of causing division (by talking to our friends), fleeing community and hiding from leadership.  We were informed that we were being removed from the community group and “The City” (MH internal facebook-like website).  And then, after that email, wanted my husband to call him so that they could sit down together to discuss this.

My husband responded and called him out on the tools of manipulation he was using and informed him that they would not be sitting down together.  I also responded later with as much class and scripture as I could muster.  We have never again heard from any of our friends from that group.

The allure of Mars Hill is great and the manipulation is very subtle.  You are slowly conditioned and indoctrinated, and before you know if you feel spiritually dead and can’t quite put your finger on how that happened.

I later learned that we were not officially shunned.  I also learned that the community group leader did consider us "under church discipline", even though we were not members and had already left the church.