The One About that Podcast | 1 October 2021

Weekend Digest 2021:10
1 October 2021
Remigius of Rheims, Bishop, Apostle of the Franks (530)

No doubt about it — 2021 will be remembered as “the year of the Mars Hill podcast.” At least in some of the circles I run in, it seems.

Allow me to explain.

As I write this, I’m on Mt. Desert Island in Maine. For the past 15 years, a group of pastors who came through the same little church I attended in seminary have gathered annually as a “covenant” group — when we first formed, we made a covenant with each other to share our lives together, praying for each other, meeting annually, exhorting each other in our various ministries from New England to Michigan to Tennessee. And this year, among the conversations about preaching and ministry and families and baseball and everything else under the sun, the topic we find ourselves talking about is “the podcast.”

I’ve long been a Christianity Today reader and subscriber to their “Quick to Listen” podcast. But this summer producer Mike Cosper rolled out a podcast called “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill,” a long-form journalistic examination of the spectacular growth and similarly spectacular implosion of Mars Hill Church, Seattle, and its senior pastor Mark Driscoll. I started listening to it Week One, but as the episodes have rolled out, more and more of the folks in my circles have asked “Are you listening to the Podcast?” And I know exactly what they’re talking about.

Now, in one way this story may be completely opaque and incomprehensible to those of us in the Episcopal Church — if you didn’t grow up in an evangelical church (I did), or maybe even within a group of churches in the Neo-Calvinist stream who came to be called “Young, Restless and Reformed” (think of pastors like John Piper or Mark Dever), this story may be fascinating but completely foreign to your experience. And yet it’s compelling content, impossible to resist.

My friend, Fr. Patrick Gray at Christ Church of Hamilton & Wenham in Massachusetts, recently said the podcast is “must-listen” fare for church folks today. What drew him (and me) is the fascinating viewpoint we’re given into a situation where a leader’s charisma “outpaces his character.” And here in Maine we’ve been thinking about that as we’ve shared our stories of the past year — how our parishes have fared in Covid, what programs are working and what aren’t, who’s visiting our churches and who’s missing, and the inevitable comparisons that just so happens among pastors when we get together (or, with me, whenever I’m awake).

Fr. Patrick mentioned the podcast in a sermon recently (around the 9 minute mark), pointing out that “success obviously points to God’s blessing, and lack of success — not enough success — that points to, well, God’s disappointment. And we love success. We’re addicted to it.” Mars Hill and Driscoll were “successful,” massively so, with baptisms, professions of faith, and changed lives proliferating. But what’s so dangerous about that is — if we’re looking for numerical success, programmatic success, financial success, and the like, are we using the right metrics for evaluating our ministries in our parishes? Is it actually that “we, as leaders, are addicted to success, and we are addicted to successful leaders”?

Good question, Fr. Patrick.

I mention it today because I want our church to be “successful,” but I’m defining that term in a particular way. I pray our work together, our project, our mission epitomized in the Barque of St. Bartholomew, may find God’s favor and contribute to the flourishing of our parish family, our city, and the world around us. But that’s a different metric than Average Sunday Attendance or annual giving. It’s measuring success by our repentance rather than our reputation, by how well we love not how well-off we live, by our own conversions not our convenience, by . . . well, you get my point.

So I listen to the Podcast and hear a cautionary tale. And I thank God we’re not that kind of church at St. B’s. I’m chastened to constantly reevaluate whether you are following God’s leadership and not just mine.

But I’m also aware of a the second-hand-smoke damage a story like Mars Hill’s can do to my own soul. Because it’s so tempting to listen and judge, to feel just a tad bit superior to “those guys over there” who are obviously doing it wrong. Some folks, like Brad Hambrick at the Intersect Project, ask whether CT has inadvertently created “failure porn.” Dr. Rory Shiner, pastor of Providence City Church in Perth, Australia, reviewed the podcast and reflected:

Beware the therapy of an outrageously bad example. The temptation is to adopt a posture of incredulous outrage, of secretly hoping that juicier and more jaw-dropping revelations are still to come. The worse, in a sense, the better. The worse they are, the more distance I can establish between what is within me and what went down over there. But there but for the grace of God, go I. Sin gets in everywhere. It got into Mars Hill. And no doubt it can get into my response to Mars Hill. 

Just a thought.

And here’s a picture of New England:

  • Listening: Wendell Kimbrough (friend of the parish) just dropped a new song, with Sandra McCracken, called “See How Good It Is (Psalm 133).” And the Lone Bellow’s Zachary Williams has released the first two tracks of his solo record, Dirty Camaro. This is my favorite so far.
  • Reading: Finally finishing Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s Abandonment to Divine Providence, and re-reading Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved in advance of studying it with the Nashville Fellows next week.
  • Watching: Vera, season 11, baby! Thank you, BritBox.
  • Practicing: You may not know your rector has a Confessor, and I go to him once a month. The old Anglican trope regarding sacramental confession is: All may; some should; none must. I’m definitely in the “some should” category. The work of preparing to make my monthly confession throws into relief sinful patterns in my life, and I’m absolutely addicted to hearing a human voice tell me out loud: “The Lord has put away all your sins.” If you’re ever curious about making your own confession, let’s have a conversation.

Thanks for reading and for allowing me time to get away to Acadia every fall to rest, refresh, and allow myself to be recreated with my covenant group. I love it here — but I’m so happy to be hopping a flight back home to Nashville to be with you. See you on Sunday!

God bless —

Fr. Sammy

Published by Fr. Sammy Wood

Interim Rector of St. Mary the Virgin Episcopal Church in Times Square

2 thoughts on “The One About that Podcast | 1 October 2021

  1. I have general knowledge of the Mars Hill situation — enough to think it is neither new nor unique. i think there are parallels to some of what I observed in the 80s with the rise and (mostly) demise of the televangelists. One difference is that Mars Hill has played out mostly inside the Christian universe, rather than the secular media. Another aspect is that the secular media doesn’t know or care much about Mars Hill, events there and their ramifications.

    I worked at CBN with Pat Robertson and later at Heritage USA in the aftermath of the Jimmy Bakker and Jerry Falwell time.

    I don’t think that any of the people involved in any of these situations set out to do bad or wrong things. But I am not aware that any of them had a confessor, someone to hold them accountable at the most basic, human level. I applaud you, Sammy, for having this person in your life.


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