Dozens of demonstrators picketed outside Mars Hill Church in Bellevue on Sunday, with some former church members calling for the resignation of the megachurch’s charismatic founder, Mark Driscoll.
The church Driscoll founded started as a Bible study class in his rented Wallingford home in 1996. Today the church says it has 6,000 members and some 13,000 attendees in 15 locations in five states, including 11 in Washington. The newest is to open this winter in Spokane.
The popular church takes worship into a decidedly hip direction. Its Bellevue sanctuary looks like a nightclub, with a black ceiling, disco lighting, chest-thumping rock band and large-screen TVs for following along with the lyrics and sermon. Young families in particular turn out for services in jeans and flip-flops, and shirt tails are the vestments of choice for the clergy.
But along with the church’s meteoric rise has come criticism, from some former members who accuse Driscoll of bullying and a practice of shunning members who raise questions or disagree.
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The church has acknowledged using church tithes to hire a firm and buy copies of one of Driscoll’s books to pump up its sales.
In a message on the church’s website, posted last month, Mars Hill also informed churchgoers that some of the donations they gave for the Mars Hill Global Fund for overseas “church planting” went for domestic general-fund church expenses. Driscoll has not publicly spoken on the matter.
Part of what sparked Sunday’s protest was a video posted for church members last week in which Driscoll said he could not address some members’ discontent in what he called a “season of learning” because the complaints were anonymous.
In answer, demonstrators held banners Sunday on the sidewalk reading “WE ARE NOT ANONYMOUS.” Others called for Driscoll’s resignation, criticized him as a bully, or accused him of objectifying women.
Robert Smith, of Everett, said he was a church member from 2002-2007 and today regards himself as a “church member in exile,” because, he said, he ran afoul of church leaders after questioning the internal discipline of a former church elder. “If you question, you are seen as an agitator, you get thrown under the bus,” Smith said. “Bullies should not be pastors.”
Judy Abolafya, of Renton, a mother of three, said she quit Mars Hill last March after 14 years of membership.
“It is not OK for him to be arrogant, abusive or prideful,” she said. She also criticized Driscoll as inadequately transparent about church finances, citing the use of money raised for overseas ministry for general-fund purposes at home. “They got caught with their hand in the cookie jar,” she said. “He needs to step down.”
She said she felt moved to speak out because families continue to be hurt.
Anthony Iannicielo, an elder of the church, said in an interview that part of what is behind the protest is the result of Mars Hill building up a long history and a large membership.
“We have been around 18 years, and today, somewhere between 9,000 and 13,000 people will show up, and there will be a lot of people who are connecting,” Iannicielo said. “Some of this (criticism) goes with the territory.”
He said he was saddened by the demonstration. “I don’t want to get into a back-and-forth. It’s sad,” Iannicielo said. “To be honest, you never want that, you never want people to feel that way. We love them and we want the best for them, and we want to make it work out.”
Driscoll was away Sunday on his annual summer vacation. But before he left, he taped a long, confessional message for members in which he stated he feels the growth of the church is “shocking, amazing, staggering, wonderful, it just is quite a miracle.” He went on to say he has been “rather silent” during the criticism, which he said he found “a little overwhelming and a bit confusing.”
Some church members have sought legal counsel, and the church has been instructed to retain documents in case a lawsuit is brought, Driscoll said in the video message.
The church is paying for outside advisers to launch a reconciliation process with former leaders and others who feel wronged that will continue at least through September, Driscoll said. He said, however, the church would enter into the discussions only with confidentiality agreements, to create “a safe place where we can work through difficulties.”
Driscoll said he would not be shutting the door to anyone. “We want this to be an increasingly healthy, godly, loving church.”
As for stepping down, Driscoll made it clear he has no such intention.
“I am not going anywhere, I am where I am supposed to be, and doing what I am supposed to be doing,” Driscoll said.
“I hope to do this for the next, 30, 40 years, and do it better by God’s grace.”