On “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill”—Surveying Our Souls

On “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill”—Surveying Our Souls

There is nothing godly or unifying about ignoring character flaws and dismissing complaints from people wounded within toxic leadership environments as “distractions.” If the example of Mars Hill has taught us anything, it’s that we need more conversations about good and bad leadership, not less.

Today, I’m kicking off a series of articles on the extraordinarily popular podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hillhosted by my friend Mike Cosper and produced by Christianity Today. The show follows the story of Mars Hill Church, founded in Seattle in 1996 by Mark Driscoll. The episodes chronicle the rise of Driscoll and his church’s influence within conservative evangelicalism, describing patterns of unhealthy leadership that resulted in the diminishment of Driscoll’s credibility and the dissolution of the church (in its original form).

A Word About Quality

Whenever The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill comes up in conversation, people mention the production quality. There has never been a narrative-style Christian podcast that matches the quality of this one. Mike Cosper’s skills as host, writer, and storyteller are on full display. For years to come, Christian podcasts in the journalism genre will stand in the shadow of this one, much like Serial changed the game for narrative podcasts nationwide. Kudos to Cosper and the team at CT for raising the bar and setting a new standard!

Critiques of Rise and Fall 

Through social media and on various blogs, people have offered constructive critiques of the storytelling decisions and the interview format Cosper has employed throughout the series.

  • Some worry that the critique of the distinctive culture of Mars Hill will be conflated with the theological positions Driscoll held: a complementarian view of gender roles, Reformed theology, a high view of Scriptural authority, the reality of the demonic, etc. Will podcast listeners be able to untangle the unhealthy leadership culture of Mars Hill from the mainstream Christian beliefs professed by its leaders?
  • Others express frustration at the inclusion of guests whose doctrinal and ethical views put them outside the boundaries of evangelicalism. Does the podcast’s occasional reliance on voices from outside traditional Christian orthodoxy imply that the answers to concerns about Mars Hill will be found in progressive or post-evangelical theology and practice?
  • Still others criticize the podcast for centering on Driscoll, making him “the star,” a move that pushes the testimonies of the wounded to the periphery. Does the show, because of its framing, unwittingly reinforce our focus on the “gifted, charismatic leader” at center stage?

I find these critiques intriguing, but I’m going to approach this series from a different angle, not focusing on the podcast or the strengths and weaknesses in how Cosper has told the story, but on the context that made Driscoll’s meteoric rise possible and the likely influence this podcast will have on evangelical church leaders in the coming years.

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