While visiting our son in Seattle last week, we attended Mars Hill Church with his family. Mars Hill, an evangelical church, has experienced almost 300% growth in the 5 years since our son joined. With an average Sunday attendance of 9,000, Mars Hill defies the tradition of the Pacific NW as one of the least religious areas of the US. I can’t help but contrast this growth with the flat or negative growth of the Mormon Church in the US during the same period.
Charismatic pastor Mark Driscoll is certainly a factor in the appeal of Mars Hill to a mostly under age-40 population, but I think the main appeal is the message:
- Election and predestination. A person recognizing Christ as Savior is probably one of the elect whom God has chosen to save. Mars Hill urges members to keep the commandments through love and gratitude for God’s grace rather than fear of jeopardizing one’s salvation.
- Scriptural inerrancy. In an age of rapid change, scripture offers dependable guidance and comfort.
- Male leadership. Driscoll frequently exhorts males to—“Be a man. Get a job. Get married and raise a family.” Of course, men love the idea of being head of the family, but Mars Hill also attracts young women looking for men interested in marriage.
- God as a personal friend. Prayers use informal language to talk to God as a real person.
- “We’re all sinners.” The message that we don’t have to be perfect to merit God’s love and that God expects us to accept each other obviously helps persons trying to recover from destructive life choices.
- Plain talk from the pulpit. Driscoll pulls no punches when he instructs men to get a job, earn a living, and provide for a family and tells women to let men be the head of the household while they stay home, have babies, and raise children. Offended people sometimes walk out of meetings—but obviously more people find than leave this church.
Certainly, Driscoll’s biblical interpretations are not new to many church goers, although they may be new to his target audience. Besides the message, the format of this church appeals to a young audience:
- Contemporary music—a band with drums and electric guitars—the congregation standing, singing, hand clapping and foot tapping.
- Agency—members are told what needs to be done in the church and volunteer to serve where their talents and interests lie. No Sunday School classes. Instead, evening and early-morning community groups led by volunteers meet in members’ homes or coffee shops to provide in-depth study, prayer, and socializing. Members choose their own groups or no groups. Group leaders and members choose their own focus and curriculum. Sunday worship services are held in the mornings and late afternoons with members choosing the time that meets their needs.
- Well-run nursery and children’s program during the sermon.
The Mormon Church is at the point that all organizations eventually reach—innovation may cost more members than it will gain. Mars Hill is a new church led by a 40-year-old, blue-jeaned, technology-adept leader who has everything to gain and nothing to lose by tackling tough issues with plain talk.
The question arises: What is God’s role in this? Since God is the author of all good, a new church which appeals to people seeking meaning in life and which leads them to a responsible, benevolent way of life must be serving God’s purpose. And since many denominations besides the Mormon Church are in stagnant or declining growth mode, we should probably give thanks when new churches arise to fill the needs of people estranged from traditional approaches.