As part of the research for my book, I’ve been visiting churches all over the country over the past year—a tour of “America’s hippest churches,” you might say (though soon to expand to Europe as well). The goal is to gain a good bit of qualitative data on the subject I’m writing about, to understand firsthand how various church bodies are fitting in to this whole thing. I have stopped at dozens of churches in many states and talked with countless people, and every now and then on my blog I will describe in depth my various observations about these churches.
The first stop on my tour was Jacob’s Well in Kansas City. Read about that here.
Next on the tour (which will continue every month or so, for the next year at least) is Seattle’s Mars Hill Church.
Church Name: Mars Hill Church
Location: Seattle, WA
Head Pastor: Mark Driscoll (officially “Preaching and Theology Pastor”)
Summary: Mars Hill Church in Seattle is one of the defining churches of hipster Christianity. It’s the church of Mark Driscoll, the original cussing hipster pastor, whose strong, controversial personality is a huge part of the church’s success. Founded in 1996, Mars Hill now holds services at seven campuses across the Seattle area, ministering to many thousands of young attendees every week. I visited the church on a Sunday in November, and attended both the original campus (where Driscoll preaches live) and a satellite campus in Lake City where Driscoll speaks via a televised feed.
Building: The main campus of Mars Hill is located in a massive warehouse style building in Ballard. The sanctuary is a large, darkly lit hall with modern hanging lamp fixtures and an elaborate stage complete with a massive backdrop of LCD panels. The Lake City campus is an actual renovated church—a smallish church complete with vaulted ceilings, stained glass, and pews.
Congregation: According to Lake City campus pastor James Harleman, the congregation of Mars Hill is 40% churched, 30% ex-churched, and 30% un-churched. And just from my cursory observations, I would venture that the congregation is 80% under the age of 40. They’re young, and they’re hip. I saw lots of tattoos, skinny jeans, v-necks and Jesse James scarves in the crowd when I was there.
Music: There is no one “worship band,” but rather a stable of standalone bands that alternate playing at the main Ballard campus and “house bands” for the various satellite campuses. With names like Ex-Nihilo, Red Letter, and E-Pop, these bands tend to play indie rock versions of classic hymns like “Nothing But the Blood” and “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” more often than the flavor-of-the-week contemporary worship songs. At the Lake City campus on the Sunday I visited, for example, a band called Sound and Vision performed math-rock arrangements of songs like “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us” and “All Creatures of Our God and King,” complete with Nintendo-sounding beeps.
Arts: A lot of artists and designers attend Mars Hill, and many of them “tithe their talents” to the church, designing logos and websites and printed materials for the church’s branding. The result is that Mars Hill has a very cool, cutting-edge aesthetic that doesn’t feel top down (because it isn’t; most of it is made by non-paid church volunteers). The church also expresses its love of art by hanging up local artists’ work on the walls and by hosting film screenings (called “Cinemagogue”) and film review blogs.
Technology: Mars Hill is a very technology-happy church. The sound and light systems in the buildings are high tech, and the use of video is widespread and professional-quality. During the service I attended, texting was also incorporated—with the congregation being urged to text in their questions during the sermon, which Pastor Mark might answer at the end. Mars Hill’s website is predictably high-tech and stylish, and features its own social networking site, called “The City,” meant to “enhance” and “deepen” the community life of the church. This is the type of church that is always on the cutting edge of technology and finds a way to incorporate all the latest doo-dads and media into the life of the church.
Neighborhood: The main campus of Mars Hill is located in Ballard, in Northwestern Seattle. It’s a trendy area these days—full of artsy shops, restaurants, cafes, theaters and home to many a yuppie. Mars Hill is big into missional dispersion, however, and has other locations across Seattle and Washington: Downtown Seattle, Bellevue, Lake City, Olympia, Shoreline, and West Seattle.
Preaching: Mark Driscoll is heavily in the Calvinist/Reformed camp, and likes to preach on things like sin, man’s depravity, Christ’s atonement, justification, the cross, and how dumb “religion” and “legalism” are. He also likes to be controversial and doesn’t shy away from taboo topics and language. On the Sunday I visited, Driscoll’s message was on the Dance of Mahanaim section of the Song of Solomon (an “ancient striptease,” as he referred to it, and “one of the steamiest passages in the Bible”). During his sermon—part of “The Peasant Princess” series—Driscoll, looking like a metrosexual jock in a tight t-shirt, cross necklace and faux hawk, talked about how wives should be “visually generous” with their husbands (i.e. they should keep the lights on when undressing, during sex, etc.).
Quote from pulpit: “God doesn’t look down and see good people and bad people; He sees bad people and the Lord Jesus.”
Quote from website: “The great reformer Martin Luther rightly said that, as sinners, we are prone to pursue a relationship with God in one of two ways. The first is religion/spirituality and the second is the gospel. The two are antithetical in every way.”