Mars Hill: A Tale of Two Cities

There are two noteworthy, progressive churches in the country with the name “Mars Hill.” One is located in Seattle, which happens to be among the least churched cities in the country. The other is in Grand Rapids, Mich., a city steeped with religious tradition. Both of these fellowships started out as merely small groups and have become recent “success” stories.

Each fellowship is guided by a young, eloquent communicator who puts a different spin on church as usual. In Michigan, Rob Bell founded Mars Hill Bible Church (MHBC) as a different type of Jesus community. The fellowship which began in 1999 has become one of the fastest growing churches in the country. Bell has become a well known communicator thanks in part to the Nooma video series that he pioneered. 

Using some very unconventional tactics, Bell refused to use marketing to build the church. He didn’t even want a sign outside the building when the gatherings first started. He simply wanted word-of-mouth to help build the weekly meetings called “gatherings.” Just to weed out any people who were looking for McChurch, Bell preached on the book of Leviticus during the early stages of the church plant. MHBC grew by developing new ways of looking at church. Bell preached through tough subjects like the religious rituals and laws outlined in the Hebrew Scriptures. He then took those concepts and translated them to modern day to see what people can learn from them. Looking for new insights to familiar passages, Bell uses history to enlighten listeners.

Bell comes across as very smart and funny – the kind of guy you would like to grab a cup of coffee with and simply chat about life.

While Bell appears to be the more soft spoken, Indy rock version of the discussion, Mark Driscoll, the lead pastor at Mars Hill Church in Seattle takes a more in-your-face, Sam Kinison approach. Known for being quite animated at times, Driscoll preaches through entire books of the Bible with the wit of a stand up comedian and the theology of RC Sproul or JI Packer.

Unlike Bell who will use more experiential techniques to communicate with church members, Driscoll simply preaches the cover off a Bible. He typically speaks for 45 minutes to an hour although his storytelling ability and humor make it seem a lot shorter.

Driscoll started out trying to build a Generation X church in Seattle, but he discovered that a church plant based on one age group was not the best idea in the long run. As the membership began to grow and change, he increasingly saw the need for intergenerational ministry.

Both Bell and Driscoll are bold enough to tackle tough subjects. And they are honest enough to pull off the mask and expose the issues that many pastors would not address out of fear that church members would revolt. Their willingness to challenge conventional thought is part of what attracts people to their messages.

Oddly, Bell appears more liberal in his theology than Driscoll. Both appear to be reacting to the prevalent ideas under girding the spiritual environments where they live. 

Grand Rapids has strong reformed theology, odd-school religion ties. Seattle is one of the most liberal cities in the country with very little religious heritage. Bell challenges the traditional mindset by attacking what many hold to be sacred cows. Driscoll does the same thing. The big difference is where he ministers has a whole different set of sacred cows.

But I do want to be careful trying to make these leaders appear too different because they converge in many areas. Both encourage deep study of the history behind the Bible. Their messages focus on Jesus and engaging the community with the reality of His life. They both appear open to the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers, including miracles and spiritual gifts. And they appear to share concern about the abuse of these too. Neither Bell nor Driscoll seem caught up with issues like hairstyles, tattoos, drinking, etc.

Having visit both of these fellowships in person and listened to a lot of the teaching and ministry philosophy coming from these churches, I have noticed a number of things. First, they both have seemingly effective small group initiatives broken up geographically to reach different areas of the community. These groups serve as smaller churches within a mega church.

Mars Hill in Seattle has taken this a step further to have satellite services in a number of locations throughout the city. The church has done this out of necessity because it can’t build one mega facility capable of housing its growing numbers. Some of the services do not have a live preacher. In those cases, the message is broadcast from one of the live events while the music and other aspects happen live.     

MHBC in Michigan does not operate satellite facilities although it does conduct regional “Celebrations” throughout the city. These are kind of like large small groups and church potlucks.

If I had to boil down the core themes that seem to be coming from each fellowship, here is what I would say:

Mars Hill Church -Seattle: Ministering to young men, seeking to recover Biblical disciplines and raise up young leaders. Engages community with a liberal attitude when it comes to practices and approaches but  closed mind on core Christian theology and doctrine.  

Mars Hill Bible Church – Michigan: Reclaiming what it means to be a Christian by healing the soul and seeking to solve social ills in the community. Brings an open approach to theology where people are free to discuss doubts and question everything. Yet, the church still holds to core doctrine as springs for the individual spiritual journey.

One area where you can see the differences in worldview emerge is the issue of women in leadership. Both fellowships recognize the value of women and their equality with men before God. Both allow women to take prominent roles in the church. However, Mars Hill in Seattle does not allow men to be elders or pastors whereas MHBC does. This issue will be discussed in more detail in a future post.

MHBC seeks a very minimalist approach when it comes to marketing and decor. The main gathering room is called the “Shed.” Services are conducted in the round, and the dominant colors are white and green. Everything has a very fresh and maternal feel to it.

By contrast, Mars Hill in Seattle publishes a regular news magazine and heavily markets through Podcasts and other forms of electronic communications. The dominant colors in Mars Hill -Seattle are dark colors, such as black, grey, red, etc. It has one of the best church Web sites that I have ever seen. Maybe this is to be expected because many of the people who attend the church work at Microsoft.

Seattle is known as a very technology oriented city. The Web site even has a password protected area for members only.

Both Bell and Driscoll have been willing to share power with others in the churches. Bell has stepped down as the top pastor and has assumed the role of teaching pastor. Another man was chosen from outside the fellowship to become the day-to-day operations/senior pastor.

In contrast, Driscoll works closely with Leif Moe, who helped him found the church. Both serve on a board of pastors where each pastor only has one vote. As Driscoll has said, he easily can be out voted and some times is. Leaders are chosen from within the fellowship as people demonstrate ability, passion and calling.

Mars Hill in Seattle places a strong emphasis on raising up new pastors and church plants. Through its Acts 29 Network, Mars Hill has helped plant nearly 100 churches. Strategic leadership development is a key focus for Mars Hill –
Seattle.

Looking at these two unique expressions of Christ, I find myself wishing that I belonged to a mixture of the two. I see good and bad in both although I tend to favor Driscoll’s approach. On the surface, these churches simply reflect two unique calls and two very different cities. In the end, the goal is not to find the best model. It is simply just to be who God called us to be and to learn what we can from other groups along the way.

Mars Hill Bible Church: www.mhbcmi.org         

Mars Hill Church: www.marshillchurch.org

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