Friday, June 08, 2007

Mars Hill Church: part II: what can Scotland learn?

Yesterday I blogged about the time my wife and I visited Mars Hill, Seattle. Today I will continue to discuss Mars Hill and without further ado highlight what I think contributes to their success. I should note that I am an outsider to Mars Hill and I would welcome comments from those who consider this their home church, as I am sure you know much more than me.

  • Community - right off the bat, its obvious that there exists a great sense of community at Mars Hill. I find this interesting for two reasons: 1) I don't get the impression that Driscoll stands around preaching on the importance of community, as some churches have done. Yet I get the impression that, despite the size of the congregation, the community at Mars Hill is one of the appealing aspects of the church. The other reason I find this interesting is that the Sunday service itself is not designed to be community inclusive: its not as if everyone gets up to share a word, as happens in some churches. Yet despite (or because of?) the from-the-front emphasis of the Sunday service, the rest of the church life appears to major on community.

  • Professional attitude. I have always said that the problems with many Christians and churches is that when they do something for God or ministry, its always in a half-hearted way when it comes to the level of professionalism and the amount of financial investment. I think of the number of clapped-out church sound systems I have come across, for example. Or the quality of the coffee I've been forced to drink over the years since I became a Christian. I am happy to report that when Mars Hill does something, it does something well. I simply love this - and in Edinburgh I believe this is something we really need to learn. We often operate under a poverty-spirit, a spirit which has afflicted Scotland for some time now.

  • Missional worship. Another topic I have been banging on about for years, but no-one seems to be listening. Its clear from listening to the podcast feed that Mars Hill Worship attempts to bridge the gap between Christian worship and "secular" music. This whole sacred-secular thing is a pile of nonsense. Why are Christians forced to listen to cheesy, trite worship songs which bear no musical relation to the music we all love to listen to? Why does Christian music sound like the secular music of 20 years ago? When I am at home or in my car I listen to all kinds of music, including funk, hip-hop, techno, country, etc. But so often these genres are not to be found in church. And why don't we here any Scottish folk music in Scottish churches? At least we sing the old hymns, which often have a Celtic feel to them. But nothing more contemporary.

  • No religious mumbo-jumbo. Many churches are have their own lingo and jargon, which although sometimes is helpful, often simply alienates and further distances the congregation from the "real world" (TM). In accordance with modern missional thinking, I'm happy to report that Mars Hill avoids all such Christian babble. All of their spoken output seems free from the incessant nonsense that comes out of many churches.

  • No charismania. I love the Holy Spirit, and I love when he moves powerfully through anointed speakers. I love all the gifts of the Spirit. But since I became a Christians I've had the misfortune to come across a tribe of people known ascharismaniacs. You know of whom I speak. These people always have a "word" for you (its never a biblical one, and often a condemning one), fall of their chairs during worship services, and make strange animal noises when being prayed for. Now there is a time and a place for everything, and the annoying thing about these people is simply that they don't put a lid on it. Curiously, they are almost always single, and female. Mars Hill, whilst embracing the gifts and ministry of the Spirit, seems to be walking the line and avoiding excesses of charismania. Actually, I think they seem over cautious. From my perspective, they seem like evangelicals first and charismatics second. My own church background would be the opposite.

  • Focus on the city Mars Hill is on a mission, and is clearly focussed on bringing Seattle to Jesus. This is a stark contrast to many churches I know, which don't really seem to have any clear vision for their own city. They are often active in second or third world countries, but have little money or time or thought left for Scotland. If you don't believe me, just compare the amount of money some churches allocate in their budget for overseas "ministry", and compare that to the local outreach fund. Normally the overseas ministry spends an order of magnitude more. Don't get me wrong, I'm not against foreign mission, but if a church is not spending the lion's share of its prayer, money and time on local mission, something is seriously wrong.

  • They are cool. Controversial I know, but it seems that most Edinburgh church buildings I have visited seem to be described by one or more of the following: old-fashioned, cheesy, trite, childish, overly feminine, drab, ugly, shambolic, boring. Take your pick. I really feel like we have lost something here. Maybe it was the fault of the reformers, but many of our churches do not have a theology of beauty and aesthetics. What could speak of God more than beauty? Beauty is one of the values of Mars Hill. I think Scottish churches need to recapture this.

  • They speak out on relevant issues Finance. Sex. Dating. Marriage. Work. Things that people are interested in, and things that matter. Real stuff. They make theology interesting, and practical. Unfortunately many church leadership teams in Edinburgh are living in denial as to the world in which their congregation lives in.

  • They don't assume everyone in church is a Christian. The entire church service is missional: its equally relevant and accessible to Christians and non-Christians. I've been hammering on about this for years as well. Churches over here make two mistakes, typically, when it comes to this issue. Either they completely alienate visitors with obscure preaching and out-of-date music, or they force visitors to put their hands up half-way through the service. Talk about a big no-no. No wonder these churches are struggling to grow.

I could go on and on, but this will do for now. Hopefully we can see that Scotland has a lot to learn from Mars Hill. In my final posting on this topic I will wrap it all up, and perhaps reflect on a few ways that the Scottish church needs to forge ahead in a different direction from Mars Hill.


Peter Kirk said...

Thanks. There are lessons here for us Sassenachs as well.

But I am a bit surprised by your first place mention of "community", given that you were not welcomed before the service and rebuffed at the desk afterwards. Maybe there is a great community once you get into it, but they don't seem to be very welcoming to newcomers.

Alastair said...

Yes I do wonder if you are right there, Peter. I am hoping perhaps some Mars Hill folks themselves can comment on that. I have heard that there is a strong sense of community, but that newcomers often (or sometimes) struggle to connect.

I may comment further on this when I wrap this up soon. I do think our churches need to embrace newcomers, yet at the same time not to pounce on non Christians etc. Perhaps this is one area where MH could improve on. Or perhaps I was just unlucky - I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, this time at least.

James D said...

Here's my two-pence worth:

Community - Generally regarded as essential for a successful church. Why? Two reasons come to mind: 1) It is part of loving one another (John 13:34; Romans 13:8); 2) Humans need social interaction. You build a good community, your church is much more likely to grow.

Professionalism - Always helps. But i doubt Mars Hill started out this way and professionalism is easier and more necessary the larger your church is.

Worship Music - Agree. But isn't it the US that is largely responsible for the style of worship music. Perhaps we need to start being a bit more innovative - not to say the current stuff is all bad.

Mumbo Jumbo and Charismania - Ideal for keeping the Non-Christians (NCs) out the church. On the other hand, i don't wish to constrain how God moves - even if its weird.

Focus on the city - Yep, i agree. But personally i feel called to Californian beach evangelism - so i'm going to have to be the exception to the rule :)

Cool is dangerous. You try looking cool, you may quickly find you are behind the times. However, that's not to say you should just stick to two centuries ago in order to avoid that risk.

Relevant - This is important. Especially for N.C.s. What's the title of the first week of Alpha: Christianity: Boring, Irrelevant, Untrue? Let's not undo all their good work.

Ted said...

Hi Alistair,
Mars Hill member here. Refreshing to see so many nice things mentioned about our church.

Regarding community, it is indeed a strong point of our church, but admittedly it usually takes the initiative of the visitor to get plugged in. We have three primary avenues to foster community in our church.

The first is community groups. We have about 150 small groups meeting in homes throughout the city during the week, getting together to study the bible and share meals. We view Sundays as the time for teaching and corporate worship, and community group as the time to explore how we practically apply theology to our lives.

The second way we foster community is by serving together. Each person who calls Mars Hill home is expected to be serving the church in some manner. We tithe both our treasure and our talents to the church. It takes well over 100 volunteers to pull of a single service - right now we have 7 services on a Sunday. Not to mention we do all our web design, podcasting, vodcasting, etc. in house through primarily volunteer work.

Perhaps the most unique way we foster community is through our members-only web forum. There are online discussion forums open to the members of the church where we virtually discuss sermons, theology, culture, christian living and share prayer requests with one another.

The usual entry point into community at Mars Hill by showing up to a community group or showing up to serve on a Sunday. For better or worse, this usually requires some initiative on the part of the newcomer, but we try to advertise these routes as best we can so people have an idea of where to go.

Hope this info is useful to you and all our brother and sisters in Scotland.


Alastair said...

Thanks Ted. Explains a few things. So a good community once you get in, but on the flip side, its a little hard to get in (i.e. no huge welcome for visitors at the service, etc)...

I do like the idea of the members only forum.

David said...

@ Ted and/or Alastair - in the light of this comment thread (kicked off by Peter's observations), perhaps it's worth adding in hospitality as something that church communities practice (not just individual Chrstians).

Alastair said...

Thanks, David. That's a good point. Care to expand it a little?

Wendy said...

Hi. I'm new to this blog.

I'm from Australia, and will be making my first overseas trip to America this September. I will also be staying in Seattle for about two weeks and attending Mars Hill.

I also have a couple of friends at Mars Hill (I will be staying with one of them), which I guess for me is kind of a benefit when it comes to connecting thing.

But I don't think it's just Mars Hill that need to work on their welcoming skills. This seems to be an issue in a lot of churches (or at least the ones I have visited). Then again, I am also rather shy; so may be some initiative on my part isn't a bad idea either.

Alastair said...

Hi Wendy, good to have you join the conversation. I would love to hear your comments on Mars Hill once you have visited.

I think you're right -- this is an issue for lots of churches. One mistake some churches make is the opposite -- they come across as too keen, practically harassing you once they find out you are new. That's off-putting to me. But as a stranger visiting a church, if I don't get welcomed at all by a few people, that's also off-putting.