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a quick note about Dave Bruskas

August 16, 2011 Leave a comment

Yes, Dave Bruskas, now-former pastor of City On A Hill (now Mars Hill Albuquerque) has apparently [link] left Mars Hill Albuquerque for a position in the Seattle area [link]. The transition was apparently an amicable one [link], although I have not seen an official announcement for those of us outside the Mars Hill Church circle of light, etc. We wish the Bruskas family all the best in their new situation.

 

Mars Hill Albuquerque

February 8, 2011 10 comments

In dealing with the Greeks in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 Dave Bruskas took a tack I hadn’t heard before, saying that the Greeks in Paul’s audience understood that God was detached because divine beings were incapable of caring about humans. They would have thought that the idea of a God who cared about people was “stupid.” He says the corresponding temptation for us today (paralleling his earlier point about being “tempted to be Jewish”) is to think that God is impersonal, and our best response is to focus on self-actualization.

Dave by contrast quotes Romans 7:18 “nothing good dwells in me,” as proof that we cannot self-actualize, but rather that we need to understand that are good only in that we are forgiven. Along the way he says he’s “not against therapy, just against therapy focused inward” and relates a third too-perfect story, in which his daughter says it is unproductive to try to wrap our minds around God.

As I said earlier, this was a tack on this passage I hadn’t heard before: I’m more accustomed to the straight reading of the text that Greeks desire knowledge or insight, but instead God offers us something offensive to reason. I won’t suggest here that one reading is better than the other: Paul seems to assume that his audience knows enough about Jews and Greeks to make sense of what he’s saying without elaboration; modern readers need something to fill in the gaps here. I don’t know that it’s possible to say definitely what Paul meant beyond the plain meaning of what’s in the text.

But it’s on the latter point that I think this sermon goes off the rails. If I understand him correctly, Dave Bruskas is setting two things against one another that aren’t naturally in opposition. He seems to be saying that because God has reached out to us and asked us to believe, and we “get no more” as an explanation of salvation, that somehow this is also sufficient for all of our problems. He goes on to several other passages (Romans 5:6, John 6:44, Romans 5:9, Romans 8:1), attempting to hammer home the point that because our sins are forgiven everything else (by which I think he means all the other things that are wrong with us) are “small by comparison.” And along the way he tells stories about the death of his two-month-old son, and about an anonymous Christian struggling with a recurring sin.

His underlying claim (that because we are free from the consequences of sin, we are free to do good works) is much-neglected in Reformed circles so far as I can tell, but it sits awkwardly on Romans 8:1 (there’s no mention of good works there), and while he’s grappling with an important question: something like “if I’m a new creature, why am I still a mess?” he doesn’t actually answer it; he just attacks it. If someone is struggling with a problem that is damaging to themselves or to others, knowing that they will be ultimately forgiven for their sins isn’t answering the right question.

If someone were to say to me “I’m addicted to drugs,” or “I’m considering killing myself” telling them their sins are forgiven is an answer to a question they’re not asking.They’re actually looking for a way to stop doing drugs, or a way to avoid killing themselves; they’re taking about changes in behavior, not theological consequences. And while Dave is right — compared to spending eternity in Hell, a lifelong drug problem is relatively small — it doesn’t deal with the reality of the drug problem.

I would of course encourage readers to listen to Dave’s sermon themselves and see if I’m missing the point here. But this is one of the mistakes I think we make as theological conservatives by mistaking the most important thing for the only important thing. It’s not that salvation itself isn’t satisfactory, or that a solid soteriology isn’t important, but rather that it doesn’t answer every question. At least not correctly.

And that pretty much was the end of the sermon. There was a closing prayer, and we were reminded that Communion was going to be observed at a later date. Regarding Communion and regarding Baptism I was surprised to hear Mars Hill Albuquerque’s position, namely that Baptism is an act of obedience and Communion is a symbol. These are the positions I’m accustomed to seeing in evangelical circles, but I’m still surprised when Reformed folks don’t call them something else. It is after all my understanding that most of the Christians who ever lived saw baptism as being part of salvation somehow, and saw Communion as participation in a group identity, or a means of grace, or something more than just a symbol.

Which I guess brings me full circle on Mars Hill Albuquerque: after one visit I still get the impression that they’re a complicated evangelical/Reformed hybrid, with some megachurch tendencies and some hidebound Reformed tendencies, and I’ll be interested to see what becomes of them over time.

Mars Hill Albuquerque

February 3, 2011 2 comments

Some weeks ago now I covered the opening section of the sermon we heard at Mars Hill Albuquerque (MHA) back in early December [link], based on the verse Isaiah 9:6, and the pastor, Dave Bruskas, making the abrupt transition to Paul’s letters after noting that Jesus is “a military strategist.”

He turned to 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 [NIV]; this is one of Paul’s key texts, where he sets apart what God is doing in Christianity from what would be expected by contemporary Jews and the contrasting expectations of contemporary Greeks.

Dave says “What is Jesus’s war strategy? The word of the Cross.” Jesus lived to conquer and died under the oppression of the Roman government. Why? To destroy wisdom and discernment: God is saying “I’m not going to do what you expect,” and glorifies himself in us.

Dave then leaves the text to tell a story about being at a park in Albuquerque with some MHA people, and about meeting a guy who found their group attractive because it was a church full of weird people. This rhetorical flourish, of telling a too-perfect, probably-not-true, self-congratulating story, is something Dave Bruskas does more than once during this sermon. He’s hardly the only preacher who does this, but it’s something I’d encourage visitors to be aware of when listening to him.

Back at the text he returns to verse 21: “it pleased God.” God can’t be reached intellectually, so He reaches down to us through the Incarnation. Note that verse 21 doesn’t mention the Incarnation; it’s one of the things that makes this passage an awkward fit with Isaiah 9:6.

Dave then dives into the central idea of the text in 1 Corinthians: “Jews demand signs; Greeks look for wisdom” instead we get Christ. Dave states this as “the Jews demanded a conquering King” and stumbled over the Crucifixion. He warns us against being “Jewish in perspective” by wanting something from Jesus in exchange for our loyalty: relationships, health, freedom from recurring sins, etc.

He then proceeds with his second too-perfect anecdote, about a gay man who came to see him in his office; Dave responded to him by saying that being gay is “not God’s best for him” and that “Jesus should transform him;” the too-perfect part of this story was that this was exactly what the man wanted to hear. Dave didn’t mention what became of the man, but that’s not really part of the story: the story is really about how Jesus doesn’t offer something we’re looking for (e.g. a personal sign), so it isn’t germane what became of the man in his story.

Dave’s basic point here: that salvation is not primarily a story about us, and that Jesus doesn’t offer us things that are attractive per se, is  orthodox and Scriptural. But the way he puts the story together is awkward at best: he has a mix of texts that don’t really go together and stories that don’t ring true.

This seems like as good a stopping point as any; I’ll save his discussion of the Greeks and his wrap-up for one last post. I’d encourage readers to listen to the sermon themselves at the link above and decide for themselves if I’m being picky, or mixing majors and minors, or whatever.

Maybe I’m just quibbling here, but this is one of the problems with preaching from Paul’s letters during Advent: the Advent is about the Incarnation, and the temptation of most Reformed types is to read Paul as talking about Jesus exclusively as Savior, and it’s hard work to keep those two doctrinal concepts connected without subordinating one to the other. If we make the Incarnation entirely about “baby Jesus” we can stray off into territory that isn’t entirely orthodox, but without the Incarnation our soteriology isn’t strictly speaking orthodox either. I think Dave’s making the common Reformed mistake of losing the Incarnation in his Reformed soteriology.

 

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.

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.