Influence, Gravity, and Learning from “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill”

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Christianity Today’s series “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” is not for the faint of heart!

But it is an important resource for church leaders, church planters and trainers of church leaders and church planters. 

The series looks at the way Seattle’s Mars Hill Church grew rapidly, influencing many, but then suddenly collapsed. CT describes it this way: “The church and its charismatic founder, Mark Driscoll, had a promising start. But the perils of power, conflict, and Christian celebrity eroded and eventually shipwrecked both the preacher and his multimillion-dollar platform.”

From listening to this series (which is currently on episode 7 of 12), there are many different applications we could make. I’d like to share just two observations or reflections here:

  1. We need to be intentional about learning from negative leadership examples from around the globe so we won’t be doomed to repeat them.

Toxic leadership is a problem for American churches, but it is not a uniquely American problem.  Some of you may have had experiences dealing with toxic church leaders at home and across the globe (hopefully, though, those experiences haven’t been outweighed by beautiful examples of leadership and service around the world!).

Where our family served in southern Africa, our mission team and the network of churches we were a part of went through a messy, protracted challenge because of a leader who’s failings continued to cause collateral damage.  In wrestling with the fallout from that bad leader, we tried to be intentional and learn from that bad example and use it as a good way to encourage healthy leadership in the churches in Mozambique going forward. For more on that attempt to process and grow from a negative leadership experience, see 

  1. We need to remember that influence is a complicated thing and shouldn’t be conflated with maturity.

The podcast series highlights the fact that when a leader has more charisma than character the consequences can be disastrous.  When we see someone who is talented but is not practicing the ways of Jesus with those around them, that is a major red flag and platforming them or giving them even more influence is ultimately dangerous.

Christians and Christian leaders were made to “shine like stars” (Philippians 2:15) and to use their influence.  But when leaders want to be “stars” in the world’s sense of that word, they can easily transform from being “stars” that shine in the universe into becoming “black holes”!  As stars our influence and gravity should be used to slingshot people to the center of the Cosmos – Christ.  The gravity of narcissistic leaders (their influence) though, is destructive because they bring others into their orbit for different reasons and eventually send followers crashing into themselves or each other.  Churches and institutions also can be narcissistic and think that they are the center of the story, instead of using their gravity/influence to slingshot people towards the real hero of the story – the Son.

Those are just a couple of ideas that I keep coming back to as I’ve been listening to this series.  May the Church learn and grow from the past (even from bad experiences) and may leaders seek to embody the ways and means of Jesus in everything they do.

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