Can Megachurches Deal With Mega Money in a Christian Way?

Mars Hill Church spent $210,000 getting its pastor's book to the top of the New York Times best-seller list. Where is the line between a pastor promoting his own career and promoting the ministry of his church? 

Pastor Mark Driscoll preaches at Mars Hill Church in Seattle. (AP)

By any measure, pastor Mark Driscoll is wildly successful in the contemporary evangelical world. Mars Hill Church, which he co-founded in 1996, in Seattle, now boasts 15 locations from Seattle to Albuquerque. More than 13,000 people worship at a Mars Hill Church every week, often watching Driscoll’s hour-long sermons on large screens at the front of the sanctuary. Online, his sermons are heard about 15 million times each year. On top of all that, his 2011 book Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, and Life Together was a No. 1 New York Times best-seller.

Alas: Last week, Warren Cole Smith of the conservative Christian magazine World reported that Mars Hill had paid at least $210,000 to a California consulting company to boost Real Marriage onto best-seller lists. The company, ResultSource, uses a variety of tactics to circumvent the systems intended to prevent bulk sales from influencing the lists. (Driscoll is not the only prominent pastor to be accused of boosting his own book sales using ethically gray techniques. In February, North Carolina megachurch pastor Steven Furtick was accused of a similar list-topping scheme.)

Even for a large church with a popular pastor, however, $210,000 is an astronomical amount to spend on marketing. “It certainly looks like a massive misuse of money,” theologian, pastor, and author Carl Trueman told me. “But when you have a church culture where one man is absolutely central to everything the church does publicly, then it’s really difficult to draw that line between the church’s mission and the man’s mission, and money spent on the mission and money spent on the man.”

The troubling fuzziness of those lines has significance far beyond Mars Hill.

As Smith’s meticulously reported story uncovered, ResultSource’s work for Mars Hill included arranging for a “network of book buyers” to purchase copies of the books at multiple locations across the country, and distributing at least 11,000 copies to 6,000 names and addresses supplied by the church. However ethically shady, the scheme is legal—and effective. Real Marriage hit No. 1 on the New York Times’s “Advice and How-To” list on January 22, 2012, and promptly dropped off the list the next week. But one week is enough to let Driscoll call himself a “No. 1 New York Times best-selling author” for the rest of his life.

The revelation prompted some soul-searching in the publishing world. The LA Times, for example, asked “Can bestseller lists be bought?” But the questions raised for the evangelical world may be even more significant. How much information do church members deserve to know about their church’s financial decisions? Are the rules different for large churches? Where is the line between a pastor promoting his own career and promoting the ministry of his church?

A church spokesman told Smith that Mars Hill invests in marketing because it wants to reach a large audience, and “we want to tell lots of people about Jesus by every means available.” But that defense didn’t stick for long. On Friday, the church posted a statement on its website calling its work with ResultSource an “unwise” one-time error, and emphasizing that all profits from Driscoll’s book sales have always gone to the church. By Saturday, the church had edited Driscoll’s online biography to remove a description of Real Marriage as a “No. 1 New York Times best-selling” book. (Mars Hill declined to answer questions for this story.)

Even before the ResultSource controversy, Driscoll was one of the most divisive figures in contemporary evangelicalism. Just within the last few months, he has been accused by other Christians of plagiarism, of failing to give credit to his research assistants, and of pressuring departing staff members to sign onerous non-disclosure agreements. With a dissent-averse leadership style, he is faced with a growing community of disgruntled ex-members and -leaders. (I spoke with four of them for this story, and have talked to others in the past.)

Those who claim Driscoll is strategically shrinking the number of people he is accountable to are closely watching recent leadership changes at Mars Hill. His inner circle now consists of two executive elders who are close allies; they and Driscoll sit on the seven-man board that sets salaries and appoints elders.

The church may have stamped out its latest fire, but there are other serious issues on the horizon. For example, Mars Hill does not publicly report Driscoll’s annual salary. In a current climate of acrimony and scrutiny, that number could become a matter of controversy, depending on how high it is.

(Mars Hill’s most recent annual report lists $12,515,894 in spending on personnel, but does not provide a breakdown of individual salaries. The church has been a member of the the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, a respected accreditation agency, since 2012. The ECFA’s president, Dan Busby, sent me a statement confirming the church’s good standing in light of the fact that it terminated the ResultSource contract before applying for ECFA membership; Busby called participation in schemes such as ResultSource's “unethical and deceptive.”)

Kyle Firstenberg, who served as a salaried executive pastor at the church's Orange County site until 2012, told me that Mars Hill’s finances are “not anything close to transparent.” If members asked him questions about the church’s finances, he was authorized to provide general information about the individual branch’s budget, but not the church as a whole. Generally speaking, churches do not always disclose every budget item to their members, but transparency is the rule of thumb; at both of the churches I have been a member of, detailed financial reports, including the pastor’s salary, were presented to all members at annual meetings. “Mars Hill is very shrouded in how they spend and what they spend,” Firstenberg said.

The broader issue, and one that disturbs many thoughtful evangelicals, is the fact that “celebrity pastors” like Driscoll seem to be increasingly influential with believers. This rise in power often means their accountability—a sacrosanct principle in this corner of Christianity—correspondingly diminishes. Within the last few years, celebrity pastors have been the target of panel discussions, magazine articles, countless blog posts, and at least one satirical Twitter account. A March cartoon in Leadership Journal, a magazine for evangelical church leaders, depicted a pastor in the pulpit basking in the glow of paparazzi flashbulbs.

Trueman, who is chair of the church history department at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and the pastor of an Orthodox Presbyterian church, has been an outspoken critic of “celebrity pastors” in the past. He calls the recent Driscoll scandal “ghastly,” and thinks it is a symptom of a larger trend. “In the last few years I’ve become much more concerned about an almost cult-like quality that some of these guys have taken on,” he said. “When you’re dealing with a big powerful person who attracts a lot of money and keeps the whole show on the road, it’s very difficult to hold him to the standard of behavior that you’d hold ordinary people to.”