This blog post is not directly about Mars Hill (it is more general), but the thoughts have been triggered by the on-going issues that are emerging from Mars Hill. In my first blog post about Mars Hill, I argued that the primary issue is one of church government and that this was relevant because, "The whole modern evangelical movement is infected with the same issues that are emerging in Mars Hill." This seems to have resonated with some readers, one reader of the blog contacted me with concerns he was having in his own church-- concerns that related to issues surrounding an unhealthy church culture.
In light of this, I thought I would take some time to mark up eight signs that indicate a church is not healthy. I do this simply because it is often the case that those who are caught up in the culture of an unhealthy church, usually don't realise it. In fact, they often feel guilty for questioning their church and its leadership-- this in itself is actually a sign that the culture is not right. There should always be freedom to respectfully question practices in the light of scripture.
So here are eight indications that a church has serious health problems-- of course, no church is perfect, and this list is not exhaustive, but if a number of these signs are present it is a strong indication that the church in question has an unhealthy culture.
1) Internal problems are covered up by means of spin
One of the most alarming issues emerging in Mars Hill is the discrepancy between official statements by church leaders and what is actually taking place behind closed doors. All churches have problems, all churches get it wrong, but when facts are hidden and information is massaged in order to make the situation look less awful than it is -- the church is flirting with the Father of Lies and has ceased to walk in the light.
2) Biblical eldership is hijacked and one man has complete power over the church's vision and direction
Most people don't even think about church leadership, they will choose a church on the basis of its friendliness, liveliness, and relevance to their needs. However, unless we ask the tough questions about governance, a church which looks open and friendly on the outside, may in fact be closed and domineering on the inside. Very often you won't know there is a problem until you have a problem, and if there are no procedures in place, you may find that you are now the problem.
Many churches have good governance structures in place, Baptists are governed congregationally, Anglicans have vicars and bishops, Presbyterians have elders -- all of these established denominations have good structures of accountability, however, many contemporary and independent churches do not. While on the surface they may claim to have a team of elders, very often the team of elders is subject to one man-- usually called the pastor or senior pastor. If the pastor is not subject to anyone, there are no safeguards in place for the congregation or the pastor. As I have mentioned elsewhere, a wise man once said, 'power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.'
3) The congregation is not consulted in any significant decisions
Other than the official statements from MH leadership, it seems that MH members are often kept in the dark about many important issues. This is often the case in many churches. However, if congregations are not involved in essential issues such as the calling of a minister, large financial decisions, significant changes in structure and organisation, doctrinal developments, and to some extent church discipline procedures-- there is a real issue concerning the DNA of that particular church. To what extent do the members have ownership of the church? To what extent do they belong to the church? To what extent is the priesthood of all believers being acknowledged?
4) There seems to be a revolving door
Many churches seem to have a revolving door. A common pattern exists. There is an influx of people, all seems wonderful, then there is an exodus-- and so the pattern repeats itself. It's not only the average member of the congregation either. How many church plants which begin with half-a-dozen members will continue to keep their founding members (other than the pastor and his wife) for ten or twenty years? How many of these founding members move on for positive reasons? In Mars Hill, Mark and Grace Driscoll are the only founders who are left, the other founders have been written out of the story.
Why do so many churches have a revolving door? Well, often the blame will be placed on the people who leave. MH has had a tendency to accuse those who have left of 'no longer being on mission'-- despite the fact that many who leave often had good reputations when they were in the church. It's easy to accuse the leavers of having lost the vision, or not being committed or spiritual enough. It is easier to do this than to examine the culture of the church. What systems are in place for dealing with conflict? If the leadership style is 'my way or the high-way' there is really nowhere for members to go other than out the back-door.
5) Members of the congregation are afraid to raise concerns with leadership
MH has been accused of creating a culture of fear. A culture where leaders and members aren't allowed to ask questions. Sadly, this is too often the case in many churches. If a church is run by a dictator who is surrounded by 'yes men', make no mistake about it, there will be no room for dissenting opinions. Very often this leadership style is defended by the most loyal followers, but it is not healthy. People should be free to ask questions and raise concerns without fear of being shunned or tagged as being rebellious or sinful. In some charismatic churches, there is a tendency to tag people who think or question issues as having a 'Jezebel spirit', this is simply spiritual abuse and manipulation.
6) Good elders are forced to resign or are fired because they attempt to bring biblical correction
With no accountability procedures in place, elders, ministers and members have no safe-place to resolve conflict. If there is conflict with an eldership, that eldership needs outside help. The MH leaders who were involved in investigating charges brought against two fellow elders where not objective enough to do so. Hence the accusations of MH conducting kangaroo courts. When there are no higher courts of appeal, good men will have to resign or be fired.
7) Keeping the machine running has become more important than truth, integrity and Christ-likeness
This is one of the issues that can emerge when a church has gone off-course. Church becomes a matter of keeping up appearances. It becomes about keeping up a show rather than a gathering of God's people, in fellowship with one another, who are gathered for the glory of God. When this happens, the prime motive is survival. Character takes second place to ability, as long as there are people to perform 'praise and worship', lead services and organise events-- that's all that matters. As long as it looks like we are on mission and on fire for God, that's all that matters, of course, the discerning see it for what it is. 'the emperor has no clothes.'
8) Leaders lead through manipulation
There is a man with a vision, and that vision needs people if it is to be carried out. Consequently, encouragement towards service is no longer about a pastoral desire for God's people to walk in God's will, instead church members become a means to an end. Pastors become experts in people management. They learn to exploit the desires and fears of the people in their congregations. Consequently service is no longer Spirit inspired, but manipulated by man. When this happens members are being exploited. Church members exist to fulfil the pastor's church vision rather than the pastoral ministry existing to serve and care for the church. In this culture what you can do for the church is more important than the well-being of your soul.
Whenever the church hits the spot-light and the media broadcasts the failings of the church, Christ's name is maligned. However, God cares for the broken, and he hates unjust systems that oppress the weak. He also hates it when shepherds care more about their own appetites than they do the well-being of the flock. God is a good God, and He has many good churches. While he is grieved when his name is blasphemed because of church scandals, He is just and he will not allow harm which is carried out in His name to go unpunished. As the scriptures teach us, 'Judgement begins in the house of God.'