Our Trip to Mars Hill

My wife and I recently took a trip to Seattle, Washington so that she could attend the American Pharmacist Associaton conference. We were there over the weekend and, as there was not a faithful congregation nearby where the Gospel was purely preached and the sacraments faithfully administered, we decided to attend Mars Hill Downtown, a short walk from our hotel. It’s a very influential network of non-denominational churches founded in Seattle under the leadership of Pastor Mark Driscoll, a fiery and uncompromising preacher.

Mars Hill Downtown is located in an old red brick building that from the outside looked like it was abandoned. It would appear from the structure that they are trying to reach out to the poor and disenfranchised of the city. I was a little surprised, then, that there was a security guard at the entrance, put there to keep the homeless and poor out and the young yuppies in.

Once inside, the building was a hybrid of coffee shop and contemporary art gallery. The floors and walls were black, without any decoration, crosses, or other symbols that would lead the visitor to think that this is a place to worship the Triune God. There was a gathering area with good coffee, information about the church, and a bookstore which consisted mostly of books written by the Mars Hill staff. While getting our coffee, we were greeted by a very friendly man in his twenties, dressed in Urban Outfitters jeans and trendy buttoned down shirt, who kindly asked where we were from, how we heard about the church, and told us that he was glad that we were there.

The worship space was darkly lit with a stage in front. At the back of the stage was a curtain especially made for projection, and an advertisement for a church trip to Turkey was looping. The equipment was set up for the band, and we sat down and had a seat about ten minutes before the service was about to start so that my wife could read through their booklet on what they believed.

After we sat down another young man in his twenties, dressed in Urban Outfitters trendy jeans and button down shirt, sat down in the seat in front of us, asked us where we were from, and told us how great the church was. He had been attending Mars Hill since he moved to Seattle about 4 years ago and since attending there he had started taking his faith much more seriously, had learned much more about theology, and had become a better man and a better husband.

The service started with two songs led by a rock trio of guitar, keyboard, and drums. The first song reminded me vaguely of Psalm 51 and the second song was the David Crowder arrangement of “All Creatures of our God and King”. I appreciated the hymns, as they were the only songs in the service that I would call sing-able congregational song. After the opening songs, we had about 20 minutes of announcements. It was during this time that most of the church attendees came in. The people attending the church were nearly all young, white people in their 20’s and early 30’s. There were no children as they were sent elsewhere, and there were no middle aged or older folks. There were also no teenagers. The announcements were part announcement/part pep rally. We clapped several times at all the amazing things that God was doing at Mars Hill. We were introduced to the staff, all of whom were dressed in Urban Outfitters jeans and shirts, and we learned that the Easter service was going to be combined with all Mars Hill campuses and held at Qwest Field (the home of the Seattle Seahawks). The feeling of incredible excitement and happiness filled every moment of the announcements.

After the announcements, they took up the offering and we sang the hymn Amazing Grace. Now, a full 35 minutes into the service, we were ready to hear from the Man himself, Pastor Mark Driscoll.

As Mars Hill consists of several campuses, we watched a video of his message which was broadcast from another campus. Pastor Driscoll was nicely dressed in Urban Outfitters jeans and buttoned down shirt. His hair was just slightly messy and he had the two-days-without-a-shave beard. Mars Hill was making their way through the book of Luke (and taking two years to do it), and this week’s message was on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. While the irony of reading that parable while a security guard stood at the entrance to the church and kept the poor people out was not lost on me, the focus of the day’s message was on hell. There are some very positive things I have to say about Mark Driscoll at this point. First, unlike many mega-churches, he does not do Christianity-light. He does the best he can to preach the truth to the people he can reach. Secondly, he did appear to be genuinely concerned about the people in the campus churches and in the community regarding their eternal salvation.

He began his teaching on hell by showing very clearly from Scripture that we consist of body and soul, and that at death the two are separated but will be re-united at the resurrection. Everyone will either spend eternity in heaven or will spend eternity in torment in hell. He then went through several false teachings such as universalism, annihilism, reincarnation, naturalism, and purgatory and showed how they were false. While he was good to this point, he began repeating a phrase that he repeated throughout the entire 45 minutes message that really began to sting. He said, “It’s my job to tell the truth. It’s your job to make a decision”. He spent the bulk of the 45 minutes making it abundantly clear that if you did not make the right decision you would, without a doubt, spend all eternity in torment in hell. The Lutheran in me kept expecting him to get around to the Gospel. Unfortunately he never really did. If I make the right decision I go to heaven, if I don’t I spent all eternity in hell. I’m sorry Mark Driscoll, but that’s not the Gospel. My wife leaned over to me at this point and said, “There’s no grace!”

The Gospel was so tainted with decision theology that there could be no assurance of forgiveness besides your own personal feelings of conversion. This is the problem with decision theology: it separates the forgiveness of sins from the death and resurrection of Christ and places it on the decision of the individual believer. Yes, Jesus died for you, BUT, it all really depends on your ability to make a decision to BELIEVE that and to have a true conversion experience. I am so thankful to belong to a church that preaches pure Gospel, where I simply look at Christ and trust that I am saved by His grace, brought to faith by the Holy Spirit, and nurtured daily and weekly through Word and Sacrament. I think an important outreach for the Lutheran church could be to reach out to those who get burned out by this all-law, emotionally draining approach to Christianity, and give them the comfort of the pure Gospel.

Following the message, they celebrated communion. Pastor Tim got up in front of the congregation and explained their beliefs on the Lord ’s Supper (it’s an act of obedience to remind us of what Jesus did). He also tried to reach out to those who were committing the cardinal sin of evangelicalism; knowing the faith but not REALLY believing it. You could also use communion as a way to rededicate yourself to Jesus. However, Pastor Tim did not mention that communion gives us forgiveness of sins and salvation and he did not recite the Words of Institution. It was interesting to me that we were not ushered row-by-row, but people came up and received the cracker and juice or wine as they felt moved to do so.

The band played a song during this time that made a few references to the Passover (the song was called “Pass Over Me”). The song went on during the duration of communion and led to a very, loud, mystical, and moving climax as communion finished. Pastor Tim then led us in prayer and told us that the staff was available to talk if anyone had questions about the faith. Then we left, feeling like we had been spiritually beaten by 90 minutes of law. We stopped by a near-by chocolate shop to cheer up my wife, which just goes to show that emotional “spirituality” can be edified with Hershey’s.

The best thing was probably the coffee. It was quite good and you could drink it during the worship time. It really made the 45 minutes of hell-fire much more relaxing. As a 20-something I really did feel like I could belong there if I just gave up the pure Gospel and my Lutheranism. Mars Hill has the following things that the Lutheran church could emulate: good coffee, very welcoming people, a positive environment, well-executed worship times, and a good use of technology such as their website and their use of the web 2.0.

Besides that, it is beyond my understanding why we would want to imitate the Mars Hill experience in the Lutheran church. What they practice in worship clearly supports their doctrine. Really, it does!

Perhaps this will help:

The Spirituality Paradigm of Evangelicalism


  • The problem: Sin, death, and hell.
  • The solution: Jesus’ death and resurrection pays for our sins
  • This is applied to me through: My decision for Jesus and my personal conversion experience.
  • This includes: Emotional response, good works, and a concerted effort to follow Jesus.
  • The place where I commune with God most intimately is: First: Private Time. Second:     Small Groups: Third: Corporate worship.
  • The purpose of corporate worship is then to: Help me connect to Jesus, open the door for personal conversion experience, and to let me know about opportunities for doing good works.
  • This happens through: Emotional and subjective music ,media, messages, and environment.

Music and media may be at the bottom of this chart, but they fit very well within this system. Mars Hill has the emotional and subjective down to an art. I would say, whether intentional or not, it is emotionally manipulative. Let’s review the service:

  • We are greeted by a really cool, excited group of  people who care about us and are in love with Jesus.
  • We drink excessive amounts of caffeine.
  • The music is loud and meant to get us going.
  • We sing the word “Alleluia” thirty successive times during one of the songs.
  • Everyone is super excited about everything going on at Mars Hill.
  • Everyone is really pretty, young and dressed in Urban Outfitters.
  • The pastor skillfully tears up without crying. He does this several times during the message.
  • During communion, the bass is turned up so that I can feel something in my chest.
  • The lights are turned down low.
  • The prayers are subjective and highly emotional and meander around so that they feel “genuine.”
  • The service ends with a powerful, almost frenzied song. But it’s not so frenzied that it makes anyone too uncomfortable.

All of these things, from the evangelical perspective, are simply there in worship to help people connect with Jesus. And these are all standard practice. But what were we so excited about? What was the substance of the service? Let’s review everything in the service again, looking for biblical content. This was a bible believing church after all.

  • Minute 45 of the service: The pastor read a parable from Luke.
  • During the Message, the Pastor uses a few verses of the Bible to prove his points.
  • The End.

That’s it. Really, that was it.

Now let’s look the Lutheran Spirituality Paradigm

  • Our Problem: Sin, death, and hell
  • The Solution: Jesus’ death and resurrection.
  • This is applied to me through: Faith alone.
  • This includes: Really, it’s faith alone, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit. God works faith in us, gives us the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and feeds us with word and Sacrament. We always look to Christ for our salvation, assurance, pardon, and forgiveness.
  • The place where I commune most intimately with God is: First: Corporate worship where I receive Word and Sacrament. Secondly: In my vocation, as my life is an act of worship and as I pray continually.
  • The purpose of corporate worship is then: Giving us the Means of Grace, which are the preaching of God’s Word and celebration of the sacraments. My personal response is simply that; a response to the forgiveness, life, and salvation that I have through Christ.
  • Corporate worship includes: Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, the reading and preaching of Holy Scripture, the celebration of the sacraments, the prayer of the church.

Where does the intense, emotional, personal manipulation come into play? It doesn’t. It doesn’t come into play because we believe that we are saved by grace through faith, and not through our good works or the personal emotional intensity of our conversion experience.

It is worth noting that the Lutheran paradigm fits perfectly with the Liturgy of the Christian church, which itself grows out of the synagogue service which was familiar to Jesus and the early church. While Jesus rebelled against the excessive legalism of the Pharisees and academic disbelief of the Sadducees, he never rebelled against the synagogue service. Rather, it seems that he attended regularly, preached within it, and never made an attempt to make it into a subjective, personal, and emotionally manipulative event.

Having established the Lutheran faith paradigm, let’s look at how much biblical content we find in the Liturgy which we call the Divine Service.

1. Introit (opening Psalm)

2. Biblically literate, Christ-centered hymnody.

3. A reading from the Old Testament.

4. A Psalm of the Day

5. A reading from the Pauline Epistles, Revelation, or the book of Acts

6. A reading from the Gospels.

7. Prayers that petition God on behalf of the world.

8. The sacrament of the altar.

9. The sacrament of Holy Baptism on certain occasions.

10. The Sanctus, Nunc Dimittis, Kyrie, Agnus Dei, and Alleluia, which are all taken right  from Scripture.

11. A sermon, in which the reading of the day are explained.

12. The Lord’s Prayer

13. Confession and Absolution, which is clearly taught and commanded by our Lord.

In other words, we can see how in the Divine Service we are practically swimming in the Word of God. Because we believe that the Holy Spirit works through Word and Sacrament, we submit ourselves to the way He normally works, rejoice in the sure salvation won for us by Christ, and we respond with our songs and prayers. This is why the Lutheran confessions state that seeking God apart from Word and Sacrament is of the devil.

The big question in the Lutheran church in the past thirty years had been whether we can take the emotionally charged, subjective elements from the Evangelical faith paradigm and insert then into the Divine Service without destroying the Lutheran Paradigm. I think the wisest answer is a clear no. We cannot important elements of the paradigm without eventually seeing a full shift to that paradigm. Attempts to mix the two will inevitably be met with conflict because we attempting to believe two contrasting things at once.

I know that parting from the Evangelical faith paradigm is not an easy thing, yet we leaders in the church must think pastorally. It is possible that allowing our dear lay people to live with the Evangelical paradigm for years has given them an Evangelical approach to the Christian faith. Dear brothers and sisters, this is not okay! We must slowly, deliberately, and lovingly restore (or in many cases, teach for the first time) the Lutheran spirituality faith paradigm, not for our sakes, but for the sakes of our dear brothers and sisters in Christ who will be and are already being led astray by the loud, steady stream of American Evangelicalism which leads to nothing other than a mixing of law and Gospel and terrible burden on the consciences of God’s own people.

I know the temptation to copy and paste what we see in Evangelicalism is strong. They do, after all, attract thousands of young people. So let’s copy it; let’s copy the good coffee, positive environment, and accept nothing less than excellence from those who lead worship; even from the volunteers. Let’s leave the emotional manipulation, co-mingling of Law and Gospel, and un-biblical spirituality right where we found it.


8 thoughts on “Our Trip to Mars Hill

  1. Thanks for this essay–quite a bit of work invested, and a great deal of insight offered.

    Found you via a good word from Pastor Peter. Keep up the good work.

  2. This was a great reminder of where I came from and why I am now Lutheran. One thing you didn’t mention is the lack of Creed. I was remembering this morning during the Lenten service at my church how I used to go week after week without that basic (and important!) confession of faith.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Yes, the Creed was conspicuously absent. It made me very thankful for all the biblical anchors that I take for granted in the Lutheran church.

  3. Hi Nathan,
    Hope you don’t mind if I jump in on the coversation. This post caught my eye because I have always wanted to visit Mars Hill. I podcast Pr. Mark’s sermons regularly as part of my own Bible Study and devotion. (Hopefully I am still hanging onto my Lutheranism at the same time.) I have learned a lot from watching Mars Hill’s journey as a church over the past decade. I listened to the Heaven and Hell sermon that you were at and I agree that one is pretty full of law.

    If you are up for another hour long listen though, I would suggest the one from a few weeks previous on The Prodigal Son. It is a little more representative as to Mars Hill’ Theology. After listening to him for years I think Mark lines up most closely to a traditional presbyterian/calvanist/ almost lutheranish – but not on the sacraments – viewpoint on most things. Though I agree that might not be fully expressed every week.

    If you have time give a listen and let me know what you think. http://www.marshillchurch.org/media/luke/the-parable-of-the-prodigal-son

  4. I’m glad that I can wear Urban Outfitters and a button down shirt under my alb and no one will notice. Now….can I sneak coffee into worship too?

    Excellent review. I came away from Mars Hill (the main campus, where The MAN is live and in-person) with the same exact impressions. You did a great job of contrasting Lutheran worship with what Mars Hill is doing.

  5. Mark preaches the cross, hands down. Don’t base your “experience” on just the one time you went. Lutherans and calvinists, you have to remember, are in the same camp–faith alone. Mars hill is biblically conservative and culturally liberal. Mark preaches on Jesus and nothing but Jesus, just listen to other sermons. You guys who showed up clearly had your lutheran glasses on and and already had your preconceptions. Reading the article really had a lot of judgmental, haughty takes and thoughts. It reminded me of when the pharasee and tax collector both are talked about by Jesus in Luke. The pharasee’s attitude is haughty and proud that he is nothing like the tax collector, while the tax collector has nothing but humility, recognizing he is a sinner with nothing to offer but his sin. You guys show up with the same attitude(judging man’s outward appearance, how the music is played, the way the set up was, ect..) but to put it simply..Christ came and died even for your sins through this sad letter. Mars hill clearly claims that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in christ alone. Never has that church been about works, emotional decisions (sinners prayer), or watered-down gospel preaching. Honestly, this letter was pathetic in nature and judgmental, but I still have respect for lutherans who realize that discernment should be applied to those “churches” that replace christ with man. We have bigger fish to fry my lutheran couple who wrote this article. It’s all about Jesus, which is what Pastor Mark proclaims boldly and humbly every sunday, not about us–quite frankly, we suck and Christ is the redeemer who forgives and gives us hope because he is great!

    1. Scott,
      I wish that we were in the same “boat” and that we all believed that we were saved by grace, through faith. This includes not preaching that we need to “make a decision”. When Mark Driscoll preached that we needed to make a decision, he stepped out of the boat, so to speak. We are brought to faith by the work of the Holy Spirit, not by our own reason and strength.
      I believe that I should hear the Gospel whenever I enter a Christian church for Sunday worship. If I went to a church that called itself Lutheran and heard something other than the Gospel, I would have been just as dissatisfied as I was with my trip to Mars Hill.
      As far as your comment about me being like the pharisee, I would encourage to look at Jesus’ command not to judge, as you have just attempted to judge my own heart based on a blog post.
      We Lutherans are passionate about the pure Gospel. If you want to learn more about this, I would encourage you to go to this site.
      Download the Large Catechism and start reading. You may also wish to look at the books Romans and Galatians again.


  6. Thanks for this post. I’m a Lutheran pastor and have been intrigued by some of the ways these non-denominational churches can bring in the numbers. I’ve also wondered what (if anything) ELCA churches can/should be doing. This is a very helpful reflection.

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