Unintended consequences of failure porn

I’m seven episodes into The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill and my feelings are more mixed than before. Not particularly towards the podcast itself. I have some questions about particular editorial choices in the more recent episodes, but I still feel it’s an important project, generally well-executed, and a valuable though painful listen. But I am increasingly perturbed by the cult following that is developing around it. The drooling anticipation that fills my Twitter timeline ahead of each episode. The cries of “I can’t wait”, or “I need the next episode NOW!” The eager anticipation of what new controversies the next instalment may unveil. The plethora of mocking memes that get shared after each installment.

That’s not normal for religious journalism.

It’s normal for reality TV.

It’s normal for celebrity gossip.

It’s normal for addictions.

And it’s the irony that bugs me. We’re listening to a podcast critiquing celebrity culture within the church, and responding to it with all the glee of someone flicking through a celebrity gossip magazine. Apparently oblivious to the hypocrisy. A podcast criticising how the Mars Hill cult leveraged branding and technology to send their message globally is now using the very same technology and platforms, and gaining a cult following. A man who viewed in-your-face standup comics as his model for preaching, is being taken apart through the medium of sarcastic, humorous memes, delivered in a not-dissimilar bullying tone… we could go on.

I don’t mean to criticise the podcast. I mean to criticise us. And I’m preaching this to myself as much as to anyone else. We are far more gripped than we think we are by the very issues we are bemoaning, and far less self-aware than we give ourselves credit for. And it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if the final instalment of the podcast consisted of Mike Cosper shouting at the listener in some Nathan/Driscoll hybrid-style “Thou art the man!”

Again, I think it’s important we listen to this podcast and the lessons it has to teach us. Seriously important. But as I said before, reflecting on Jesus’ words from Luke 8, we need to be careful how we listen! Because even if the content creators have put this project together carefully and prayerfully, there is a responsibility for the hearers to receive it and respond to it well. 

Jon Tyson put it nicely:

Failure porn. Ouch.

I trust there will be many good things to emerge from The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill: people encouraged to speak up about their own experiences; justice, healing and hope for those who have suffered; repentance from those who have acted in ungodly ways; lessons learned, and good decisions made about healthy church government and culture. But if we’ve learnt anything from this podcast, it’s surely the lesson of unintended consequences. Things that start with good intentions can give rise to horrible evils. 

I can’t help but wonder what the unintended consequences of this very project might be. For example:

Increased cynicism and distrust towards churches, church networks, and church leaders.

Some of it will be merited. Some of it won’t be. What if an unintended consequence is that we end up assuming everything is toxic? Every church and every leader has something to hide. And if we see no signs of toxicity, we assume that’s because it’s been so well hidden?

I spoke to a guy a couple of weeks ago who hasn’t returned to church since the pandemic restrictions loosened and says he’s not likely to, because this podcast has shaken him. When I asked if he had any concerns about his own church in particular he said ‘none at all… but you just never know do you?’

A normalising of our pastoral grievances being worked out in the online space.

I’m grateful for social media, and the way voices who would otherwise be silenced have been able to share their stories in ways that have brought important themes like racism, or abuse – sexual and spiritual – into the public consciousness. And to be sure, not everything can (or should) be worked out in the local church. Scriptures like Matthew 18; 1 Corinthians 6; 1 Timothy 5 are often held up as the correct ‘biblical’ approach to issues in the church, but in reality can be (ab)used to put the victim in an inappropriate situation, protect the leader, and undermine the quest for repentance, restoration and healing. So there’s an important place for speaking up and speaking out online. But what if an unintended consequence of this series was a shift towards the online space being the main place or the first place people turn to work out their grievances? I’m not convinced that would be helpful to bring about either justice and healing for the victim, or repentance for the perpetrator. We need some serious, thoughtful reflection on how, when, and where it is appropriate for social media to fit in a godly approach to spiritual abuse.

The creation of a new genre of ‘church exposé’ podcasting.

I’ve already seen a number of “hey CT, do this church next” tweets, or people saying that this project has inspired them to do their own podcast about their church / denomination, and asking for contributors to share their stories. Some good could come of that. But will all those people have a considered editorial policy? Or a team of people keeping them accountable for the tone of their project? Or might an unintended consequence of this project be a fresh wave of unaccountable podcasters feeling legitimated in creating media that is damaging and less-thoughtfully executed than the work that inspired it? Might we end up making celebrities out of celebrity hunters? Might people who lack the character for such a public platform gain one by railing against others who lack the character for their public platform?

The rise of the nu-experts.

If my timeline is anything to go by, there has been a rapid wave of people who have suddenly positioned themselves as experts on spiritual abuse and trauma, and taken to social media to share their insights, and play-by-play commentary on all the ins and outs of each new scandal, as if their analysis bore the weight of a true expert. People who have never spoken about these subjects before, but recently read one book and a handful of tweets and now feel equipped to speak as if they were an authority on hugely complex subjects. And often in a tone that seems more self-righteous than Christ-like. The truth is, these themes are so important that they need to be handled wisely and sensitively, and it would be a tragedy if the voices of genuine experts – the ones who have studied hard to build academic and pastoral credibility over years, so they can offer people the best possible care – were to be drowned out by the voices of the self-accredited overnight ‘experts’ who are simply more skilled at creating the most retweetable hot-takes.

Of course, I’m not saying someone needs to have a PhD to express an opinion! But I am concerned by the lack of humility I’m seeing in a lot of posts – particularly from pastors – and the quickness with which people who have only considered these themes for a couple of months are tweeting hard and fast denouncements about individuals, churches, and organisations. What if an unintended consequence was that the loudness of the nu-experts made it hard for those who genuinely need help to find the true experts who are best equipped to help them?

A desensitising to the use of harsh language in our discourse to and about one another.

To be sure, serious evils require serious words, and there is a place for angry denouncements. But what if an unintended consequence was that we got used to using heightened language to speak to or about a brother or sister in Christ, and it quickly became the norm. What if we didn’t just become used to it, but addicted to it? Gaining likes, RTs and fire emojis are addictive. It’s a drug. So once our harshly-worded hot-takes start to gain us some traction, we’re only going to intensify them all the more. And before long we’ll be finding ways to justify our bullying tone, oblivious to the irony that in speaking against the likes of Driscoll we are sounding more and more Driscollian than we would care to admit. 

Greater polarisation, tribalism and an escalation of theological labelling.

If the podcast has shown us anything it’s that the web of issues that create a toxic place like Mars Hill or ministry like Mark’s is complex. But from many of the social media responses, you’d think it was incredibly simple. It’s easy for people to read the narrative in a reductive way that justifies our own theological persuasion. We identify a view that someone holds, with which we disagree personally, and then we say that it’s because of that view alone that he did whatever evil he did. It’s only one step from there to saying that everyone else who holds that theological view is equally awful. And the label-based denunciations blind us to the fact that there may have been other factors at play which are common across the theological spectrum.

Certainly, some theological systems are more problematic and inherently prone to creating abusive environments than others. But what if an unintended consequence of this project was a greater theological tribalism, where ministries who are entirely different in tone and character, but connected by only a single doctrinal allegiance feel that they are the next ones the crowd will be coming for?

Wholesale rejections of large church ministry models, which leads to decreased missional effectiveness in certain contexts.

I am increasingly convinced of the virtues of small church. Or if the church is ‘large’ I’d like it to have ‘small’ elements. If it needs to be multisite, the sites will be small enough to maintain deep relationships; an emphasis on genuine midweek community; a place where you meet your pastor, s/he knows your name, and you don’t just see them as a dot on a video screen or on a stage in the distance. And listening to a podcast like this can reinforce that view, because it’s easy to hear some of this stuff and think: “That’s the problem with big churches! They’re all celebrity-driven, about building the brand, etc.

So it would be easy to reject wholesale the models of church that Driscoll and others popularised: large church, missional church, multisite church. But the truth is, many of the issues at Mars Hill exist in small, single-site churches too. Not least because a lot of small church, single-site pastors were influenced by Driscoll even though they’ve not gone on to create a church of a comparable size! Not everything that is small is ‘kingdom’ and not everything that is big is ‘empire’. There may be ways of doing big church that are healthy, and lessons we can learn that would result in more large, thriving, godly churches. If we were to uncritically reject certain models of church, I think an unintended consequence would be decreased missional effectiveness in certain contexts. There are some cities that will never be reached without large, multisite churches, led by charismatic leaders. There are some individuals who will never come to faith without the same.

A catch-22 for institutions and independence.

One of the things that has struck me from this podcast and other related stories is the importance of genuine accountability, and being part of a structure or network bigger than yourself. When leaders go it alone, it can be easy to avoid challenge, to not draw on the wisdom of others, and for red-flags to go unnoticed. At the same time, one of the other things that has struck me is how dangerous it is when institutions become toxic. When church movements tolerate or cover-up abuse over decades and their unhealthy culture solidifies over time, they can get into a self-preservation mode, where they care more about protecting the brand than protecting the sheep. Both themes come through strongly in the podcast, and in recent stories we’ve seen breaking in the Christian world. So it seems to me that an unintended consequence of this is a catch-22. Listeners may come away feeling convinced both that institutions are inherently problematic and that independence is too. So what then? How do we move forward?

A willingness to settle for artistry, rhetorical questions, and the appearance of self-reflection.

I like the mic-drop moments in the podcast. The story has been taking you one way. Then the music slowly starts to fade in and you know something is coming. A soundbite. A gut-punching rhetorical question. And it’s time for a cliff-hanging advert break. Of course a podcast is deliberately crafted like that; it’s an artform. But what if an unintended consequence is that we get better and better at spinning compelling narratives that carry people along, and we settle for artistry and rhetorical questions rather than actually engaging in the hard work of finding answers? Because that’s not sexy. That doesn’t keep people listening. Acknowledging the need for self-reflection is not the same as doing the self-reflection. The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill is facilitating the former, but I’m not sure how effectively it’s equipping us for the latter. At least so far. The former is comparatively easy. The latter takes hard work. So what if an unintended consequence was that we ended up settling for the appearance of self-reflection over the actual thing? We pat ourselves on the back for recognising the need to question our own complicity, and we fail to follow through and actually make the necessary changes?

We could go on… I’ve written before about the ripples that usually emanate from fallen pastors and there will be similar ones here. Fuel on the fire for heresy hunters; more reasons for unbelievers to reject Christianity; more reasons for faithful pastors to be fearful about stepping out in faith and leadership, or faithful Christians feeling fearful about embracing a call on their life to full-time ministry, and so on… 

My point is simply this. In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul says the failures of the Old Testament characters were written down as examples and warnings for us. It can be so easy for us to read their stories and assume we would have done differently. But if God thought we would have done better, He wouldn’t have bothered giving us warnings in His inspired word. No, as Paul says:

‘If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!’

(1 Corinthians 10:12)

Same goes for The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. We need to heed the warnings, but not allow the very act of listening to generate in us the same issues the podcast is highlighting. Pride. A feeling of superiority. A judgmental spirit. A bullying tone. A blind ignorance to our ever-hardening hearts, and the compromises we’re making that are making us less Christlike by the day. 

‘Consider carefully how you listen’

(Luke 8:18) 

If you found this post helpful or thought-provoking (even if you disagreed with it!) chances are someone else you know may do too. So please take a moment to share it on social media. If you would like to support me further, please consider buying me a coffee via my ko-fi page.

18 Comments Add yours

  1. Kyle says:

    Church culture making sure everyone stays in line…. Always have a caution for others. I get it, I love the church and want it to be healthy and biblical, gospel-centered, etc. But can we give ourselves a break and not have to keep everyone else in check?

    Like

  2. Jess Connell says:

    Fabulous thoughts & analysis. Thanks for sharing it & sharpening the church in how we interact and discuss important issues.

    Like

  3. russskinner says:

    Reblogged this on Russ Skinner's Blog and commented:
    Much food for thought.

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  4. Well said, Liam. I appreciate the circumspect humility you prescribe and model in this post. We certainly need more of that, myself included. Grace to you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Bryce – I appreciate that.

      Like

  5. Christa Porth says:

    Wow, this put a finger on my discomfort. I had not yet listened and had many friends talk about how “good” the podcast was. I was uncomfortable with starting the series but had not yet been able to articulate why. This is a very thoughtful piece about where we can go on a very broad public scale when we are not prayerfully pondering where our own hearts and churches are at.

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  6. Laura L says:

    After reading these thoughts, I’m glad the podcast slowed the release schedule. That feels like a good call when people are clamoring for more. If people claiming addiction have to wait, hopefully their hearts will be in a better place to listen well.

    A different CT podcast interviewed Mike Cosper as he was starting this podcast, and he shared some of his worries and goals. It doesn’t have the powerful music cues or the storytelling cuts, but is a simple conversation. I hope a lot of people listening to “the Rise and Fall” also stumble across that episode, for context.

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    1. Kyle says:

      Well stated. I appreciate Cosper’s effort with this and know that it has been helpful for me personally to process through similar experiences. I think that is much of his intention, to care for the church.

      Like

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