Mark Driscoll and the Dangerous Pursuit of Big Ministry

Mark Driscoll

(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.

  1. Pray for Mark Driscoll and his family (This is brutal stuff to go through. Especially for his family, who did nothing wrong).
  2. Pray for Mars Hill Church.
  3. Pray that this sincere confession will have real follow-through after the emotion of the moment dies down.
  4. 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.
  5. (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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17 thoughts on “Mark Driscoll and the Dangerous Pursuit of Big Ministry”

    1. I’ve also has some disagreements with Driscoll, Brian. Both theologically and methodologically. But if he follows through on this, he could do more good through this mess than he ever did through his successes. God often does his greatest work in us through our failures.

        1. Yeah, that comes with the territory when you refer to yourself as the “angry young prophet”. My hope and prayer is that this is real and that it leads to better things in the future. He sure has the talents and the passion to make a massive impact – one way or another.

  1. Thank you for this! If only we could fully embrace the true nature of Christian faith (love, compassion, humility) and quit believing that the only true success in Christian ministry is large followings and massive numbers we might actually turn the tide of the encroaching worldliness that aims to steal our witness.

    If there is a line behind Mark, I would have to be in it. I think all pastors are tempted toward those things, and some have actually abandoned the true nature of Christian ministry for the glitz of worldliness in the name of Christ. I actually applaud pastor Mark for his willingness to be transparent and repentant. For: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death” (2 Corinthians 7:10).

    1. I agree, Michael. Whatever my differences with him, Driscoll has never been shy to speak his mind with conviction and I believe he is just as sincere in this repentance, too.

  2. Thanks for your even-handed response, Karl.

    This is one of those “there but for the grace of God go I” situations.

    Mark has likely fallen into a trap that most pastors miss: we look to other things (attendance, affirmation, sales, whatever) for love, affirmation, security – things only God can provide. Mark’s followers feed this monster with glad adoration.

    We followed him through a similar misstep back in 2007, so he’s someone who is perhaps more prone than others, so he needs special protective prayer.

    There is one winner, BTW. He’s mentioned obliquely in Ephesians 6:11 & ff.

    Lord, save us from celebrity pastors and save me from the desire to be one.

  3. Thanks for writing such a thoughtful piece using Driscoll as an illustration rather than beating up on him. There certainly are lessons to be learned in this. I pray all of us in ministry leadership, including Driscoll, will learn those lessons.

  4. I am so glad I came upon this blog. I am a young pastor, in a small church and until recently felt like there was something wrong with me in my ministry.

    It was not till last year that God had been opening my eyes to what true pastor-ship involves and entails. I am fairly new to ministry (only been in ministry for 5 years) but looking back on my ministry it was all about building a church for me, to make me validated with my peers. My focus was on my sermons, and programs. I found my self in the office 99% of the time working on things, trying to build the church and the services…..much to no avail.

    Last year however God kicked my rear end by showing me that being a pastor….looks more like Jesus, than it looks like Bill Gates. While my focus was on my messages, and the programs and the things that were needed to build the church. I sadly spent very little time with my flock. Sure I would do the hospital visits, the nursing home calls the shut in’s when I could. But other than emergency’s I shut my self in my office to prepare and plan.

    This had a terrible effect on my ministry. There were members who were not connected to me. I was not leading by example. I was preaching about evangelism, but I was not visibly showing them how to do it. I was not out there inviting others to come to church. There were people who while not totally against me, defiantly not for me.

    That is when God changed my perspective. A Shepard must smell like his sheep! If you don’t, then your not a true Shepard. You got to spend time with the flock, and this does not happen in the time your given on Sunday morning. It involves going in there homes, working along side them. It involves them seeing you personally, and relating to them where there at.

    I have since cut back on my time in the office. I go out two days a week, every week to visit my members, welcome visitors, and witness to those who are not in church. I have spent time with my members, even worked beside them (even bailed hay with them) This to me is being a Shepard….it is being intimately involved with the people your preaching to…..this just can’t be done effectively when you have more than 200+ members.

    That is perhaps my biggest complaint with Mega churches now….Is that the pastors in those churches are not the ones that are visible, they are the volunteers who are leading the small groups. (not that that is bad) But I fear that what many churches seek to do is build a big name, a big church, a big crowd….and ignore the effectiveness of small churches. Which is more productive 13 churches with 13,000 members or 75 church with 173 member each…..which will have more of an impact on there community?

  5. I’m glad you found us, David. And thanks for telling us your story. It sounds like the Lord has helped you discover your “sweet spot” for pastoral ministry.

    My only caution for you (and for me, too), is to take care not to criticize bigger churches just because they’re big. Most of us won’t ever pastor a big church and will burn ourselves out if we try, as you and I almost did. But the longer I’m in ministry, the more I’m convinced that we need churches of all styles and sizes. God has called some people to pastor in a megachurch manner. The mistake is when they try to convince the rest of us that we’re all supposed to minister that way.

    I love your final question about also whether it’s better to have a huge number of people in one church, or the same number of people scattered around in a bunch of smaller ones. I used that argument in a previous post. My conclusion was that each brings different strengths and values. The problem is that almost all of our current church leadership teaching tells us about the value of a big church, but looks down on the value of the small ones.

    Here’s a link to my post on that subject, in case you haven’t read it:

    Thanks again for joining in on the conversation!

  6. I really appreciate you writing this. Mark Driscoll has been on my heart for sometime. His book, Real Marriage (which is part of one of the many scandals) has helped my marriage out immensely. Every time I hear something about him I pray for him, his family and Mars Hill. It is very welcoming to read a piece that actually doesn’t criticize but gives a call to pray. A lot of other articles I have read have made me feel ashamed for gaining wisdom from Mark Driscoll. I have to remind myself that I am not ashamed for growing closer to my husband and closer to God so I am not ashamed for what I learned from this man. So I pray. I pray that he grows in wisdom from his past mistakes, peace threw the refining fire, and courage to speak the word of God. Thanks again, Karl.

    1. That’s a great perspective, Megan. You must have an awesome pastor! 😉

      One of the great shames of scandals like these is that it diminishes the value of the good work he’s done. I haven’t read his Real Marriage book, but knowing you and Matt, it must be good for you to speak so well of it. It’s sad that so many others who could use the help, may not get it because of this mess. Prayer is needed, for sure.

    2. Thanks Karl for your post. Like Megan, Mark’s ministry has had a significant impact on my life and my church. I met Mark in late 90s and watch his church grow from a small church into the craziness that it is now. I am concern that the way we, as a collective church community, are dealing with His fall from prominence and influence is going to be as damaging to the gospel as Mark’s sin has been.

  7. Pingback: purpose of gathering for church? Part 2 | kingdom travelin'

  8. I’m no fan of the celebrity pastor assembly line, either–just a fellow who pastors a small church and who is sorry that Driscoll did some hurting and got hurt, too. But the practice of our faith involves not discarding the repentance of one another, demanding ever more exacting displays of proof that it is “real.” This greatly angers the Lord in Matthew 18:21-35, when we give ourselves a pass, while holding others to a harsher standard. I understand the man is (was) a leader and is rightfully receiving discipline because his actions and attitudes affected a large number of people.

    But who determines how much is enough? Eventually some would go so far to say that he should just forget serving Jesus altogether and give his life to something else–only such an extreme would show he is genuine. I fear that is the hope of some. When hate and anger and personal disgust drives discipline, nothing good could come of it.

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