Mars Hill Church, Seattle WA, is a great success story. Starting off as a bible study in Mark Driscoll's living room, the church has grown consistently at around 60% per year after a few initial rocky years. Every time you check out their numbers, the size of the church appears to have grown. Last time it was around 6000. I think they peaked at around 10,000 for their Easter services.
Some people, when told of the growth and size of Mars Hill, simply mutter something about "oh, its in America, its different over there". Indeed, in the Bible Belt states, much of the population considers itself a Christian, so its no surprise to hear of large churches. However, this is not the case in Seattle, which is very much a liberal, educated, left-wing, alternative-lifestyle city, which along with Portland, OR, has the lowest figure for church attendance in the US. Most people on Sunday mornings are in Starbucks, not church! Further more, the few churches of note in Seattle tend to be in the more wealthy sub-urban areas, rather than in the city itself. This makes the success of Mars Hill all the more intriguing.
Having visited Mars Hill, heard hundreds of their sermons, read numerous interviews and articles, and both of Driscoll's books, I would like to offer some insight as to where they have got it right, and why they are doing so well. I may also offer a critique or two in a few places, although the thrust of this article is to look at what they are doing right. To begin with, I'd like to recount the time my wife and I visited Seattle and checked out Mars Hill.
- 7.30am We were staying in a nice hotel in the Queen Anne district. We have decided to visit the 9am service, for two reasons: (1) we wanted to spend the rest of the day sight-seeing, and (2) we had heard it is difficult to actually get into some of the later services, as they are so popular. Don't you just love that: how many churches in Edinburgh (or Scotland for that matter) have to turn people away ? I long for the day when this starts to happen in my own city. Anyway, after a healthy breakfast of muesli and Seattle coffee, we called a taxi and asked to be taken to Mars Hill, in Ballard. He knew where it was without further direction. I was impressed: the only time a taxi driver knew where a church was in Edinburgh, it turned out he was a Christian. Not so in this case. I make a mental note: this church is known in the city.
- 8.30am The first thing I noticed as we approached their building is its simple exterior. Its a converted warehouse, painted in industrial grey, with a large clear sign. The building looks contemporary, and certainly doesn't look churchy. We walked around outside for a while, since we were quite early.
- 8.40am As I walked in, I was impressed by a huge work of art adorning a wall to my left. I've never seen anything quite like it. It was a huge painting of the crucifixion, the work of a local artist. It just blew me away...I waited here for a while whilst my wife went to the bathroom. One thing I did notice is that no-one came up to me and tried to speak to me. On one hand, I appreciated not having an artificial conversation with a "greeter". On the other hand, it would have been nice if someone had said hello.
- 8.45am As we walked into the auditorium, we were immediately struck by the low light level and a soft chilled out sound coming from a DJ's decks. It was very peaceful and relaxed. There was no band faffing about on stage, or anything like that. There was a sense of people coming together in anticipation. Rather surprisingly, even though the service was about to start in 10 minutes, the place look less than half full. "So much for not even getting in", I thought. Perhaps these stories were just exaggerations. Perhaps the 9am service was a quiet one. I took the opportunity to nip out to use the bathroom.
- 8.50am Walking into the men's bathroom I was impressed by the quality. It was very stylish, with a low light level, stainless steel, and quality fittings. Probably the nicest church loos I've ever used... OK, so it won't start a revival but it doesn't do any harm to have a decent bathroom! By now I got the impression that Mars Hill was consciously trying not to look and feel like a regular church. I thought this was good. Ask most people what they think of when they think of a church building, and I'm pretty sure they would not describe anything remotely like this...
- 8.55am Back in the main auditorium, I was absolutely amazed to see that the place had filled to the brim. I could barely get back to my seat. I immediately thought this was a huge contrast to my church-going experience in Edinburgh, where people wonder in casually throughout the entire service, meaning the service starts half-empty. Here, everyone was keen to arrive early!
- 8.58 Waiting for the service to start, I read some of the notices that were being displayed on two large projections screens to the left and right of the stage. One good thing about the services here is that there are no announcements. Ask most people what they would change about the church service they attend, and its "less announcements". Sometimes I get the impression that churches make up things to say during this slot, as if by some Holy Command the worship must be interrupted to hear mundane news that 95% of people aren't interested in. At Mars Hill, announcements are done by video projection before and after the meetings, and by email, newsletter, and podcast.
- 9.00 Pretty much bang on time, a worship team appears on the stage out of seemingly nowhere, and we are invited to stand. As the music starts, I am impressed by the quality of the PA. It sounds better than most gigs I have gone to, and better than any church sound system. I learned later that it was one of the best sound systems in Seattle, donated by one of their members. We sing a hymn and then sit down.
- 9.10 Mark Driscoll has appeared on stage. He starts speaking as the band are still putting down their instruments. "They don't waste any time here", I thought. The lighting adjusts to help us focus on Mark, rather than the band. Without further ado he launches into the text for today. It was quite a contrast to some services I have visited, where up to five minutes can be wasted as people faff around trying to get the next part of the service ready.
- After the preach we are encouraged to pray with one another, confess sins, take bread and wine and enter into the worship. Every week the congregation takes bread and wine as part of their worship. The whole experience was quite different to what I was used to, yet I clearly felt God in and through what was going on. We worshipped for about half an hour, maybe a little less. Then Pastor Lief appeared on the stage, reminding everyone about the BBQ that was on later that day.
- After the service I grabbed a free cup of real Coffee and I approached a help desk and asked if it was possible to speak to Mark. I was told that would not be possible. Oh well. So we picked up some free literature and left to enjoy our day.
Next post I will offer some thoughts on what Scottish churches can learn from Mars Hill.