(This post has been UPDATED several times to include breaking news)
Ministry should always be others-oriented. The first “other” being God himself. When a church has an others-orientation, there’s no such thing as too big – or too small.
But the pursuit of bigger ministry for the sake of bigness is, by definition, self-oriented. No matter how big or small a ministry may be, here’s an uncomfortable truth. If the goal of any ministry is to have more people buying my books, reading my blog or attending my church, it’s me-oriented.
That self-orientation is dangerous. And I believe it is one of the main factors leading to ministry mistakes and sins like the ones megachurch pastor and author Mark Driscoll has recently confessed to.
Who’s Mark Driscoll?
If you aren’t aware of Driscoll, or why I would choose to write about him, here’s an overview.
Mark Driscoll pastors Mars Hill Church, with an attendance of 13,000 each weekend on 13 campuses in 5 states. He’s a highly sought-after conference speaker and the author of several books. And he’s a lightning rod for controversy.
In recent months, he’s been involved in three scandals that I know of: 1) Showing up uninvited at John MacArthur’s “Strange Fire” conference to distribute boxes of his books. 2) Concerns of possible plagiarism in his book, A Call to Resurgence and, 3) Accusations that he paid a company to manipulate sales numbers so that his book, Real Marriage would become a New York Times bestseller. Which it did.
Late last week (March, 2014), Driscoll wrote a letter to his church. In it, he
- Confessed to and repented of doing wrong in the book sales manipulation scandal
- Promised to remove any references to his recent book being a #1 New York Times bestseller
- Declared that his days as an “angry young prophet” are over
- Announced a fast from social media through 2014
- Pledged to quit the “Christian celebrity” lifestyle
- Recommitted himself to pastor his church (“I don’t see how I can be both a celebrity and a pastor”)
UPDATE: On August 1, 2014, it was revealed that Driscoll participated in his church’s online discussion forum under an assumed name many years ago. His comments were highly inflammatory, including angry, sexist, crude language. Driscoll has admitted to and apologized for these remarks. (Click here for this part of the story.)
As a result of the growing list of scandals, Driscoll and his church have been removed from the Acts 29 Network, the church planting network that he founded, and his books have been removed from many Christian bookstores, including Lifeway.
SECOND UPDATE: As of August 28, Driscoll has stepped down from ministry for at least six weeks. He has been asked to step down permanently through a letter from nine Mars Hill Church pastors to their fellow elders. (Click here for this part of the story.)
THIRD UPDATE: Mark Driscoll offered a surprise resignation as the pastor of Mars Hill Church on October 15, 2014. He and the church leadership both state that this resignation was his choice and was not forced on him by church leaders.
FOURTH (& FINAL?) UPDATE: As of October 31, 2014, Mars Hill Church has announced they are dissolving. The leadership of the church is urging local branch churches to become independent congregations. The main campus will sell all their buildings and other assets and use the proceeds to pay the remaining staff salaries.
I’m Not Piling On
In case anyone thinks this post is about piling on, or kicking a guy when he’s down, it’s not.
Mark Driscoll’s sins aren’t any worse than mine. They’re just drawn on a bigger canvas, in broader strokes, with more vivid colors, under a brighter spotlight. (In case you think “sin” is too harsh a term, Driscoll himself referred to his recent behavior as “my sin during this season”.)
That makes him an easy target for some. But that’s not what I want to do. I’m using Driscoll’s current troubles as the basis for this post for one reason only. I hope this scandal will sound a warning for all of us. Pursuing big ministry for the sake of bigness is a dangerous game. A game with no winners, only losers.
Bigger Numbers Don’t Always Mean Better Ministry
Francis Chan wrote, “Our greatest fear should not be of failure but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter.”
Like selling books that no one reads.
I believe this is what happened to Driscoll. He was so invested in the bigger-is-better mindset that sales numbers (success) became more important than actual readers (what really matters).
I understand Driscoll’s desire to sell as many books as possible. As an author myself (I wrote a book. Did you know that? Have I mentioned it enough?), I’ve been inundated with ideas from marketers to increase my sales. But I’ve rejected all of them. Some, because their practices are unethical. Most because, while their strategies were almost certain to raise my sales, they weren’t likely to increase my readership. Getting my book actually read by one person who needs it is much more important to me than getting it sold to 100 people – or nonhuman entities – that won’t ever crack the cover.
The temptation towards succeeding in things that don’t really matter doesn’t just happen with books. It happens in churches, too. When we’re obsessed with numerical growth, it’s easy to let “how many people attended last week?” become more important than “did we lead people closer to Jesus last week?”
It’s not that a big, growing church can’t be a deep church. Many, maybe most, growing churches are both. But it’s important to keep a watchful eye on our own motives. We need to constantly remind ourselves that leading one person to salvation and into discipleship is of eternally greater value than entertaining a huge crowd that goes home inspired, but spiritually unchanged.
No, I’m not saying that numbers don’t matter. Of course they do. If we’re measuring the right things and have a healthy attitude towards them, they can help us see things we might otherwise miss. But an obsession with numbers doesn’t clarify the facts, it muddles them.
For instance, Driscoll states in his confession letter that he didn’t realize he was paying the marketing company to manipulate sales figures. And I believe him. That’s one of the dangers of making “bigger” your goal. It blinds you to not-so-subtle realities like that.
Victims of Our Own Success?
It may be hard to believe, but I can’t help thinking that Driscoll is also somewhat of a victim in this. No, that doesn’t excuse him of anything. But I believe he, like many others, is an unknowing, but willing victim of the consumer-oriented, personality-driven, bigger-is-better, success-at-any-cost culture that we’ve allowed to dominate the western evangelical church for the last four or five decades.
Driscoll isn’t the first minister to hurt himself and others because of it. And he won’t be the last. He’s just the most obvious right now.
Prayer and Repentance Starts With Me
It’s easy to criticize Driscoll. It’s tempting to say “I told you so.” And it’s hard not to be skeptical and think, “Suuuure he’s sorry. Sorry he got caught!”
But none of those will do us, Driscoll, or the body of Christ any good. Only two things will help. Prayer and repentance.
- Pray for Mark Driscoll and his family (This is brutal stuff to go through. Especially for his family, who did nothing wrong).
- Pray for Mars Hill Church.
- Pray that this sincere confession will have real follow-through after the emotion of the moment dies down.
- Pray that other church leaders, both well-known and unknown, will learn from this and stop this dangerous pursuit of bigness for the sake of bigness.
- (Added since Driscoll’s resignation) Pray for the now-independent campuses, that they will move forward in a healthy way, binding the wounds of those who are hurt, and impacting their communities with the Gospel.
Then, let’s take a hard look at our own hearts and repent of our own sins. You don’t need to be a megachurch pastor to find yourself obsessed with, and/or jealous of, numerical growth.
Maybe our final prayer should be that this episode will teach us all something. That love, compassion and humility will replace numbers, programs and name-recognition as the “next big thing” in church leadership teaching and practice.
So what do you think? What can we do to protect our own hearts from the sins and errors that come with pursuing bigness?
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