Reading most narrative resources on church planting is very much like trying to leave reality and live in a dream world. The inspiring but atypical stories found in books by Rick Warren, Bill Hybels and Andy Stanley have the capacity to make a church planter dream big, but they can also lead him to fall hard! Yet Mark Driscoll's latest work introduces aspiring apostolic leaders to the hard realities of church planting, as well as the glorious finish line that can await all faithful servants of Jesus.
In 2001 when my family and I began planting a church, I read all the resources that were at the time considered "required reading." I still remember reading about the Real Estate broker who found Rick Warren a rent-free home for a month and simultaneously joined his church. I remember rejoicing as I read about the rapid growth of Willow Creek, and dreaming big while reading Stanley's success story known as Northpointe Church. Six months later, with no building, no money, and struggling to gather a core group, I felt very much like the special needs student who had accidentally signed up for the AP calculus course. I honestly wondered what I was doing wrong, not thinking about the possibility that Rick, Andy and Bill might be telling stories of extraordinary moves of God . . . .the exception rather than the rule.
Five years later, that church which began as a vision from God came togetherwith an older, established congregation, and by His grace continues to worship on Parkins Mill Road in Greenville South Carolina. It has helped to birth two other congregations in the Greenville area as well, but not without almost killing me first! My experiences there taught me that while it is OK to dream big, reading stories about airplanes full of people coming to Jesus can sometimes produce unrealistic expectations.
Now I have the privilege of overseeing the work of church planting in one of the most affluent areas in the country, and God is allowing me to share my limited experience with the guys who are now doing the work. While I want them to dream big, and expect God to do big things, I don't want them to think that growth comes without blood, sweat, tears, demonic oppression, temptation, fatigue, and a host of other impediments. Now that Driscoll's book Confessions is finally in print, I have a resource that will help them see this.
In the book, Mark Driscoll chronicles the birth and growth of Seattle's Mars Hill Church. Each of the seven chapters details a segment of growth within the church, which began in Driscoll's living room in 1996 with 12 people, and has since blossomed into a congregation of over 4,000. Throughout the book, there is a healthy balance of inspirational accounts of conversion and discipleship with brutal honesty concerning the sacrifice neccesary to bring about such spiritual development. Not content to allow you to see only the present worship center after a Sunday morning, Driscoll takes you into his living room where 12 people gathered initially, into the upstairs youth room of a fundamentalist church with 70s shag carpet where the church met for a period of time, into his bedroom at 3 AM for a rather blunt and personal "counseling" phone call with a porn-addict, and even into his own mind as he recounts his personal experiences with sexual temptation, spiritual warfare, sleeplessness, marital discord, frustration, anger and fatigue.
The stories come to life in a way only Driscoll can communicate, and each of his personal experiences leaves the reader with valuable lessons that will prove useful during the church planting experience. As I was reading, I found myself consistently asking "where was this book five years ago?" After reading this work, I have come to the conclusion that either Mark and I are both insane, and the only two people who have experienced such things, or his experiences represent the "norm" of church planting with much more accuracy. While I admit that my sanity is a point of debate among some friends of mine, I will opt for the second possibility.
There are a number of reasons this book should be on every church planter's shelf. First of all, there is a very helpful introduction in which Driscoll asks ten very probing questions that will help pastors and church planters alike shape the vision of their church in a way that will glorify God. Affectionately entitled "Chapter Zero," this section deals with the balance between "Gospel," "Culture," and "Church," and seeks to pull the reader from thinking of church planting solely in terms of "attraction," to thinking missionally so that their church will permeate its community with Gospel presence.
Second, Driscoll is an unabashed theological conservative, and helps today's church planters not lose sight of the fact that our programming, strategies, theological understanding, and ecclesiological foundations must be taken solely from the text of Scripture. One exerpt serves as an example:
At the time, it was becoming increasingly popular for young pastors to have churches that were not called "churches," but rather silly things like "new monastic communities," and leaders that were not called "pastor," but rather silly things like "abbess," or "spiritual director." As our mission began to develop, the New Testament teaching on church leadership and church discipline seemed increasingly wise and urgent to implement, before we ended up like the church at Corinth, divided and off mission because of folly and sin. Over the years, I have become increasingly troubled by the frequency with which young pastors simply dismiss the New Testament teaching on church leadership and discipline, so that if four guys are drinking beer in a pub, they can call it a church." (p.47)
Driscoll also takes the opportunity at one point in the book to distance himself from much of the aberrant theology coming out of Emergent. Recounting his experiences with Brian McLaren, Driscoll says "though I sincerely love Brian and appreciate the kindness he has shown to me, I generally disagree with many of his theological conclusions . . . .His pacifism seems to underlie many of our theological disagreements since he has a hard time accepting such things as the violence of penal substitutionary atonement, parts of the Old Testament where God killed people, and the concept of conscious eternal torment in hell . . . .I find it curious that, from my perspective, he is using his power as a writer and speaker to do violence to Scripture in the name of pacifism." (p.99)
Third, as I mentioned before, Driscoll's story is a "real world" story, that will likely be much more reflective of the average church planter's experiences. Angry core group members walking out, theological heresy causing the resignation of staff, and immature Christians seeking to lead before they are ready are but a few of the experiences Driscoll shares that I suspect will cause almost everyone who has planted a church to say "I remember that!"
Fourth, interspersed between these brutally true experiences are stories of grace. Driscoll is careful to note that even in the middle of the toughest times, God was working to save people at Mars Hill, and the stories are moving to say the least. Each chapter is prefaced with a one-sentence testimony that reminds the reader of the work of God, even in the midst of apparent chaos. These testimonies reveal such things as:
-God saved me while I was living with my lesbian mom and my dad was in prison for murder. I am a founding pastor.
-I was a pothead until I got saved and now I am the president of the chamber of commerce and the executive pastor.
-I was not a Christian when I came to the church. Today, I am a pastor.
Finally, Driscoll is abundantly clear throughout that the success of Mars Hill is owed to God alone. While no one who has planted a church would deny such a statement, many books on the subject seem to leave the reader with the impression that "our church grew because we . . . .[fill in the blank]." To be sure, Driscoll relates the lessons he has learned the hard way in the hopes that others will choose a less rocky path. But in the end, Mars Hill is shown to be totally the work of God. Driscoll admits from the very first sentence when he says, "I have made so many mistakes as a pastor that I should be pumping gas for a living instead of preaching the Gospel." And of the end result of his labors he states, "basically, we are a kite in God's hurricane, which is an absolute joke for reasons that will become apparent as you read through the book." (p.9)
Two cautions are in order. First, his comparisons of congregational ecclesiology with Senior Pastor and Elder ecclesiology is an exercise in oversimplification, and assumes these leadership models to be mutually exclusive. His rationale against "majority vote" decision-making in the church is worthy of a strong hearing, but in the end, he throws the baby out with the bathwater by seeing "congregationalism" as synonymous with "democracy." I agree with Driscoll that the latter has been syncretized into the local church in America, but the former has Biblical merit, and should be given more careful consideration.
Another caution is that some will find the way Driscoll sometimes expresses himself to be offensive. Many reviews have already been written that chide Driscoll heavily for what is perceived to be "coarse and offensive" language that occassionally appears in the book. But in the end, I would encourage the reader to resist straining at this gnat so that you can be blessed by hearing the heart of this pastor-missionary.
Mark Driscoll is a God-send to the emerging church. His newest book is Biblically sound, brutally honest, and cross-centered. This will be required reading for any of our new church planters. I am confident that the book will encourage them to equip themselves for the task ahead.
Driscoll, Mark. 2006. Confessions of a Reformission Rev. Hard Lessons from an Emerging Missional Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.