On February 8, 1940, an estimated 5,000 Seattle residents passed by the casket of the Reverend Mark Matthews, long-time pastor of the First Presbyterian Church. Matthews had died three days earlier after serving for thirty-eight years as the church’s pastor. Widely recognized as the most influential Protestant minister in the Pacific Northwest during the first half of the twentieth century, Matthews stood out among his peers for his flamboyant appearance and controversial statements in his attempt to shape the city in accordance with his deepest convictions.
Some seventy years later, another Seattle pastor has captured both local and national media attention for his flamboyance and often controversial statements. Mark Driscoll started the Mars Hill Church out of his home in Seattle in 1996, but by 2013, many observers regarded him as the most influential pastor in the Pacific Northwest, and the church made claim to being the largest in the state.
Several years ago, scholars began referring to it as the “None Zone” in reference to the fact that when surveyed, more people in the Northwest, compared with the rest of the country, replied “none” to the question of whether they had a religious affiliation.
What makes the respective stories of Matthews and Driscoll so interesting is that the Pacific Northwest is one of the most secular regions in the country. Several years ago, scholars began referring to it as the “None Zone” in reference to the fact that when surveyed, more people in the Northwest, compared with the rest of the country, replied “none” to the question of whether they had a religious affiliation. So it is with a certain irony that Seattle has been home to two pastors who have led two of the country’s largest churches nearly 100 years apart. Mark Matthews pastored Seattle’s First Presbyterian Church from 1902 to 1940 and his congregation became the largest in the denomination with close to 9,000 members and was the first mega church in the Pacific Northwest. While estimates vary, on average, over 15,000 listen to Mark Driscoll preach each week, and over 6,000 individuals claim membership at Mars Hill making it the largest congregation in the state of Washington.
What makes this comparison even more fascinating is that aside from being controversial, both emerged as entrepreneurs and highly effective organizational leaders; both used technology effectively to reach unprecedented numbers. Both men placed an unusual emphasis on the importance of gender; both men exhibited the chutzpah to challenge elements of Seattle’s prevailing culture, and both married women named Grace who were daughters of pastors.
Are these similarities merely coincidences? Are there even more significant differences between the two? And is there something about the nature of religion in Seattle and the Northwest that is revealed in a side-by-side examination of these two pastors?
Their backgrounds do indeed invite comparison. Born in 1867, Matthews grew up in Calhoun, Georgia, a community that had stood in the way of Sherman’s march to the sea during the Civil War only three years earlier. Bearing the marks of poverty and dislocation following the war, Matthews experienced little in the way of formal education, but he benefited from the tutoring of a local Presbyterian minister on the finer points of Calvinist theology. He never went to seminary but felt comfortable in applying theological insights to the cultural issues of his day. Ordained at age 20, he began his ministry in his hometown, and moved to a slightly larger congregation in a slightly larger town–Dalton, Georgia in 1892. By 1896, he left Georgia for yet a larger community—Jackson, Tennessee, where he developed a reputation for powerful preaching and a strong commitment to the social life of the community. He helped establish the Humane Society, unemployment bureau, local Presbyterian hospital and convinced Andrew Carnegie to provide money for the town library. His reputation continued to grow, and in 1902, he accepted an invitation to become the pastor of Seattle’s First Presbyterian Church.
Mark Driscoll was born in 1970, just over 100 years after Mark Matthews. By his own description, Driscoll grew up in a rough neighborhood in South Seattle with its own sense of dislocation, poverty, and dysfunction. “Without a local police force, it resembled the Wild West,” noted Driscoll.
“There were multiple strip clubs, seedy massage parlors, and hourly rate motels down the street from my home. The prostitutes walked the streets openly and were brazen enough to even walk up and knock on my car window.”
Unlike Matthews, who never was alienated from church or religion, Driscoll, although raised Catholic, describes himself as uninterested in church by the time he attended high school. It was during high school, however, that he met Grace, his future wife. After dating in high school, they initially attended different universities. While at Washington State University in Pullman, Driscoll found fraternity life wanting, and he reports turning to the Bible that Grace had given him years earlier. Driscoll reports that God told him to “marry Grace, preach the Bible, train men and plant churches.” He did in fact marry Grace, graduate from WSU, and begin work as a college outreach pastor for the Antioch Bible Church in Kirkland on the east side of Lake Washington. He later earned a Master’s degree in theology from Western Seminary in Portland where he gravitated toward Calvinist theology, although according to Driscoll, one of his major influences has been Charles Spurgeon, the late nineteenth century Reformed Baptist preacher who challenged the liberal theological tendencies of his day.
Both Matthews and Driscoll found Seattle to be a challenging social environment on a number of fronts. Matthews decided to come after being persuaded by members of Seattle’s First Presbyterian Church that God was on the move in the Pacific Northwest, and that the city would be a gateway to the Orient both in terms of commerce but also as a location to launch a great missionary movement to the Far East. But Seattle was also in the throes of a culture war. A considerable number of business men and aspiring entrepreneurs believed that in order to prosper, the city needed to allow the permissive social culture associated with Gold Rush days of 1897 to continue to flourish in the form of saloons, gambling halls, and houses of prostitution. There were others however, including Matthews, who considered that anathema and worked for the rest of his life to reform that element of Seattle’s culture. Matthews identified with the Victorian culture of his day, which placed a heavy emphasis on self-control, temperance, and supervised gendered relations.
Driscoll has had a more complex relationship to the culture of the Northwest. He began his ministry in the context of an economic and cultural revolution in Seattle. In the 1980s, Bill Gates and Paul Allen at Microsoft helped initiate a high tech revolution. They, along with Seattle entrepreneurs Howard Schultz at Starbucks and Jeff Bezos at Amazon helped transform the image of the city into one that was hip and trendsetting across the country. But the 1980s and ‘90s also saw a more complex side of Seattle’s youth culture emerge. Seattle gained national attention for its home grown Grunge music with bands such as Nirvana led by Kurt Cobain, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden with their angst-ridden, darker lyrics bordering on despair. In his early years, Driscoll embraced the hip and trendsetting Seattle style. He found much to appreciate about the “hard-edged, high tech, disaffected sensibility of the bands” from that era.
Yet he also wanted to convince young men in particular that the Gospel could provide a more compelling message of hope.
Matthews and Driscoll, each in their own way, drew on Seattle’s entrepreneurial and innovative culture to fashion their own style and approach to ministry, and at the same time, both were appalled at elements of Seattle’s culture and began to work to change it. For Matthews it was the culture of permissiveness and in particular the over consumption of alcohol which, in his opinion, ruined the lives of not only young men but endangered the health and well-being of women and children. For Driscoll, it was the aimless, purposeless sense of youth culture which ended in the alienation of an entire generation.
Both Matthews and Driscoll were flamboyant when compared with the standards of their day. At 6’5” and a lean frame, Matthews wore his hair long, often sported a Prince Albert frock coat and loved making arresting comments in his sermons which were frequently quoted in the local press. He gained public notice when he argued that church property should be taxed and that women should not wear hats in church, or when he called John D. Rockefeller the “greatest sinner on the American continent.” Likewise, Driscoll relishes his identity as an out of the box thinker and an iconoclast. Famous for his blue jeans and untucked shirt, Driscoll is more comfortable with the style of stand-up comedy. Driscoll has attracted attention on more than one occasion for his frankness about sexual behavior in and out of marriage. And while he may be mellowing as he ages, nevertheless he is still known for his blunt style and direct approach to his audience.
Matthews wanted the building to be open essentially 24 hours a day and seven days a week where in addition to worship, the church provided services for the poor and unemployed, as well as a multitude of educational activities.
If the two shared a tendency toward irreverence and iconoclasm, they also shared a strong interest in how technology might broaden their reach. Fascinated with radio, Matthews convinced two members of First Presbyterian to build the first church-owned and operated radio station in the world. Beginning in 1922, Matthews could preach his sermons to those who resided outside of the city limits in the Pacific Northwest. Driscoll, while not among the first to use social media and podcasting effectively, nevertheless has capitalized tremendously on the ability to deliver his message to those who are not in personal attendance.
One of their strongest points of comparison is in their respective visions for expanding the network of their ministries and congregations. Matthews built the first mega church in the Pacific Northwest, and one of the first in the country. He envisioned a great edifice as the hub of a vast network of churches. In 1906, he led the building of a huge church at 7th and Spring Streets (which was torn down and replaced by the current structure in 1969). This church could seat up to 3,000 and had a magnificent pipe organ. Matthews wanted the building to be open essentially 24 hours a day and seven days a week where in addition to worship, the church provided services for the poor and unemployed, as well as a multitude of educational activities. Matthews fostered the development of Sunday Schools in various locations throughout the city and many of these became “branch” churches which initially were supported financially by the downtown church. As branch churches grew, many eventually became independent. The most famous and influential of these branch churches was University Presbyterian Church located adjacent to the University of Washington.
The growth of Mars Hill has been spectacular. Originating out of Driscoll’s home in Wallingford, the Mars Hill Church struggled to find a more permanent home as numbers continued to increase. Ironically, Driscoll and his followers met for a short time at First Presbyterian—Matthews’s old church. By 2003, Driscoll found a former NAPA auto parts store in Ballard where he could create a suitable worship space. Over the next decade, Mars Hill established itself in several more locations including West Seattle, Downtown Seattle, Bellevue, Olympia, U-District, Federal Way, Everett, Tacoma, Portland, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Orange County, California.
Perhaps the most interesting development at Mars Hill is the decision to move more directly into the urban core of Bellevue, Seattle, and Tacoma. Purchasing the former John Danz Theatre in Bellevue, Mars Hill moved into the building in 2010. In the following year, Mars Hill began renting the United Methodist Church in downtown Seattle. Built in 1907, the church is considered an architectural gem and harkened back to an earlier era of tall steeple churches in the heart of major metropolitan areas. In Tacoma, Mars Hill recently obtained the First Congregational Church with its sanctuary dating back to 1922. In a somewhat ironic twist, Matthews started in the city’s center and developed branch churches in the emerging suburbs. Driscoll largely started outside of the city center and has worked his way back into the heart of the city.
In a somewhat ironic twist, Matthews started in the city’s center and developed branch churches in the emerging suburbs. Driscoll largely started outside of the city center and has worked his way back into the heart of the city.
Both Matthews and Driscoll have understood themselves to be a part of a broader missionary movement. Matthews sent missionaries to China, Korea, Africa, and India. Driscoll is less concerned about missionizing the world and more interested in creating a network of churches in North America that can “reclaim” the culture for Christianity. Called Acts 29, the organization was founded by Driscoll in 1998 as a means of encouraging church planting throughout North America. While the headquarters moved from Seattle to Texas in 2012, Driscoll remains on the board of directors and helps shape the ongoing identity of those new churches.
All of that activity on the part of Matthews and Driscoll did not go unnoticed. By 1910, First Presbyterian was recognized as the largest congregation in the denomination—pretty remarkable for being in Seattle. In 1912, Matthews won election as the moderator of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., the highest elected office. And by 1924, he was named in a poll of clergymen as one of the twenty-five most influential pastors in America. Driscoll has catapulted onto the national scene. In 2012 Mars Hill was ranked by Kent Shaffer and his national organization, “Church Relevance,” as the third most innovative church and the seventh most important church in the United States based on a combination of factors.
So beyond style, organizational skill, and technological savvy, what were and are the core messages of these two pastors? At root, they consider themselves orthodox Christians and broadly Calvinist. As a consequence they both have a strong view of God’s sovereignty, a high view of scriptural authority, the necessity of belief in Jesus Christ as one’s savior and a view that a Christian should understand the counter-Christian impulses in culture and be willing to either separate one’s self from that culture or to try and change it directly.
As a consequence they both have a strong view of God’s sovereignty, a high view of scriptural authority, the necessity of belief in Jesus Christ as one’s savior and a view that a Christian should understand the counter-Christian impulses in culture and be willing to either separate one’s self from that culture or to try and change it directly.
It is this impulse to challenge or even change the culture that again raises interesting similarities and differences. Much of Matthews’ ministry in the first two decades of the twentieth century was informed by the Social Gospel and Progressive era. Hundreds of Protestant ministers throughout the country believed that the church should actively be involved with political and social reform. This ranged from women’s suffrage and the prohibition of alcohol to the establishment of health care and social services for the poor. Political corruption, corporate greed, labor issues, and municipal reform all seemed fair game for late nineteenth and early twentieth century pastors mostly in the burgeoning cities of the North as they attempted to make Christianity a vital force within American society. And Matthews embraced it all (except for women’s suffrage.) Tireless in his efforts to chase what he believed were corrupt mayors and police chiefs, he even cashed in his life insurance to pay for the private investigation of such individuals. He had a keen eye for what his church could do to support the unemployed as well as finding ways to build consensus around health care. He helped create the Seattle Day Nursery which later became Childhaven for abused children, and he played a vital role in the creation of Harborview Hospital. He relentlessly fought for prohibition as he saw the common abuse of alcohol as the major social scourge of his era. Matthews lived in an era where in spite of growing differences between theological liberals and conservatives, a fairly broad consensus developed among activist Christians that the city needed to be transformed socially.
“Culture shifts happen in the cities and then move out to the suburbs. Wouldn’t it be great if the church was on the front end, rather than the back end of those changes?“
Driscoll lives in a different era. The divide between liberals and conservatives has widened on theological grounds as well as on social and political issues. Much of the Progressive/Social Gospel agenda can still be found among mainline churches, both Protestant and Catholic. The more conservative and a large number of self-identified evangelical churches have confined themselves to what are often described as family, student, and women’s ministries. More recently, Mars Hill has taken up the issue of human trafficking as well as partnered with the Union Gospel Mission to serve the poor. But there are signs that the leadership at Mars Hill is becoming more interested in trying to change what they determine to be the influential centers of culture. According to one Mars Hill pastor, “Culture shifts happen in the cities and then move out to the suburbs. Wouldn’t it be great if the church was on the front end, rather than the back end of those changes?” Another Mars Hill pastor said, “We think that God has a heart for cities and a lot of churches have really missed a great opportunity by retreating from the urban setting rather than engaging with what is going on there.” Perhaps it is a bit early to forecast, and it is difficult to know exactly what changing the culture of the city means, but Driscoll and the pastoral leadership at Mars Hill may be trying to redirect themselves toward the centers of political and cultural power in the city.
What both Matthews and Driscoll share is a concern with gender and in particular the concern that the church has been feminized in such a way as to make it unattractive to men. Both pastors opposed the feminist impulses of their day, and this has often generated the most controversy, particularly in Driscoll’s case.
As indicated, Matthews was so opposed to women in the public square that he objected to women’s suffrage even when it was obvious that the addition of female voters would likely make a difference in the passage of prohibition. In spite of that, Matthews worried that Christianity was failing to attract sufficient numbers of men. As a consequence, he aimed his Sunday evening services primarily to men and often preached a message that emphasized the compatibility of Christianity with masculinity. “A man should pass from the child state of Christian life to the strong, robust, muscular period of Christian manhood,” preached Matthews in a sermon entitled “Wanted:More Man in Men.” Matthews believed that the true Christian man embodied the virtue of empathy for others while being bold and courageous. “The greatest evil this country has to combat is the lack of boldness born of righteousness. Therefore, we want in men a righteous, masculine boldness.” This approach to manliness, he believed, would be the antidote to alcohol abuse, sexual exploitation, and gambling addiction, as well as municipal corruption and capitalist greed. In “Conscienceless Man,” he attacked greed and exploitation. “Do you suppose landlords who are systematically and persistently raising rents on office buildings, stores, restaurants, bakeries, barber shops, hotels, flats and residences are controlled by the dictates of a righteous conscience? No.” The next to last sermon, “Childless Man,” emphasized the importance of family and stressed Matthews’ belief that every man ought to produce a family. And, finally, the series culminated with an emphasis on conversion to Christianity in the “Christless Man.”
Driscoll, like Matthews, is very concerned about gender roles and identity. Driscoll has criticized both the mainline and many evangelical preachers for portraying an image of Jesus that, in his opinion, was far too effeminate. As one writer observed,
“Driscoll is adamantly not the ‘weepy worship dude’ he associates with liberal and mainstream evangelical churches, “singing prom songs to Jesus who is presented as a wuss who took a beating and spent a lot of time putting product in his long hair.”
Driscoll has written that the mainstream church has made Jesus into “a Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ,” a “neutered and limp-wristed popular Sky Fairy of pop culture that . . . would never talk about sin or send anyone to hell.”
On the foundation of this more “manly” Jesus and what he believed Scripture says, Driscoll advocates for a patriarchal view of the church and society. He wrote that
as an intense biblical literalist, who believes that the man is the head of the home, that the man should provide for his family, that children are a blessing, and that we would not have so many deceived feminists running around if men were better husbands and fathers because the natural reaction of godly women to godly men is trust and respect.
In another sermon he stated that the divine task of the Mars Hill Church is to become “a man factory, they come in boys, they go out men.”
Driscoll is known for his “boot camps” for young men where they are challenged to embrace their masculinity and to hear presentations about marriage, sex, money, and fatherhood. Participants hear lectures on how to get a wife, have sex with that wife, get a job, budget money, buy a house, father a child, study the Bible and stop looking at porn, and brew decent beer.” Driscoll describes himself as a complementarian in the sense that men and women are equally valued in the eyes of Christ but that they have different roles. Wives have a primary ministry to their husband and children. Women must submit to and obey their husbands. Husbands must be attentive to the needs of their wives and children. Women can hold leadership positions in the church but cannot serve as Elders. All of this has produced a sea of critics as well as a significant number of ardent followers.
So what do these comparisons between Mark Matthews and Mark Driscoll tell us about religion in the Pacific Northwest?
First they suggest that the Pacific Northwest, and in particular Seattle, is more complicated when it comes to religious culture than what might appear at first glance. These two highly successful pastors have benefited from the relatively open religious environment in Seattle where no one tradition dominates and where innovation is generally well received rather than treated with suspicion.
Second, Matthews and Driscoll also suggest that there is room for charismatic, controversial, and unconventional religious leaders even in a city like Seattle.
While Matthews had a much larger reach into the community and embraced a number of issues that might be considered progressive or liberal, he still preached a conservative religious message. Driscoll clearly falls on the conservative side of the culture war between the left and the right.
What is difficult to compare and evaluate is the relative longevity and impact. Mark Driscoll is currently 43 years old. When Mark Matthews was 43, he still had 30 more years in the pulpit. He would have just come through the First World War. Matthews would face the Roaring ‘20s, rise of the Ku Klux Klan in Washington State, the splintering of the Presbyterian Church over fundamentalism and modernism, the Great Depression of the 1930s and the rise of Adolph Hitler just prior to his death in 1940. He attempted to engage all of these issues. He continued to push his congregation to be a force for social good in the city and remained active in city politics. Often criticized for meddling, hyperbole, and a large ego, nevertheless, he did so without scandal. By the end, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer commented “He had a far greater hand in shaping the destinies of Seattle during the thirty-eight years he lived in the city than another single man.” Yet, Matthews’ success failed to sustain First Presbyterian beyond the next generation. By the late 1990s, when Mars Hill met for a short period of time in Matthews’ old church, the congregation had diminished to a shadow of its former self. The story of its decline is one that deserves more attention.
How long Mark Driscoll will continue to lead Mars Hill is obviously an open question. Even more uncertain are the larger historical and social forces that may emerge in the next several years that will influence his interests and help shape the direction of his ministry. One thing that is certain is that as did Matthews, Driscoll will necessarily have to react to the larger social context of his time. He will have to react to the rapidly changing landscape of religion in America and the Pacific Northwest.
At the very least these two pastors, who engaged in something of a culture war in their respective eras, demonstrate that Seattle is much more than the “None” zone when it comes to religion and public life.