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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Tribal Power Structures and the Mega Church

In the summer of 1968 I did my obligatory out of culture experience by spending two months in El Salvador living with a missionary in Gotera and basically wasting time since I was not fluent in Spanish. I was a hiker and mountain climber so I spent a lot of time walking the roads and the trails early in the day before the heat became intolerable and before the afternoon thunder storm. It was a drought year and people were starving. The thunder storms were only once every three days which is too dry for the rainy season.

On one of my walks I encountered another gringo, which was truly a rare event in '68. Always happy to speak some english, I chatted with him for a while. He was an anthropologist working for the peace corps. I asked him what he was doing and he said he was studying tribal power structures. I thought that was a bizarre way to spend your time but didn't say as much.

That fall I enrolled in a cultural anthropology course and began to get a better grasp on tribal power structures. The Mega Church phenomenon has been studied at great length using numerous different frameworks for analysis. The Tribal metaphor seems a very useful one. We have a chief, the senior pastor, we have a counsel of elders, "the board". The management style can differ dramatically from tribe to tribe. The elders have a substantial authority in some tribes but in others they are pawns who bow to every whim of the chief.

The word on the street is that Mars Hill Church is headed in the direction of one man rule. Mark Driscoll has been accused recently in the NY Times of centralizing his authority by removing elders who disagree with him. That is certainly an old story.

On the other hand, who trusts the NY Times? Certainly not me. The news media are always lairs, gluttons, evil beats. I can picture a scenario where a leader of a church might be compelled by a conflict between the vision which is central to the ministry and several elders who were disrupting things to take action to keep the ship on course. The picture that the NY Times presents isn't the whole story, it never is.

There are other aspects of Mars Hill Church which raise a concern, reports form eye witnesses and participant observers. People talk about Mark ... Mark ... Mark, not about Jesus but Mark. After the service, away from the church, it still goes on, "kissing up to Driscoll" , never a critical word, never a doubt or a question. This sounds a lot like Community Chapel, a sad tale, which was over with before the Mars Hill babies were born.


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