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  • Writer's pictureC. Ryan Chandler

Thoughts on the Mark Driscoll Podcast

This blog is late to the game. Nevertheless, I wanted to write something about it. I have been captivated by Christianity Today's new podcast, "The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill." If you have not digested this podcast yet, where have you been (he jokingly remarked)? I've listened to every episode thus far with intense focus and also a self-evaluation. My reflection is this: In what ways am I a miniature Mark Driscoll? I could ask it this way as well: Are there any parts of Mark Driscoll's leadership style living in me?

The podcast covers the story of Driscoll's rise, fall, and the abusive leadership style he embraced. Simultaneously, it asks fundamental questions about culture. What is it about American church culture that not only tolerates but enables this kind of leader? The podcast explores this question and makes its own claims (especially "The Bobby Knight Problem"). In my estimation, the answer is a combination of consumerism, materialism, and the American drive for progress and results.

Americans are competitive. We like to win. "Go big or go home!" Not all of that competitive drive is wrong. I enjoy working with people, churches, and organizations with clear goals and the chutzpah to accomplish them. And, at one point or another, who hasn't been enraptured into chanting, "U-S-A! U-S-A!" at a national sporting event? Ambition is a good thing.

However, this American spirit can cross the line, as was seemingly the case for Mars Hill. In the opening dialogue of every podcast, one interviewee says, "We have a culture of church members who would prefer a narcissist leading a church."

The word "narcissist" comes from the Greek mythological tale of Narcissus. Narcissus, the son of a river and a nymph, was beautiful. He was so beautiful that he couldn't find anyone in the world which matched his beauty. That is, until one day, he gazed into a body of water and saw his own reflection. He immediately fell in love with his image, and refusing to leave, died there on the edge of the water.

Gross, right? Then why do Americans endorse or tolerate narcissistic leaders?

Narcissists are confident. They believe in their message and vision. They are also convincing. Narcissists have the "gift of the gab." They communicate their message so effectively it captivates their audience. We may even use the word passionate to describe them. A person with such passion for the Bible and Christianity couldn't be wrong, could they?

However, the problem with narcissists is they love themselves more than they love Jesus, the gospel, the church, and people. But an essential part of discipleship (perhaps the first step) is learning how to die to self. "He must become greater; I must become less (Jn. 3:30)." Jesus' kingdom must take precedence over our kingdoms. His kingdom takes precedence over our kingdom, to the point where it becomes our kingdom too.

The problem for pastors, however, is that we are all narcissistic in some way. I'll be the first to admit it. I like the sound of my voice. I like telling my stories. I like preaching. I even believe that God has called me to the churches I work in for a specific purpose and given me a vision for that church. I like calling people to that vision. There's a lot of Mark Driscoll in me; I'll admit it.

Which scares me.

Eugene Peterson, the humblest religious figure in American history (of which I'm aware), once remarked (in his memoir if I recall correctly) that there was much of the world in him. If you don't know him (or only know him as the author of The Message), Peterson is the anti-Driscoll, the anti-everything shaped by American-ness. When I read his memoir, I thought, "If Eugene Peterson is full of 'the world,' what chance do I have? I'm no Peterson!"

Yet, if I had to pick a model of pastoral leadership, I would choose Peterson every time. Here's a lengthy excerpt from "The Pastor: A Memoir."

"I love being an American. I love this place in which I have been placed - its language, its history, its energy. But I don't love 'the American way,' its culture and values. I don't love the rampant consumerism that treats God as a product to be marketed. I don't love the dehumanizing ways that turn men, women, and children into impersonal roles and causes and statistics. I don't love the comptetive spirit that treats others as rivals and even as enemies. The cultural conditions in which I am immersed require, at least for me, a kind of fierce vigilance to guard my vocation from these cultural pollutants so dangerously toxic to person who want to follow Jesus in the way that he is Jesus. I wanted my life, both my personal and working life, to be shaped by God and the scriptures and prayer.

Whether Mark Driscoll is as manipulative as the podcast makes him out or not (a few times I had my doubts), some narcissistic churches and pastors are driven primarily by American culture and values, namely greed, materialism, consumerism, and irresponsible progression. I have heard too many bad stories from too many church members and staff members. I have witnessed it in coworkers. I have witnessed it in myself. And so, if it's true of Peterson, it's true of me too. There is much of the world in me.

My prayer is that the Lord and my church community would counter it in my life as I seek to pastor in Richmond, TX. May I strive to be shaped primarily by God and the scriptures and prayer more than anything our Amerian culture offers.

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