NASHVILLE (BP) – It can be easy to draw the wrong conclusion if one only pays attention to the title of the podcast “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill,” warns Mike Cosper.
“This isn’t about one individual or a fallen leader,” said Cosper – writer, producer, editor, and host of the serial podcast, which is produced by Christianity Today. “It’s about a church of 15,000 people who closed their doors nine weeks after losing their pastor.”
Looking in that direction, he added, leads to an interesting and much-needed conversation on celebrity pastors, church leadership, transparency and accountability.
Mars Hill Church and its founding pastor, Mark Driscoll, were never part of the Southern Baptist Convention. However, within a decade of its 1996 launch, both had become familiar to Southern Baptists through Driscoll’s sermons as well as Acts 29, Mars Hill’s church planting network. By then, Mars Hill had built a sizable footprint not only in its home base of Seattle but with multiple campuses extending throughout the Northwest. The church’s influence spread nationally and internationally through Acts 29.
By 2007, Acts 29 had developed a noticeable, if not controversial, relationship with many younger Southern Baptist churches and church planters. Though having no denominational loyalties of its own, Acts 29 partnered with like-minded churches – including Southern Baptist congregations – that shared common theological convictions from a Reformed mindset. In the podcast’s first episode – titled “Who Killed Mars Hill?” – Cosper described those as the SBC providing the funding for a church plant while Acts 29 provided relationships, coaching and strategy.
“If you [thought] of the SBC like your dad or your uncle paying your way through school, Acts 29 was your fraternity,” he said in the episode. “There was support, a shared philosophy of ministry and shared particulars around Reformed theology.”
That connection, according to Cosper, became apparent through a motion delivered as a rap at the 2010 SBC Annual Meeting in appreciation of “Big Papa D” (Driscoll) and “Scotty T” (Scott Thomas, executive director of Acts 29).
Concerns over that connection among Southern Baptists were due to a culture at Mars Hill that reflected Driscoll himself. Termed “the cussing pastor” – a moniker Cosper says was overblown – Driscoll’s frankness and direct assertions of the culture turned off many but appealed to others, including a number of younger pastors. Those factors, as well as a laxity about use of alcohol exhibited by Driscoll, led many Southern Baptists to question those partnerships.
As outlined in the podcast, controversies surrounding Driscoll eventually proved to be too much for Acts 29, which removed him and Mars Hill from its membership in August 2014. Pastor Matt Chandler of The Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas, a Southern Baptist congregation, was named president and remains in that role.
Cosper is a founding pastor of Sojourn Church in Louisville, Ky., also a Southern Baptist congregation. The North American Mission Board provided funding for Sojourn when it was planted in 2000. Sojourn would join Acts 29 in 2003 and partner in some training events with Mars Hill, particularly related to the worship ministry, before leaving in 2010 to start its own church planting community, Harbor Network.
In a recent interview with Baptist Press, Cosper pointed to the phenomenon of celebrity pastors and the lessons supplied by the podcast series.
“We’ve seen too many church stories like Mars Hill that include fallen pastors,” said Cosper, who is also director of podcasting for Christianity Today. “The goal of the podcast isn’t to be gossipy but reflect along the way on why those events take place, to try and understand so we can build something reflective and better for the future.”
Churches don’t escape that accountability, either.
“In the first episode, it’s pointed out how we as churchgoers participate in all of this because we keep putting people on platforms,” he said.
“The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” consists of 12 episodes, with a new one appearing each Tuesday. Its most recent – “Boomers, The Big Sort, and Really, Really Big Churches” – explores the nation’s post-war suburban expansion and the eventual rise of megachurches like the Crystal Cathedral and Saddleback Church. Some bonus episodes, Cosper added, will tell stories related to but not directly a part of the Mars Hill story.
“The questions for us to be asking after all of this is, ‘What kind of leaders are we wanting to platform?’” he said. “We also need to look at how accountability and transparency should look.”
Cosper said those accountability systems were in place at Mars Hill, but over time “they were rebuilt at the behest of Mark to the point that there was no accountability.”
Cosper joined CT in February 2020 and not long after began the investigative work toward the Mars Hill podcast, an effort resulting from a small team of himself a few others. More than 40 individuals have been interviewed for the series, with some reporting still in process.
NOTE: An earlier version of this article said Mars Hill Church created the Acts 29 network. Acts 29 was originally created out of Spanish River Church in Boca Raton, Fla.