Book(s) Review: The Radical Reformission & Confessions of a Reformission Rev, by Mark Driscoll
Much ink has been spilled lately describing, advocating, criticizing, and defending the emerging church movement. Rightly so. It is a challenge that evangelicals need to handle well if they want to move into the next era of church life in a healthy way.
Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle and founder of the Acts 29 network, is a unique voice in the conversation. He was a part of the emerging movement at its beginning, and he now stands as one of its most visible figures and one of its most passionate critics.
In his first book, The Radical Reformission, Driscoll lays out his "contribution toward the furtherance of the emerging church in the emerging culture" (Radical, 2). The problem, as Driscoll sees it, is that most evangelical churches are either completely hostile to the unbelieving world in which they live, or so friendly with the surrounding culture that they have lost the unique claims of the gospel that alone have the power to change people. The former are the fundamentalists, the latter are the liberals.
Driscoll insists that a church that wants to effectively minister to the emerging culture must combine the best of both worlds: the conservative theology of the fundamentalist church with the deep cultural involvement of the liberal church. The result is a church "living in the tension of being Christians and churches who are culturally liberal and yet theologically conservative." As you might imagine, this kind of thinking generally succeeds in annoying parties on both sides of the issue. And Driscoll is not without his critics.
In his second book, Confessions of a Reformission Rev., Driscoll provides a history of how Mars Hill Church began, while also throwing in a healthy dose of the lessons he has learned along the way. He describes in often gory detail how Mars Hill Church grew from less than forty-five people to over four thousand. Along the way he shares the terrible mistakes, the jaw-dropping successes, the blessings, the failures, and the costs that have come along with pastoring an emerging church.
Taken together, the two books constitute a clarion call to the evangelical church in America, as it adapts to its marginalized status in post-modern culture. In order to review these books most helpfully, I would like to point out a few of their most prominent strengths as well as suggest a few areas of concern.
1. A Distaste for Legalism
Driscoll rightly perceives that legalism threatens the church’s ability to reach the lost. He describes legalism as one of the "well-worn and dangerous ruts that are seemingly impossible to avoid" (Radical, 139). Yet he argues the church must break out of these ruts if it wants to reach the lost in postmodern culture.
Too often, says Driscoll, the conservative church, in its effort to keep itself and its children away from the corrupting influence of sin, has simply removed itself from sinners. It has ostracized those who do not agree to abide by its extra-biblical rules, and it has used those rules as a litmus test for true faith. As a result, many churches have lost their opportunity to be a prophetic voice in the sinful world. They rarely engage the culture, and when they do it’s only to scream slogans at those with whom they disagree.
Driscoll serves the church by calling attention to the dangers of legalism. Legalism is nothing less than an attempt to "define holiness as we see it, rather than as God sees it" (Radical, 142). As a result, it’s a threat to the gospel, and it destroys the church’s ability to fulfill its God-given mission by hiding its light under a bushel. Instead, Driscoll urges legalistic churches to renew their faith so that the true gospel of Jesus Christ is given the opportunity to transform even the worst sinner, which means actively pursuing just those kinds of people.
Legalists aren’t idiots, though. They are responding to a real problem, the corrupting influence of the world. So what should churches do?
Driscoll helpfully points to a better way forward. Rather than building walls around ourselves, we must stick close to Jesus, who was not corrupted by involvement with sinners. Legalism does not actually keep anyone from sin, he points out, but rather only serves to "rearrange the flesh and get people to stop drinking, smoking, and having sex, only to start being proud of their morality" (Radical, 40).
Rather, we must push forward faithfully into the world, confident that what will keep us from sin is not our own commitment to separation from sinners, but "Jesus’ love for us and our love for him (which are) the only tethers that keep us from abusing our freedom" (Radical, 40).
2. A Love for the Lost
These books also reveal the heart of an evangelist. Driscoll shows a genuine passion and love for the lost that cannot fail to energize and challenge the reader. Jesus was a friend to prostitutes and tax collectors, and many of Driscoll’s stories describe amazing conversions of the same kinds of notorious sinners. These books present a pastor and a church modeling a sincere love for the lost, all the while insisting that the church must not accommodate their sinfulness but call them to repentance.
This approach toward the lost means engaging sinners on their turf. And this, in turn, means the church will find itself in some unusual—but not inherently sinful—places. So Mars Hill Church has done a number of unusual things in order to reach sinners, including renovating and running a venue for punk rock shows in a neighborhood known for being a place where heroin addicts liked to shoot up, defecate, and, not infrequently, die.
Though this kind of engagement with the world might offend the sensibilities of some, Driscoll is right to argue that the church cannot afford to be squeamish about such matters. As the culture drifts farther and farther from any kind of identification with Christianity, the church will simply be unable to call decent people with Judeo-Christian morality to attend church more regularly. Instead, the vast majority of people in the surrounding culture (which is the church’s mission field) will be completely unchurched and largely devoid of Christian ethics (Confessions, 16ff). Thus, the church will have to extend itself into some very dark places in order to shine its light there.
3. Respect for Scripture
Many who push the church to engage with the surrounding world emphasize exegeting the culture rather than the Bible. But Driscoll has kept the horse before the cart. He consistently affirms that the Scriptures must regulate our thinking and behavior. He writes that in the early days of his ministry,
The more I read my Bible, the more deeply the Holy Spirit convicted me that I had grievously erred by trying to figure out how to do church successfully by reading a lot of books, visiting a lot of churches, and copying whatever was working (Confessions, 44).
That conviction gave way to a new approach to the church:
As our mission began to develop, the New Testament teaching on church leadership and church discipline seemed increasingly wise and urgent. . . . People’s eternal lives were at stake, and I would one day stand before Jesus to give an account for each person that he had entrusted to me to pastor, leaving no room for ecclesiological experimentation or for vainly creating new definitions of church because I wanted to be cool (Heb 13:17). (Confessions, 47-48).
Most importantly, though, Driscoll has the gospel right. In reaching the culture, he does not advocate pandering to the lowest common denominator or simply meeting people’s felt needs. Rather, he is crystal clear about the necessity of preaching the substitutionary death of Christ and the need for repentance and faith. He rightly sees that only the true gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to change lives and worlds.
4. Personal Transparency
In both of his two books, Driscoll is very honest about his personal failings, temptations, weaknesses, and sin. Some of the stories will make you laugh, some will make you cringe, others will make you rush to repent of your own sin and foolishness.
That he has such weaknesses does not make Driscoll unique, but his transparent willingness to share them does. Many leaders and authors seem bent on portraying themselves in the best light possible, thus discouraging "normal" pastors who are acutely aware of their weaknesses, and robbing Christ of the glory due to him for using such ordinary vessels to do great things. Driscoll’s willingness to admit his weaknesses and failures is encouraging to those who would follow him, and it is glorifying to God.
1. Emphasis on Church Size
The very structure of Confessions speaks to its emphasis on church size. The storyline follows the growth of the church, and each chapter is subtitled according to the church’s size for that part of the story (e.g., "150-300" people). What’s more, the size of the church is assumed to be a roughly accurate indicator of the church’s health. Interestingly, Driscoll rightly assumes that some people will chafe at this kind of approach.
My concern is not so much that Driscoll has a large church, but rather that he seems to think that Scripture does not have anything to say about these kinds of matters. When it comes to church leadership and discipline, Driscoll goes to the Bible for guidance. But when it comes to matters of church size, he says that churches should "determine what size they would like to become" (Confessions, 28).
The same is true for worship style. Driscoll treats things like worship style as matters completely left to a church’s tastes and preferences. Again, I’m not particularly concerned about the actual decisions he might have made on this question (though they may not be the same ones that I have drawn). Rather, I wish he would walk the reader through the process of evaluating these questions biblically, instead of quickly assuming that Scripture has nothing to say.
2. Strange Associations
Driscoll straddles two worlds: the theologically conservative universe of Reformed theology and the much more liberal world of the emergent church and its advocates. Thus, the friends he keeps probably annoy people on all sides of the issues. That being said, it is frustrating that Driscoll seems to admire and advocate the ministries of people who do not in any way hold to his core convictions about the gospel and the church. Am I just being a legalist? Well, I have to think there’s a difference between spending time with and loving a person and advocating that person’s ministry.
Driscoll’s is a larger than life personality. He is bold, brash, sarcastic, opinionated, and blunt. And he clearly revels in being thought of as such. In some ways, this style serves him well. He is able to say powerful and perceptive things in a way that makes their truth immediately obvious.
Yet I wonder if this style might work against his ultimate purpose. The tone is oftentimes intentionally irreverent and contrarian (e.g., he calls the Holy Spirit "the Ghost"; and he refers to Jesus coming back with a tattoo in Revelation 19:16). Driscoll tells stories and uses language that will offend those whose scruples are sensitive.
Now, Driscoll isn’t stupid. In each of these cases he is trying to make a good point about the dangers of legalism. (Actually, I have no idea why he calls the Holy Spirit "the Ghost." That’s just goofy). But I worry that a large part of his intended audience will never hear the message because of the style. Is it possible that Driscoll, ironically, has failed to tailor his message to the audience? My guess is that not many of Seattle’s gutter punks are clamoring to pick up these books. I’d also guess that many evangelicals that read the books are already sympathetic to Driscoll’s view of the church engaging with the world around it.
Where he really has an opportunity to change people’s minds would be among the strongly conservative Christians—the legalist-leaning ones—who tend towards withdrawal as opposed to engagement.
Driscoll certainly has the credentials to gain a hearing with those kinds of people: his soteriology is Reformed. He has established a relationship with respected leaders like John Piper. He clearly affirms the inerrancy of Scripture and the importance of complementarianism. And he has something important to say about the church’s need to be on mission with Jesus in a lost world. Yet my fear is that many people will not be able to get past some silly matters of tone and style in order to hear the message.
I encourage pastors and church leaders to read these two books and seriously weigh the ideas they contain. One cannot help but be sharpened and challenged by their call to missions in the world around us. These books have helped me to repent of ways in which I was failing to share Jesus’ heart for the lost. They have sharpened my focus as a leader of the church. And they have refreshed my excitement for what can be done through the power of the gospel.