Driscoll, Mars Hill, and Why the Problem is Much Bigger Than One Church
There has been a lot of speculation on the Internet lately regarding the problems with the future of Mark Driscoll, pastor of the Mars Hill church and the church itself. Currently, Driscoll is taking a 6-week leave, the worship leader resigned last week, financial issues have led the church to consolidate or close some of its branches, and it plans to lay off some employees.
It’s not just a Mars Hill/Driscoll problem.
Trouble started brewing at the Mars Hill church back in 2007 when new by-laws were proposed and two elders who objected to the planned centralization of power with its potential for unrestrained abuse of power were fired before the new by-laws went to vote. Unfortunately, people seem to be mostly concerned with the fact that one pastor and one small group of elders have been abusing their power, but the real problem goes way beyond this limited view — it is not as much of a people problem as it is a system problem.
When the two elders were fired, members had plenty of questions, which Driscoll and the remaining elders answered in the form of a 142 page document. In this document, the word power(s) is mentioned 78 times, not including the derivatives of the word power, which could easily increase the count to 100 or more.
Power in the Institutional Church
In the institutional church, power is played out in different ways, through gestures and conduct, and it is portrayed in certain ways, sometimes openly justified and other times, hidden. The power struggle at Mars Hill is not an isolated incident. It may seem to be, because media attention gravitates toward the mega-church genre of the institutional church, but power struggles within institutional churches of all sizes are very common.
Power & Language
Many congregants or members of institutional churches don’t realize the strong relationship between power and language. Language is a social construct that, given the right set of circumstances, can influence one’s desires or beliefs. In other words, group A, usually the pastor and a handful of people in the upper hierarchy, can use words to create a framework of perception that directly influences group B’s ability to know and understand certain things. And since people base their decisions and actions on what they know and understand, group A can essentially exercise a form of control over the decisions and actions of group B in such an indirect way that group B actually feels as if they are acting in their own best interest.
It’s not that there’s some conspiracy among pastors and elders. They don’t sit in the conference room making villainous plans with evil grins on their faces. It just happens, because they are fallible human beings in a system that brings out the absolute worst in those who get caught up in it.
Pastors and their elite (elders) regularly exercise powers that limit not only the ability, but the desire of congregants to speak or act in opposition. How does this happen? The short answer is language. But the short answer, just one word, doesn’t hold much weight all on its own. Speaking, writing, and communication in other forms are all expressions of language. It is crucial that believers methodically examine not only discourse, but the hegemonic structure of information management within the institutional church.
Yes or no: Can you speak or write to the congregation?
If yes, through what channels of power would you need to navigate in order to do so? Some possibilities include:
- Making a phone call to the church office
- Making an appointment with the pastor, elder, or someone else in leadership
- Submitting to a formal review of what you plan to say/write and why
- Gaining access to a form of discourse (for example, a microphone, the church website, a newsletter)
- Negotiating the length of time you are allowed to speak or the amount you can write (word count)
- Negotiating whether you might be allowed to speak or write more than once, to respond to opposition or rebuttal from the leadership
If not, why not? Are you expected to only be a recipient of church-approved communication?
Why You Need Permission to Speak or Write to the Congregation
Church leadership (pastor and a handful of elites) have free access to roles that involve speaking or writing, can decide what to talk about or write about, and when to speak or publish content. They determine subject matter, emphasis, and delivery. They also control speaking or writing roles subordinates can have, the content of subordinate discourse, and when subordinate speaking or writing can take place, if at all. In other words, the discourse of regular attenders/members and those in lower-level leadership is not seen by regular attenders/members as legitimate communication unless it has a stamp of approval from the higher-level leadership. And church leadership will only give that stamp of approval to (i.e. share power with) those who understand and comply with their subordinate roles.
Why Church Leadership Manages Information
Information management is a crucial function of church leadership for many reasons, but one common denominator among the reasons is power. Information management is opinion management, and opinion management ensures the power of persuasion, which is the primary power leadership uses to prevent a subordinate person/group from acquiring power. There are other methods to maintain power, such as selective funding or budget control, hiring and firing, etc. but these methods are still strictly framed within the context of information management.
Information Management Is Opinion Management
Because leadership power structures can be altered through real, organic, uncensored communication among congregants/members, the control of information, its production, and its distribution is essential to maintain opinion management. Think about it. Institutional church leadership not only decides whether a topic is relevant, but manufactures a schema of perception for norms and values. This schema of perception is built on materials/information consistent with the values and interests of the leadership, including:
- Weekly sermons (powerpoint presentations, videos, handouts, etc.)
- Publications (bulletins, newsletters, flyers, booklets, etc.)
- Suggested Bible translations and Bible study resources
- Small group curriculum (textbooks, workbooks, videos, etc.)
- Christian entertainment (books, movies, etc.)
- Church website and moderated forums
- Favorable press (advertisements, articles, interviews, etc.)
- Official personal communication (conversations, emails, texts, phone calls, etc.)
All of these threads work together to create a web of consensus, a solidarity of agreement, a constructed “feel-togetherness” that serves a very powerful purpose…
Opinion Management Ensures the Power of Persuasion
Any judgments, beliefs, or attitudes of individual congregants/members that do not fit neatly within the schema of perception are deemed by other congregants/members as backward, abnormal, defective, deficient, or even heretical. Opinion management enables the religious elite to gain the power of persuasion through fear of nonconformity. They don’t have to say or do anything to provoke this fear, because the congregants/members do it for them. How? Through an unspoken agreement that objection = dissension, disagreement = sabotage, protest = insurrection, and the like.
If, for some reason, a congregant/member does not respond to social pressure, opinion management still serves a very powerful purpose…
Leadership Uses the Power of Persuasion to Prevent a Subordinate Person/Group from Acquiring Power
When the religious elite feel that a congregant/member or someone in a lower-level leadership position is a threat to power, their response, however hostile, can be reconstructed within the schema of perception as a benevolent, gracious gesture. The language of a pastor and his small circle of religious elites, in many ways, conceals the true essence of their intentions, that is, to control mutiny. Explicit enforcement of power, in the eyes of the congregation, can backfire on them, so it is disguised by the language of “wise counsel,” perhaps in the form of a simple request or a little bit of sympathetic advice. This is how the congregant/member or someone in lower-level leadership, who has every right as a minister of reconciliation ordained by God, Himself, to object, disagree, or protest, may be categorized as rebellious or contentious if he/she does not comply.
Behind the curtain, the pastor and his small circle of religious elites can act like little gods who can’t be questioned, minimizing or dismissing concerns without consequence. In the public eye, they use their schema of perception (see the bullet list above) to offer Christianese responses that limit understanding and use their high status as a safeguard against justified criticism. Private meetings (i.e. spiritual bullying encounters) are reconstructed and disseminated through the schema of perception, to be used as a basis for further decisions or actions, which are then categorized as church “discipline.”
How Information Management Is a Basis for Other Methods to Maintain Power
When wise counsel and discipline fail, maintaining power becomes difficult, but still possible, with good information management. If the offender is an employee, threat of unpaid leave or termination may be used to maintain power. If the offender is not an employee, threat of losing status or influence in the church may have the same effect. With offenders who just won’t go away quietly, shunning can be a last resort. The problem with these and other methods is that pastors and high-level elders are only powerful in the church world. Even people who are fully assimilated into the schema of perception sometimes spot broken threads in the web of consensus. They begin to wonder whether the voice of consensus is actually just the voice of their institutional
master pastor and his bouncers elders.
In this situation, the small, power-holding group becomes especially vulnerable, and information management becomes extremely critical. In the past, this stage of power-maintenance was not very difficult. The offender would change churches or move or stop going to church, and the congregation would only have access to information deemed relevant or necessary by upper leadership. Pray for them. Forget about them. As long as unfavorable information could be eliminated or severely restrained, the web of consensus would be repaired, and the schema of perception would be strengthened.
But we are no longer living in the past.
We are living in a time of pervasive and shared information. With free access to information on the Internet and social media opening the lines of communication, believers are beginning to form a true schema of perception where consensus is not manufactured and carefully maintained, but experienced as our souls are knit together in His love. Opinion can’t be as easily managed by a handful of fallible religious elite. They may clamor about and make panicked suggestions like “Don’t Google it, don’t blow your head up. We love Jesus, read your Bible, stay off the Internet. It’s all shenanigans anyways,” but opinion is beginning to form in a new way — deep within by the power of His Spirit. Perception is not so easy to control when most of the embarrassing facts are put on the table under the light of scrutiny. Believers have been blessed by God with a giant spotlight and megaphone. All of us can more accurately discern the gas guzzling, overheating Evangelical engine and the growing pile of discarded bodies behind it.
Power Isn’t Out There… It’s In Here
For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in the heavens and on earth is named, that He may give to you, according to the riches of His glory, with might to be strengthened through His Spirit, in regard to the inner man, that the Christ may dwell through the faith in your hearts, in love having been rooted and founded, that ye may be in strength to comprehend, with all the saints, what [is] the breadth, and length, and depth, and height, to know also the love of the Christ that is exceeding the knowledge, that ye may be filled to all the fulness of God; and to Him who is able above all things to do exceeding abundantly what we ask or think, according to the power that is working in us, to Him [is] the glory in the assembly in Christ Jesus, to all the generations of the age of the ages. Amen.