Blog Post by Rev. Bill Perman
Pastor of First Presbyterian, St. Louis (University City)
Member of Commission on Ministry
Last weekend my wife Deb and I were driving home from Chicago and we decided to listen to a Christianity Today podcast called The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. (https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/podcasts/rise-and-fall-of-mars-hill/). Mars Hill was a megachurch founded in Seattle in 1996 which by 2013 had grown to 15 sites with an average weekly attendance of 12,329. In 2014 the founding pastor, Mark Driscoll, resigned after being charged with bullying and intimidating behavior. Shortly after, the church disbanded.
After we had listened to two episodes, I said to Deb, “You know what this is? It’s Tiger King goes to Church.” What I meant was that for some reason people are attracted to intelligent, charismatic, narcissistic, know-it-all bullies. It can happen with people who say they love tigers, and it can happen with people who say they love Jesus. In either case, when things fall apart, they start eating one another.
After listening to a few more episodes, it became clear that it was not just Mark Driscoll’s charisma that led to Mars Hill’s remarkable growth. It was that they were re-packaging some things that have always been very popular in America: sexism, homophobia, misogyny, male supremacy, and patriarchy. Men in the church were called to “grow up,” to “get their stones back,” to be real men, to work hard, to be providers, protectors, and spiritual leaders of their wives and children.
This may have looked and felt like being counter-cultural in a progressive city like Seattle. But it really was just riding the cultural backlash that we are seeing in the popularity of bullying political leaders like Donald Trump. My point is that Mars Hill grew not because they were embracing the gospel, not because they were counter-cultural, but because they wrapped themselves in American popular culture. It was just the culture of several decades ago.
But this is almost always how churches experience rapid growth. I see this in my own church’s 204-year history. We have grown the most when we were embracing the culture. One place this is painfully clear is in the near erasure of the Rev. Elijah Lovejoy from our history. Lovejoy was converted at a tent revival sponsored by the First Presbyterian Church of St. Louis. These days, we are proud to count him as a member. But when we were celebrating our 200-year anniversary we found almost no mention of him in our history. In a 24-page Sermon recounting the history of the Church and preached only 14 months after Lovejoy was killed, Lovejoy was not even mentioned. Martyrdom for a noble cause looks good from a distance but it is not good for church growth. And for most of our history, growth was of utmost importance.
Jumping ahead a bit, in 2004 when we embraced the love and justice of Jesus by becoming a More Light Congregation, we did not experience growth. Quite the opposite. We lost members and wealth. In this time of decline, church growth can be quite seductive. But authentic Christian practice, especially when it involves demanding justice, does not often lead to growth. It can as easily lead to a decline.
This July will be the 30th anniversary of my ordination. I have seen a lot of decline. So, for what it’s worth, here is my hot take on church growth. Very few authentic Christian communities are going to experience much growth anytime soon. By authentic Christian Community, I mean welcoming the way Jesus did; I mean obviously bearing the Fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5). This is because humans have not yet evolved enough spiritually to appreciate this kind of community. Thich Nhat Hahn, the greatest spiritual teacher of our time, died recently. His death was largely met with a collective yawn. He probably had fewer disciples in the United States than Mark Driscoll and certainly did not have the name recognition of the Tiger King.
But this is no reason to despair. No reason to lose hope. It may be the case, that if we stop worrying about growth, stop hand-wringing over the decline of the church, we can be set free to focus on creating communities of Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Generosity, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-control for those few who have already evolved enough spiritually to value these fruits of the Spirit. These will be the communities that make it through this period of decline and death. In the years to come, though I won’t live to see it, these authentic Christian Communities will make up the newborn Church of Jesus Christ.
Rev. Bill Perman
First Presbyterian, St. Louis (University City)
Commission on Ministry Member