Two years ago, Mars Hill Church was the third-fastest growing large church in the country. Its original location in Seattle had spawned 14 other branches in five states, and 13,000 people attended weekly services at which founding pastor Mark Driscoll’s sermons were projected on large screens. Thousands more connected with the church online, and Driscoll and his wife Grace wrote a guidebook titled Real Marriage that hit #1 on the New York Times best-seller list in January 2012.
In hindsight, that year was the pinnacle for Mars Hill. Now it’s all over. Driscoll resigned a few weeks ago after a leave of absence that begin in August. And last Friday afternoon, Mars Hill Church announced online that it will dissolve by January 1.
According to a statement posted by executive pastor Dave Bruskas, all of Mars Hill’s existing church properties will be sold, with individual congregations given the opportunity to assume their own loans. Those congregations will have the option to become independent self-governing churches, merge with an existing church, or disband. All central staff will be laid off, and Mars Hill Church itself will close up shop by the new year.
Attendance at Mars Hill has declined dramatically from 14,000 in January to its current worshiper base of 6,000, church spokesman Justin Dean said by email. Donations have also declined, although Dean declined to provide numbers. He framed the dissolution as a "stewardship" issue: Setting the individual churches free was the only way to save them. Dean said pre-established transition plans had always included “local autonomy” as an option, and the move made sense with the loss of Driscoll’s weekly sermons as a uniting factor for the churches. Dean described the decision to allow each individual congregation to decide its own fate as “ultimately the way that we see the church regaining its footing." Though individual congregations may survive, however, "the church" itself isn't regaining its footing; it is dissolving. Dean said about 30 people employed in media distribution, facilities, central finance, and human resources will lose their jobs—including him.