Conservative Mars Hill Church flourishes in liberal Seattle

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SEATTLE - When someone says mainstream Christianity has made Jesus into a "Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ," it offends a lot of people. But the person saying it also gets a lot of attention. 

And with remarks like that, it’s clear Mark Driscoll, founder of Seattle-based megachurch Mars Hill, knows how to invite controversy. 

Mars Hill is the third fastest-growing church in the country, according to Outreach magazine, and it thrives in proudly progressive Seattle.

 The two worlds would seem to be at odds.

Seattle, after all, is a progressive city, which proudly claims native son Macklemore and Ryan Lewis --the same- the duo who recorded the marriage equality anthem "Same Love" and performed it during a mass wedding ceremony at the Grammys.   

 Somehow a city so proud of that also produced Mars Hill, where Driscoll, or "Pastor Mark" as his congregants call him, can occasionally sound like the pulpit's version of a shock jock.           

"To not denounce homosexuality is heresy," Driscoll said in a sermon that has been viewed by tens of thousands of people on YouTube.           

That may not seem like Seattle but his church certainly looks like Seattle.  Services resemble a concert; Christ-loving bands often sound and look like independent recording artists.  

 The pews are filled with young people who warmly greet members while giving a friendly welcome to new attendees, and there's a vibrant energy that fills the room.  

 The church intrigued musician Shaina Rae. "I just remember loving the atmosphere and the people and the music. And Pastor Mark, of course."   

Rae said Driscoll is so appealing because he's "all about Jesus" and talks about the Bible in a relatable way.   He also does not shy from controversial subjects like sex (only okay within straight marriage), pornography (unacceptable) and alcohol (only in moderation).   Rae also likes that Pastor Mark takes liberal-leaning culture to task.     

He is blunt and he is brash, as when he tells his congregation, "You live in an absolutely perverted, corrupted, stupid culture. It's a culture of hook up, shack up, break up."   

Driscoll and his wife advocate a conservative view of the ideal marriage.   "As women, we're built to be home with our kids," Grace Driscoll said from the stage with her husband as he nodded in agreement. While that may get the hackles up among some women, it's very appealing for others, like Melissa Boggs.   

Boggs is a young, attractive, single professional woman who, like many women in Seattle, has gotten very tired of the dating scene.  

 She meets a lot of men who just want to date around, who never commit and who don't really respect women.   

"Driscoll is really tough on guys," she said, "He really asks them to step up in a really biblically sound way."   She acknowledges that Mars Hill does not allow female elders and it props up the husband-as-breadwinner, wife-as-homemaker model.

Boggs agrees that model is ideal.   She also said Pastor Mark's words are frequently taken out of context.   Boggs likes that Driscoll tells husbands they need to respect their wives;, so, she doesn't take issue with Driscoll telling women to submit to their husbands' leadership.   

And she highlighted a sermon in which Driscoll preached: "If you're an able-bodied man, your job is to provide for the needs of your family.” 

His conservative message goes out to 450,000 Twitter followers. His sermons go out to about 13,000 people per week.   Mars Hill has 15 locations in five states, though 11 churches are in Washington.   The flagship location is in Ballard, where Driscoll gives Sunday sermons that are broadcast to his other churches.          

Ballard is where Rae first started attending years ago.  

 She only recently accepted Driscoll's vision of a family.  

When Rae first started attending Mars Hill, she was in a relationship with a woman. 

 "It started off as a comfort to me," she said of growing up as a lesbian teen, "It was easier. Most of my friends were gay women, so I was like sure."  

But Rae said her life as a lesbian had been unhappy. Through prayer, she realized she's straight.

"That was all God,” Rae said.  Now she's becoming a member of Mars Hill. She said she's gotten nothing but support from the church and that it is not anti-gay.       

 "Jesus does not turn anybody away," she said. (When we pointed out that Mars Hill does not allow gay members, she did not have a direct response.)             

Mars Hill members must sign a covenant with the church.  

It's several pages long, and it includes several edicts, including: Members cannot question the church's teachings or its authority, they cannot have sex outside of marriage and they cannot be gay. 

Driscoll described people who accept homosexuality and reject the belief it’s a sin as having crossed "a border" separating themselves from Mars Hill in a way that puts them in "another country."    

He has told congregations that if "a gay couple walks into your group, you're supposed to tell them to repent."          

That message itself is a sin, according to Pastor Joanne Carlson of Tibbetts United Methodist.  Carlson is a lesbian, married, Methodist minister who believes Driscoll's message can do serious psychological harm to the LGBT community.  

 "To make them feel horrible about themselves and deny their identity is a sin. When you destroy the soul of a person, that's a sin," said Carlson.          

Carlson said she understands why Pastor Mark is so popular.

"He's an excellent communicator, it's good marketing."  But she believes Mars Hill's explosive growth is headed for hemorrhage, especially in the Puget Sound region. Carlson said former Mars Hill members come to her church because they could not reconcile Driscoll's social beliefs with their own.  

While there will always be people who believe Seattle has swung too far left, she thinks King County, which voted 67 percent in favor of same sex marriage, will always largely reject Mars Hill's stand on women and gays. To those people, Rae said: "Your problem is not with Mark Driscoll.  Your problem is with God. Mark Driscoll is just the messenger." 

But critics contend the number of people who now support gay marriage is growing at a faster rate and that the number of socially conservative young people is dwindling.     

There are people coming forward with objections to Mars Hill, including Mary Lambert, who wrote and performed the hook on Macklemore and Ryan Lewis's "Same Love." On the track, Lambert croons, "I can't change, even if I try, even if I wanted to."

Lambert has said she realized God made her the way she is -- gay -- and that she can be a Christian without feeling depressed, ashamed or condemned despite what she heard from Driscoll.        

And as she sings at the end of "Same Love," now that she's left Mars Hill, she's not crying on Sundays. 

KIRO 7 reached out to Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church several times. Our calls were not returned.         

 

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