An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘Mars Hill Church’

Time to Retire?

Mormon leaders frequently proclaim a disturbing lack of religious belief in the modern world, although polls show that Americans are more religious than people in any other developed country in the world. A recent poll by the Pew Forum shows that only 4% of Americans identify themselves as agnostic or atheist. What Mormon leaders may be referring to is stagnant, even negative, Mormon Church growth

Yet other Christian churches in the US are experiencing rapid growth. So, if other Christian churches are growing while the Mormon Church is not, Quentin L. Cook’s October General Conference statement: “The assault on moral principles and religious freedom has never been stronger…. there are also people who are determined to both destroy faith and reject any religious influence in society….” begs the question. Blaming the adversary for an assault on religion will not likely change the growth dynamics of the Mormon Church. What might be helpful is looking at what rapidly growing churches are doing that is different.

Two weeks ago, I attended Mars Hill, a reformed Christian church in Seattle, a traditionally non-churchy part of the country. Mars Hill has experienced dynamic growth in the past decade—expanding to several branch campuses serviced by pastors and connected by satellite TV for sermons by the founder, Pastor Mark Driscoll. Pastor Mark is just40— associate pastors are even younger. The branch I visited had just opened near the University of Washington two weeks ago and the place was filled—over 700 people for the morning service. Most of the congregation were university students—with a fair mixture of young families and older people. No attempt is made to divide members by address or marital status.

Pastor Mark preached on Luke 11:5-13. He drew the example of God being our Dad who loves us and answers our requests though not always the way we want. A highly entertaining speaker, Pastor Mark related the parable of the man needing bread for unexpected guests knocking at the door of his neighbor’s one-room house in Galilee. The awakened neighbor, quite naturally refuses to get up in the dark and stumble over sleeping kids to meet his neighbor’s need, but finally gives in to quiet his neighbor. Then Pastor Mark described himself being sought by his 3-year-old who wanted him to watch Tinkerbelle with her when he had planned to spend Saturday afternoon watching college football. He concluded that if an imperfect human loves his child enough to watch Tinkerbelle with her instead of college football, how much more God, who is perfect, loves us enough to answer our prayers. A great lesson in being a good dad as well as in trusting God.

Pastor Mark and others like him are reaching people who would not care to access a Mormon meeting to hear elderly general authorities decry the wickedness of the world, opine that gay marriage will undermine family values, or insist that personal revelation is subordinate to authorized priesthood revelation.

I’m not trying to belittle Mormon leaders nor those who enjoy their messages. However, I do find it unproductive to blame the wickedness of the world for the flat growth of the Mormon Church when other churches with younger leaders draw crowds to hear a conservative Christian message with a very strict moral code.

A Church for the 21st Century

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.

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