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Originally published August 30, 2011 at 9:00 PM | Page modified August 31, 2011 at 12:34 PM

Mars Hill Church empire expands

Mars Hill Church, which marks its 15th anniversary this fall, is accomplishing something few other Protestant churches have: opening campuses in other states, with churches in Portland and Orange County, Calif., scheduled to start in 2012.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Mars Hill Church

Founded: 1996

Existing campuses: Albuquerque, N.M.; Ballard, Bellevue, downtown Seattle, Federal Way, Olympia, Shoreline, University District, West Seattle

Campuses due to open: Everett, Portland, Orange County, Calif.

Total income 2010: About $18.2 million (of which $2.7 million was restricted)

Total expenses 2010: About $16 million

Website: marshill.com

Source: Mars Hill Church website, 2010 annual report

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Toward the end of last year, Seattle-based Mars Hill Church announced that in addition to opening a campus in Everett, it would be opening one in Portland and another in Orange County, Calif.

Taken together with the one it opened in Albuquerque, N.M., in 2009, the megachurch that will mark its 15th anniversary this fall is doing something few other Protestant churches have: taking its brand of culturally savvy, conservative Christianity into other states.

In a decade and a half, Mars Hill Church has grown from about a dozen people meeting for Bible study in the Wallingford home of co-founder Pastor Mark Driscoll to a multisite church that attracts thousands.

Its influence now extends far beyond its own members.

Driscoll's sermons were downloaded 7 million times last year, and the church website gets about 45,000 page views per day, according to Mars Hill.

Through Acts 29, a church-building network that Driscoll co-founded in 2000, Mars Hill is playing a big role in the expansion of like-minded churches nationally and internationally.

Through The Resurgence, a training ministry founded by Driscoll that Mars Hill runs, it's teaching theology and church leadership via a website, books, conferences and classes.

Mars Hill's expansion has been marked by grand ambitions, technological and business savvy, entrepreneurial energy — and, some would say, occasionally heavy-handed business dealings.

Through it all, the charismatic Driscoll has been a controversial figure. His flippant and often caustic remarks on everything from the role of women to effeminate male pastors have created furors. But his vision and undeniable talent for preaching — he's on Preaching magazine's list of the 25 most influential pastors of the past 25 years — have also been key drivers of Mars Hill's growth.

"They're expanding at a rate that few other churches are," said Warren Bird, research director for the Leadership Network, which works with some of America's fastest-growing churches.

For a church to go into a faraway city requires either prior connections, strong media exposure or "a national reputation with a distinctive brand," Bird said. "Mars Hill is the latter."

A clear message

Pastor Nick Bogardus, who is starting Mars Hill Orange County, grew up in Southern California and worked in the music industry.

He was reading about emerging churches when he came across a reference to Driscoll, went to the church website and listened to a sermon.

"I'd never seen a church be theologically robust and culturally relevant at the same time, like Mars Hill was doing," he said.

To him, Driscoll's preaching had a clarity about Jesus and the Gospel, and a style that was straightforward and relatable.

These days, about 200 people gather weekly at Mars Hill's temporary Orange County location at The Village Church of Irvine. Once they get a firmer foundation in place, they plan to officially launch in January.

The church's decision to expand to the OC came about in much the same way it decided to open in other locations — because there was a pastor church leaders trusted who was familiar with the area and wanted to serve it.

That was the case with the sites in Albuquerque, in Portland — formally opening in early 2012 — and in Everett, which is scheduled to launch Sept. 18.

Divisive style

Mars Hill teaches that humans are sinners and only by God's grace, through faith in Jesus, can one be saved. Members believe that the Scriptures alone are the ultimate and inerrant authority for faith and practice.

The church also teaches that women and men, though equally valued by God, have different, if complementary, roles: In the church, as in the home, men are to lead. Women cannot serve as pastors or elders.

While those beliefs aren't out of line for conservative evangelicals, Driscoll's pugnacious and sometimes crass and belittling style has put him at odds at times with other evangelicals.

Driscoll has called both yoga and the movie "Avatar" demonic and recently asked on his Facebook page for stories of "the most effeminate, anatomically male worship leader you've ever personally witnessed."

Reaction came swiftly, with one Christian blogger calling Driscoll a bully and even an evangelical organization that claims to turn people away from homosexuality calling for Driscoll to apologize.

Driscoll later wrote that his comment was flippant and that "my executive elders sat me down and said I need to do better by hitting real issues with real content in a real context. And, they're right."

Still, it's that very certainty with which Driscoll presents the Scriptures that appeals to many.

"My sense is that as the U.S. becomes more multicultural, multireligious, more diverse, [an air of] certainty becomes even more critical for evangelicals to maintain their identity," said James Wellman, a University of Washington associate professor of American religion.

Reaching out

To understand how unusual Mars Hill's multistate plans are, consider that out of some 300,000 Protestant churches in the U.S., only 3,000 have multiple sites, according to Bird of Leadership Network.

Of those, fewer than 40 have sites that are significantly far from each other.

Last year, the Mars Hill churches, with about an 8,700 weekly attendance figure, ranked 78th on a list of the country's 100 largest Protestant churches, according to John Vaughan with Church Growth Today.

A few people have asserted that its growth came about in part because of some heavy-handed tactics.

Last year, a small church in Seattle approached Mars Hill about a possible partnership.

A letter from Mars Hill to that church emphasized that Mars Hill wanted to help the smaller church grow.

That said, Mars Hill also proposed that the other church transfer all its assets to Mars Hill, becoming a new Mars Hill campus. In return, the larger church would spend $200,000 for building improvements, give $250,000 over the next 10 years to support missionaries and invest in technology.

The smaller church ultimately voted not to merge with Mars Hill.

"Various proposals were considered, but nothing has come of the talks," said Jake Johnson, a Mars Hill spokesman.

But others have had smoother business dealings with Mars Hill.

"We don't feel at all like we were treated unfairly," said Tom Nielsen, chairman of the building-sale team at University Baptist Church, which last year sold its building to Mars Hill for $2.5 million. That building now houses Mars Hill's University District church.

"As with any business transaction, there are negotiations that happen and things you work out as you go along," Nielsen said.

Network of churches

Mars Hill is also helping others start new churches through the Acts 29 Network.

Acts 29 churches are not Mars Hill campuses and do not fall under its authority. Rather, they form a network that helps men who want to start their own church. Pastors apply to become part of the network, and, if accepted, get training and funding from the network.

While Acts 29 churches share a similar theology, they go by their own names and have their own pastors who preach most of the time, in contrast to Mars Hill sites, which are under the authority of Mars Hill Church and mostly present Driscoll's sermons via video from Mars Hill Ballard.

In the Seattle area, Acts 29 churches include Anchor Church in Wallingford, Downtown Cornerstone Church in Pioneer Square, and Grace Fellowship in Lynnwood. Mars Hill considers itself part of the network, and 10 percent of its annual income goes to it.

Nationwide, Acts 29 has helped establish 400 churches and will likely hit 1,000 by 2015. Worldwide, it's working with pastors who've opened 16 churches in Western Europe and hundreds in India.

Driscoll, who turned 40 last October, was reflective in a letter he wrote as part of Mars Hill Church's 2010 annual report.

"As we enter a new chapter of our church's history," he wrote, questions about succession plans have arisen. He said that if he suddenly weren't able to fulfill his duties, each Mars Hill campus likely would then exist as a separate church, led by its own pastor, within the Acts 29 Network.

But, he added, he's hoping to live for a long time, and that any eventual transition to a successor would take place over five to 10 years.

"We will see what [God] has for us in the next season," he wrote, "as we prepare for a great harvest."

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com

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