Erik and Heidi Barnett knew the Mars Hill Church organization was holding its last day of services when they arrived at its Ballard location Sunday.
They knew why the last services had arrived: A series of controversies swirling around its charismatic co-founder and leader, Mark Driscoll, prompted the disbandment of the 18-year-old evangelical organization that had once spread to five states and served at least 13,000 Sunday worshippers.
As of Thursday, New Year’s Day, all its remaining churches will either dissolve or splinter off into individual religious entities.
But it still took the Barnetts by surprise when not even half the chairs at the 9 a.m. service were filled.
Most Read Local Stories
- Smoke from Oregon and California wildfires reaches Seattle; rain expected later this week
- Why building rail transit in U.S., Seattle costs so much and takes so long
- This COVID sequel is maddening. Time to flip the script and up the pressure on the unvaccinated.
- Body of diver recovered at Seacrest Park in West Seattle
- Coronavirus daily news updates, August 2: What to know today about COVID-19 in the Seattle area, Washington state and the world
“It used to be packed; if you came even a little late, it was standing-room only,” said Heidi, 39.
The couple, who have recently been attending a Mars Hill church in Shoreline, were returning to the first Mars Hill site they worshipped at to say goodbye to an institution they say forever changed their lives for the better and brought them closer than ever to Jesus Christ.
After Driscoll converted the former Ballard hardware store into an urban church in 2003, Mars Hill and Driscoll’s preaching became so popular that several other locations opened over the next decade in Washington, Arizona, Oregon, California and New Mexico.
“I know for many of us, this is a bittersweet day,” Pastor Matthias Haeusel said to a crowd of about 200 before playing a 45-minute video-sermon that nationally known author and Pastor Rick Warren recorded for the organization’s last day of services.
The Mars Hill name has been plagued with bad headlines over the last year as Driscoll became increasingly associated with offensive remarks and contentious church politics. Church leaders accused him of lying, bullying members, threatening opponents and mismanaging church funds. Driscoll resigned from the megachurch in October.
But Haeusel said that as the Ballard church prepares for a new identity on Thursday — the Cross & Crown Church — he can feel a lifting of the mood of the approximately 600 people who still worship at its three Sunday services.
“There is still a level of sadness, some bewilderment,” Haeusel said. “Right now, though, it’s feeling like those emotions are beginning to crest into some excitement for what’s next.”
Timothy Malcham, 22, of Belltown, said he’s one of many looking forward to leaving behind controversies that distracted from the Ballard congregation’s services.
“It’ll be nice to be able to invite people to church again without all the baggage of Mars Hill getting in the way,” said Malcham. “This place has always been about Jesus and about people. It’s easy for me to get behind the people and staff at this church, and I’m confident they’ll make it healthier.”
Haeusel said the leadership structure of the Cross & Crown Church has not been completely hashed out. He said the Evangelical Christian Credit Union the church banks with wants to see fewer paid members on the church’s board before a new leadership structure is approved.
The Mars Hill Church signs on the building should be taken down by Jan. 9, Haeusel said, but changes within the church will evolve more gradually. Its service times and overall interior will not change.
Warren’s sermon, which was played at each of the remaining Mars Hill church locations, encouraged worshippers to see that distasteful moments in life will still come together as part of a beautiful — and maybe delicious — divine plan.
A self-professed “purpose-driven eater” who loves cooking with his wife, Warren compared God’s divine plan to baking a cake made with salt, flour, eggs and sugar.
“Eaten individually, every one of those items is pretty distasteful … even if you eat sugar by itself, it’s just not that good,” Warren said. “But if you stir it all in, all things work together.”