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The Christian cyberworld and blogosphere are all “atwitter” with the latest news concerning the trials and tribulations of Mark Driscoll, Senior Pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. This has not been a particularly good year for Mark, and he both needs and deserves our encouragement and our prayers. Whether you love or hate him (or know nothing about him), he is our brother in Christ. But Driscoll’s recent vexations offer a “morality tale” of sorts with lessons which we could all benefit from if we were to take the time to reflect on them.
A Quick Summary
Mark Driscoll’s “annus horribilis” began in late 2013 with accusations of serial plagiarism in several of his published books, including his recent “A Call To Resurgence” (footnotes, Mark, footnotes). Next came the revelation that Driscoll and Mars Hill had hired a promotional firm to manipulate sales of Driscoll’s book, “Real Marriage,” in order to get the book on the New York Times bestseller list. After all, nothing says “success” like a New York Times Best Seller. Driscoll and Mars Hill initially defended the practice, but Driscoll later admitted that it was both deceptive and wrong. On Monday, June 30, The Daily Beast reported (erroneously, as it turned out) that Tyndale House Publishers was severing its relationship with Driscoll, Mars Hill and Resurgence, forcing Tyndale executives to issue a hasty press release re-affirming their relationship with all the parties concerned. And about the same time Mark Anderson, who served under and traveled with Mark Driscoll for some 10 years, including as Director of the Resurgence Project, posted an eye-opening summary of why he left Mars Hill.
Like I said, “annus horribilis.” This hasn’t been Mark Driscoll’s or Mars Hill’s best few months.
A Kingdom Perspective
I want to be clear and begin with a personal disclaimer. I am neither a fan nor a critic of either Mark Driscoll or Mars Hill. At least, no more so than any other megachurch, a church paradigm of which I am not a particular fan for a wide number of reasons. I have no “skin” in their game. I do not know Mark personally (although I interviewed him once, years ago, for a radio program I was doing), and am in no position to speak into his life or ministry. I can only pray, as all of us should, that there are mature spiritual people around him who have both the access and the freedom to lovingly admonish and encourage him.
For my part, I want to take the opportunity of this “tempest-in-the-church-teapot” to make some observations from the perspective of the Kingdom of God. Over the past couple of years, while working on my book on discipleship, I have come to the conclusion that we need to begin seeing life in the Church through the prism of the Kingdom of God, and NOT the other way around. When the values of the Kingdom of God become the lens (yep, I changed metaphors midstream) through which we see and understand our life in the Church, many things change. What follows are just a few which struck me as I reflected on this entire episode.
1. The Kingdom of God Re-defines Success. Author and pastor A. W. Tozer once observed, “Religious pragmatism is running wild among the orthodox. Truth is whatever works. If it gets results it is good. There is but one test for the religious leader: success. Everything is forgiven him except failure.” (A.W. Tozer, “The Root of the Righteous”). It seems that, in the evangelical church, the metric for success has become the size of the campus (or the number of campuses, if you’re “multi-campus”), the size of the congregation and the size of the budget. A REALLY successful church has a pastor with a book deal with a major Christian publisher and his own radio program. And to have a pastor with a New York Times Best Seller is, well, the penultimate success. In such an atmosphere, manipulating book-sales is forgivable, as long as it is successful.
In his article about his personal journey through and out of Mars Hill, Mark Anderson quotes the following revealing admission by Mark Driscoll:
“I’m a guy who is highly competitive. Every year, I want the church to grow. I want my knowledge to grow. I want my influence to grow. I want our staff to grow. I want our church plants to grow. I want everything because I want to win. I don’t want to just be where I’m at. I don’t want anything to be where it’s at. And so for me it is success and drivenness and it is productivity and it is victory that drives me constantly. I – that’s my own little idol and it works well in a church because no one would ever yell at you for being a Christian who produces results. So I found the perfect place to hide. And I was thinking about it this week. What if the church stopped growing? What if we shrunk? What if everything fell apart? What if half the staff left? Would I still worship Jesus or would I be a total despairing mess? I don’t know. By God’s grace, I won’t have to find out, but you never know.”
Here’s the question: Is this our Evangelical definition of success? Is there a spiritual gift of “ambition” or “competitiveness” and are such character qualities things to be aspired to? I hate to be the one to say it, but the above represents an expression of personal ambition that is foreign to Jesus and the values of the Kingdom of God. To defend them is to attempt to put “lipstick on a pig.”
In the Kingdom of God, success is defined somewhat differently. In the Kingdom of God, success is defined as obedience, faithfulness, fruitfulness and service. In the Kingdom of God obedience to God’s call, faithfulness in obeying that call, fruitfulness in making disciples and service toward the least of these are the quintessential marks of success. We could abbreviate and summarize by saying, when seen through the lens of the Kingdom, faithful obedience IS success, regardless of any outward appearance. The Apostle Paul ended his career penniless in a Roman prison and was executed at the hands of the Roman government on a charge of sedition. Not exactly how you want your “Curriculum Vitae” to conclude. Despite not having a congregation, a campus, a budget or a “book deal” (or even a spare cloak, for that matter), he was unquestionably the most spiritually successful man in Church history. Why? Because he was obedient, faithful, fruitful and a servant to others. Can we say the same? How many of Mark Driscoll’s issues – not to mention our own – might have been avoided if the Church held its leaders to a different metric of “success” and looked at all such behaviors through the lens of the Kingdom and its values?
And this leads to my next observation.
2. In the Kingdom of God, Fame is Often The Enemy of Faithfulness. Our broken and faulty definition of success and the incipient pressures to “succeed” have produced far-reaching ripple effects for the Church. The pursuit of book deals, speaking engagements and media interviews have fostered an age of “celebrity pastors” for whom the pinnacle of their success is a guest appearance on the “Today” show or Fox News (usually to promote the book). We need to ask the question, “How did Jesus handle the pressures of ‘fame’?” In Luke 4 the Gospel writer records an incident that is very instructive concerning Jesus’ ministry and how He handled His growing “fame” with the masses:
“And when it was day, he departed and went into a desolate place. And the people sought him and came to him, and would have kept him from leaving them, but he said to them, ‘I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.’” (Luke 4:42-43)
After a time of amazingly effective ministry, Jesus found himself deluged by large crowds which attempted to physically prevent Jesus from leaving. It is at such moments that “fame” becomes a serious challenge to our self-awareness concerning our call and our mission. But Jesus never allowed His own self-awareness concerning His mission and purpose to be clouded, distracted or determined by the demands of “the multitudes.” Jesus lived His life to please an audience of One, to train an audience of twelve, to proclaim the Kingdom of God to an audience of whoever would listen, and to give His life for the sin of the world. His self-awareness was challenged on a regular basis by the ever-growing crowds which followed Him, “and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities.” (Luke 5:15) But He never allowed Himself to be distracted by either His fame or the constant demands of the multitudes. Jesus was more concerned with faithfulness than fame. Are we? Are you? Am I?
3. In The Kingdom of God, Character Trumps Gifting. A wrong definition of success, combined with a pursuit of fame over faithfulness eventually produces disastrous consequences in the life of the Church and its leadership. Whenever the Church has emphasized spiritual gifting over spiritual character, it has paid a terrible price for doing so. It is an inescapable truth for each of us that the pressures of life and ministry eventually reveal both the strengths and the weaknesses of our character. The higher each of us moves up the ladder of success, the greater the pressures which are brought to bear on our character. At some undefined point those pressures find our weak spot, something inside of us breaks and we begin destroying with our character what we build with our gift. We can blame our failures on others or on outside influences, or we can face the reality of our character flaws and failures and deal with them before the throne of grace. In the Kingdom of God, God is more concerned with our character (i.e., our Christlikeness) than He is with either our comfort or our gift. For this reason He frequently sends gifted individuals out into the wilderness of obscurity and service in order to disturb their comfort while refining their character. Only then are they prepared to weather the pressures of ministry which gifting and success often bring.
4. In The Kingdom of God, Making Disciples Trumps All Other Activities. In the Kingdom of God, if you aren’t making disciples who can make disciples, it doesn’t matter what else you are doing, or how many people are attending your Sunday services. In His brief three-and-one-half-year ministry, Jesus ministered to tens of thousands, and fed more people with fish and loaves than attend all of Mark Driscoll’s satellite churches on a busy Sunday. But he only made twelve disciples, and trained only 72 workers. The Kingdom was His message, discipleship was His method, faithful men of spiritual character were His goal and the organic Church was His creation. Beyond those simple things, nothing else mattered. What would Mark Driscoll’s ministry, your ministry, my ministry, and the ministry of the Evangelical Church in America look like if those four things were all that mattered to us?
For the past several years it has been my habit to publish this story on our around Memorial Day. It is a reminder of the personal cost of being who we are, and a reminder of the price others have paid to make us who we are as a nation.
The Story of Union Major Sullivan Ballou
Sullivan Ballou was raised in poverty, but overcame its obstacles and started a promising career as a lawyer in Providence, Rhode Island. It was his hope and that of his wife Sarah that they build a better life than they had known growing up for their two sons, Edgar and Willie. In addition to being a successful lawyer, Sullivan also served as the Speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives.
At this time, at the age of thirty-two, and being a fervent Republican and impassioned supporter of President Abraham Lincoln, he felt the need to serve the Union, leaving what would have been a very promising political career to enlist in the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers in the spring of 1861. On June 19, 1861, he and his troops left Providence for duty in Washington, D.C.
On July 14, 1861, Major Ballou was stationed at Camp Clark, near Washington, D.C., while awaiting orders that led him to Manassas, Virginia. He wrote the following letter to his wife Sarah in the expectation he might not have another opportunity. He did not post it, for fear of causing her to worry. Instead, he placed it in his trunk, which would eventually find its way to his home and family.
My very dear Sarah:
The indications are very strong that we will move in a few days – perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.
Our movement may be one of a few days duration and full of pleasure – or it may be one of severe conflict and death to me. Not my will, but thine, O God, be done. If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing – perfectly willing – to lay down all my joys in this life to help maintain this government, and to pay that debt.
But, my dear wife, when I know that with my own joys I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with cares and sorrows – when, after having eaten for long years the bitter fruit of orphanage myself, I must offer it as their only sustenance to my dear little children – is it weak or dishonorable, while the banner of my purpose floats calmly and proudly in the breeze, that my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children, should struggle in fierce, though useless, contest with my love of country?
I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm summer night, when two thousand men are sleeping around me, many of them enjoying the last, perhaps, before that of death – and I, suspicious that Death is creeping behind me with his fatal dart, am communing with God, my country, and thee.
I have sought most closely and diligently, and often in my breast, for a wrong motive in thus hazarding the happiness of those I loved, and I could not find one. A pure love of my country and the principles I have often advocated before the people and “the name of honor that I love more than I fear death” have called upon me, and I have obeyed.
Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on, with all these chains, to the battlefield.
The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard for me it is to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grow up to honorable manhood around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me - perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar – that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.
Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.
But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the garish day and in the darkest night – amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours – always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.
Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.
As for my little boys, they will grow as I have done, and never know a father’s love and care. Little Willie is too young to remember me long, and my blue-eyed Edgar will keep my frolics with him among the dimmest memories of his childhood. Sarah, I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care and your development of their characters. Tell our mothers I call God’s blessing upon them.
O Sarah, I wait for you there! Come to me, and lead thither my children.
Sullivan Ballou was killed one week later at the 1st Battle of Bull Run.