Love him or loathe him, Mark Driscoll’s not a guy you can easily ignore. He’s everywhere. His books seem to come off the presses every few months, his church is booming even in the spiritual desert that is Seattle, and he’s the media’s favorite new spokesman for evangelicals. I feel like I have a fairly good understanding of Driscoll’s ministry, though I’ve only looked on from afar. I’ve listened to many of his sermons with profit. I’ve appreciated his bringing the gospel to bear on difficult issues in an insightful way in Death by Love (which lacks most of the objectionable things for which Driscoll is infamous). I’ve enjoyed his teaching on parenting and been moved by illustrations of his interaction with his own children. I’ve appreciated his bold denunciations of the emergent church, and I’ve cited him as an authority on the movement. I’ve heard messages in which I was pleasantly surprised by his theological and biblical precision. I’ve even benefited from portions of his much-debated preaching on the Song of Solomon (such as his treatment of 8:8-9). I admire his burden for a wicked city and for people that don’t seem to “fit” into normal evangelical churches. All that to say that I’m not a Driscoll basher who is blind to his giftedness or contributions to the cause of Christ.
That said, I’ve also been turned off more than once, and more importantly, I have an enduring concern that Driscoll’s brand of Christianity has some serious downsides for those who follow him. I think there are important reasons for young pastors and students to avoid emulating his ministry and important reasons for men like John Piper, D. A. Carson, and C. J. Mahaney to avoid promoting him before young people until he matures. It’s not his militant non-cessationism that concerns me, though I disagree with him on that issue. Nor is it merely his fascination with unsavory elements of our culture, which I can get past. My concerns about Driscoll’s ministry—and especially his influence on young preachers—are as follows:
1. Driscoll is just hilarious—distractingly so. Now, I think being considered funny is a compliment. He cracks me right up. The problem is, he’s hilarious in the pulpit. Almost all the time. Once in a while I’ll hear him deal with serious issues in a serious way for an entire message (or much of it), and I’ll wonder why he squanders his gifts by so often being the class clown of evangelicalism. Apparently he does so on purpose, though. Here’s the 4th of 10 principles Driscoll has taught to preachers about “Preaching and Teaching Jesus From Scripture“:
“Study the stand-up comics. Stand-up comedy and preaching are the only two mediums I can think of in which someone walks onto a stage to talk for a long time to a large crowd. Dave Chappelle, Carlos Mencia, and Chris Rock are genius at capturing an audience using irony and sarcasm.”
Compare that strategy to the preaching ministry of John Piper, who is famously not funny. It’s probably not that Piper couldn’t be witty—he’s got the intelligence and the command of the English language to come up with comical statements, to be sure. But he refuses to distract people from eternal truth with disposable humor. Driscoll, on the other hand, too often talks about Scripture with levity rather than gravity.
2. Driscoll is too aware of himself. He’s cool, and he knows it. He’s funny, and he knows it. Mark Dever, by contrast, has said that he intentionally mutes his personality in the pulpit, lest people think highly of him instead of his Savior (1 Cor 2:1-5). Driscoll? Not so much. Sometimes he’ll forget himself in a powerful message or humble himself in a transparent moment, but more often than not what you’re going to get is “The Mark Driscoll Show,” not just straightforward expository preaching. He’ll talk about his clothes, his shoes, his work outs, his interviews, and his persecutions. Sometimes he gets on a roll and almost views an entire text through his “how it reminds me of me” glasses (as in his drawn out comparison of Nehemiah’s trials to his own). Another example: when people laugh nervously over a bit of crass humor, he’ll joke (kind of), “You knew it was coming. That’s why you came here, right?” Now, I don’t write as a humble man; my pride is a grief to me. But part of what’s missing from Driscoll’s ministry—in addition to gravity—is a John the Baptist-like sense that he needs to decrease; Driscoll needs to intentionally get out of the way so Christ is increased in the view of his hearers (John 3:30).
3. Driscoll is becoming a franchise. He’s not the only well-known pastor to adopt the multi-campus church model in which his messages are presented in different locations around a city electronically, but he’s a prominent one. I have serious reservations regarding what that model does to things like church autonomy, pastoral care for the “local church,” the biblical connection between relationship, example, and teaching (Acts 20:18-21; 1 Tim 4:12), and even the central place that Christ holds as the center and unifying factor of the church (Col 1:18).
4. Driscoll is crass. Famously so. Whether or not it’s fair, what he’s known for is not the hours he’s spent counseling, his heart for souls, or his passion for theology. He’s known for making a homosexual innuendo about Jesus. I got the point of the joke, and he was right about the ludicrousness of allegorizing the Song of Solomon. But it was lewd, and because it was about Christ, it was blasphemous. He’s also known for joking about masturbation by quoting a Bible verse. Again, it’s clever, and my flesh wants to laugh at it. But it’s a blasphemous bit of humor that, frankly, will probably affect the way I hear that verse for the rest of my life. That’s a big price to pay for a laugh. And worse yet, that’s the very sort of thing the press is going to quote him on. Why in the world would they grab a sound byte of him explaining the doctrine of propitiation when they can play one of him joking about sex? You can blame them for their editing, but it’s not their fault; it’s his for making such garbage readily available despite Scripture’s repetitive commands to cast it off: “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving” (Eph 5:3-4; cf 4:29 and Col 3:8).
Consider this opening paragraph from a New York Times article on Driscoll:
Mark Driscoll’s sermons are mostly too racy to post on GodTube, the evangelical Christian “family friendly” video-posting Web site. With titles like “Biblical Oral Sex” and “Pleasuring Your Spouse,” his clips do not stand a chance against the site’s content filters. No matter: YouTube is where Driscoll, the pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, would rather be. Unsuspecting sinners who type in popular keywords may suddenly find themselves face to face with a husky-voiced preacher in a black skateboarder’s jacket and skull T-shirt. An “Under 17 Requires Adult Permission” warning flashes before the video cuts to evening services at Mars Hill, where an anonymous audience member has just text-messaged a question to the screen onstage: “Pastor Mark, is masturbation a valid form of birth control?”
On it goes. While the Times discusses Driscoll’s theology (particularly Calvinism, which it represents quite unsympathetically), the impression he made on the reporter seems to be how cool he is, not how great God is: “Even the skeptical viewer must admit that whatever Driscoll’s opinion of certain recreational activities, he has the coolest style and foulest mouth of any preacher you’ve ever seen.” Great.
5. Finally, Driscoll promotes an understanding of contextualization that could approach Finneyism. I was surprised the first time that idea was presented to me (by Dave Doran), but it’s true, if perhaps a bit severe. Despite the fact that he’s known as a spokesman for young Calvinists, his “do what it takes to get an audience” methodology seems to be inconsistent with his theology. Sometimes it comes through a joke (again, kind of) in which he tells guys that the key to building a church is “to have a good band, and people will come.” Sometimes it’s a remark that people come to Mars Hill because of his “bad boy” reputation. Most recently it was his ridiculous attempt to meet some sort of goal by baptizing 200 people on Easter Sunday—a play right out of Rick Warren’s book. One has every right to look at this sort of showmanship and ask, “Is this really what dependence on the sovereignty of God and the clearly articulated gospel looks like?”
The thing is, as effective as Driscoll sometimes is (and he is), he could be much more so if he would, well, get over himself. It wouldn’t be easy. People who have spent significant time “in the world” adopt the world’s humor. I get that. I’m embarrassed by the things I can laugh at, or even come up with. But letting crassly funny moments pass wouldn’t hurt him; it would help him. Further, the struggle to make much of Christ rather than self is a struggle for every preacher; we’re all prone to say “Behold me telling you to behold the Lamb of God.” But such ambitions are wicked and must be denied, not winked at. Think of it this way: the guy has conservative evangelical leaders endorsing him and investing in him despite himself. He’s his own worst enemy. If he would preach the way he does for much of this message all the time, he could be a tremendous tool in the hand of the Almighty. As Paul instructed Timothy, he needs to stop giving his friends and critics excuses for looking down on his youth, and instead be a conscientious example, especially in “speech” and “purity” (1 Tim 4:12).
On the other hand, getting a laugh is a rush, and he’s great at it. Maybe he thinks it’s worth it.
I’d love to see Mark Driscoll mature into a serious-minded and conscientious preacher of the truth…all the time, not occasionally. But in the meantime, I’ll not be filling my mp3 player with a bunch of sermons from Mars Hill. Sure, I’ll listen in once in a while, especially if he’s addressing an issue on which he’s uniquely qualified to speak, like the emergent church. But I’ll not be drinking too deeply of the Driscoll well. Why? Because Driscoll (like every preacher) is teaching more than the meaning of a passage each time he stands up to speak; he’s teaching people how to preach, how to relate to a wicked world, and how to think. I’m not at all convinced that he’s the guy from whom we need to be learning these things.
Yet, that’s what’s happening. The most disconcerting thing to me about Driscoll’s ministry is not simply what he says and does but that he’s becoming a role model for young preachers. College students and seminarians love the guy. The thing is, you can’t immerse yourself in the sort of shenanigans Driscoll too often employs without it affecting you. Crassness is contagious (1 Cor 15:33). I’ve seen it in my own life, and I am (I hope) a pretty stable pastor! For example, I surprised myself and my fellow leaders by opening what promised to be a difficult finance committee meeting at TCBC by saying to them, “I hope you wore a cup.” That’s a classic Driscoll line. It wasn’t dirty or sexual, per se, and I didn’t say it in mixed company. Nevertheless, our relatively laid-back leaders were embarrassed—embarrassed for their pastor. I’m embarrassed to think back to it. I shouldn’t have said it. Yes, it was kind of funny, and no one approached me about it afterwards. But it wasn’t appropriate or helpful. As much as I enjoy humor, it wasn’t the sort of comment I want to be known for. It’s not the kind of man I want to learn to be, and it’s not the kind of man I want aspiring preachers to learn to be. I can’t blame Driscoll for my own folly, obviously. But I don’t need his help to foster it, either.
Driscoll’s mixture of “cross and crass” isn’t good for the church and isn’t good for my own soul. Pray that he’ll cling to the former and put off the latter. I’m not just throwing out platitudes; genuinely pray for him. But until there’s a long-term and significant turn away from the gutter, while I may listen on occasion with caution, I’ll feed my soul somewhere else.