July 22, 2018

Christmas Pageant Disaster and Mars Hill Snow Days: Lessons for the Megachurches

Lazurus here. The last four days in the tomb were no fun. Thanks to Jesus for getting me out.

Two items of interest regarding unusual situations in large churches caught my attention yesterday.

First, a Cincinnati church was putting on a Christmas pageant when a woman fell 25 feet to her death during some kind of cable failure.

Accidents happen in church just like anywhere else. Murphy’s Law is true as always, and more true the more complex the undertaking. People are injured and even killed by falling off risers, tripping over cables and baptizing while wearing badly wired equipment. Lots of people are shot in church. I don’t believe there is a zero-risk environment anywhere.

But one does have to wonder what is going on in churches where, for example, this sort of thing happens: A guy is riding his motorcycle in church and crashes it into a table. If someone had been at the table, it would have been tragic.

Our ministry here in Southeastern Kentucky lives with constant awareness of risk and liability. Our insurance company plays us close on these kinds of issues, and for good reasons: Churches and church related ministries take all kinds of unnecessary risks in the name or religion. They don’t show much wisdom or restraint. We’re very careful, but many churches aren’t.

Sadly, we are living in a time where there are meetings planning these events, risky behavior is described to adult leaders, and the risks are accepted in the hope of drawing a bigger crowd than last year. It’s not that God is more glorified in a bigger show. We simply want more people in the seats.

I don’t believe churches should stop doing programs where someone might be injured. But I do wonder if the mentality of megachurch “entertainment escalation” is really something we want to accept uncritically? Every church needs some “wise men” when it comes to the impulse to take risks in the name of drawing a crowd.

The second link is a blog post where Mars Hill Church’s pastor Mark Driscoll reflects on their lowest attendance in many years during this past weekend’s blizzard in Seattle.

Far be it from me to say I know anything about a subject a megachurch pastor knows about, but here in Kentucky, deciding whether to go or no go on snowy Sundays is a regular part of pastoral ministry. I’ve been in this position as part of a large church staff and as the preacher at a small church. I’ve had to make this decision knowing there were people who wanted the church open no matter what the weather, because they believed that was part of the church’s corporate witness to the community, and there were people who would come when they shouldn’t come if I did give a go. In the same way, I’ve faced this decision knowing the implications for money, the risks of older members falling and the criticism I would receive for any decision I made.

I’ve preached to 3 people and wondered what I was thinking, and I’ve been told I canceled too quickly and shouldn’t be paid. So I KNOW this isn’t simple, and I know it’s a complex mix of factors.

Having said all of that….

He denigrates those who chose not to come as viewing the church as a job, and automatically gives the highest spiritual motive to those who went to extreme measures to come. I just don’t see that, and I don’t see how anyone who knows people and their various motives for coming to church could not see that some come out of guilt and many don’t come out of prudent, wise judgement.

You get this:

…if they are 80 people who want to love and worship Jesus and are willing to do whatever it takes to get to church then those people are the hardcore of the hardcore and from what I heard they out sang crowds ten times their size because they were determined to fill the room with worship to Jesus.

“The hardcore of the hardcore?” I don’t understand the impulse to immediately create a new category of Christian commitment and not-so-subtly criticize those who, for prudent reasons during a weather disaster, chose to worship at home. I assume Driscoll’s people understand this side of him, but it seems to invite a very “ungracious” attitude toward one another.

On the other hand…

I think his reflections on paying positive and appreciative attention to the few, rather than stewing and complaining about the many, is very commendable and important.

And his awareness that his own heart attitude is at stake in going through such a day is right on target. At many megas, the pastor wouldn’t show for 80 or 600. An associate would be sent in. When I’ve preached to 3 instead of 30, I know exactly what Driscoll is talking about. What happens on a Sunday isn’t a weekly referendum on you as pastor. It’s very easy for ministers to adopt that mindset. That Driscoll knows it is a danger is a good step.

He’s a work in progress, and his “hardcore Christianity” bit is full of problems, but overall it’s encouraging to see his growth.


  1. Simply…a person’s commitment to God DOES NOT EQUAL that person’s commitment to the programmed activities of the local (or regional) Christian activity center.

  2. Once again, loyalty or devotion to an institution is equated with loyalty and devotion to Jesus. It is an affliction of all denominations. I like Driscoll but he needs to calm down a little bit, and quit horsewhipping those faithful members who are clear on the distinction of their loyalties.

  3. Richard Hershberger says:

    “At many megas, the pastor wouldn’t show for 80 or 600. An associate would be sent in.”

    Really? Wow. Just wow. Megachurch culture continues to surprise this old-school Lutheran. How does this work? Does the associate improvise, on the principle that small crowds don’t rate thoughtful preaching? Or does the associate prepare a backup sermon every week, in case the pastor can’t be bothered?

    “I’ve preached to 3 people and wondered what I was thinking,…”

    What’s to wonder? Two or three are gathered in his name. That seems straightforward enough. It’s not as if we need a minyan.

    When the weather keeps me from my own church, I walk to a nearby Episcopalian church. There have been a couple of times when I was one of a handful. Fortunately, I am fluent in Episcopalian. They know me as that Lutheran who shows up in bad weather. The rector once told me that people like me are one reason he doesn’t cancel.

  4. Derek Smith says:

    First, let me say that I have a positive view of Mark Driscoll. I download his sermons from time to time and find them generally engaging and insightful. I tend to reject the cultural stuff (and some of the machismo that he’s famous for) and what is left is good stuff.

    However, one thing I have noticed is that he does like to talk about the fact that Mars Hill is the largest church in Seattle. In almost every sermon. I am wondering if his post has something to do with that. He wrote it at 12:37 AM. Is he worrying about all those people not showing up? Are we still a Megachurch if only a couple thousand show? What strange thinking! He seems too hard on them. I don’t want to say it, but it sounds like he is looking for an identity in the fact that he has such a big church. It snowed, and ‘only’ 2000 people showed up. He really should get over it.

  5. Derek Smith said,
    “it snowed, and ‘only’ 2000 people showed up. He really should get over it.”

    Right on, Derek. I live in a county that has a total population of 1,700 people. Want to trade places Discoll? On first thought, never mind, God put me here, so if 3 or 50 show up, I just praise the Lord.

    “…hardcore of the hardcore.” I believe that a “hardcore of the hardcore” pastor would have just simply praised God that that many folks made it to church–and then pray they all made it home, safely. Discoll whines and laments about the slackers, then says, “I learned a lot, which made it one of the best days all year.” I am guessing that more than one of the slackers learned a lot about Driscoll, too.

  6. Having previously read Driscoll’s post, I was rather surprised at the venom and vitriol hurled at it by some commenters here. My initial take was that he was simply expressing gratitude for those who showed up and reflecting on the unique ways he saw Jesus working in the congregation through this extraordinary circumstance. I didn’t get that he was “bummed” by the low attendance, or that he was chastising the congregation, or that he was encouraging wanton endangerment of self.

    But on second reading… yeah, some of these things are there. They are far from being his point, but they are there. He does imply that it was the Varsity squad that showed up, while the JV team took a forfit. And there is the subtle connection that if you are on Mars Hill’s varsity, that is because you are on Jesus’ varsity. Both conclusions are, of course, grossly flawed.

    As one of the MH varsity (who showed up on Sunday, that is), I guess I tend to filter his comments with a bit more grace than most of you (who are what… the opposing team?), but there are many valid criticisms. And eventhough he is my pastor and I will defend him in most things, criticism can also be healthy.

  7. theo wrote:

    “I guess I tend to filter his comments with a bit more grace than most of you… he is my pastor…”

    Theo et al: for me it isn’t so much what a tired and drained Driscoll said on a blog in the wee hours as it is that many Christians have been taught, believe, and teach other Christians (either by word or action) that zealous and extremist commitment to institutional rites are equated with spiritual standing before God. He could have felt like this merely for the length of time it took to blog about it, but this is a major teaching and a great guilt-tripping tool in many sectors of Christianity, and one from which I have needed to repent.

  8. Geoff Downs says:

    The pastor at Mars Hill church back in the 1800’s wired a family named the Donners and told them they had better be in church the next upcomming Sunday.I’m not sure what happened after that.

  9. Geoff Downs says:

    All kidding aside , I’ve learned to take whatever I hear from any Pastor or teacher with a grain of salt.I thought being a hardcore was striving to overcome the sinfull passions and tendencies that plague us,and living that out in front of unbelievers and believers alike.Like not stealing from work when you could do it and not get caught or fudging your timecard or things of that nature,not whether or not you make it to church during a snowstorm, come on. Really,sometimes I’ll miss church to go fishing if the weather’s gonna be crappy on Saturday and nice on Sunday.The chief priests were at the temple every time it was open. Forsaking the assembly is turning your back on the Church as gathering of belivers and doing it solo on your own, not missing a day here or there. No one I know was ever impressed when I went to church umpteen times a week.

  10. When I was younger, I went to church when I felt like it, and I liked it a lot better. Now that I am older, I tend to go every time. I don’t like it as much.

  11. I live about a mile away from the medium size church I pastor in the midwest. My attitude has always been that I’ll be there and minister to whoever shows up. We do adjsut the program quite a bit so that none of the volunteer staff feels obligated to be there. But I know that there are some people who are despirate to be in the Lord’s House with the Lord’s People. They’ve been looking forward to this all week. I don’t want to disappoint them.
    Last winter we had a terrific snow storm that hit on Saturday and frankly, by 10am on Sunday it was beautiful! Every church around us was cancelling services on Saturday. Sunday morning I was getting calls from people, who normally go to the big mega churches, asking if we would be open. We had above average attendance and it was the largest “regular” single Sunday offering we have ever had.

  12. My adult children (boys in their 20’s)live in Seattle and attend a PCA church in the Capitol Hill area. They are having to bunk with other friends just to get to work because the vertical roads down towards the water are closed. I can’t imagine families getting out with small children just to get to church in an area where there isn’t proper equipment to clear roads.
    I think its called grace, Pastor Driscoll. Now I know why my kids don’t go to Mars Hill….

  13. I don’t think Driscoll should be cut any slack at all. It sounds to me like he is a legalist. “The hardcore of the hardcore”? Is that how the Lord looks at us? Is He waiting for some of us to be more hardcore?

    I was hardcore once, and behaved like a Pharisee. Most of the “hardcore” Christians I know are very unpleasant people.

    I remember an elder in my former church upbraiding a group of believers because they were late to the Lord’s Table. But it was a snow day, and the weather was surprisingly bad. This elder rebuked everyone because “that’s why the Lord gave us TV news to tell us about the weather. You could have left earlier.”

    Great. You come to the Lord’s Table, to partake of the bread and the wine, to thank the Lord for His death and resurrection of Christ, to remember that your sins are cleansed and that you have received a new life, and you get rebuked for being late. That’s a wonderful testimony.

    Does Driscoll understand that God may have permitted few people to attend services there that day so that he could learn mercy and grace? Does God love the non-attenders less? Does He really need a “hardcore”?

  14. Jaz, do you mind if I ask you what cult/sect you belonged to?

    I have a feelin’… Been there, done that.

  15. Oh, give me a break; this is getting ridiculous. I remember growing up in a small church of 100-150, and there were plenty of mornings with lots of snow when the pastor would make some crack about how “committed” we were. Was it ill-advised? Maybe. But we didn’t try to chase him out of town. We didn’t rant about how little he understood the true heart of Christianity. We saw it for what it was – an off-handed attempt at a compliment which could be insulting to some, but clearly wasn’t meant that way.
    Cultish? Legalistic? Has it occurred to anybody that you lend the lie to your frustration at “super-pastors” when you spill so much ink against Driscoll but never bothered to blog about my rural pastor at all? Let’s save the vitriol for someone who deserves it – like ourselves.

  16. Let me translate that last tirade:

    “I wouldn’t have said this, so none of you should have said anything different than me.”

    Could we get a definition of vitriol in the house please? Dictionary at table 4.

  17. Eric, some of us were in groups that required extreme committment from its members, and this touched a sensitive spot.
    What I experienced was not the occasional light-hearted crack, or a subtle compliment, but an angry presumption that Chrisitians were obligated to brave bad weather to prove they were consecrated. I named one example, but this occurred more than once.
    One time I was strongly rebuked on the phone because I stayed home during a snow storm that made national news coverage.
    Another time a brother who had slept for only one hour because of a household problem came to the Sunday meeting, and was greeted with “You’re late!”
    It took many years for me to realize that the Lord loved me regardless of perfect meeting attendance. Yes, Eric, “legalistic” is the word that applies to such comments about this type of committment. The ministry of grace is very different.

  18. Jeremiah Lawson says:

    I’m starting to think the lesson for Mark and his staff is simply, “Don’t let your pastor blog after midnight no matter how good he thinks his material is.” I bet if he waited a few days, wasn’t tired from a whole day of preaching, and had taken some time to run his material by someone who could be a really good proofreader and copyeditor that they would have spotted the things people are spotting here.

    Besides, I’m sure Mark knows that the people who didn’t show up can safely download the sermon from their homes and give on-line. Thanking the hardcore of the hardcore for showing up doesn’t mean he can’t think the merely hardcore who are still faithfully being part of the church family. I’m sure that’s something he would have remembered to do if he weren’t blogging past midnight.

  19. To me, the deeper issue behind the post (in all it’s facets, not just the ‘hardcore of the hardcore’ part) is in this quote:

    “If we are depressed, complaining, or secretly wishing we could be home there is something wrong with us.”

    No. There isn’t.

    This is one of my biggest difficulties with evangelical culture and one of the reasons I left a large, prominent evangelical church.

    I always felt like there was something wrong with me if I couldn’t work out of these things in an instant of ecstatic or fervent response to the carefully cultivated worship experience. This is the psychological flip-side of the hardcore Christian.

    I was also very disturbed by, “Today I met, for example, a couple who drive in nearly every week from over three hours away and they left very early in the morning before the sun was up to be at the morning service.”

    That’s a good thing????

  20. >“If we are depressed, complaining, or secretly wishing we could be home there is something wrong with us.”

    No. There isn’t.

    Buy that man the double Christmas Rum punch, bartender. Amen. Amen and Amen.

    Just about everything that is immature and wrong with evangelical spirituality in one sentence, and the TRUTH of the Gospel in one answer.

    Buy that quote and frame it.

  21. I’ve read the blog entry at least twice and all of the comments here.

    I am very bothered by Pastor Driscoll’s comments. He seems very clueless at best. To praise those who put themselves and others at serious risk to come to church. (I’ve driven, at least once, 1.5 hours just to attend Mass at a specific church, but never during bad weather).

    When people are experienced with snow, they are more comfortable with knowing their own abilities to drive and NOT to drive. In areas where there isn’t much snow, then even more care must be taken.

    One thing that sticks in my craw is his comments about getting to work. I like working, and have made it in one day, when we were sent home early. If he wants to compare church to work, then be like my current boss, who is concerned that I make it in safely (and prefers safety to on time). He was even willing to drive my car from the street into the less plowed parking lot, when I was afraid to.

  22. Eric, if you are referring to my posts, you certainly missed my point. Pastor Driscoll’s remarks are symptomatic of what’s wrong with American church culture, and especially the megachurch mentality. Furthermore, your rural pastor didn’t post his frustrations about those substandard Christians who are less than “hardcore” on the internet for the whole world to see!

    I hereby sentence you to read Myrdden’s last post 100 times!

  23. I’m sorry if that earlier post was a bit harsh, but let me try to say what frustrated me a little more clearly. I too am annoyed by the fact that Driscoll makes much of numbers and think that there is plenty of freedom in the gospel for those who conclude it would be prudent to stay at home.
    That said, reading Driscoll’s post, it seemed to be meant as a simple expression of gratitude toward people who made it to corporate worship despite difficult weather. Nothing more, nothing less. Did it reflect a certain numbers- and volunteer-focused notion of how the church should operate? Probably. But the point of the post, and the weight of what Driscoll was saying, was simply that he was glad people who were able to came to gather in corporate worship even though it might have been easier not to.
    If anything, this is the opposite of the typical mega-church mentality, which would see such an empty morning as a failure. Sure, we shouldn’t make church attendance some law to beat people up with, but to rejoice in the fact that it is important to one’s congregation to congregate doesn’t seem like it warrants an overwhelmingly negative response, which is how I felt the comments were running.
    As for “vitriol,” that was a poor word choice. Proof that I need the gospel just as much as anybody. I guess I just felt like we were taking a well-meant attempt at thanking those who attended as a criminal because of how it might have sounded to those who couldn’t. It seems like sometimes we seize on what’s wrong with what someone says in a way that backs them into a corner, that says that simply because they have a “mega-church,” no matter what a pastor says, he can’t win. And this seems like a terrible place to put any human being. I would go crazy if my (admittedly poor) attempts at encouragement were subjected to that sort of scrutiny.
    So, I apologize for my frustration, but I do think that the weight of criticism we’re wont to level would be far more than I could bear. And I’m chief among those who can play the critic.

  24. Thanks for a thoughtful response, Eric. I have come to the conclusion, at least at this point in my life after 30 years of ministry, that the megachurch approach, along with many other clever human attempts to strategize and organize the work of the church, does more harm than good because it is too deeply rooted in an entrepreneurial and business model. That leads to endless temptations for its leaders and people to try to do too much, say too much and claim too much that is simply not the Gospel.

  25. Eric,

    When your pastor was talking about how committed you were, wasn’t that in person, just to the brave souls who made it? If that’s the case, it was probably done with appreciation and affection. (That’s what I would hope.)

    We are concerned about the criticism of those who couldn’t make it, for valid reasons. I never remember being criticized for not making it, when it snowed in North Carolina.

    Not to mention, Pastor Driscoll’s remarks that Myrrdin quoted, nor comparing those who couldn’t make it to work slackards.

    Question: Since we are supposed to be in community as Christians, how much Mars Hill community do you think that the people who drive 3 hours (I presume that it is 3 hours 1 way) get?

  26. Last Sunday we had a couple inches of snow with wet slushy stuff on top. Only about 20 people showed. Most of the people with old cars or poor tires stayed home, and the baby squad was missing too. I was glad that the people had enough brains to keep off the roads. Church is just not an emergency. Pray at home. We don’t pass the plate, maybe that makes a difference.

  27. J wrote: “As a church, why not have the policy: “We will ALWAYS open the doors on Sunday (or Sat), regardless of the weather. One of us with a key will unlock a door and enable those that can come to come and gather together. We’ll leave it up to you (freedom) to choose whether to venture out and join us.””

    That’s the way my pastor puts it. “If weather’s bad, I and some other core leaders will be here.The doors will be open.”

    We may not have children’s church or nursery workers, and all be together in the sanctuary, but service will be held. Those who can’t make it due to weather can catch the streaming video on the website, which was started precisely so people traveling on business or home ill could still participate to some degree.

  28. My husband and I are active at our church. I’m on C.E.; am the Sunday School Superintendent, and direct Vacation Bible School. My husband is just finishing up his term on another committee and runs another project for the church. We live in New England. We had quite a snowy weekend, and although our Sunday Service was held, many local churches canceled because the roads were so bad. I let my Sunday School teachers and committee chair know that I wouldn’t be there (and they already know they are free to cancel if need be; as two others did this past weekend).

    I have three children. The drive from home to church is about a half mile, but it’s nearly a half-mile that’s completely downhill. (I was going to say “straight” downhill, but none of our roads here are straight.) The road conditions were deplorable in our area. My husband was exhausted and achey from shoveling. We also skipped out on a family Christmas party on Sunday, too.

    On the other hand, on Christmas Eve, we were there for the early service (which is put on by the children — a nativity play and carols) and we were there for the 11:00pm candlelight service.

    Despite the various roles I fill there, it’s because I don’t think of my church as a job that I didn’t go last Sunday, and decided to go twice on Wednesday.

  29. From this and previous discussions concerning Mars Hill, I get the impression that they are after the high-testosterone, manly crowd; spiritual girly-men not welcome. He talks big and tough. It seems like part of the schtick. And I’m not singling out Mars Hill; it seems like a recent evangelical trend, along with driving motorcycles through church (Fonzie Theology?).

    But unfortunately, there are times when talking tough is necessary. Paul didn’t hand-hold the Corinthians. But if you are called to preach that sort of message, be ready with the salve of the gospel to bind the wounds. Show the way to the cross. Have the bread and cup ready. But I think the problem is that the average pastor preaching a big-club sermon is trying to goad his congregation toward a change in behavior, rather than lead them to a Savior who can, not only change them, but forgive them. Especially for small congregations, where the pastor feels like the church’s survival is on the line, I can see how tempting it would be to panic if people are not attending, tithing, serving, or evangelizing enough. But even in those circumstances, the Gospel is the answer, no matter how contrary that may sound.

    But if toughness is just part of the showmanship, then its going to be difficult turning it off. When there is constantly a hammer in your hand, everything and everyone will start looking like a nail. The hammer we need is the “Hammer of God” (yes, a shameless plug for Giertz’s timeless book).

    From what I understand, the shepherd’s rod was not used to beat the sheep, but to fight off predators. Pastors should definitely talk loud and tough when it comes to defending the flock. Instead, we live in a time when pastors abuse their congregations and heretics are defended against anyone who might sound the least bit “judgemental”.