Mars Hill, Ballard Campus, Seattle, Washington, USA

Mars Hill, Ballard Campus, Seattle, Washington, USA


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Mystery Worshipper: Wanderer
Church: Mars Hill
Location: Ballard Campus, Seattle, Washington, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 27 January 2008, 11:00am

The building

A rather plain industrial unit that has been converted. The mid grey exterior blends well with the surrounding units, making it look just a little more modern than its neighbors. Inside, a rather dark entry lobby opens into a huge auditorium.

The church

This is not the Mars Hill Church where the best-selling author and Christian speaker Rob Bell is pastor; that one is located in Michigan. There are six Mars Hill campuses in the greater Seattle area; of these, Ballard is the largest, claiming a weekly Sunday attendance of around 4,000. Mars Hill takes its name from the hilltop in Athens (Areopagus) from which the Apostle Paul preached (Acts 17:22). Mars Hill is part of the emerging church movement and is intensely focused on outreach to the unchurched. They are passionate about actively engaging with communities not normally welcomed in church and giving them straight, no-compromise, orthodox Christianity. Their beliefs may be summed up as follows: Sin is the problem, Hell is hot, Jesus is the answer, the Bible is true – while allowing room for differences regarding secondary matters. They are members of the Resurgence movement and the Acts 29 network.

The neighborhood

Seattle, on Puget Sound, is generally thought of as having a damp, raw climate. Actually the climate is mild given the city's northerly location, although it does rain about 50 percent of the time. The city is the birthplace of the Starbucks coffee empire as well as other upscale coffee house chains. Seattle has a rich cultural life, especially in music ranging from grunge, collegiate folk, jazz, and symphonic idioms. Formed for the most part through annexation of surrounding communities, Seattle boasts a wide variety of neighborhoods each with its unique character. Mars Hill Church sits in just another light industrial and commercial zone.

The cast

Pastor Mark Driscoll, co-founder of Mars Hill Church and its lead preaching pastor.

What was the name of the service?

Sunday Service.

How full was the building?

It looked really packed at the front, probably a few hundred people. Further back about half the seating was used.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

No. I worked out that the parents with children were going one way and followed the general flow through the other door. After my eyes became adjusted to the light in the lobby, I saw that the door to the main hall had two serious looking gentlemen standing either side of it with "Mars Hill Security" on their shirts. This is the first church I've ever been to that had bouncers. They didn't seem to be stopping anyone, though, so I decided to chance it.

Was your pew comfortable?

Firm, comfortable chairs with good leg room.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Loud music was playing.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Well, good morning, Mars Hill!"

What books did the congregation use during the service?

None. Words to the songs were projected – at least eventually (see below).

What musical instruments were played?

A band called E-Pop played keyboard, guitars and violin.

Did anything distract you?

I spent too much time trying to read the preacher's t-shirt, which was partly obscured by his jacket.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Like an in-house indy-rock band. I'm still not sure if it was intended to be congregational worship or a performance. Before the sermon no words to the songs were projected, and most people seemed merely to be watching the band, or perhaps meditating. After the sermon words came up, but even so I think only the people at the front joined in. I was about half way back and didn't notice anyone around me singing.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

67 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

10 – Mark Driscoll preached with the enthusiasm of a newly baptized Christian. Everything he said seemed fresh and exciting. His topic was "Grace," and he held a Bible which he said his wife Grace had given him. (With a topic like that, he just had to work that fact into the sermon.) I noted that the Bibles on sale in the church bookshop appeared to be replicas of the preacher's Bible.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

He expounded a theology of grace going back to Augustine, differentiating between common and special grace. He explained that the Bible enumerates 14 ways in which God's grace transforms the Christian's life.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The sermon was heavenly, and the band was very good (if you like that style of music). But the most heavenly aspect of all was an announcement to the effect that newcomers were not expected to put any money in the collection baskets. "If you're new here," they said, "we don't want your money!" Alas, I had no place to deposit my Mystery Worship card, but I'm not complaining.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

The Mars Hill bouncers at the door.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

A member of the family on the seat next to me said, "Excuse me, could we get out?" I did lurk briefly by the community group helpers afterward but they were quite busy signing up new Christians.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Absent. To be fair, can you imagine how difficult it would be (Seattle is Starbucks country, after all) to serve up several hundred grande mocha decaf lattes, or to risk the wrath of the local population for not doing so? No coffee is safer all around, I think.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

8 – I don't think this is really the church. There seems to be a big focus on the community groups. I had the impression that Sunday services at the different campuses are probably just events to bind the community groups together and provide structure.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

The main feeling was that I ought to be growing more, and that I ought to be praying for God's grace to work further in my life.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The fresh and exciting sermon.

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