Sabbatical has now given way to annual leave so this will probably be my last post under the sabbatical thoughts heading. Suffice it to say that I am deeply thankful to the Lord for the way He has refreshed me and very thankful to the church for giving me this period- especially to those who have been carrying a greater burden in my absence. I’ve enjoyed catching up with different people (I spent the last week in the north-east where it was great to see my brother and sister-in-law as well as Scott and Cathy- a former trainee here) and visiting other churches- although it was great to be back in Woody Road this morning.

One of the books that I read this week was Mark Driscoll’s Confessions of a Reformission Rev. This was somewhat different to the rest of my sabbatical reading- Driscoll’s style is just a bit different from that of the Puritans. And the focus is on managing a church rather than the care of the heart.

The book was published in 2006 and details the story of Mars Hill Church in Seattle- in particular its growth from its launch in 1996 to the point where it contains around 10,000 people. That sort of growth is almost unique in modern times and so it is a story worth reading.

Driscoll’s basic approach is outlined in the introduction- “reaching out without selling out” would be a summary. Elsewhere he describes the church as being “theologically conservative and culturally liberal,” and talks about the “tension of holding in one closed hand the unchanging truth of evangelical Christian theology and holding in one open hand the many cultural ways of speaking and showing Christian truth as a missionary to America.” His challenge at the start of the book is to love the Gospel, love the church and love the culture (seeing the last of these as an extension of love for neighbour). Driscoll is basically reformed in his theology- with a solid to commitment to the substitutionary death of Christ, God’s sovereignty in salvation and the importance of Biblical preaching. Interestingly- and I wouldn’t necessarily want to disagree with him on this- he has a lot of charismatic sympathies (being unconvinced by a cessationist reading of 1 Cor 12-14- “the second worst piece of exegesis I have ever read”) which means that dreams have played a significant part in some decisions that have been made in the church. Alongside his theological convictions goes a steadfast desire to order the church culturally so that it might be accessible to those outside the kingdom- particularly the younger generation who were not being reached by other churches. Consequently a lot of time seems to be devoted to finding, for instance, the right musical style to be used in services.

What did I make of the book? In some ways it is hard to give a fair judgement- the book is seven years old and it may well be that Driscoll would put things differently now. And the book is clearly written into an American culture- and I’m about as English as you can get…

Some aspects of the book I found hard going. Driscoll is straight talking and, at times, brutally dismissive of people. Part of me at times wondered how the weaker brother of Rom 14 or 1 Cor 8-10 might fare at Mars Hill. Repeatedly he emphasises that men must be manly- but it seems to me that his categories for this come more from prejudice than Scripture. Is the goal really to get men to brew beer, smoke a pipe, or actually for that matter, get married? Again- part of me wondered how the single Paul who boasted about his weaknesses might get on at Mars Hill.

On other issues I am somewhat ambivalent. Inevitably, given the subject, there is a lot of material on numerical church growth with reference to relevant surveys and so forth. I have something of a love/hate relationship with this kind of stuff. At the negative end, I am conscious of a comment in one of Tim Chester’s books that pastors at conferences often talk more about the latest ideas for church growth than they do about how magnificent Jesus is. And in the end the Spirit will blow where He wills irrespective of our strategies and techniques. The flip side of that, though, is a helpful reminder than numerical growth does matter- it is a massive theme of the book of Acts and we must want the church to grow through people being saved. And whilst I think too much emphasis can be placed on practical strategies- the practical does matter. Frankly a church will not grow beyond the size of its building and to fail to plan for this is foolish. That’s a real challenge for us at Woody Road.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Driscoll’s book is his attitude towards culture. There is a difficult biblical balance to strike here. The church is to be different from the world around it- being the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Equally the church is not to put up cultural barriers to the Gospel- see Paul’s willingness to be all things to all men so that some might be saved. At times I wonder whether Driscoll is too positive about the surrounding culture. I worry when Christians take principles from the business world without questioning some of the underlying values that are present. Can it really be right that to be a large church you need to “fire (people) quickly”? The Bible is more than just a doctrinal textbook: it also shapes the culture of how a church operates. In that sense I would want to query the “theologically conservative and culturally liberal” paradigm. It’s not that I would want a church to be culturally conservative- biblical reflection must drive the whole thing. But with that (fairly significant) caveat aside- it is good to see 1 Cor 9 being given full weight. “The church labours to be as culturally accessible to lost people as possible.” Far too often we cling to the culture (type of music, archaic language in hymns, levels of formality etc) that we want without thinking through the barriers this puts in the way of unbelievers. That’s basically selfishness- and it is damaging. That’s also an issue for us to face at Woody Road.

Let me finish with two aspects of the book that provoked me helpfully. There is something appealing about Driscoll’s directness and his willingness to challenge. When he tells young men who are sleeping around and failing to take responsibility to grow up and repent, he is right. I think at times I have been too soft on myself- and perhaps on others. I was struck by this when doing some work on the book of James recently. The answer to sin is twofold- we do need the cross for forgiveness but we also need to repent. The person confessing sin needs to be assured that the cross covers their offence but they also need to be challenged as to how they will go about repentance. I am grateful for Driscoll’s example of that.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for me, though, was simply Driscoll’s perseverance in wanting to make the Gospel known to those in Seattle without Christ, including those from cultures not naturally drawn to churches. It is easy to critique Driscoll- and there are places I disagree with him- but he is reaching drug addicts and alcoholics and people who have never been near a church and, frankly, we are not. After years of hard struggle (and the book details the many sacrifices that were made along the way) Mars Hill reached a position of sustainability with the right number of buildings and staff to cater for its 1000 members. Driscoll’s response was not to settle- but to ask the question as to what needed to be put in place to reach more people. “I made it clear that limiting the size of the church for our convenience was a sin.” He writes strongly about the danger of a church slipping into a comfort zone. “The propensity is for the church to settle in and slip into a mode of maintenance. The church must intentionally reinvent itself missionally to continue to grow by taking risks in an effort to reach lost people for Jesus.” I think there are real challenges for us here. The church does not exist for my convenience or to meet my needs. It’s why, here at Woody Road, we need to use our building project as an opportunity of thinking through how we use our resources unselfishly to create ever increasing links with the local community. As it happens, I also think it is why we should plant into one of the communities where people from the church live but that we are struggling to reach in a consistent manner. You see it’s not about me or us- it’s about the glory of God through the salvation of people.