Gallons of virtual ink have been spilled over the weekend as people have discussed the latest news in the ongoing saga of Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church: both he and his church have been removed from Acts 29, the church-planting network he helped establish. This is only the latest incident in a long, steep, and very public decline. The news has been reported in Christian outlets, all over the local Seattle media, and as far afield as Huffington Post, TIME, and theWashington Post.
As the situation comes into focus through scandal after scandal, it becomes increasingly clear that there are, and always have been, systemic issues at Mars Hill. Many of those issues are directly related to the sins and weaknesses of the church’s founder and leader.
I am much too far outside the situation to comment on the particulars; there are many places you can go to get caught up and to learn details, with Wikipedia as good a place as any to begin. One area that I haven’t seen anyone explore yet is what the news means to the wider movement that has come to be known as New Calvinism. I want to think about how it pertains to the majority of us who know Driscoll only by association as a prominent voice in a movement we share. What should we learn from it?
The first I heard of Driscoll, at least to my recollection, was after the publication of his first book, The Radical Reformission. This—late 2004 or early 2005—was the time when most of us first heard his name, and when we began to read his books, to listen to his sermons, and to look him up on YouTube, even if only for sake of curiosity.
As I read his book in 2005, and followed it with Confessions of a Reformission Rev in 2006, I felt both admiration for what Driscoll taught and concern for how he taught it. I loved most of his theology, but was concerned about his coarseness.
In 2006 Driscoll was more formally introduced to the New Calvinism with his inclusion in the Desiring God National Conference and even then he was a controversial figure. When Piper invited him again in 2008 he recorded a short video to explain why he had extended the invitation. These words stand out: “I love Mark Driscoll’s theology.” While Piper did not deny the concerns, he loved Driscoll’s theology and loved what the Lord was doing through him.
Many of us felt the same way. We didn’t quite know what to think about the man, but we loved his theology. We loved what he believed because we believed most of the same things.
Bear with me as I artificially divide Driscoll’s ministry into three parts: theology (what he said), practice (how he said it) and results (what happened). So many of us had genuine concerns over the second part, but were willing to excuse or downplay them on the basis of the first and third. Yes, he was crude and yes, he sometimes said or did outrageous things, but he never wavered in publicly proclaiming the gospel and both his church and his church-planting movement continued to grow. We were confused. We did not have a clear category for this. We had concerns, but the Lord seemed to be using him. So we recommended his podcasts, or bought his books, even if we had to provide a small caveat each time.
In retrospect, I see this as a mark of immaturity in the New Calvinism, in what in that day was called the Young, Restless, Reformed. It was the young and the restlessthat allowed us to be so easily impressed. To large degree, we propelled Driscoll to fame through our admiration—even if it was hesitant admiration. (You can read an article I wrote in 2008, How Do You Solve a Problem Like Mark Driscoll?, to see how I did this; reading it today, it seems awfully naive and immature, doesn’t it?)
In those early years I traveled to quite a few conferences and had the opportunity to hear from several of the church’s elder statesmen—men who have had long and faithful ministries within the church. At every conference Q&A someone would inevitably ask, “What am I supposed to think about Mark Driscoll?” I heard many answers, but time and again I heard mature leaders express concern. Many of them were convinced he did not meet the biblical qualifications to be a pastor and, therefore, should not be in ministry. Some of them said, with regret, that they were convinced his ministry would eventually and inevitably explode into scandal at some point.
At the time I was tempted to take this for pessimism or a curmudgeon’s spirit. But then Driscoll’s ministry exploded into scandal. Now I have to see it as wisdom—wisdom that comes from many years of observation and many years of searching the Scriptures. These men knew what we overlooked: Character is king.
When the Bible lays out qualifications to ministry, it is character that rules every time. The Bible says little about skill and less still about results. It heralds character. And from the early days, Mark Driscoll showed outstanding natural abilities which led to amazing results. He knew and proclaimed sound theology. But he also showed an absence of so many of the marks of godly character. A hundred testimonies from a hundred hurt friends and former church members shows that what we saw from the outside was only a dim reflection of what was happening on the inside. The signposts were there, but we ignored them.
The young and the restless are, I hope, growing up and settling down. A young movement responds eagerly to things a mature movement does not. I doubt we will see another Mark Driscoll anytime soon—someone known equally for crudeness and for gospel preaching. We get it now, I think. The two are incompatible.
It is my hope that an enduring lesson for the New Calvinism is that character matters. As Christians and as a movement, we need to allow this example to put to death any lingering pragmatism that judges the means by the results. Numerical growth and shared theology are wonderful, but insufficient. It is character that qualifies a man to ministry. God’s Word could hardly be clearer in this regard. Let’s allow this tragic situation to cause us to look with fresh eyes at the biblical qualifications for a man who would be a leader within the church. That would be the healthiest outcome for a movement that prides itself on health.
I love a church that prays. I love being a part of a church that prays. Every Wednesday night we gather—often a packed-out room full of us—to bring all our petitions and all our praise before the Lord. Far more often than not it is a sweet time of seeking the Lord together. I usually lead these meetings and along the way I’ve learned a few things. Here are some ways you increase the likelihood that your prayer meeting will miss the mark.
Go Unprepared. The best prayer meetings are the ones that have been prepared. Sometimes that preparation involves putting together a list of items you will pray for at the meeting. Sometimes that preparation involves a brief devotional or another means of getting people to think about the Lord before they begin to pray. Sometimes that preparation simply involves praying—praying for the prayer meeting. Either way, I’ve learned that prayer meetings are at their best when the leader has prepared himself and when he is able to bring direction.
Dominate. Sometimes a leader fears silence during prayer meetings, so immediately fills any silence with yet another one of his own prayers. Or he is so sure of his ability to pray that he will go on and on. And on. But there are some people who thrive in silence, who need it for their own private prayers, or who need a few minutes to work up the nerve to open their mouths and pray out loud. (A shout-out to my fellow introverts!) Lead the meeting, but don’t dominate it. And learn to embrace the silence. That silence isn’t wasted.
Only Ask. Without a deliberate effort to be thankful—to consider all the good things God has done and to thank him for them—a prayer meeting will always be dominated by requests. Of course God wants us to bring him our requests. He commands it! But when we focus equally on thanksgiving for answered prayer, we set a tone of expectation that God will hear our requests and respond to them. (This is probably one of the most difficult things to do, at least in my experience!)
Don’t Address Your “Tics.” Some people have prayer tics, little quirks that no one has ever told them about. I have heard people use the phrase, “Father God” a hundred times in a single three-minute prayer, without the smallest inkling that they have done so. Some people preface every prayer request with “just.” “I just pray that you will just grant us…” The thing is that even if you aren’t aware of your tics, everyone else is; you may be oblivious to them, but they are a distraction to others. So, as the leader of a meeting, be sure to ask someone if there is anything you are doing that you ought to stop.
Forget to Pray. We have all been to those prayer meetings that are 90% requests and 10% prayer, or 20 minutes of teaching, 20 minutes of requests and 5 minutes of prayer. Too often prayer meetings are dominated not by prayer, but by talking about prayer. Lead the meeting in such a way that you get to prayer, and get to it quickly. Adequate preparation will help a lot in this regard.
Keep it the Same. While there is comfort in familiarity, there is also joy in freshness. After months or years of doing the same thing in the same way, even the best things can begin to feel boring. Try varying the meeting a little bit—break into small groups, separate the men and women, have someone else lead—whatever it takes. Sometimes deliberate change can bring unexpected blessings.
Be bored. Sometimes prayer meetings are drab because the person leading the meeting seems like he would rather be somewhere—anywhere—else. No one will believe in the prayer meeting more than the leader does. If you aren’t interested, it is unlikely that anyone else will interested. If you don’t believe in the meeting or aren’t interested in it, pray about it until you are. And then lead it willingly and joyfully.
We’ve got an Amish community not too far from here. It is the place to go when you need to stock up on produce, farm-grown foods, or heirloom-quality furniture. It is also known as the place to go if you really just need to see some Amish people doing what they do. And a lot of people like to do just that—to go and look, to go and gawk.
Even though we’ve got an extensive group nearby, we recently found ourselves in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, North America’s best-known Amish community. (Full disclosure: Our actual travel objective was Harrisburg and the overrated Civil War museum there, but every hotel in the city was completely full.) We did not stop on the road outside Amish farms to watch them do their work, and did not go on a bus tour, but we couldn’t help but see horses and buggies around town, and, of course, plenty of the distinctive Amish clothing.
As we headed north, back toward our home, I started to think about the Amish and why we find them so endlessly fascinating. Though they are small in numbers, everyone knows who they are and everyone knows at least a few of their unique customs; though so much of their religious practice appears insufferable, they are regarded as Christians who love and practice grace. They are the heroes of a million stories, the subject of a thousand documentaries. Why are they so fascinating? I have a few ideas.
The Amish challenge us. In a world where we are so completely dependent on our high-tech devices, the Amish somehow manage to survive without them, and even appear to thrive without them. Where we are convinced that newer is better and that we are only ever one innovation away from joy, the Amish seem plenty happy to do without. If you spend time around the Amish, or if you begin to learn about their ways, you necessarily find yourself asking questions like: Do I really need my smartphone? Are all of these devices really bringing happiness? What have I lost in all of this innovation? The Amish challenge so many of our deeply-held beliefs and assumptions.
We want to figure out the Amish. We are fascinated by the Amish because we so badly want to figure them out. Where they proclaim that they have great uniformity in their lives and laws, we see great contradictions. Their faith appears contradictory: They speak about the grace of Christ but live by law; they extend grace to those who harm them, but shun those who leave them; they rejoice in their salvation, but do not share Christ with others. Their laws appear contradictory: The men can have buttons, but the women must use straight pins; connecting to a phone network attaches them to the world, but connecting to a road network does not; they rely on doctors and lawyers, but will not allow their own children to be educated beyond eighth grade. When I see the Amish, with all their strengths and weaknesses, all their grace and legalism, I look for a key that unlocks it all. I look for knowledge that makes it all make sense.
The Amish recall a simpler time. Where life today is marked by endless complexity, the Amish are known for their quiet simplicity. As they go about their lives, they draw us to a simpler time. In some ways the Amish live in the best of both worlds—the world today and the world of centuries ago. They live their day-to-day lives in that simpler world, that quieter world, that slower world. But, when necessity dictates, and law permits, they take advantage of modern innovations. They use horse-drawn buggies to get to their worship services, but hire drivers to take them to the store. They have no electricity in their homes, but give birth and die while connected to modern medical equipment. Their simplicity attracts us. It draws us.
The Amish recall a purer time. The Amish call us to a simpler time, but also a purer time. This purity is an illusion, I think, but it still captivates us. Even though we love our modern technologies, we can’t deny that they have changed us. We tend to think that they have polluted us. Marshall McLuhan was right when he said that we create technologies in our own image and, soon enough, they return the favor. We are products of our technologies, dependent upon them, and shaped by them. When we look at the Amish, unshaped by radio and television, cell phones and web pages, we see something that looks pure by contrast.
We admire the Amish. We admire the Amish for their stubborn refusal to change and to adapt. We are amazed that they continue to live in this high-tech, always-on world in the way they do. Yet they live in it unabashed, unembarrassed by their eccentricities. They don’t allow external pressure to shape their deepest beliefs. With the modern world pressing in around them, they don’t only survive, but thrive. Their communities continue to grow, their land holdings continue to expand, their businesses continue to thrive. We admire them in many ways, but perhaps most deeply simply for being, and remaining, who and what they are.
So I suppose the most fascinating thing of all about the Amish is that they still exist. When they first came to national attention in the early twentieth century, prognosticators gave them a generation or two before they were gone. They thrived. When they received close study in the middle of the century, sociologists and anthropologists once again decreed that they would soon surrender to the world around them. They grew. And as the technological distance between them and us deepens and widens, they seem to be thriving all the more. Their very existence is a marvel; their practices are a challenge. We love the Amish because, in some ways, we long to be the Amish.
Reading is kind of like repairing a bicycle. Kind of. For too long now my bike has been semi-operational. It has one brake that just doesn’t want to behave and all my attempts to fix it have failed. Why? Well it turns out that I haven’t been using the right tool. To get the bike working I need to use the right tool. And when it comes to reading, well, you’ve got to use the right tool—you’ve got to know what kind of reading to do. Here are seven different kinds of reading.
Studying. Studying is reading at its best, I think, but reading that can and should be done with only the choicest books. Life is too short and there are simply too many books to invest a great deal of time in every one of them. And this is where so many readers go wrong—they spend too much time and invest too much effort in books that simply don’t deserve it. When you study a book, you labor over it, you read it with highlighter in hand, you flip back and forth, you try to learn absolutely everything the book offers. Only the smallest percentage of books are worthy of this level of investment, so choose carefully which books you study. (Suggestions:Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen or The Holiness of God byR.C. Sproul)
Pillaging. Pillaging is one of my favorite forms of reading, and especially when the book is in a familiar category and written to be very practical. I will often buy the latest and greatest books on business and productivity and read them at a rapid pace. As I do this, I am looking for tips that I can ponder and apply. I do not intend to allow these books to teach me a whole new form of getting things done—I have my system and it works well. However, I am eager to pillage these books for ideas that can tweak my system and make it better. (Consider: Essentialism by Greg Mckeown or Habit Stacking by S.J. Scott)
Devotional. Devotional reading is reading deep truths meant to make a deep impact on your faith. This is slow and meditative reading that requires an open Bible and plenty of prayer. The Christian faith has many wonderful devotional works that are drawn from the Bible and will, in turn, draw you to the Bible. Read these ones day-by-day and allow them to lead you closer to God as he reveals himself through his Word. (Consider: The Reformed Expository Commentary series or Morning and Evening by Charles Spurgeon)
Skimming. In recent years we have heard a lot about the evils of skimming, and it is true that for many people skimming is now their dominant form of reading. This is not a good development. But having said that, skimming still has its place. Some books are worthy of little more than a skim, and especially if you have already read extensively in that category. If you have read six books on marriage, you probably don’t need to do more than skim the seventh. Most books will benefit from a skim before in-depth reading as it will both help you understand whether it is actually worthy of study and help you better understand the flow of the author’s argument. Do not making skimming your only form of reading, but also don’t feel guilty if you find yourself skimming twice as many books as you read in depth. The more books you read, the more you earn the right to skim.
Stretch. Stretch reading is going beyond the popularizers and reading the sources. Some of us find that we much prefer reading books by the people who write on a popular level and who make their topic eminently accessible. But sometimes we ought to force ourselves to read more difficult texts—the Church Fathers or Reformation-era writers, the historians or scientists. (Suggestions: The Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards)
Rerun. Rerun reading is returning to an old favorite to read it again. This may be that old novel that you fell in love with so many years ago and returning to that novel is like journeying back to an old vacation spot. It may be that formative Christian living book that meant so much to you when you were first saved. Either way, your purpose in reading this book is almost entirely pleasure; you are not reading it to learn from it as much as for the plain enjoyment of finding comfort in its familiar words and phrases.
Failed. Failed reading is an important part of any balanced reading diet. I speak to far too many people who feel it is wrong to stop reading a book before they have finished it. But sometimes you just need to admit defeat and stop reading. The more books you read, and especially the more books you study, the more you earn the right to give up on a few of them.