I am young, Reformed, and I enjoy Starbucks coffee, snowboarding and backpacking around Europe. I prefer Apple products, I don’t preach in a tie, and I think fundamentalism is dangerous. Who am I? I am someone who is concerned about the influence Mark Driscoll is having upon the church.
It has been many years since I first heard the name Mark Driscoll. The day before, I was eating lunch with one of my Pentecostal friends, who wanted to know more about Calvinism. Being worried about being tagged as a hyper-Calvinist, I did my best to be humble, balanced and clear in my explanation of the five points. The next day that same friend brings me some secular magazine with an article inside entitled, if I remember correctly, “A Cussing Calvinist.” I was glad that my friend learned that I was not the only Calvinist in the world, but I was not sure how I felt about being paired with some weird preacher in Seattle who was known for his profanity. After reading that article, I thought to myself, who is this guy, and why in the world is he going around cussing in his sermons? As with my own personal introduction to Driscoll, this controversial minister in Seattle has burst upon the scene with a bang—winning as many fans and followers as he has rattled the cages of the fundamentalists.
Since that time, I have learned a lot more about Mark Driscoll, but sought to remain silent upon the cultural debates surrounding his ministry. But, having many young college students in my church (who feel called to the ministry), I feel that I couldn’t avoid the controversy any longer. So what do I do? I hop into my car, drive to the local Christian bookstore, and pay full retail price (which I hardly ever do) for Driscoll’s first book, The Radical Reformision (printed in 2004 by Zondervan). Anyway, for what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on the book.
Driscoll’s brutal honesty, transparency and wit, which are clearly communicated in his writing style, are endearing and captivating. After reading this book, I could not help but like Mark Driscoll, and I could see myself enjoying spending the day running around Seattle with him.
2. Concerned for Evangelism
I like Mark’s emphasis upon equipping the saints to be mission minded (evangelistic). Churches should encourage and equip the saints to carry the gospel to those who are in darkness. “Very Good!” are the words I wrote in the margins of page 66 after reading: “Reformission requires that every Christian and church realize that missions is about not something they do but something they are. We are all on a mission with Jesus every day, and we are either good missionaries or bad.” Mark challenges those churches who only want to form a holy huddle that they may avoid any contamination with those in the culture. I agree with Mark, we all need to rub shoulders with sinners that we may have opportunity to share our faith to those who need the Lord.
3. Full of Love
Mark’s love for the Lord, for the church and for sinners is clearly communicated as well. He has a passion for the Lord, which all Christians would do well to emulate. This book personally challenged me. After turning the last page of the book, I fell on my knees in prayer, asking forgiveness for my own lack of zeal for those without the gospel. If I ever had the opportunity to talk with Mark, I would want to tell him thanks for encouraging me in such a way.
1. Embellishing the Gospel Narrative
The first thing that troubled me was how Mark purposefully embellished the gospel narrative to make it seem as scandalous as possible. As Driscoll wrote, “Doesn’t the story (gospel narrative) sound like the plot of a trashy, daytime television talk show?” (p. 29). I know he is trying to contextualize the gospel narrative to fit a culture that is drawn to scandalous language, but even if the language is not disrespectful, it is unfaithful to the text. Mary was pregnant before she married Joseph, but nowhere in the gospel narrative does the text indicate that the Jewish community perceived Mary as a “slut”. Christ did turn water into an alcoholic beverage (e.g., wine), but this was at a traditional wedding party where his own mother was present, not some college frat party where decent mothers would not only be unwelcomed, but also feel very uncomfortable. Christ did eat with sinners, as Christians often eat with sinners in their homes or at work, yet this does not mean that Christ purposefully looked for the most questionable and shady environments to hang out and socialize so that he could better connect and understand sinners. To spin the gospel narrative in such a way to create an effect of shock in the listener is concerning to me. Driscoll takes a few events from the life of Christ and embellishes them. Worse yet, Mark seeks to build a philosophy of ministry from it.
2. A False Dichotomy
Intentionally or not, Mark labels all those who would oppose his philosophy of ministry as legalists, fundamentalists and traditionalists. As the Pharisees criticized Christ for eating with sinners, today only legalists would criticize this modern approach of evangelizing the lost by seeking to be edgy and risqué. As I was reading over pages 140-142, I could not help but think that ‘this is clever, I can’t disagree or I will become a legalist.’ According to Mark, legalists are more focused upon keeping their own human traditions than with reaching sinners for Christ. Driscoll is right when he talks about the dangers of legalism, but wrong to lump all those who do not perfectly share his opinions into the legalist camp. It is wrong to impose manmade regulations upon others, but it is not wrong to be cautious and precise in how we apply biblical principles. It is not wrong to be worried about negative appearances and concerned about how the holiness of Christ is depicted in a dark and unholy world. Contextualization of the gospel is not as cut and dry as Mark makes it sound. Also, it would have been nice if Mark could have been more understanding to those who take a more cautious approach to evangelism without disregarding them right off the bat as legalists.
3. A Misunderstanding of 1 Cor 9:19-23
Not only does Driscoll seem to build his philosophy of ministry from an embellished rendition of the gospel narrative, he seeks support from a misapplication of the words of Paul, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might win some” (1 Cor 9:22). “All things to all people” seems to be Mark’s motto. In reference to this, Driscoll writes: “Reformission churches have to continually examine and adjust their musical styles, websites, aesthetics, acoustics, programming, and just about everything but their Bible in an effort to effectively communicate the gospel to as many as possible in the cultures around them” (p. 100). In context, however, Paul was not suggesting that the Christians follow the latest trends and fads of the increasing secular culture, but rather that Christians be willing to subject their personal liberties to the moral convictions of others. For instance, out of love, Paul was willing to subject himself to the personal and moral convictions of others. He did not want his Christian liberties to be morally offensive to those whom he thought would view them as such. Eating meat offered to idols may have been lawful, but it may also have caused real offense to those who have a weak conscience. Out of love, Paul was willing to sacrifices his liberties for the good of his neighbor. How could Paul be an effective witness for a holy God if those to whom he was witnessing viewed his liberties as sinful activities? Paul loved others more than he loved his own personal freedoms, and this is what made him such an effective witness for Christ. Anything that had the appearance of evil, even though Paul may have had a clear conscience to enjoy it, he was willing to forsake if he thought it would have caused offense or would hinder the gospel from being heard. The point is that Paul was worried about being morally offensive, not stylistically offensive. In other words, Paul was not concerned about being viewed as a nerd or out of touch with the latest fashion, but more worried about limiting his ministry by participating in lawful activities that others may consider as morally wrong.
Yet Driscoll is using a small segment of this text (becoming all things to all people) to encourage Christians to purposefully participate in cultural activities which even the secular society considers risqué and edgy. This almost turns the meaning of the passage upside down. Body piercings, tattoos and drinking Budweiser may not be sinful activities in and of themselves, but these things really do little to help contextualize the gospel and may be a real hindrance to one’s ministry opportunities. The point is that Paul was not encouraging Christians to indulge in cultural activities that are considered edgy by even those who practice such things. These activities may not be sinful in themselves, but due to their negative association, they will surely be offensive to some. Some things may not be sin, but some things are not helpful (1 Cor 6:12). According to Paul, lawful activities are fine to enjoy privately or among those who share those same sentiments, but if there is a real possibility of causing offense, it is best to seek the moral high ground in cultural areas that could be considered as taboo or morally offensive (Rom 14). Driscoll may agree with this, but if he does, it would have been nice if he had warned his impressionable young readers of the dangers of negative associations and the sin of causing a weaker brother to stumble.
4. Lack of Any Clear Theological Foundation
The Scriptural basis for Mark’s philosophy of ministry seems to be based upon an embellished account of the gospel narrative and a misunderstanding of 1 Cor 9:22. Outside of these two things, there doesn’t seemed to be any real theological foundation for his view of church and culture. The only principle Mark appears to utilize is the notion that what is not explicitly forbidden is lawful. Mark has simplified this principle in the catchphrase, Reject, Receive and Redeem. Reject the things in the culture that are sinful. Receive the things in the culture that are good. And Redeem the things in the culture that are shady or questionable. If anything, Mark seems to have been influenced by the theology of the Emergent church that believes that the mission of the church is to redeem the culture. To do kingdom work is to be fully engaged in redeeming the culture and social “transformation.” The Emergent church seeks to blend the church and culture, and the gospel and social activism, together. The objective is not to have a pure church (a called out people from all nations who worship God), but a redeemed culture and a transformed society. Yet we need to remember that the Bible teaches that there is a clear distinction between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world. Christians live in both the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world. Because we live in both spheres, there are some overlaps in the cultural activities that we will enjoy (e.g., music, dress, foods, etc.). Yet, because the culture of the kingdom of God (e.g., the church) is shaped by spiritual values, and because the culture of the world is shaped by fleshly values, there is a distinction between the culture of the church and the culture of the world. The great business of the church is not to redeem culture, but to redeem sinners. This is not to say that society and culture will not benefit from the spread and growth of true Christianity; they certainly will. Yet the great mission of the church is to evangelize the lost and equip the saints for the end goal of establishing a holy people who are separate from the world. Driscoll has a passion for sinners, and I believe reaching the lost for Christ is his main objective, but he doesn’t seem to have (or at least seem to communicate) a clear theological foundation to support his philosophy of ministry.
I recommend for those who desire a theological foundation for their understanding of the church and culture to study David VanDruen’s book Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, and for a practical application of the subject to read Kevin Deyoung and Greg Gilbert’s recent book What is the Mission of the Church?
5. An Attempt to Bring Secular Culture Into the Church
Mark does well in stressing the need to reach out, to go out, and to be sent out into the culture. This is good! Mark’s initial emphasis upon going out into the world as missionaries, however, is undermined by the bulk of the book dealing with how the church should contextualize its appearance and worship to better connect with sinners. The book is not about Christians going out into the culture as much as it is about how to bring the culture into the church. It would have been helpful for Mark to have made a distinction between reaching the culture in the culture and reaching the culture in the church. All this is blended together. Mark admits on page 73 that his approach of bringing the culture into the church “blurs the line between evangelism and discipleship” and removes any clear line of who is and who is not a member of the local church. As I will mention later, this book is more a church growth manual than it is a book on outreach and evangelism.
6. A Double Standard When it Comes to Appearances
Driscoll seems more concerned about how the church appears to those whose values are shaped by the flesh than he is worried about how the church appears to those whose values are shaped by the Scriptures. Outward appearances are a big deal to Driscoll when it comes to the church being relevant and the need to contextualize the gospel to connect with sinners. The major theme of this book is how to bridge a gap with the culture by the means of aesthetics, acoustics and musical style. “Reformission Christians and churches exist to perpetuate the gospel and should be swift to change their cultural forms if they are not the most beneficial for achieving that goal… Reformission churches have to continually examine and adjust their musical styles, websites, aesthetics, acoustics, programming, and just about everything but their Bible in an effort to effectively communicate the gospel to as many people as possible in the cultures around them“ (p. 100). The point is, when it comes to relating to sinners, outward appearances matter greatly. Yet, when it comes to the appearance of evil, Driscoll discounts those who bring up such concerns as legalists. Not one time did Driscoll raise any concern about negative appearances and the danger of offending the brethren. When Driscoll did bring up the subject, he responded defensively by saying, “To let go of culture is fundamentalist sectarianism. Sectarianism is the huddling up of God’s people to enjoy each other and Jesus without caring about anyone who is lost and dying outside of Christ. To justify themselves, sectarians will often quote 1 Thessalonians 5:22 from the King James Version, which poorly translates this verse to say that we should avoid every appearance of evil, when the text actually says that we should avoid every kind of evil, which is a different matter altogether” (p. 143). As to say, don’t bring up any concern about offending others by outward appearances; all that matters is that we don’t break any explicit commands.
On page 97, Mark defends the fashion of a young woman who was into the gothic look (“complete with face painted white, hair dyed black, and dark clothing”). Mark criticized a visiting pastor who assumed that the gothic girl was a non-believer. Driscoll explained that she “was a leader in [his] church, and then justified her appearance as merely matter of personal taste and preference. As if to say, how dare you judge this girl by her cover? (Yet Driscoll, on page 100, judges churches that are not in vogue with the latest fashion and cultural trends as legalists and unconcerned about evangelism.) The point is, for Driscoll, outward appearances only matter when it comes to relating and connecting with the culture. Fashion communicates that we are relevant; it has nothing to do with communicating if we are holy. Paul and Peter must have been borderline legalists when they instructed godly women not to dress in a way that would overshadow and distract others from seeing the hidden beauty of the heart (1 Pet 3:3-4, 1 Tim 2:9-10).
I understand that we cross the line into legalism when we seek to pinpoint the line between holiness and worldliness. The difficulty in talking about this subject is that it is wrong to define what worldliness outwardly looks like (e.g., don’t touch, don’t taste, don’t where fashionable clothes, don’t drink Budweiser, etc.). Once we start to draw the lines, we do become legalists. Nevertheless, I still think that a wise pastor would have explained to this Christian girl that outward appearances still matter. If appearances did not matter, why did the president of the North Carolina Panthers (NFL football team) asked their star quarterback Cam Newton (who is considered the face of the franchise) to remain free of tattoos? The reason is that even non-Christians realize that certain cultural practices communicate negative values and can harm a healthy perception. Outward appearances do communicate inward attitudes and desires, this is why Paul and Peter reminded godly women not to place their emphasis upon their external appearance, but rather seek to display the hidden beauty of the heart (1 Tim 2:9-10, 1 Pet 3:3-4).
Appearance of wealth, the appearance of being cool and hip, the appearance of being rebellious and the appearance of being smart is more important to our culture than actually being rich, cool, rebellious and smart. Appearances and personal image is everything to this fallen culture. All of this in reality is vain and stems from the lust of the eyes and pride of life. Now, the church does exist in the culture and, because of this, Christians will enjoy and participate in certain secular cultural activities (foods, dress, music, etc.). However, the church should not seek to portray that their focus is upon the same thing the world values—looking cool, smart, rich and rebellious. This is sending and communicating the wrong message. Also the church needs to be careful not to promote and encourage Christians to run after these things. The church needs to be careful not to fall into the trap of seeking to gain credibility and the approval of society by seeking to brand a certain fleshly image that the world considers attractive and cool. This is sending the wrong non-verbal message. Why would the church purposefully use the outward forms that the secular culture is knowingly going to tag with questionable practices to mediate the glorious gospel? Just because we live in Vanity Fair, does not mean we have to look like Vanity Fair to warn the lovers of Vanity Fair to forsake Vanity Fair.
7. How Much of Contextualization is a Really a Church Growth Marketing Strategy?
As I read this book, I was looking for the foundation behind Driscoll’s philosophy of ministry. Driscoll admitted on page 65 that when he planted Mars Hill (the church he pastors) he did not know what he was doing. This means that Driscoll began his journey by not knowing what to do and ended up with a mega-church and a book telling others how to do it. So between the time of ignorance and publishing a how-to book, how did Driscoll arrive at his approach? As mentioned before, he seems to have been influenced by his own embellished account of the gospel narrative, as if Christ sought to promote a cool and fashionable Christianity. Second, Driscoll leans heavily upon a misapplication of 1 Cor 9:22, “I have become all things to all people.” Third, he seems to have been influenced by the Emergent Church, which believes that the mission of the church is to redeem the culture and transform society. Yet, in these three things, there seems to be another influence that helped shape Driscoll’s philosophy of ministry. On pages 70-73, Driscoll reveals what may be the main reason for embedding the church with secular culture—it’s a proven marketing strategy that sells. Driscoll applies the principles of growing a business found in The Experience Economy (a book written by James Gilmore and Joseph Pine II) to the church. In The Experience Economy we learn that people are not just buying coffee, they are buying an experience. In the same way that Starbucks has successfully branded itself by creating a personal in-store experience for their patrons, according to Driscoll the church needs to market itself by providing a similar multi-sensual impression for its visitors. If an aroma of potpourri, soft music mingling in the background, and relaxing earth tone colors can stimulate coffee sales, maybe the right personalities, lighting and music can stimulate church growth. To grow a church, the church must offer people a multi-sensual experience. This is why music, lighting, acoustics, art, and fashion are such a major theme in Driscoll’s book.
Worse than that, one of the biggest methods of gaining popularity, fame and fans in our modern secular culture is to gain press coverage by doing something edgy or questionable. Think of all the music artists who have sold their records by promoting sex. Controversy draws curiosity, media time and attention. The former coach for the Tennessee University football team, Lane Kiffin, admitted after the fact that much of his wild antics and questionable statements were designed to bring the national spotlight back upon the program. Controversy and sex sells, even in the church! I am afraid if we took away the curse words, explicit talks about sex acts, his edgy cultural expression and all his outward ascetics and left him alone with the gospel and a basic pair of blue jeans, Mark would not be near as interesting, or likely to be a high profile Christian celebrity.
In conclusion, because of his firm stance upon the gospel and his love of the lost, I would gladly stand with Driscoll when it came to preaching the gospel, but because of his questionable practices, I would hesitate recommending his philosophy of ministry for building a church.