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Friday, November 28, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pacific Northwest Magazine

Pastor Mark packs 'em in

Well into an hour-long gospel class, Pastor Mark Driscoll still holds his audience in rapt attention.

Dressed in his usual black pants and untucked shirt, he strides back and forth, talking nonstop, arms waving. He's raced through his views on how human beings got the Bible and why we should trust it. Now he's giving his highly opinionated take on which of the many versions of the Bible are good.

He draws a chart: On the left he lists Bibles he says are translated word-for-word (good). On the right, those that use more metaphorical or creative language (not so good). He also ranks the Bibles vertically, putting on top those he thinks highly of (New International Version, the one he uses; New American Standard; New King James). Far to the right, and way down on the bottom — "toward hell," he says — comes the New Revised Standard Version. The widely used New Revised, which distinguishes between references to all humans and references to men and women separately, is "the politically correct Bible," he says. "It's like the Bible got neutered."

The crowd, mostly in their 20s and 30s, mainly white, hipster cool with artfully scruffy hair, hoots and claps.

Young people have a short attention span? Can't deal with tough theology? That's bull, says Driscoll.

But then Driscoll and his congregation — Mars Hill Church in Ballard — call bull on many conventional wisdoms.

Since Driscoll founded Mars Hill in 1996, the church has grown about 60 percent each year — solely by word of mouth. Weekly attendance now averages around 1,600. Earlier this year, the church moved into a 40,000-square-foot warehouse, its former space too cramped for the number of people flocking to services.

Curiously, all this growth is happening in a state that ranks second-lowest in the United States for membership in houses of worship. (Oregon ranks lowest.) Mars Hill is also growing when many city churches across the country are struggling. And it's doing so by reaching young, urban, creative people — those typically associated with rebelling against tradition, church and society — and preaching a theology that is as orthodox and conservative as it gets. Think Southern Baptist, Assemblies of God.

"We're an anomaly," Driscoll acknowledges.

Perhaps most anomalous and paradoxical is the pastor himself.

Driscoll is 33, good-looking in a creative-young-urban-professional sort of way. With his friendly-jock demeanor and penchant for wisecracks, he comes off as a smart-aleck former frat boy. Which he was — frat boy, that is — for a week. He still is, he admits, "a smart-ass." Kind of like the Chris Rock of conservative Christianity.

Driscoll, in fact, is deeply in touch with the culture of his congregants: the hard-edged, high-tech, disaffected sensibility of the bands they love (Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie), the films they watch ("The Matrix," "Fight Club"), and the art they appreciate (no gauzy Jesus-on-the-beach paintings, please). He loves that culture himself.

But make no mistake. He is a biblical strict constructionist, preaching a core message that could be delivered by, say, Pat Robertson — if only he were young and not so uptight.

Driscoll's success with this method and this message has commandeered national attention. He is writing his first book for Zondervan, a top Christian publishing company. ABC television filmed him and Mars Hill as part of a documentary to be sent to network affiliates next month. And in January, he will speak on church leadership at televangelist Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral.

The constant question he gets now is: How? How and why is his anomaly working? Is it the message these young people are embracing, or mainly the man and his medium? At a monthly gathering of Ballard pastors, several preachers — all probably older than Driscoll by several decades — are trying to suss out the answer. "What is Mars Hill doing?" one of them asks. "Is it the wine?"

•   •   •

TO APPRECIATE the growth of Mars Hill, consider the plight of many other churches in Seattle. Some congregations have merged, others are considering selling their buildings as their numbers dwindle.

But in the past few years, certain in-city churches, founded by people in their 20s and 30s, have quietly amassed followings. Around the country, Seattle is becoming known as a center for these churches, variously referred to as "emerging," "postmodern" or, galling to their founders, "Gen X" churches.

Typically, they seek alternative ways of presenting the message of Christ — ways that tap into current youth culture rather than villainize it, as some churches do. Often these churches are small and less top-down, more like a gathering of friends. They value intuitive experiences of God, encouraging a vital relationship with him, rather than assuming people already have one. They are often culturally liberal (welcoming of, say, nose rings and expressing one's love of God through punk rock) but theologically conservative, emphasizing early Christianity and the root meaning of Bible stories.

But here, too, Mars Hill has become an anomaly. With its sheer size and orthodox theology — far more conservative than most other emerging churches — it no longer fits neatly into that niche.

Shortly before the start of Sunday services, groups of friends, young couples stream toward Mars Hill. They enter a lobby painted a soothing straw and adorned with expertly lit paintings done by church members. It looks like an art gallery. That is as it should be, in the gospel according to Driscoll. "God is creator. God is creative," he preaches. "We don't have white walls because we worship God, not an orthodontist." The acoustics in heaven, he says, will be "unprecedented."

Not that the acoustics at Mars Hill are shabby — about $600,000 worth of sound equipment is in there. When a band takes the stage to begin the service, playing moody chords evocative of indie rock, the sound is enveloping.

Then Driscoll steps up and starts in: "Today we're talking about Revelation, Chapter 4. This chapter in the Bible is really good, not that I'm saying the other chapters stink or anything . . . "

Driscoll teaches "straight from the Bible" because he knows many in Seattle haven't studied it. He also knows it's important to make Scripture relevant.

"We often talk about worship in big terms," he says. "But people are worried about the practical things in life: How do I resolve that argument with my wife? How am I going to pay the bills?"

So he talks about how making meals is a way to serve the Lord. How his love for his children is akin to God's love for his people. He gives them something they can take home and use.

"Mark's really good at making the Bible understandable," says Katie Allen, 23, who's been coming to Mars Hill for four years.

Preaching and communicating lies at the heart of Driscoll's draw. People call him a very compelling speaker, "gifted."

In his sermons, Driscoll speaks like a persuasive friend, cajoling, chiding, throwing in sarcastic jabs. He grew up listening to the comedy of Eddie Murphy, George Carlin, Sam Kinison. It shows in his pacing and delivery.

He goes on for an hour, sometimes an hour and a half, mostly off-the-cuff. "Nothing is conscious when I preach," he says. "I just do. I study the Bible all week, pray to the Lord, and then I speak from my heart. It's all about brutal honesty."

That brutal honesty, that aggressively confrontational style, is deliberate. "One of the most important things I can do is agitate people to the point where they start to investigate," he says. "Otherwise, they're indifferent."

He could be relaying a funny story about his kids when BAM! "Everyone believes they're going to heaven. Some will be sorely disappointed."

BAM! "Who's a more reliable teacher of the Bible? The guy who's teaching the philosophy 101 class or Jesus?"

Ask people who attend Mars Hill what Driscoll's appeal is, and you'll almost always hear: "He tells it straight."

But what Driscoll considers "straight," others consider distorted, even disturbing.

AT MARS HILL, there is no sugar-coating of the Word to make people feel good, says associate pastor Lief Moi. "What that does is it forces us to deal with God as he's revealed himself, rather than man trying to change God into something they're comfortable with."

Others in the religious community, while reluctant to criticize Driscoll, will say they're uncomfortable with his theology.

At Seattle Pacific University, a school with conservative Methodist roots where Driscoll held a Bible-study group for three years, some students accused his teachings of being sexist.

Robert Drovdahl, a professor of educational ministry at SPU, cautions that although Christians generally believe Scripture comes from God, there is vast disagreement on how it comes from God. The view that the Bible is inerrant, then, is just one interpretation.

The Rev. Karen Ward, pastor of the postmodern Church of the Apostles in Seattle, says Mars Hill is "espousing a certain tradition, a very conservative, fundamental, Promise Keepers ethos." Emerging-church pastors, she says, are generally more open to saying they don't have all the answers.

In Driscoll's view, homosexuality is a sin, although no more so than, say, premarital sex. Women should be loved and protected, while men are definitely heads of households. And women can be church leaders, but not pastors. "If I could change one part of the Bible," Driscoll says wearily, "that would be the part, just so I could be left alone."

In any case, he's not much interested in expounding on those positions during sermons or telling people what they shouldn't do. He's happy to debate, but it's clear he thinks he has the answers. And he's convinced you'll find them, too, if you just listen.

"It's pretty much take it or leave it," he says. The main point is to connect people with God.

"If you get hung up on the political issues, you're arguing for ends and ignoring means," he says. "You're saying: We want people to be a certain way. Well, wanting doesn't do anything. If you want things or people to change, you need to get them to meet God."

One issue he does spend time preaching on is how to be a righteous man in this world.

"My feeling is if you want to reach the young, you have to get the young single guys. They're the ones having sex with their girlfriends, and then leaving them to raise the kids. Jails are full of young single guys."

His message has reached Micah Dominguez, a 25-year-old student and DJ who started attending Mars Hill a year ago. Dominguez appreciates the clear guidelines Driscoll espouses.

"It's God's word to us on how to live our lives. You have to stand firm in those fundamentals, especially with certain things like waiting to get married to have sex. There are dire consequences if you go against Scripture."

He's learned that firsthand. "I've experienced not only heartache from living with somebody, casual sex, but also worried about STDs, pregnancy . . . What God says not to do in the Bible is not for his benefit, but mine."

But Dominguez, who became a Christian at 19, had a hard time finding others who shared both his convictions and his sensibilities. He was into the Beastie Boys, skateboarding, the rave scene. He couldn't connect with the "white-washed, suburban-bred culture" at the churches he visited. "I said to God: 'I really want to love you, but it's messed up that I have to be around these people to do so.' "

Finding Mars Hill, he says, was like finding a home. "They understand you can't separate yourself from the rest of society."

Some at Mars Hill say that sense of community, along with clear guidelines and expectations, are things they never got, growing up in broken or dysfunctional families. They're also attracted to how hard it is to meet those expectations. Those who study such things say that in religion, often the more you ask of people, the greater the commitment.

"I don't think I'd want it any other way," says Julia Silver, a 21-year-old hairstylist-in-training. Silver had attended churches that didn't have such strict standards. "I felt there wasn't an accountability. . . It was more like: 'Live for yourself.' "

Now she feels more committed to Christ. "It's like being in a relationship. There are rules you need to follow to feel secure, feel like the relationship is moving somewhere. Sometimes you're going to be doing things you don't want to do, but that's for the benefit of the other person. It's all about commitment and sacrifice."

To all appearances, Driscoll strives to live the life he preaches. He's home for dinner four or five times a week. Friday nights are sacrosanct — date night with his wife, Grace, as it's been for 10 years now. He talks with deep love and amusement about his children: 6-year-old Ashley, 4-year-old Zac, almost-2-year-old Calvin and 1-month-old Alexie. He has father-daughter nights out with Ashley at Ray's Boathouse, nights at baseball games with his sons.

He's also a voracious reader. A sampling of the book table at Mars Hill represents the range of his interests: Everything from "The Problem of Pain" by C.S. Lewis to "The Gospel According to Tony Soprano."

Is Driscoll ever afraid that what he's preaching could turn out to be plain wrong? "It is the most terrifying part of my job," he says. "I have a team of pastors — they have the ability to edit me or fire me at will. I think any religious leader that does not have a bit of fear about what they're doing, and have people who can pull rank on them, are very dangerous."

•   •   •

SUNDAY AFTERNOON, gospel class. Driscoll is talking about how the Lord was just a regular-looking guy from a hick town. Today, God would have come from Omak, he says.

A bit like Driscoll's own working-class background.

The oldest of five siblings, he grew up in a house behind a strip club in SeaTac. He saw drive-by shootings there, drug dealing. Being close to all that, "it's not enticing. I think that's what kept me out of trouble." He also had a strong father who "made it really clear that 'my kids don't do certain things, and that's the way it's going to be.' "

He says he didn't have a drink until he was 30, never tried drugs. But he always had a temper. "If you pissed me off, I beat you up."

His parents were devout Irish Catholics and until age 13, he went to church weekly. But the meaning of Mass eluded him. "It was like an aerobics class: stand up, sit down, kneel . . . It never intersected with food, sex, friends, going to college, getting your first job — the things kids think about."

He stopped going to church and got involved in sports and student government. At Highline High School, he captained the baseball team, edited the school paper, served as student-body president.

Driscoll went to Washington State University on a full-ride scholarship. He considered going into politics or journalism — something where he could influence. He certainly wasn't interested in being a minister. He remembers reading the New Testament in college in two weeks — mainly because he was smitten with Grace, who had given him a Bible. He immediately disagreed with most of what he'd read.

Paul, for instance, "kept talking about sin. He was like a D.A. dog at the airport looking for drugs, he was so enthusiastic looking for sin. I didn't think I was a sinner."

Then he took a philosophy class, read St. Augustine. "Thaaat clicked. I liked Augustine. He was moral and good. And he realized pride was the worst sin. That was like a kick to the groin." What was he, he realized, except full of pride over his accomplishments, doing things for self-love rather than for love of God?

He re-read his Bible. Suddenly, he knew why he existed: "To belong to God. And out of that would come my job, my wife, my family, my friends. God had complete understanding of what I needed, and it was not what I had chosen for myself. But I needed to trust him because he was smarter and kinder than me."

God told him to marry Grace, preach the Bible, plant churches, train men. He married Grace, graduated, worked as college outreach pastor at Kirkland's Antioch Bible Church.

At 25, he knew it was time to start his own church. "It was crazy," he says. "I'd never preached, run a business, gone through seminary." But "it's like you're at the kids' table at Thanksgiving and someone says: 'Someday you'll get to the big table.' Screw it. I'll just form my own table."

Driscoll started with 10 people, studying the Bible in his Wallingford home. Within six months, 120 were coming weekly.

He named his church Mars Hill after the hill in Athens where the city's high court met, and where the Apostle Paul is said to have converted a member of the court.

Seattle reminded Driscoll of that Athens. He saw himself, like Paul, going to a mostly secular but spiritual place, debating the philosophers, converting people. It is the very essence of what he sees as his role. "My vision for Seattle — I would like everyone to know Jesus. That's it."

The church has held services in Phinney Ridge, Laurelhurst, downtown, and run the Paradox Theatre, an all-ages music venue in the University District. Now, Driscoll is concentrating the local effort in Ballard.

At the same time, he is reaching well beyond the city. A Web site (www.marshillchurch.org) offers recorded music and Driscoll's sermons, as well as a link to Acts 29, a church-planting group he helped found. With plans to start 1,000 churches around the world in 10 years, the group has already helped plant 100 churches in eight countries.

Around the nation, he speaks to older preachers hungry to learn how to reach younger generations. He tells them what will most likely appeal is what appeals to him. A clear set of truths and standards to aspire to, things that ask for constant commitment. A message delivered not with sugar but with spice. And sermons that juxtapose the edge and the hardness with the joy and the promise.

During a recent sermon, Driscoll talked about "the party to end all parties, the good time to end all good times" — you know, from Revelation, the party that's supposed to happen in heaven after the world has ended and those who don't believe in Jesus have been relegated to hell.

Driscoll cited a survey that found most Americans don't think they have to believe in Jesus to ascend to heaven. Salvation, he concluded in his usual glibly provocative way, is not achieved by just being a good person or by doing good deeds. Going to heaven is "like getting to go to God's house. It's silly, really, to think we can just move into someone's house that we don't have a relationship with.

"Here's the promise: You love Jesus, you will join the multitudes from all over the world who will wear white, go to heaven and celebrate. That's the promise."

Janet I. Tu is The Seattle Times religion reporter.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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