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Have you listened to the "Mars Hill" podcast?

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“Bro, have you been listening to The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill?” This seems to be the second most frequently asked question by Christians over the past couple of months. Even Matt Chandler from the Village Church stated in their livestream service on August 22, “I’ve been asked right around seven trillion times if I’ve listened to The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. And I can say in all honesty, ‘Yes’, but I actually got a front row seat to that whole thing.”[1] Another popular Christian podcast (Pastor’s Talk) hosted by Pastor Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman discussed how they too have listened to every episode.[2] While I can’t say that I’ve been asked seven trillion times like Matt Chandler, I can say that I have talked to enough people from our church to know the average Christian podcast listener is eagerly and attentively tuning in. Full disclosure: my wife and I have listened to and processed every episode.

In response to all the hoopla surrounding the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, Christian leaders have felt it necessary to present their cautions and concerns to those of us getting seduced by the captivating drama of the podcast. Among these cautions are Liam Thatcher’s “Unintended Consequences of Failure Porn” and Trevin Wax’s “On ‘The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill’—Surveying Our Souls.” Other concerns people have are that the podcast is “gossipy”, slanderous, damaging to people’s trust in their church's leadership, or provoking the sin of schadenfreude.

Are any of these concerns completely illegitimate or wrongly motivated? Probably not. But what I find myself thinking when I hear these concerns is twofold: first, why do people feel the need to express these cautions? Frankly, it comes across (to me at least) as if these cautions are a more “spiritually enlightened perspective”, unlike the rest of us hypnotized addicts twitching in anticipation for the next episode to release so we can get our “fix”. These concerns, while not untrue, have a slight patronizing tone towards those who are “less mature”. For example, you may find yourself really enjoying the podcast only to read someone’s concern about your enjoyment of it. You then walk away thinking, “Wow, maybe they're right. Maybe there is something wrong with me that I like the podcast so much. Maybe I should repent.” Maybe you should repent, but my guess is probably not.

This leads me to the second thing I find myself thinking in response to these cautions: Why can’t people just let listeners process the narrative without guilt-tripping people into feeling like they should repent for enjoying the podcast? All these alarms seem like a distraction from the serious and perennial issues being raised by Mike Cosper which plague the evangelical church. It’s not complicated: you should listen to the podcast with discernment and process it with other trusted and wise friends. It’s that simple. No one said you have to agree with everything in the podcast.

Right here someone could say, “You just said that I should listen to the podcast. Why?” Here is how Mark Dever responded to Jonathan Leeman’s question about why the podcast is worth listening to:

“It’s very worth listening to… I think as evangelicals sometimes we are not willing to look at our own dirty laundry and because of that, the mistakes that are made are more easily repeated, where if they had been memorialized and talked about.” [3]

I agree wholeheartedly with Dever. I think all Christians should listen to the podcast. There is so much that we can learn from Cosper’s work, which I am hopeful will bring about greater health and awareness in the average church member. 

Excuse me… church member? Don’t you mean church leader? Here is the kicker: the podcast is really not about Mark Driscoll; it’s really about the people, the celebrity culture, and the media tools surrounding a charismatic leader that enable him. In other words, the podcast is a look in the mirror about why we keep letting men—whose giftedness far exceeds their godliness—gather large crowds only to decimate our faith once again. Mike Cosper gives a soul-shivering quote in the episode called “Questioning The Origin Myth” about how we are so easily drawn to the stories, the vision, and the authority of charismatic leaders,

“There’s always something attractive about a ‘visionary leader’… because in a secularized age where spirituality seems difficult and contested, having someone stand before us with certainty that they’ve heard from God in a unique way and that they know his plan for our life is comforting… So, it’s worth taking inventory by asking what stories are moving us? Do those stories expand our vision of Christ’s church or narrow it? For pastors, what stories are you telling? What’s the vison that you’re inviting your church into?... Jared Wilson often says, ‘What you win them with, is what you win them to.’ In other words, whatever is drawing the crowd, whether it’s charisma or as Bart Simpson once described the church, ‘Lights, smoke, and Tae Bao’, that tends to form the foundation of their faith… if you’ve won them to a sense of one man’s charismatic calling and vision, then when that starts to crumble, the consequences… can be tragic.” [4]

I think this is what the podcast is really about. Sure, the podcast is about spiritual abuse and other things, but the main thing seems to be about us becoming more self-aware of our tendency to entrust ourselves to charisma, rather than to Christ. When are we going to wake up and realize how prone we are to finding our identity in that church where stuff is “happening”, or in that charismatic pastor with his ability to draw a crowd? If you are like me, you are not naturally confident and certain of who you are or what you believe about everything. So, when you come across someone with a surplus of spiritual confidence and certainty about who they are and where they are going, then without even realizing it, you attach your spiritual umbilical cord to their excess spiritual bravado in order to make up for your lack of spiritual confidence. That’s why this keeps happening, because we want a savior, but instead of looking to Jesus, we look to a pseudo-Jesus. Sure, we say Jesus is our "Savior", but in reality, it’s the charismatic boldness of another pastor.

This fundamental bent in human nature is at the root of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. Cosper is successfully holding the mirror to congregations and pastors and saying, “Don’t you see? It’s us!” One of the repeating intro quotes of each episode says, “We have a culture of church members who would prefer a narcissist leading a church.” Just focus on the word prefer. We would prefer a narcissist leading a church. A preference is something that we tend to like more than something else (“I prefer vanilla ice cream over chocolate ice cream.”). I don’t have to consciously choose which one I want. I just intuitively choose what I want without even thinking about it. Why (as the quote says) would we prefer someone like this in leadership? Because we are drawn towards something bigger and more certain than ourselves, especially if it is related to the spiritual and divine. Charismatic leaders are those who give the impression that they know the way and you can trust them to take you there. Just think for a moment and ask yourself, “Would I prefer to be a member of a vibrant, gospel-preaching church led by a confident, bold, and visionary pastor, or a gospel-preaching no-name church down the road led by Pastor Joe Shmoe with his non-impressive personality or speaking ability?” Notice, both churches are gospel-preaching, but one is where all the “energy” and lively messages are happening. Let’s face it, if we lacked self-awareness, we would all most likely choose the “it” church in order to attach ourselves to a charismatic man or movement, because it gives us the impression of knowing who we are and where we are going. It becomes the foundation of your very identity. 

This is what Paul was getting at in Philippians 3. His eyes had been opened to the “rubbish” of religious achievement, status, and bravado… that is, until he met Christ: “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” (Philippians 3:5-9)
May we find our confidence in Christ, rather than charisma. And it starts with me as pastor of this church. Please pray for me that I would not fall prey to Satan's schemes of spiritual pride, but that I would identify myself with the crucified Lord Jesus. 

 

[1] Quote found on minute 1:00:58-1:01:12 here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kkJW_5UPb_s

[2] Discussed at the very beginning of episode 180 on September 21 here: https://www.9marks.org/pastors-talk/on-filtering-pastoral-candidates-with-bobby-jamieson-pastors-talk-ep-180/

[3] Same podcast and timeframe above from Pastor’s Talk.

[4]Questioning The Origin Myth”, around minute 14.

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