Mars Hill responds, admits ‘unhealthy culture issues’

The Mars Hill Church, booted from the national evangelical Acts 29 Network, sought Friday to reassure its members about the culture of the mega-church and its embattled senior pastor, Mark Driscoll.

But a letter to members conceded that "unhealthy culture issues" at the church have gone on for "way too long." The letter seems to claim that Driscoll is now a changed man.

The word came down not from Driscoll, but the church's Board of Advisors and Accountability (BOAA), which Acts 29 directors faulted for not being able to implement a "plan of reconciliation" between Driscoll and increasingly vocal former pastors and members of the church.

In a letter, BOAA Chairman Michael Van Skaik wrote:

"Men, I told the lead pastors at the recent annual retreat that we are making real progress in addressing the serious reconciliation and unhealthy culture issues that have been part of Mars Hill Church for way too long. And we are. I also told them that more opposition would undoubtedly be coming. Friendly fire always hurts the most."

Driscoll and Mars Hill Church were removed from Acts 29 membership even though Driscoll co-founded the "church planting" organization.

"It is our conviction that the nature of the accusations against Mark, most of which have been confirmed by him, make it untenable and unhelpful to keep Mark and Mars Hill in our network," said an Acts 29 online statement signed by board Chairman Matt Chandler and other members.

The group said pointedly that "in taking this action, our prayer is that it will encourage the leadership of Mars Hill to respond in a distinctive and godly manner so that the name of Christ will not continue to be dishonored."

Van Skaik shot back that Acts 29 leaders did not contact the church before acting, saying he has "never in my life spoken with Matt Chandler or any of the A29 board members," and added: "Pastor Mark was not personally contacted by the A29 board prior to receiving this announcement."

Driscoll has been accused of abusive and intimidating behavior, use of foul language and threatening to destroy his critics. Deep scars remain from a 2007 purge in collegial church leadership that was replaced by a Driscoll-centric system. Several purged leaders were shunned.

Van Skaik said, without elaborating, that Driscoll has changed his ways.

"Be assured of this," he wrote, "the formal charges that were filed were serious, were taken seriously and were not dismissed by the board lightly.

"There is clear evidence that the attitudes and behaviors attributed to Mark in the charges are not a part and have not been a part of Mark's life for some time now."

Two supposedly independent members of the Board of Advisors and Accountability, Paul Tripp and James MacDonald, recently resigned from the BOAA. Tripp was touted as taking the lead on reconciliation efforts.

Both men had praise for Driscoll. Both are still scheduled to speak in October at the Mars Hill Resurgence 2014 Global Pastors Conference. The church has announced that Tripp will continue in a consulting role.

Mars Hill Church is only 18 years old but has claimed as many as 14,000 members. It has set up 15 churches in five states.

The church has tried to keep turmoil in-house, with Driscoll issuing a series of letters and a long sermon promising to eschew the life of a celebrity and be a "loving pastor" to his flock. But he is, say critics, inaccessible and surrounded by acolytes.

Van Skaik's statement also was signed by BOAA member Larry Osborne. It ended with a "keep the faith" message tinged with a note of defiance:

"Our board's decision is final regarding these charges, although will no doubt continue to be played out in the courts of public opinion. Again, I am deeply saddened that the A29 board would make such a decisive and divisive conclusion without speaking directly to the board or Mark prior to their public announcement.

"My counsel to you is not become bitter or angry. Continue to pray for all involved. Continue to love and lead the people God has brought to your churches. They need a pastor right now and God has given them you."