Hipster Church Tour: Mars Hill Church

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.”

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30 responses to “Hipster Church Tour: Mars Hill Church

  1. I’ve already expressed my feelings about Pastor Driscoll here, but I think that any church that is known for and organized around a single charismatic figure is a dangerous thing.

  2. Yes, it’s a good thing there aren’t more charismatic Christian leaders like Driscoll. That would be *dangerous*.

    For what it’s worth, Mars Hill’s organizational structure is actually quite decentralized, and the single charismatic figure around which it’s organized is actually a dude named Jesus Christ.

    Pretty good write-up, Brett. I have a lot of comments, but I’ll just say this: I’ve heard Driscoll referred to as a “cussing pastor” about a dozen times more than I’ve heard him cuss (which is zero). Seems like it might be time for journalists to find a new tagline.

  3. Kevin Erickson

    I live in Seattle. The Mars Hill people are not hipsters. They are yupsters. They are hilarious and clueless and occasionally terrifying.

    Carl Wilson:
    “For any anti-hipster screed to qualify as anything but a full-on strawman-torching session providing a smokescreen for a riot of unprocessed anxieties, I’d like to find a writer able to identify, say, three so-called hipsters by name and provide some minimal grounding of generalizations in fact. Even anecdotally. If you actually ask almost anyone five or six questions, I bet they’d soon complicate the stereotype beyond recognition…There are no hipsters, only anti-hipsters – or at least the ratio is approximately the same as that of actually existing Satanists to anti-Satanists during the heavy-metal and Goth panics of the 1980s and 1990s. The question is what in turn the hipster allows the anti-hipster to deny, and what’s being lost in that continuing deferral.

  4. Kevin-
    Thanks for the comment and the Carl Wilson quote. Yes, “hipster” is admittedly a very contested word. And no one contests the meaning of words like “hipster” more than hipsters themselves. Hipsters like Carl Wilson have at least as much and likely more at stake in attempting to complicate the word even more than it already is. I would suggest that Mr. Wilson’s diatribe against “anti-hipsters” is also a “strawman-torching session providing a smokescreen for a riot of unprocessed anxieties.” But let’s not get into a debate about who’s the bigger strawman-torcher. My definition of hipster is my definition… and it is admittedly very broad. It is outlined in detail in chs. 2 and 3 of my upcoming book. And yes, I agree that Mars Hill is more yuppie (or “yupster” as you describe)… but my definition of hipster includes yuppies.
    In any case, I’m interested in your own labeling of Mars Hill people as “hilarious and clueless and occasionally terrifying,” in light of this discussion of “providing smokescreens for a riot of unprocessed anxieties”…

  5. Kevin Erickson

    No, I won’t shy away from any debate who’s the biggest strawman-torcher, because I think I know who’s going to win. Anti-hipsterism is easy to identify and document, and Wilson, to his credit, names names. http://bit.ly/lLJ91

    Wilson’s own anxieties are pretty thoroughly processed, or at least unpacked, documented, and made transparent–he spent the better part of his book “Let’s Talk About Love” asking reflective, self-critical questions about his tastes and where they come from, which is why he can write about the mainstream and the marginal with equal literacy and curiosity.

    For me and Wilson, the issue is not contesting the definition of hipster; it’s contesting the utility of the entire discussion of hipsterdom.

    I can expand on hilarious, clueless, terrifying:

    Mars Hill is
    1)Hilarious in the way they appropriate the aesthetic of NW indie rock circa 5 years ago (filtered through the lens of Urban Outfitters & Starbucks, minus all the rough edges, class/feminist consciousness and interesting/sexy parts) and turn it on its head by marrying it to conservative theology that NW indie rock is diametrically opposed to. Hilarious in the same way anti-marijuana reggae songs are funny.
    2)Clueless, in their lack of self-awareness; they don’t seem to recognize how transparent this appropriation is to outsiders/actual participants in the subculture they’re appropriating.
    3)Occasionally terrifying, not just in the enforcement of rigid binary gender roles taking such a central role in their vision of Christianity, but in their lack of basic understanding of their own theology. Example: i walk into their downtown seattle location, lured by the promise of free coffee, and ask the nice greeter lady what the church’s theological roots are. She says something about being socially liberal and theologically conservative but can’t elaborate beyond that. I gently ask a couple of questions “so is it reformed? Calvinist? are you guys protestants?” She is apologetic but she has no idea. Of course, she refers me to a man, because men can answer these kinds of questions.

    What do my critiques reveal about me? An occasionally naive attachment to an ideal of authenticity, a disdain for commodification, a mild envy of the resources enjoyed by the condo scum, an interest in sexual freedom and gender equality? Sure, I’ll take ownership of that. Smoke screen dissipated!

  6. For what it’s worth, Mars Hill’s organizational structure is actually quite decentralized, and the single charismatic figure around which it’s organized is actually a dude named Jesus Christ.

    If that’s true, then that’s great, and I certainly don’t have enough firsthand knowledge of Mars Hill to lay out an elaborate critique. However, I do notice that any discussion of Mars Hill as a church body almost immediately turns to discussion of Mark Driscoll as a character: the way he talks, dresses, what he talks about, what he puts on the church’s website. Would Mars Hill be Mars Hill without Mark Driscoll as pastor? Again, I don’t know. But I find it worrisome.

  7. I do also find it hilarious/depressing the way that the Mars Hill type of politically and theologically conservative Christian (to make a crass generalization) uses a progressive aesthetic without addressing the ideology that has given rise to that aesthetic, as Kevin says. Complementarians in skinny jeans and American military interventionists in keffiyehs. Hrm.

  8. @Kevin, fwiw, I think Brent would be the first to include himself in his broad hipster definition.

    I don’t think there’s much hipster bashing going on here, as much as there as a honest questioning of the motivation, sincerity and beneficialness(?) of your point about “appropriating the aesthetic of NW indie rock … and turning it on its head by marrying it to conservative theology that NW indie rock is diametrically opposed to”.

  9. Would Mars Hill be Mars Hill without Mark Driscoll as pastor? Again, I don’t know.

    Well, he started it, so no it wouldn’t. It wouldn’t exist, and Seattle would be much the worse for it.

    Question: is the kid in skinny jeans supposed to ditch his “progressive aesthetic” and buy some Dockers and Kinkade paintings because he’s a Christian? What the heck is a “progressive aesthetic” anyway?

    I go to Mars Hill and have a fair amount of “NW indie” street cred from a past life, and it’s never seemed odd to me that the aesthetic there (to the small extent that it’s generalizable) has a kinship with the art and music scene in Seattle. You may have heard that Mars Hill is in Seattle, actually. But I guess I’m just hilarious and clueless.

    Also, Kevin, it might interest you to know that at Mars Hill, people who serve as greeters are often very new to the church. They may be very new Christians. Your expectations of the theological savvy of greeters seems a little unrealistic.

    Proposition: any statement that begins “People who go to Mars Hill are ________” is false. Seems y’all have a lot of very small boxes to throw a whole of people into.

    Forgive my snark. I’m feeling unusually pugnacious today.

    Hipsters tend to have that effect on me ;)

  10. Kevin Erickson

    I’m not really putting people in boxes. They’re putting themselves in the Mars Hill box, and I’m describing what that box looks like from the outside.

    Martians, don’t front; it’s not yr critics that are the judgmental ones here. Serious spiritual violence is streaming out of that place. Dress it up in your neutered version of indie rock all you want, but it’s still everything that’s wrong with contemporary christianity.

  11. Question: is the kid in skinny jeans supposed to ditch his “progressive aesthetic” and buy some Dockers and Kinkade paintings because he’s a Christian? What the heck is a “progressive aesthetic” anyway?

    Only if your definition of ‘Christian’ precludes progressive politics and feminist views (which it apparently does for Driscoll, at least). But adhering to the aesthetic of a particular subculture while remaining ignorant of (or outright aggressive toward) the values and views of that subculture is at best commodification and at worst a sort of soft cultural bigotry– Imagine a bunch of Wall Street brokers wearing Fubu.

    Well, he started it, so no it wouldn’t. It wouldn’t exist, and Seattle would be much the worse for it.

    Forgive my lack of clarity before, but I wasn’t asking whether Mars Hill would be Mars Hill if Driscoll never existed, but if he left Mars Hill.

  12. Oh, you don’t say, commodification? That would really be too bad. I forget, does that come before or after haughty eyes and a lying tongue?

    I actually think it would be pretty awesome if Wall Street brokers wore FUBU. FUBU would too! The only people who’d be complaining of “soft cultural bigotry” would be over-educated pseudo-intellectuals with nothing better to do.

    I’m wearing a Beck shirt this morning, but I’m not a scientologist. Is that against the rules? Is it against the rules for Beck to make indie rockish music even though he’s a scientologist? Pretty sure I’ve seen some skinny jeans on the dude too, but don’t quote me on that. Wouldn’t want him to get in trouble on my account.

    They’re putting themselves in the Mars Hill box, and I’m describing what that box looks like from the outside.

    The box is a lot bigger and more diverse than it appears to you. In fact I would venture to say it’s not a box at all, but a church.

    Serious spiritual violence is streaming out of that place. Dress it up in your neutered version of indie rock all you want, but it’s still everything that’s wrong with contemporary christianity.

    Strong stuff here. I won’t deny that Mars Hill engages in spiritual warfare. That’s one of the reasons I respect it.

    I think it’s funny that you call MH out as having a “neutered version of indie rock”… seems quite the other way around to me — is it even possible to neuter something so completely toothless as indie rock? (Oh no, they’ve co-opted my Shins!!)

    Now I see that both Kevin and Tim don’t have a bone to pick with MH because of it’s aesthetic — really, they’re at odds with its theological positions and their social-political ramifications, and thence their critiques arise. And that’s just boring.

  13. Matthew,

    I’m not sure why you’re being so aggressive. I have deliberately attempted to couch my arguments in caveats about my lack of knowledge about Mars Hill and am attempting to address more general issues of theological/political import that, as I have said, may or may not reflect upon Mars Hill itself– I merely find myself considering these issues in light of what I believe I know about Mars Hill. If my criticisms do not apply to Mars Hill, then by all means, say so; but getting defensive and sarcastic does nothing to further discussion or your own viewpoint.

    That said, I continue to be at a loss as to why you are equating complementarian ideology with all religious ideology– Beck is probably not an Evangelical complementarian, and thus has nothing to do with this. As well, I have not attempted to outline any ‘rule’: I am attempting to voice concerns, and explain why I have those concerns. I am not talking about sins or laws or rules, but about behaving intelligently, with respect to one’s surroundings, and with knowledge of the impacts of one’s actions. I am attempting to walk circumspectly, you might say, not as a fool, but as the wise. I believe this to be the only reasonable way to live a godly life.

  14. Kevin,

    The very idea of a so-called “Box” is a social construct and thus necessarily filled with people put into it, not people who put themselves in it. One cannot simply say, today I’ll be in that box. We place people in various boxes. We can attempt to look or act like people who have already been placed into a box, but we are not a part of that box until placed by there by others.

    I’d like to know what “spiritual violence” you are referring to there? a politically conservative view on sexuality perhaps? Do tell.

  15. Also:

    So is this debate essentially centered around whether hipsters can, with right conscience, refer to themselves as Christians because the hipster “Aesthetic” necessitates disagreement with traditional theology?

    Let’s clarify what we’re talking about here.

  16. Kevin Erickson

    Matthew, truly if you think NW indie is toothless, you don’t know a damn thing about NW indie.

    Mars Hill as usual provides its own punchline.

  17. So is this debate essentially centered around whether hipsters can, with right conscience, refer to themselves as Christians because the hipster “Aesthetic” necessitates disagreement with traditional theology?

    That certainly isn’t the conversation I’ve been trying to have. I’m talking about the contradiction of people with a particular ideology who coopt the aesthetic of people with an opposing ideology: for example, people who are opposed to the Palestinian struggle who nevertheless wear keffiyahs. Another example I used was complementarians who wear skinny jeans, the genesis of which is rooted in both socioeconomic/environmental concerns and, more importantly for my point here, issues with gender identity politics. None of this has anything to do with Christians writ large.

  18. Tim,

    Do your fears apply to the Mars Hill in Grand Rapids as well? Seems to me that most people associate that community with Rob Bell almost exclusively.

    I listen to that church’s podcasts with friends at school and we try to incorporate some of the things that we hear about Mars Hill doing in NW Iowa.

    Just trying to sound out your thinking, Tim.
    Chris

  19. Kevin Erickson

    Tim frames the conversation quite nicely.

    Chris, the GR Mars Hill is not related to the Seattle Mars Hill. Bell certainly doesn’t seem to share Driscoll’s penchant for bullying and demeaning people on the basis of their sexuality or gender expression; he seems more genuinely interested in displaying a healthy degree of epistemological humility. I don’t have a strong basis to comment on the GR church beyond that.

  20. Yeah I’m going to echo Kevin and say that I know virtually nothing about the GR Mars Hill. But as I’ve said a few times, my concerns may not even apply to the Seattle Mars Hill– they’re merely concerns sparked by discussions of Mars Hill and what I know of Driscoll from magazine interviews etc.

  21. Chris wasn’t saying that the Grand Rapids Mars Hill has anything to do with the Seattle one, except for the fact that both are largely centered around a “single charismatic figure” which Tim labeled “dangerous” at the outset of this discussion. I’ve been to both churches and they are completely and utterly different from one another–but both are very much alive, thriving, and Christ-centered. Driscoll and Bell have strikingly different approaches (the latter does have more epistemological humility… to a fault, Driscoll would probably say), but I think God is using both of them in different ways.
    I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing for a church to be so personality-driven. Throughout church history there have been some very big, charismatic personalities who oftentimes were the reason why tents and churches and stadiums were packed with people. George Whitfield, John Wesley, Charles Spurgeon, Billy Graham, Billy Sunday, Aimee Semple McPherson, and so on… I’m not putting Driscoll or Bell in that camp just yet; I’m simply saying that it seems foolish to argue against either of them based on the “danger” of a charismatic personality that may or may not say controversial or offensive things. Certainly all those names I mentioned above didn’t make the impact they did on worldwide Christianity by trafficking in niceties and inoffensive platitudes.

  22. I’d like to point out that I never meant to imply that a single charismatic figure is bad, only that it is dangerous, even if for no one other than that person. Things about keeping your prayer in secret, the body of the church lives only when it is made of many kinds of parts, etc. I’m not suggesting that we do away with Driscoll because he’s dangerous. I’m only saying that I’m concerned about the implications of a figure like himself.

  23. Brett– Re: Rob Bell/Mars Hill

    Yeah, that and they share a name which confuses people. A couple of years back I convinced Denison Witmer to play a show at my school for a charity and we got to talking about churches. I mentioned that a lot of us in my dorm listen to Mars Hill podcasts. It took a while to establish that I was talking about the one in Grand Rapids, not the one in Seattle.

    Good thoughts, Tim.

  24. I wish more people would actually listen to sermons from Driscoll before making strong judgments based off sound bites & blog posts.

    He actually preached on Humble Pastors from 1 Peter 5: 1-5 a few weeks ago. In it he describes Mars Hill’s organizational structure and brings up some of the critiques discussed here.

  25. And, here’s the link for those interested: http://bit.ly/WrvLp

  26. Aaron–

    Without addressing Driscoll himself at all, I don’t believe that someone preaching on something automatically means that person isn’t guilty of that something. Again, as I’ve said multiple times, I don’t know enough about Mars Hill or Driscoll himself to judge– but the implication of your argument doesn’t follow.

  27. Tim – Aaron wasn’t arguing what you think he’s arguing. What he’s saying is that instead of generalizing Driscoll’s entire church philosophy into a few sound bites and quotes and personality summaries doesn’t mean anything when you haven’t heard the man speak. The link provided was meant to show that Driscoll is aware of critiques against him and, like a good leader, responds to the concerns of the congregation he leads and the jabs of those from the outside. If he didn’t respond to criticism, his critics would just turn around and claim he’s ignorant and blind.

    And to address the idea of Mars Hill using indie rock culture to bring in younger people – well, who says churches have to be traditional? The fact is that traditional services can’t speak to a lot of the young people today, and they need something that can. And whether people like it or not, this church does speak to people, in countless ways. When a church first starts, it has to pick SOME kind of way to present itself, right? And this doesn’t happen by accident. If you don’t want to go the traditional stained glass windows and molasses slow hymbook songs way, and you want to try to reach young people because you believe that there’s a big need there, what’s wrong with constructing your church so that it draws in young people while maintaining a strong central traditional theology? I don’t attend Mars Hill myself, but I have been to a couple sermons awhile back, and yes, Driscoll is very charismatic (and yes, he does have flaws – horrors!), but what I noticed more than anything about his sermon was was how strongly grounded in the Bible it was. My parents were there too, and they’re strong traditional Christians, and they loved him.

    Am I saying he’s completely beyond reproach? Am I saying that the church is completely beyond reproach? Don’t be ridiculous. But is ANY church or person completely beyond reproach? No matter how traditional a church you may find, there are ALWAYS problems going on within, of one kind or another. News flash: people are selfish sometimes.

  28. What he’s saying is that instead of generalizing Driscoll’s entire church philosophy into a few sound bites and quotes and personality summaries doesn’t mean anything when you haven’t heard the man speak.

    I don’t really want to say this again, but as I’ve said many, many times here, I am voicing concerns and ideas that come to mind in light of the impression I have been given about Driscoll and Mars Hill. I am fully aware that this impression is shallow and not nuanced: I have said many times that it is quite possible that my concerns do not apply to Mars Hill. I am interested in having a conversation about these concerns, not in attacking a pastor or a church I know very little about. It is not necessary to defend Mars Hill to me.

  29. “God doesn’t look down and see good people and bad people; He sees bad people and the Lord Jesus.”
    This is such a joyously simplistic, childlike and beautiful thing to say. It totally answers all of the lovely little judgments and hierarchies that Christians sometimes like to throw at one another! (and non-Christians too for that matter) I’m going to blog about it methinks.

  30. Pingback: Hipster Church Tour: Life on the Vine « The Search

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