It's 10:00 on Sunday morning, the light is just beginning to climb the brick walls in a small, high-ceilinged room in the back of the Capitol Hill Arts Center, and church is getting under way. The congregation—an unlikely mix of twentysomethings in T-shirts and jeans, middle-aged men in overalls and sweats, and one elderly couple in casual sportswear—arranges itself in four rows of folding chairs as Pastor Jason Hudson, a fresh-faced 29-year-old with a crew cut, gray pullover, and an acoustic guitar, takes his place behind a music stand at the front of the room. A whiteboard, balanced on a rickety easel in the front of the room, says, "Welcome to Church on the Hill." On the far wall, a heavy wooden cross and a half-dozen partially burned white candles teeter precariously on an upholstered bench. The whole tableau looks temporary, like a church in exile.
But as the service catches its groove, it's clear that this is a group that feels right at home in these seemingly transitional digs. One of the middle-aged men, a bearded guy in gray sweats, beats out the rhythm of a song on his photocopied hymnal; a tall, blond young man in sneakers and faded blue jeans and a brown long-sleeved T-shirt takes a seat at the piano. But even the congregants' enthusiasm for the songs—a blend of standard hymns and contemporary Christian pop—can't disguise the fact that the acoustics suck.
Five songs later, Hudson begins his sermon—a short address on the topic of "kingdom," or what Christians should do when they achieve authority and power. The talk, which Hudson delivers without the benefit of a Bible or notes, is short and seems largely improvised. "People have been given authority and power, and because we have this hereditary line from Adam and Eve, we fail," Hudson says. "The question is not 'Will I get power and authority,' the question is 'What will we do when we get power and authority?' The reason people want to punch [Christians'] faces is because we say we want to be a megachurch, we want to start a political party... The kingdom of the devil is against all of us." Although Hudson, a self-proclaimed conservative, says he "isn't much into politics," his words echo the tenets of dominionism, a belief system that holds that since God gave humans dominion over the earth, the duty of Christians is to bring society under the rule of the word of God—the Christian God.
Nine hours later, across town on Leary Way in Ballard, the scene at Mars Hill—a decade-old evangelical megachurch whose membership sports scarcely a single gray hair—couldn't be more different than the thrown-together, house-party-ish scene at Church on the Hill. Elevated on a brightly lit, arena-size stage, surrounded by speakers and musical instruments, and projected on two big-screen video monitors near the back of a room approximately the size of the Showbox nightclub, Pastor Mark Driscoll is preaching the gospel to 300 members of his ever-growing flock. This is the last in a weekly marathon of Sunday services, a back-to-back series of four massive gatherings in a room that, at capacity, probably holds about 1,000. Mars Hill—the best known and most theologically conservative of Seattle's evangelical megachurches—has a weekly attendance of 3,500, with plans to expand the church to 10,000 members.
Driscoll is a larger-than-life figure; a Jimmy Kimmel–esque comedian with heavily gelled hair, a sloppy, untucked dress shirt, a wooden bead necklace, and a trendy wide-strapped brown leather watch. As he starts to speak, people are still filing in, ushered by guides past a tall reception desk and vast foyer—twentysomething girls in glittering half-sweaters, sloppy emo boys with tattooed arms and disheveled hair, and pregnant young women in stylishly expensive maternity jeans. The topic of tonight's sermon: sexuality and society's moral decline.
"Seattle logic [says] two consenting adults can have sex whenever they want," Driscoll booms, sardonically. "This is what happens when you walk away from Scripture: You walk away from what's right and wrong." The next thing you know, he says, "You've got a rainbow on your camel. You've got pink taffeta on your toga. You've got a church float in the pride parade." Pacing the stage restlessly ("I've had a lot of Red Bull"), Driscoll continues. "The people of the church are so confused. They think that in tolerating [homosexual] behavior, they're being like Jesus. Your banners, your floats, your buttons—they're not good. It's just like letting cancer come into a body... until the cancer consumes the body and kills you... We will extricate the cancer, and if that person who has the cancer is repentant and wants to kill the cancer, then we'll welcome them back. But they have to accept that anything but one man, one woman, one God, one life, is sexually immoral."
Driscoll is loud and a bit slovenly and frequently hilarious; he uses humor to draw facile comparisons ("We all discriminate. I double-dog dare you: Don't recycle. You'll have hippies in your garbage: 'I found paper!'")—and make claims that put him far outside the mainstream—that go down easy among his young congregation. He has reportedly lost some female congregants because of his statements about the role of women in marriage ("God made the man and put him in charge and gave him a job description... and the woman was made to help him... Women will be saved by going back to that role that God has chosen for them."); in the church ("Every single book in your Bible is written by a man... Priest[hood] is reserved exclusively for godly men."); and in society ("There is no occasion where women led a society and were its heads and the men complied and followed. ... It's a matter of Biblical creation.").
Rich Lang, pastor of the liberal, mainline Trinity United Methodist Church in Ballard, describes Driscoll's views as "Very much your father's conservatism: Women are really primarily nurturers, and it's a drag that they have to work, but as soon as they don't have to work they should just go home and make babies." Lynne Baab, a Presbyterian minister and grad student in communications at the University of Washington, says she "can't go into" Mars Hill because of the church's "negative, almost misogynistic view" of women, particularly women in church leadership.
While the style and scale of churches like Mars Hill couldn't be further removed from tiny seed congregations like Church on the Hill, their core beliefs are virtually identical. In many ways, churches like Church on the Hill are baby versions of Mars Hill, which started with a dozen friends gathered in a living room. Their vision is to grow—either through addition of members, like Mars Hill, or multiplication into many more small churches, which is what Church on the Hill is planning—and their theological underpinnings are the same.
Hudson, for example, also believes that homosexuality is a sin; although he says he has gay friends, he does not believe gays and lesbians can truly be Christians without renouncing their sexual orientation. "Once Christ is in their lives, he's strong enough to change them," Hudson says. (Mars Hill, meanwhile, has entire ministries devoted to turning gays and lesbians into "ex-gays.") And both Hudson and Driscoll—whom Hudson calls "a good friend"—believe the Bible prohibits women from serving in leadership roles in the church, although it does allow them to serve as deacons or teachers. "We find no Biblical basis for women being pastors," Hudson says, although other churches obviously believe otherwise. "In keeping with Adam's headship role in the creation account, male pastors are called upon to serve their respective churches to [the] death... This may not seem like as big a deal now, since we rarely see pastors being gunned down for their faith in America, but eventually it will happen here, and then I pray there will be solid male pastors willing to risk their lives for the sake of their churches."
There's a name for churches like Church on the Hill and, arguably, Mars Hill—emerging, or emergent, churches. Observers disagree about the specifics that define emerging churches, but agree on a few basic features that distinguish them from traditional, or "mainline" congregations: They tend to meet in unconventional venues—theaters, warehouses, coffee shops—that lack the trappings of traditional churches and make younger worshippers feel at home. They use creative approaches to worship and spiritual reflection—such as pop music, dialogue (rather than sermonizing), and meditation—and lack a strong hierarchical structure. They generally start out small—often as an offshoot of a larger, more established congregation—and then grow rapidly, like Mars Hill, or multiply, as Church on the Hill plans to do. They believe in being engaged in, rather than separate from, the culture at large, as a way of both remaining relevant and winning new converts to Christianity.
"A lot of Christians think the city is evil," Hudson says. "But it's not any more evil than the suburbs. The suburbs just do a better job of masking it. I think the people on Capitol Hill might be in sin, but they're not hiding it. I don't respect the sin, but I respect the fact that they're honest about it."
One longtime Church on the Hill member, 24-year-old Mike Dauer, says one thing he likes about his church "is that it's really relevant to the community. My perspective is that the Church on the Hill is much more focused on a neighborhood or city mission" than traditional churches, whose "missionary" work tends to take them far afield. The basic premise, Trinity Pastor Lang says, is that Christians at emerging churches "should be in the world but not of it."
That world could hardly be further removed from the theology of churches like Driscoll's and Hudson's. Seattle is a progressive city in one of the most progressive states in the nation. According to the 2000 Census, one of every 21 couples living together in Seattle is gay, one of the highest percentages of gay households in the nation. The Seattle City Council currently includes just two women, but at one point, in the mid-'90s, there were seven. The state boasts two female senators and a female governor, belying Driscoll's contention that men won't comply with female leadership.
Despite standing in opposition to Seattle's dominant culture, churches like Mars Hill are making major inroads. In just over a decade, Mars Hill has grown from a small Bible study group in Driscoll's home to a factory-scale religious institution; the church, in fact, has already outgrown its 40,000-square-foot building and is in the process of renovating a similar site a few blocks away. Driscoll's charismatic persona goes a long way toward winning followers, despite his retrograde political leanings, as does his willingness to selectively embrace popular culture (drinking, piercings, and rock shows at Mars Hill's all-ages venue, the Paradox: OK; female equality and boy-on-boy sex: not OK). "They've built a show that attracts masses of people. That legitimates it," Lang says. Baab says it's also entirely possible that the teens and twentysomethings who go to churches like Mars Hill are simply not paying attention. "An astonishingly high number of people who sit in Christian churches believe in reincarnation, which is not a Christian doctrine," she says. "We're in a time where people pick and choose what they want from their religious experience."
Or perhaps it's the traditionalism of the ideas themselves that young adults find appealing: Many religious experts have speculated that churches like Mars Hill appeal to young people in search of rules in a culture that presents them with few clear boundaries.
Lang takes a more liberal, pluralistic view of right and wrong. He says conservative churches like Mars Hill appeal to those who believe that "we live in apocalyptic times. Society's falling apart and Jesus is coming back—basically, there's no future." Churches like Mars Hill "create a system where people can have a feeling of control, where they can believe that Papa's going to fix it if you just follow the rules. I want that myself, but I just can't find it."
Driscoll, for his part, has an apocalyptic, us-versus-them view of his church's role in society, arguing in a recent sermon that true rebellion means being "heterosexual and pump[ing] out some kids," not "marching in the pride parade." Although Driscoll did not respond to a detailed list of questions sent at his assistant's request, listening to his sermons, it's easy to get a sense of his view of the church's place in the world. "Acceptance is about saying, 'I love you, but you need to change,'" he said in a recent sermon. "If you claim to be a Christian and you continue to sin, you get the boot... If you don't want to obey God, then you should be banished out of the church, because the church is a community of God."
New churches like Mars Hill and Church on the Hill are extremely good at communicating to urbane young adults in a language they understand. This extends to appropriating the language and media of popular culture; not only does Mars Hill's Pastor Driscoll cite hip pop-culture referents like Alvin Toffler and Richard Rorty, and use what he views as hip, up-to-the-minute slang ("Apparently God is fun to hang with," he writes of Jesus, "because he and his posse get invited to a lot of parties"), he has his own MySpace page, complete with music by some of the Mars Hill bands (which include emo, rockabilly, traditional pop, and acoustic) and testimonials by Mars Hill fans and members.
"Since every presentation of the gospel is culturally expressed, the form of its presentation must continually change as the culture changes," Driscoll writes in his book Radical Reformission.
Although the number of emerging churches in Seattle is hard to estimate, a partial list includes Emmaus Road in Belltown; Grace Seattle on Capitol Hill; Quest in Interbay, which holds services in a church-run coffeehouse; and the Church of the Undignified, down the road from Church on the Hill on East Pike Street on Capitol Hill. "This is an emerging movement," Baab says. "They see themselves as being on the cutting edge of the church." Meanwhile, mainline churches "are struggling to keep their doors open."
"What makes [churches like] Mars Hill funky is that even though they have this theology of fear, they're cool and they can go out into the world," Lang says, "It's not like [Trinity] is out there searching around trying to figure out how to talk to people with spikes sticking out of their head. We're with them if they come here."
Trinity's members, to a person, do not have spikes sticking out of their heads. They are more likely to have gray hair and canes, or strollers carrying new babies, or khakis and bifocal glasses. But in many subtle ways, the congregation is far more diverse than Mars Hill's overtly rebellious, but theologically homogenous, crowd. On a recent Sunday at Trinity, the front pew was taken up by two longtime gay partners, both of whom play in the church band. The sermon, on the subject of ego, was delivered not by Lang (whose sermons tend to focus on the topic of empire, and the "evil empire" the U.S. is becoming) but by a female member of the congregation. Unlike at Church on the Hill (whose services don't include communion) and Mars Hill (at which only Christians are allowed to take communion), Trinity offers communion to everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike. The atmosphere of tolerance is even evident in the banners that decorate the church sanctuary, which include one with a rainbow flag and pink triangle, which reads "Trinity United Methodist Church: A Reconciling Congregation."
Lang's sermons, like Driscoll's and Hudson's, are culturally relevant; but where Driscoll preaches about the need for Christians to judge one another and change their behavior to avoid God's wrath, Lang implores his congregation to judge not, lest they be judged. "Homosexual persons, as well as heterosexual persons, are holy expressions of God's creativity and blessing," Lang said during a recent sermon. "In a time when we thought the garden was all about a husband, wife, two kids, and a garage, we are discovering God's mustard seed of homosexual persons and families." At other times, Lang's sermons are overtly political. "When we can see the House of Representatives pass a budget stealing food from children's mouths while it plans a succulent tax-cutting feast for the obscenely obese... when we can see our nation's military misused and turned into gangster thugs unleashing the tortures of Hell... when we can see an administration hide from the public through a continual practice of distortion and lies, then we can know what will happen next," Lang preached in a recent sermon. "It will only get worse if we don't stand up now."
But if churches like Trinity are more in line with the political inclinations of their city, they are also dying fast. Although Trinity itself is slowly transforming "from an old, graying church to a lot more younger people," in Lang's words, the trend for mainline Protestant churches is one of slow decline. Nationwide, just 30 percent of those in their 20s (and 40 percent of those in their 30s) attend church in a typical week; according to one estimate, some 3,000 churches die every year. Washington, meanwhile, is the most "unchurched" state in the union, with just 29 percent of adults attending church in a typical week, according to a 1999 Gallup survey. In his book, Driscoll says traditional churches are dying because they fail to adapt to a changing culture. Such churches "long for a return to the day when people walked to church, preferred an organ to a band, and were loyal to the denominational traditions of their parents," Driscoll writes. Hudson agrees, arguing that aging churches "have a tendency to merely maintain themselves instead of seeking to love and serve the world around them. They are much less concerned about sharing Jesus and more concerned with budgets, programs, the altar flowers, rules, [and] mere social action."
It's easy to see the fast growth of conservative churches as a sign that Seattle itself is changing, turning into a city of right-wing evangelicals with a scary political agenda. But the truth appears to be more complicated. Not everyone who attends conservative churches agrees with church leaders' political views (Dauer, a grad student studying evolution in fisheries, calls himself "quite liberal," and says he and his wife were "really turned off" by Driscoll's "sexist and chauvinist" comments when they attended Mars Hill a few years ago); and several people I've talked to who went to Mars Hill seemed surprised to learn about Driscoll's retrograde views.
Lang, the pastor of a church Driscoll would probably regard as dying, says he would be surprised if most of the twentysomethings who attend Mars Hill now were still there in 10 or 15 years. "When I was 19 and totally lost into drugs and despair, I needed strong structures, a fence around my yard, so I could develop a sense of mastery and control. But as you age, the fence comes down, and more people are allowed into your yard. A big question for me is where will those kids be when they're 40? I just hope they'll mature out of those beliefs."