Closing Time

Megachurch Mars Hill To close Doors: What Does the Future Hold Now?

After a year of scandals centered around controversial pastor Mark Driscoll, the Seattle megachurch will dissolve and split into 12 smaller churches.

Scott Cohen/AP Photo

Seattle’s Mars Hill Church announced yesterday that the embattled megachurch would disband by the end of 2014. Interim preaching pastor Dave Bruskas told the congregation that the church leaders had decided that “the best future for each of our existing local churches is for them to become autonomous, self-governed entities.”

The dramatic move comes just over two weeks after the church’s co-founder and lead preaching pastor Mark Driscoll resigned his position. Prior to his resignation, Driscoll had been on leave pending an investigation of charges against him lodged by 21 former Mars Hill Church pastors and other unnamed witnesses. Just days before his resignation, Driscoll had been confronted with the results of the investigation by church elders. As a result of numerous interviews with aggrieved parties, the elders found that Driscoll had engaged in “persistent sin” relating to arrogance and a harsh, domineering style of leadership. The elders recommended that Driscoll step down as preaching pastor and only return when the elders believed he was ready. In the face of those conditions, Driscoll resigned.

The decision to cease operations at the multi-site church is the culmination of a tumultuous year. Since late in 2013, Mark Driscoll has been embroiled in serial controversies. In October that year, Driscoll crashed a conference at fellow megachurch pastor John MacArthur’s with copies of his latest book. While there, he tweeted that church security had confiscated his books. Video taken of those events instead demonstrated that Driscoll gave his books to the church.

In November 2013, Driscoll was accused of plagiarism by radio talk show host Janet Mefferd. Those allegations and subsequent evidence for their validity dogged Driscoll throughout 2014.

In March, it was revealed that the Mars Hill had spent over $200,000 of church money to secure the services of a consulting firm to buy copies of Driscoll’s book Real Marriage with the purpose of elevating the book to a spot on The New York Times bestseller list.

Then in June, Driscoll’s publisher, Tyndale House, sent mixed messages about the future of their relationship with Driscoll. They claimed they backed him but had put his newest book on hold for an undisclosed future publication date.

Foreshadowing Friday’s announcement, in September, the church laid off employees, closed three locations and placed a fourth on notice that donations had to improve or it would also be closed.

Ongoing concerns about financial dealings and mismanagement of the church’s Global Fund have yet to be resolved.

After days of speculation that the church would fold, Bruskas announced on Friday that the various Mars Hill Church locations could decide to become independent, merge with another church, or close its doors.

Going forward, the church will pursue the following plan:

(1) All of Mars Hill’s existing church properties will either be sold, or the loans on the individual properties will be assumed by the independent churches, subject to approval by the lender; (2) all central staff will be compensated for their work, and then released from their employment; (3) if any funds remain after the winding down and satisfaction of Mars Hill business affairs, they will be gifted as seed money to the newly independent churches, then, (4) the existing Mars Hill Church organization will be dissolved.

“God is alive in Seattle”

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Although Bruskas said he was excited to announce the changes, there is no question that the news was bittersweet for former members. Mike O’Neil, former Mars Hill deacon, expressed a hopeful note, saying, "God makes good out of bad: New local ‘Mars Hill’ churches: Redemption Church, Redeemer Church, A Seattle Church, Downtown Cornerstone, Reach; all these seeds have fallen from the dying Mars Hill tree. God is very much alive in Seattle."

Former elder Dave Kraft told me that he was “extremely sad and deeply disappointed” about how the church turned out. He added, “It didn't need to happen and could have been avoided if Mark [Driscoll] had owned and dealt with his sin over many years; he had ample opportunity to do so.”

Former staffer Adam Wygle sees a long hard road ahead. Wygle said, “The new churches have a huge task ahead of them. They have to spend the next year or more fixing people, fixing trust, fixing what’s been broken by Mark [Driscoll] and Sutton [Turner] before they ran away. And they also have to do a lot of work, I think, to show that the leaders aren't just mini-Mark Driscolls.”

One result of the closing is the loss of numerous jobs and personal connections at the church. Wygle said, “It saddens me that some of my friends are losing their jobs and some might be displaced from their church, but it’s especially troubling that [executive pastors] Mark Driscoll and Sutton Turner left without addressing any of their sins.”

Even without Driscoll and company in charge, some are worried that Mars Hill’s problems might spread unless the church demonstrates additional changes before it closes. Former deacon, Rob Smith, had stern words for the current leaders: “Rather than Mars Hill Church leadership learning that its members and donors want accountability and transparency, and correct the core problem of lack of accountability, it will now replicate its utter disregard for such in twelve campuses. God help us all.”