We had been attending our church for almost a year before it transitioned over to Mars Hill. We were to be the first out of state satellite campus. This was an exciting time for our church. We were really beginning to trust and appreciate our pastor Dave Bruskas at the time. All our friends had begun attending and we all seemed excited for the new journey that our church was about to go on.
My husband had listened to Mark Driscoll a few times in the past and thus he knew of the way Acts 29 Church plants were run and he wasn’t quite sure what he thought of Driscoll. After all, this pastor was across the globe and the few sermons my husband did hear were all about Jesus so he found no fault with the messages he had listened to, so we were willing to stay through the transition, and besides, our friends of over 9 years were there.
During this transition our close friends became community group leaders, it was very fast and this concerned us (for other reasons) but we loved them dearly and didn’t say anything and just went along with it. During the transition we began to read things about Mark Driscoll online like the open letter John MacArthur wrote and how Driscoll was called “The Cussing Pastor.” We were alarmed at his reputation online, but we didn’t want to be quick to judge so we brought our concerns up to our friends who were our community group leaders. They laughed it off and said, “Yes, we know, we too had those concerns, but becoming a member doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything, it just means you’re joining and being part of this team here locally.”
Week after week we watched all our friends become members and we were subjected to Pastor Mark’s heavy sermons that now looking back were very abusive in tone on how those who weren’t members were “in sin”. I remember week after week feeling like the scum of the earth for not becoming a member; I wondered why it was essential to join. He made it sound like it was essential to our salvation. I remember one time in his sermon he had all the members in the church stand up and he told all the non-members to look at them and thank them for picking up our slack and for doing our work because well since we weren’t members those who were members were doing more serving, more giving, and more committed than those who weren’t members. Gosh, I felt so ashamed that we weren’t members.
We wanted so badly to serve in the church but we knew that we were limited in our serving unless we were members; it was like members had access to more than non members in their ability to serve. My husband was not convinced that membership was essential to being part of any church, and thus he didn’t want to become a member, but we were still actively giving financially, serving in the capacity allowed as non-members, but still that didn’t change the pressure from the elders and our community group leader (who were our friends of 9 years) on us to join.
Over six months had passed and the pressure grew for us to become members, my husband had some concerns that since we didn’t agree with the doctrine wholeheartedly that perhaps it wasn’t a good idea for us to join, and also the membership stated that we would not question the leadership and my husband found that to be very odd. Of course our friends reassured us that we were free to express any concerns/or ask any questions any time and that becoming a member was for our benefit as we would be able to hold leadership accountable and not to worry about the doctrinal differences as they had them too. So my husband and I became members, although my husband still was reluctant and even as he signed it he was telling our friends, “I don’t feel comfortable but I don’t want you guys to get in trouble as leaders (as they were telling us that the Elders were coming down on them as community group leaders for us not becoming members yet).
After we became members our community group leaders, our best friends, began to change. They began to be very authoritative and intrusive. I remember my best friend beginning to ask me how much we were giving to the church and I thought she was asking as my friend so I told her we were only giving $40 a month as that was all we could afford. We had just moved into a home that was infested with termites/mold that we didn’t know about and the repair damage was intense. We barely could afford to repair anything. My in-laws were helping us. Despite telling this to my best friend and our community group for months we received no help from our community group.
It was a hard time. We went through the winter without a heater. When we asked for help our community group leader again took an authoritative role, asking intrusive questions like why weren’t we saving enough money to fix these repairs, why did we move into this house, and why didn’t my husband plan better, as if he was sinning (which he wasn’t), but it was a trial we were going through. Yet they still were intrusive about how we managed our funds. I remember getting our checkbook out and telling my best friend she could look and see that we weren’t being unwise with our funds. She insisted we take a “finance class” held by one of the elders. Our community group leaders even insisted we go get food stamps as this would free us up to give more financially to the Church. We were in shock by this. Finally they posted that we needed help and a couple of people helped out. Thankfully we got space heaters that winter. We saw a different side to our friends of 9 years during this time. It was very weird.
My community group leaders began to watch my personal Facebook wall, making sure that I didn’t say or do anything that was contrary to what they thought was good for me. If we missed church or community group we would get a phone call and get asked a lot of questions about why we missed. We always felt like we’d better have an emergency for missing.
Our lives were consumed with Mars Hill and Community group and all other churches were wrong and not like Mars Hill. We were trained to believe that we were the real church, the real ones loving Jesus, and those other churches and Christians didn’t understand or know Jesus like those at Mars Hill did.
Week after week our community group looked more like a therapy session on Dr. Phil. Opening our Bibles and prayer seemed to dwindle and we read more from the script given to us by the elders, which included Mark Driscoll’s sermons. Any time we would try to point out an error in Mark’s sermon, we would have the whole community group in an uproar, even if we tried to use scripture. We then began to sit silent most of the time. We didn’t seem to have much to contribute to the lengthy therapy sessions week after week and because of that we were accused of being “religious” because we didn’t share with the group our sins committed for the week or our struggles, and when I did share my struggles with the group, which included to get up early (i.e. not be lazy) and seek the Lord in prayer and reading the word, I was told that I was being religious or it was scrutinized and stripped down so much so that I was beaten down and made to believe that I was committing idolatry for wanting to do any good in my life, that I was being religious, and how I needed the community group/elders to point out my idolatry for me.
The whole thing became so confusing to me. Week after week, sermon after sermon, I felt less and less human, I felt more like scum and wicked and dirty and filthy for even wanting to be godly and glorify God, again it was because of all the “therapy” that took place in community group.
Mark was preaching on bullying and how Christians bully each other. How ironic that during this sermon he was being a bully when he delivered that message. Yelling, telling his congregation how they were like scum and a joke, etc. How they were nasty, wretched, wicked. He wasn’t affirming their identity in Christ. Rather, he was stripping their identity only to build a new identity that included Mars Hill leaders as their new authority alongside Jesus.
My best friend decided after hearing that message that she and I could no longer be friends. I asked her why, she said she didn’t feel our friendship was edifying anymore. How ironic after 9 years of friendship and now that they were in leadership and the day before I had stood up to their newfound leadership, telling them that they had no authority over me to tell me what events I could and could not attend, that now all of sudden she was convicted to not be my friend. I was so hurt and said okay and told her that I still wanted to be her friend but whatever she wanted to do I would support her.
Two weeks went by and we didn’t talk but we still went to community group. It was awkward but then we talked again she then said that God told her we could still be friends, but that we had to stop gossiping (apparently she felt we were doing a lot of gossip), and she felt we talked too much on the phone. I agreed with her and we only began to talk on the phone once a week and our focus was prayer for our community group. She began to go through a trial herself during that time. I was at her house almost daily, helping her take care of her 4 children as she was unable to do so and she had doctor’s appointments, I was there babysitting and cleaning/cooking for her and praying with her, reading scripture to her during her time of struggle.
A couple months passed and then she of the blue said, “I don’t want to be your friend. I went to a demon trial”. Apparently, the elders were doing demon trials on members or anyone who had oppression in their life. Mark Driscoll wrote this whole procedure on how to summon, and then put on trial the demons that are oppressing the believer. It all sounded strange to us. I asked her why she couldn’t be my friend and she said my name was brought up in a demon trial. I asked her what that meant, and she didn’t answer any more questions other than “talk to your elder about it, but that she would no longer ask me for prayer, talk to me about spiritual things, etc. without giving any other reasons. She said we were still welcome to attend community group, though. A flood of emotions came in, there was no sin issue as we had already dealt with her concerns of gossip/talking too much two months prior so I didn’t understand why now she didn’t want to be friends. Her defense was that she should have listened to God two months ago and not be my friend. I asked her if she saw any changes in our friendship since then. She said yes, that we were talking less on the phone and that when we did talk we were praying and keeping it Christ-centered. To this day she says she ended our friendship because of “sin.” But it wasn’t until that demon trial that things changed.
We got a copy of the formality of the demon trial that Mark Driscoll wrote, and my husband thought it was very wacky and unbiblical. At this point we hadn’t been to church in a couple weeks. We were praying, seeking counsel at what to do next. Then the unbelievable happened, the ELDERS sent out an email on the City (the internal website for members), telling them that we left the church unbiblical and if anyone sees or talks to us to urge us to talk to the leadership about why we left. The funny thing is we never had officially left; we just hadn’t been there for a couple weeks. We began to get messages on our personal Facebook wall from members telling us that we left the wrong way. My husband was appalled. As we hadn’t even left the church yet. We were in shock that the elders who sent this message to members made no effort to email us personally or call us to see if in fact we had left.
At this point, my husband wrote a formal letter expressing all our concerns with Mars Hill, especially addressing the abusive tone and nature of the leadership and Mark. He also addressed the demon trials and how they were unbiblical. After that we never heard from anyone again.
Almost a year later a woman I knew contacted me. She told me she was attending Mars Hill and she wanted to know the process of getting assistance for her baby like getting food stamps etc. I asked her why she would be asking me what the process was; she said she assumed I would know since we had 5 children. I told her I didn’t know the process but that I could look up a number for her online, which I did. I asked her if she was in need. She said yes, that her husband had a gambling problem, which I had known about as she had confided me in the past about her marital issues. She told me that she had no money for food for her and her baby. I asked her if she was tithing to Mars Hill, she said yes and that she and her husband were fighting about it because he didn’t want her tithing. I asked her how much she was giving. She said $300 a month, at this point I told her that she should stop tithing and buy groceries instead, she said well I thought I had to tithe as Pastor Mark Driscoll always preaches about giving and tithing and I love Mars Hill and Jesus. I explained she didn’t have to tithe and that any church should be ashamed of themselves accepting a tithe from a woman they know is on the verge of divorce, whose husband doesn’t approve of her tithing and who has to go apply for food stamps because she tithes the grocery money.
She agreed with me and went to her community group leader’s wife (who was our mutual friend that I knew for about 8 years) whose husband was just ordained as the new Biblical Living Pastor of Mars Hill. I received a phone call from her. She was very upset that I would tell her not to tithe, and how unbiblical of me to tell her that megachurch pastors receive high salaries (of which I never said) and that she didn’t have to tithe. I told my supposed to be friend that there was no reason for her to be tithing her grocery money. But she refused to listen to me. She yelled at me, telling me I was sowing seeds of bitterness and being divisive and that I was just mad about what happened with my best friend and I was bitter against Mars Hill. I kept telling her that this gal called me asking me for advice and I told her she didn’t have to tithe. Her words were, “Leave our sheep alone. If any of our sheep call you, just refer them back to us. We are very protective of our sheep, and how dare you tell her anything about tithing.” She then said, “I am telling her not to listen to you, that you’re giving her bad counsel.” I asked her why she would slander me like that when she is supposed to be a pastor’s wife. She then said, “What is this girl going to think of my husband, who just got ordained as the new Biblical Director?” I then told her, “Oh, I see. You’re more concerned about your reputation than you are about the well being of this girl who is on the verge of divorce and applying for food stamps because she is told by your pastor and you that she has to TITHE. I told her if you really love your sheep and are protective of them like you say then maybe you all should find a way to help your member, not take from her, especially in her time of distress.
It has taken me 3 years to heal from the emotional and spiritual abuse that took place at Mars Hill. When all you hear week after week is how you are worthless, wicked, the scum of the earth, how you are lazy, not fit for anything, how selfish and how religious you are for wanting to attempt anything for God, and how you need your leaders and community group to keep you in line, hold you accountable; you begin to believe it and it drowns the voice of the Holy Spirit.
I have been wanting to tell our story for the past 4 years. I knew that if I went public, I would be labeled as “divisive, bitter, unforgiving, mean-spirited, slanderer, gossiper” etc. I knew this because after we left and I began to find similar stories to ours online and as I posted them on my personal Facebook page, my Mars Hill friends would respond with words like, “Check your heart against bitterness, you are slandering, stop gossiping and being divisive, stop dividing the body, etc.”
This furthered my silence and slowed down my speaking out and I only told my story to those that asked me why we left. Nevertheless, this still didn’t stop the shunning that took place after we left. I love the people at Mars Hill, who are broken, real and all about Jesus. I loved that while we attended Mars Hill the people were always very open and willing to share very personal aspects of their lives with each other. It isn’t policies, procedures or board members that make up the Church at Mars Hill, it is the people.