Archive for January, 2011

Mars Hill Albuquerque

January 25, 2011 2 comments

I guess one of the things I was wondering when we visited Mars Hill Albuquerque was whether or not and the degree to which the sermon we would hear would be a “Mark Driscoll sermon” somehow. Meaning, on the basis of what I’d read about Driscoll, whether the sermon took a particular interpretive tack, so to speak, on the sermon text, consistent or otherwise with a plain reading of the text. And I would have guessed this would be more sensible, given what I knew at the time, because I was expecting a Driscoll video sermon rather than a live one from Dave Bruskas. I was mostly looking for a focus on one or more of the following:

  • “Community” or even “living in community,” consistent with what I’d read in Donald Miller
  • Gender roles and Complementarianism, given what I’d read in Beaujon and Sandler
  • Reformed themes, given what I knew about Driscoll’s theology generally
  • Muscularity and masculinity, given Molly Worthen’s take on Driscoll from the York Times

One of the perils of reading other people’s accounts of anything, particularly trained journalists (everybody in the list above except Miller and me), is that they tend to less report what they saw and heard than fit what they saw and heard into an existing narrative. This is a recurring theme in Terry Mattingly’s visits with Todd Wilken, especially when he’s doing a “top religion stories” piece; Mattingly repeatedly warns that reporters generally fit what they see into an existing narrative, one that may not actually be appropriate for the facts or events at hand. That was my recurring problem with Sandler in particular, but that’s another topic for another post.

So the sermon text (Remember the sermon? This is a post about a sermon.) was Isaiah 9:6:

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace [link].

I’m quoting the KJV here because as per usual I like the way it reads and also because this is the punctuation I’m accustomed to: Wonderful and Counselor are two different names here. This reading is apparently out of fashion, and now reading “Wonderful Counselor” as a single name is preferred.

We read the verse off the screen; this is either another contemporary evangelical flourish in use at MHA, or a concession to the poor light in the theater. I’m not sure which. Bruskas connected the verses to the previous week’s sermon (this being the second week of Advent) by recapping the previous sermon, in which he discussed the fact that we are “enemies of God:”

  • You and I (meaning Bruskas and his audience) are enemies of God
  • We are still prone to treason against God
  • Jesus must conquer us

The current sermon is devoted to the first name: Wonderful Counselor; this is one of four military terms in this verse (the other four being “mighty God,” “everlasting Father,” and “Prince of Peace”). A “wonderful counselor” is a clever and/or effective strategist. What is Jesus’s strategy for conquering us?

And that was the last mention of the sermon text; Bruskas spent the rest of the hour in 1 Corinthians and Romans, without referring to Isaiah again.

So I guess I’d have to say this sermon pretty comfortably into at least one of the categories above and partway into another:

  1. It’s definitely a “muscular Christianity” reading of the verses above. I’m at a loss to explain how “everlasting Father” and “Prince of Peace” are military terms, and while I can see how a wonderful counselor would be an effective strategist, I’m not sure Bruskas’s reading here is intrinsic in the text.
  2. Reading a text out of context and using it as a pretext for jumping into Paul’s letters is pretty standard fare in conservative churches of a certain stripe, and sermons that aren’t done until we’ve gotten to Romans seems to be more a mark of Reformed leanings than of conservatives generally.

So yeah, it looks like this is pretty consistent with what I guess I should have expected visiting a church with ties to Mark Driscoll.

In the next post or two I’ll deal with the rest of the sermon. It’s theologically orthodox, but it isn’t really an Advent sermon. Hint: he doesn’t mention, much less delve into, the meaning of the Incarnation. I don’t know what to make of this; it’s something that puzzles me considerably about contemporary conservative churches generally: they tend to treat Jesus as someone who was for the most part defined by Paul as a theological concept but was beyond understanding in any other way. I won’t say “Reformed types are Docetist” or any nonsense like that, but I think I’d have to argue that Advent isn’t primarily about well-defined Pauline concepts. It’s about Incarnation.


Busy, back soon

January 18, 2011 3 comments

Sorry folks. My current business trip has been long, mostly off-line, and completely out of hand. I missed a chance to visit Tim Keller’s church, but I got in another visit to Thomas Road. I expect to finish the series on Mars Hill Albuquerque later this week. Thanks for your continued patience.

Categories: Self-referential

Mars Hill Albuquerque

January 11, 2011 1 comment

During the opening, after the short video of Mark Driscoll, campus pastor Dave Bruskas told us that the giving target for Mars Hill Albuquerque (MHA) was $78,000. This was part of the giving narrative we’d heard in the video, so it wasn’t totally unexpected, but one rarely hears this sort of candor from the pulpit. In fact I can’t remember the last time I heard the pastor of a local church say how much money he expected of us from the pulpit for general operations. I typically only hear this kind of detail for a “special offering.”

I’m more accustomed to seeing line items in the bulletin; in Baptist churches and in one independent church I’ve recently seen a breakdown that includes the monthly budget, the amount given so far, the number of donors, maybe the corresponding figures for the week or month the previous year, or some combination of the above. These collections of numbers have gotten more common in the last couple of years, and they typically tell one of two stories: either 1) our church is growing, or 2) we’re not meeting budget numbers.

At MHA the $78,000 number for December was pitched as kind of both: the church is growing, and so the December budget number was a big number. I took this to mean that expenses were up, or they’re making plans to spend more money in the future, or something like that. It wasn’t entirely clear what it meant: whether it was meant to be a measure of giving capacity, or a number related to expenses, both, or neither.

Does $78,000 a month sound like a lot of money to you? Let’s do a little analysis.

There were four Sundays in December 2010, so that’s $19,500 per Sunday. MHA draws 600 people a week; I’m going to take that to mean that 600 different people attend some combination of their three Sunday morning and evening services. That works out to $32.50 per person. If we take that to be the “cost of service per attendance” or something like that it seems kind of high; I mean, would you pay that kind of money to spend a comparable amount of time in a movie theater to see a movie? A play? Some other kind of arts programming? I’m not sure what’s a fair comparison here.

On the other hand, if everyone at MHA tithes 10% of their gross income it suggests the average person makes $15,600 a year. That might be reasonable for a church of mostly students; in New Mexico the minimum wage is $7.50 an hour, and with 2080 hours in a working year (52 x 40) that’s again $15,600. Of course not everyone at MHA tithes 10% of their gross, and not everyone who goes to church there makes minimum wage (or works 40 hours a week 52 weeks a years) so it’s just an estimate. The studies I’ve read suggest that roughly 5% of churchgoers under 45 tithe; if that’s true at MHA their average tither makes more than $300,000 a year. Yeah. More likely they have a higher than average percentage of tithers, or have a small handful of rich donors.

What does it suggest about the salaries of paid staff? Well, MHA lists four people as pastors and staff: Bruskas, A. J. Hamilton, and deacons Donovan Medina and Matt Wallace [link]. If their staffing expenses are commensurate with Mars Hill’s reported 2009 numbers [PDF] they’re paying the average staff member the December 2010 equivalent of $120,616.80 in 2008-2009 dollars. That seems kind of high; I have to assume they have other staff positions (secretaries or band members, say) or are spending proportionally more on facilities (a historic theater in Nob Hill can’t be cheap) or utilities.

So I really don’t have a feel for whether MHA’s budget figures are high (meaning that either pastors are making huge salaries, the ministry is wasteful with money overall, or both) or low (meaning that they’re a lean efficient organization staffed by starving servants of God, etc.). With the kind of transparency Mars Hill offers in its annual report it’s hard to say.

Mars Hill Albuquerque

January 10, 2011 Leave a comment

The service at Mars Hill Albuquerque (MHA) opened with a short loud set (3 or 4 songs) by the band, interspersed with prayers and, because this was the Second Sunday of Advent, a candle-lighting with a reading by someone on stage. This more or less fit in with what I was expecting from a church with a mix of evangelical megachurch and Reformed elements: the rock band being the former; the candle-lighting, reading, and Advent references the latter.

A worship band faces some challenges generally: they run the risk of being gushy and fake (prayers too earnest week after week, breaking down of the fourth wall a bit too confessional, etc.) on the one hand, and being too distant, rock-show-y or wallpapery on the other. The house band at MHA ran more to the latter extreme; there were instrumental solos and the band members rarely looked at us during their performance. Also, while they had clearly taken precautions (the drums were behind a hinged perspex drum shield and the drummer used bundled dowel “cool rods”) they still packed a wallop. I’m inclined to blame the shape of the room.

One of the reasons I wanted to visit Mars Hill Albuquerque (MHA) was that I understood that they were essentially a “video church,” where they would gather every week to see a video of the previous week’s service at Mars Hill in Seattle. So imagine my surprise when the music opened with a short video featuring Mark Driscoll reminding us to give and telling us that he’d “see us next month.” The latter part meant we’d be hearing Dave Bruskas preach a sermon live; the former tied in with the morning’s handouts.

Where many (most?) churches have a bulletin or an order of service or a full copy of the morning’s liturgy, MHA handed out two items, both professional-looking, both reminders to give money to Mars Hill. The first was the Mars Hill Weekly, a six-section trifold with a short update from Chris Swan at Bellevue (WA) saying that they’d signed a lease, are running 1500 on Sunday in a space that seats 500, another from James Harleman announcing plans to open a campus in Everett (WA), a Connect Card we could use to sign up to get involved, and a single panel outline of the morning’s sermon. The bottom quarter of the outline included a banner that read “GIVE: GIVING CHEERFULLY AND SACRIFICIALLY OF OUR FINANCES IS PART OF OUR WORSHIP.”

The other handout was a letter-sized was from the Generous Campaign; its main points were these:

  • An overleaf with the word GENEROUS and a quote from Luke 12:34: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
  • A short message from Pastor Jamie Munson reminding us of what Mars Hill did with donations in 2010.
  • The three main points of the Generous Campaign: Stability, Expansion, and Legacy; these were respectively a reference to the financial base required for church operations; the plans the leaders at Bellevue and Shoreline have for opening new campuses, along with a brand new campus in Portland (OR); and a reminder that the church has commitments to children’s ministries for 1000 children a week and bands for 1300 services a week.
  • A mailer for sending a check or credit card information in the mail, along with spaces to report “evidence of God’s grace in your life in 2010” and “prayer requests for 2010.”
  • A pointer for the 2010 Annual Report, available in January.

I will eventually get to the sermon; I’ve got a lot more notes on that, but I was really surprised to look back at what I had and discover just how much of it had to do with money. The handouts really did nothing to undermine the expectation I had that Mars Hill tells itself an expansion story that, while occasionally larded with Christianese (“The Lord has grown the Bellevue Campus,” “let’s make Everett known for Jesus”), is as much (if not more) a business story as a religious story.

I was struck by the novel use of the word “generous” here; I’m accustomed to hearing it as a virtue to be modeled in treating fellow believers or one’s fellow man  (“be generous to each other”) rather than one’s organization (“be generous to Mars Hill so the leaders can expand the organization”). Or maybe I’m accustomed to hearing requests for money as pleas rather than as commands. Regardless, there’s something about the Mars Hill approach to raising money that struck me as at best direct and at worst, well, something worse.

Mars Hill Albuquerque

January 7, 2011 Leave a comment

The religious landscape in Albuquerque is complicated, or maybe I should say diverse, and just keeping up with the changes on the religious scene, never mind the day-to-day health of the scene, would be more than a full-time job. The Albuquerque metro area includes tony, nearly churchless communities like Placitas and Corrales; three Pueblos, of which one is predominately Christian, an entrenched Catholic culture with a continuous history back to the time of the conquistadors, a distinct new immigrant Catholic culture, established Lutheran communities (both ELCA and LCMS), with their attendant schools, a long-lived nondenominational homeless shelter [link], two religious television stations (one run by a local church; one TBN affiliate), and four of New Mexico’s five megachurches [link].

It is also home to the University of New Mexico, which borders the Nob Hill neighborhood surrounding historic Route 66, home of the Lobo Theater [link]. The University/Nob Hill area is as close as Albuquerque gets to funky and bohemian; the surviving Route 66 artifacts tend toward a picture-postcard Art Deco feel that kind of runs counter to the prevailing skinny-jeans tattooed hipster ethic, but it’s what Albuquerque has to offer at the moment. The Lobo Theater has art deco elements in its edifice, but the interior (lobby, balcony, and main theater) have a functional, recently-but-not-expensively-remodeled feel; there aren’t many clues that you’re in a historic building. And the Lobo Theater is home to Mars Hill Albuquerque, formerly City on a Hill Church. This is a good location for drawing people from the university and from the Nob Hill neighborhood; on Sundays on-street parking is free in Nob Hill, and it is ample if sometimes hard to find. It’ s probably easier to find parking if you know the neighborhood. We ended up parking close enough that we could hear the church rock band while standing next to our car, through the wall of the theater.

Mars Hill Albuquerque runs two services Sunday morning and one Sunday night service; pastor Dave Bruskas said the Sunday I visited that they draw 600 on an average Sunday, suggesting that they will soon outgrow the Lobo Theater building and need to find a bigger space in roughly the same part of town. It’s just as well; the main part of the building (floor seats and balcony) is long, narrow, dark, and loud, with two small aisles that give the place a cramped, pre-fire-code feel. We initially took seats on the floor and later moved to the balcony when our baby objected to the music. The seats on the floor had us craning our necks to see the screen and stage; the balcony seats had a better view (and better acoustics) but was steamy hot (the heating system is also vintage). The darkness and theater seats and aisles also make for poor opportunities to meet (or even see) other people there for church. We saw more faces out in the lobby than in the theater.

I can’t say “this is a friendly church” or otherwise; I spent most of our settling-in time and “hand of fellowship” time dealing with a diaper change and getting our baby settled after he started crying during the music. I suspect it was just too loud, but I didn’t see/hear any other babies fussing, so it’s hard to say.

The building and the darkness give the church service an “everything of interest is happening on stage” feel; it’s an experience not unlike watching a movie or watching television. I believe by design Mars Hill compensates for this by having small groups, of which more later.

The people we saw tended toward the older end of the college spectrum, mid-twenties types, some couples with small children, and the occasional older (think fifties) single man. It’s not really a college church and not really the Mars Hill demographic (that’s mostly people in their thirties and forties now, I understand) and it isn’t really multigenerational the way a mature healthy church might be. If I had to guess I’d say these are City on a Hill people, mostly folks who started attending church here when they were in college who didn’t leave town after graduation.

The dress code is t-shirt-and-jeans casual, in colors darker than is typical for the UNM area, with a fair amount of small glasses and goatees. I hesitate to say “hipster church” or “grunge church;” it doesn’t have the look and feel of a young urban church, nor does it feel really Albuquerque.

Anyway, people who really need “sacred spaces” would probably be disappointed in Albuquerque’s larger churches anyway; Calvary Albuquerque’s main sanctuary is a converted tennis club/fitness center; Hoffmantown is big but airless and sits on a big bleak parking lot; Calvary Chapel Rio Rancho  is a giant metal shed; Calvary Chapel Rio Grand Valley (Belen) meets in a converted Walmart. I wish the folks at Mars Hill Albuquerque well in finding their next building. There’s lots of unused retail space available in their part of town, but I’m hoping they don’t have to settle for something big and characterless in a strip mall somewhere.


Mars Hill Albuquerque

January 5, 2011 Leave a comment

My opinion regarding Mark Driscoll had mostly been formed by his surprisingly frequent appearances in my reading and by his continual hovering online presence; I don’t know how to measure his impact online versus other contemporary Reformed lights like John Piper or John MacArthur, but he certainly seems to be taken pretty seriously by a segment that might or might not correspond to the Young Restless Reformed set. I really don’t know.

Anyway, Driscoll had surfaced in my reading in three different books, unusual for someone I don’t actually seek out:

  1. Back when he was still associated with various Emerging Church figures through Leadership Network he appeared as the pastor of Donald Miller’s church in Miller’s book Blue Like Jazz. I haven’t paid a lot of attention to Miller since the follow-up Searching for God Knows What sort of left me dry, but in Blue Like Jazz Miller portrays Mars Hill Church as a healthy spiritual community and Driscoll as its conservative center. Of course Driscoll has since parted ways with the Emerging Church folks; I have no idea what the relationship between Driscoll and Miller is today.
  2. Andrew Beaujon spends a chapter or two of his Christian-rock travelogue Body Piercing Saved My Life [link] at Mars Hill and is somewhat amazed that people who sport tattoos and listen to indie rock attend a church where the preaching is culturally so conservative; Beaujon is the first author I read to pick through everything he heard and focus primarily on Complementarianism, the theological view that men and women are equal in some sense but fundamentally different and complementary; like most secular writers he sees this as retrograde as compared to the view that men and women are equal in every sense, or something like that. Like most people who take on Complementarianism from a liberal point of view he doesn’t explicitly state his own view. Beaujon’s book is available used for Amazon for a penny plus shipping ($4 total); I recommend it at that price.
  3. Lauren Sandler delves a bit deeper into the Complementarian narrative in the chapter she devotes to Mars Hill in Righteous [link]. She finds a couple of good narrators, including a woman who has a background in academic second-wave feminism (or at least whose bookcase functions as a kind of educated feminist bona fide) but who has married and moved into the Mars Hill orbit and can’t find her way out. She also finds someone who utters the deathless phrase “when I see someone covered in tattoos I assume they’re a born-again Christian.” I don’t know what Sandler meant by including this second person; I took it to mean that Mars Hill is a sufficiently complete subculture that the person in question no longer deals with anyone outside it. Sandler’s book is a tougher read; I am tempted to think she went looking for things in evangelicalism that appalled her so she found them, and she tends to overstate their significance. But more about that later.

But it’s the Molly Worthen piece from the New York Times [link] that really fills in a lot of the color on Driscoll, not least because it’s primarily about Driscoll, rather than trying to fit him into some other broader narrative. Worthen manages to place Driscoll in the evangelical part of the megachurch landscape with her Stetzer-Hybels-Osteen references and she focuses on the “muscular Christianity” aspect of the Driscoll media persona (she refers to his “hypermasculinity” and attempts to connect the worst of John Calvin’s Geneva to Driscoll’s Seattle) and portrays him as essentially authoritarian.

And as far as I can recall that’s the sum total of how Driscoll has been portrayed in my reading. I haven’t read any of his books and don’t plan to; from what I’ve seen of them they remind me of Skip Heitzig’s books: cleaned-up versions of sermon notes, in slim volumes, with well-chosen titles and cover art, probably best understood as an extension of the Sunday morning experience.

In the next post I want to get back to Albuquerque; remember Albuquerque? This is a series about a church in Albuquerque.

Mars Hill Albuquerque

January 4, 2011 1 comment

Back on December 5 I visited Mars Hill Albuquerque [link] with my wife and baby; we needed to be in town for a Christmas social function and my wife was indulgent enough to let me visit the Lobo Theater in Nob Hill for church followed by lunch at a surprisingly good Vietnamese place before we went off to meet our social obligations.

The audio from the sermon we heard is available [link]. Please don’t just take my word for what was said and how it was said; give the sermon a listen yourself and make up your own mind.

Today’s post is mostly background, about why you or I should care about Mars Hill Albuquerque. Or rather, why you should care about a church from Seattle having a campus/church plant in Albuquerque. And to a first approximation that comes down to two words: Mark Driscoll.

I’ve said elsewhere that I don’t understand what’s so special about the Mars Hill phenomenon; I don’t understand why anybody is paying any special attention to Mark Driscoll. My best analysis as of two months ago was that the Mars Hill equation might go like this:

Mars Hill = Calvary Chapel – The Sixties + The Nineties + Reformed Theology

I might even be tempted to add in something about the personalities of Chuck Smith (Calvary Chapel) and Mark Driscoll (Mars Hill) because while Calvary Chapel was initially the home of an existing movement of sorts (The Jesus People), as far as I can tell nothing similar has happened in Seattle. And of course because so much of the conversation about Mars Hill in the last five or so years kind of starts and ends with Driscoll.

And beyond that there’s not much: I would have said essentially that Mars Hill is the beginning of another non-denomination like Calvary Chapel, using a lot of the usual church growth/megachurch approach to starting and building churches (a pastor with a strong personality; strong brand; de-emphasis of traditional denominational distinctives; personalities and language familiar to anyone with a background in business/marketing; etc.) but with a Reformed twist. Because to be fair when I’ve seen the obvious question asked: “what’s the difference between e.g. a Purpose-Driven Church and an A29 Church?” the answer I’ve seen is, essentially “because we’ve got Reformed Theology and they’re something else/less/deviant/apostate/etc.”

On further reflection the truth as best I’ve been able to discern it is a bit more complicated. And we’ll pick that up in the next post.