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Why did “The Rise & Fall of Mars Hill” go viral?


The Rise & Fall of Mars Hill is the podcast everyone is talking about. The podcast follows the history of Seattle megachurch Mars Hill along with celebrity pastor Mark Driscoll. It has been #1 in Religion & Spirituality category on Spotify and Apple podcasts for weeks.


When I started listening to it, I was hooked. Why? Why is the podcast so addicting? What made it go viral? Why does the story about a church that imploded back in 2015 resonate with so many people today?



I can see five main reasons why The Rise & Fall of Mars Hill podcast went viral. Each one gives us a better understanding of the church in our cultural moment.

1. Production Value.

The most obvious reason The Rise & Fall of Mars Hill engages people is that it is exceptionally well-done. The host, Mike Cosper, and the Christianity Today crew didn’t throw the show together. Partway through the season, they even decided to slow down the release dates of episodes to have more time to do justice to additional testimonies coming in. This is how Christians should approach our work.

Christians need to take creativity seriously. Why aren’t we on the cutting edge of influencing society more? Far too often, the adjective “Christian” becomes a synonym for “cheesy” or “low budget.” Paul in Colossians 3:23 writes, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord.” When we take our work seriously, whatever that work is, it has more significant potential for the kingdom. The Mars Hill podcast is an excellent example of this.

2. Mars Hill (and Mark) was Huge.

If the stuff that happened at Mars Hill happened at a church of 150, the public wouldn’t bat an eye. Countless churches (and organizations) struggle with toxic cultures, mean leaders, misogyny, wrongful termination of employment, speculative theology, etc. I’m not saying any of those things are excusable, but they certainly aren’t newsworthy.

Mars Hill, in its heyday, had 15,000 people attending with an online reach of another 100K people. That’s massive even by today’s standards. Add into the equation that Mark Driscoll is still out there doing his thing. Shortly after Mars Hill, he moved to Scottsdale, AZ, where he planted Trinity Church. Most leaders quietly fade into obscurity after they fall from prominence. Since Mark is still serving in public ministry, it heightens the intrigue of a podcast that is calling him out on specific offenses.

3. Everyone’s Had a Bad Boss.

Toxic leadership cultures are found everywhere—including the church. Our collective experience is why I think the podcast is resonating so well with so many people. We’ve all seen power abused, and there is something therapeutic about hearing a relatable story. It helps when someone else names the injustice because you suddenly feel like you are not alone.

I hope the popularity of this podcast calls church leaders to a higher standard. Many American evangelical churches are still caught up in the glitz and the glam of the church growth movement. Of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting our churches to grow. An effective mission means more people will hear and respond to the gospel. But when gathering the biggest crowd becomes a higher priority than deep discipleship, we have just built for ourselves a golden calf. Charisma begins to outweigh proven character, and suddenly, we have leaders that look nothing like Jesus.

4. American Christians are Deconstructing.

Deconstruction is a buzzword right now. At the heart of almost every deconstruction story is the statement “the church hurt me.” The Mars Hill podcast hits Christians and post-Christians alike because the church (or, more accurately, someone in the church) hurt us. We see ourselves in the darker moments of the Mars Hill story.

For this reason, the podcast is incredibly powerful, for better or for worse. People can hear stories of unhealthy churches go one of two ways. They can heal because the story helped them process their own story. Or they can become triggered and continue down a path of distrust for the church. Some might raise the critique that Christianity Today is shaming the bride of Christ. I believe Mike Cosper is aware that this tension exists and tries to point back to the redemptive parts of the story when he can.

5. It’s Hard to Look Away from Disaster.

We all know where the series is going. After all, they called the first episode “Who Killed Mars Hill?” We know the victim dies like a murder mystery TV show; now we want to know how it happened. I doubt a podcast series called “The Rise of Mars Hill” would attract nearly as much attention. It’s the fall that draws people in.

One of the most common critiques I’ve seen for the podcast is that it can quickly become “Failure Porn.” Like epic fail compilation videos on YouTube, it’s hard to look away from the car wreck. That leads to questions like:

Is this kind of thing healthy?

Should we peer into the depths and grisly details of another church’s failures?

At what point is this gossip?


In a helpful and clarifying interview on the Theology in the Raw Podcast, Preston Sprinkle asked Mike Cosper about the question of failure porn. Cosper answered,

“Are we in it for the church? Or are we in it for the car wreck?”

Although the podcast is incredibly popular, it’s probably not for everyone. If you, like myself, are one of the many listeners of the Rise of Fall of Mars Hill podcast, we must check our own hearts before we hit play. What are we in it for? If our motives are pure, these episodes can help us process through the complexities of the church, power, failure, and our place in the midst of it all.

 

Have you listened to The Rise & Fall of Mars Hill podcast? What are your thoughts on it? Let me know in the comments below!

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