Three months ago, I agreed to review Mark Driscoll’s latest book, Confessions of a Reformission Rev. (Zondervan, 2006) in exchange for a free copy from the publisher. I am thankful both for the free book and the opportunity to share my opinions regarding the book in this venue.
True to its title, Confessions of a Reformission Rev. is Mark Driscoll’s personal narrative, though the subtitle, “Hard Lessons from an Emerging Missional Church” comes much closer to conveying the book’s content. Confessions contains Mark’s “blow by blow” reflections on the lessons learned throughout his nine years planting Mars Hill Church in Seattle (9). Though written to an undefined audience, Confessions is most likely to benefit those who are planting and pastoring churches.
Mark states his purpose for writing on the final page of the book’s Prelude: “My hope is that our hardships and lessons will help to serve others who are undertaking similar missions and inspire the planting and renewing of many churches to reach emerging generations” (12). Mark lays the book’s framework with an introduction (Chapter 0) entitled “Ten Curious Questions” and then arranges the remaining pages in seven chapters divided according to stages of numerical, congregational growth:
1. Jesus, Our Offering Was $137 and I Want to Use it to Buy Bullets (0-45 People)
2. Jesus, If Anyone Else Calls My House, I May Be Seeing You Real Soon (45-75 People)
3. Jesus, Satan Showed Up and I Can’t Find My Cup (75-150 People)
4. Jesus, Could You Please Rapture the Charismaniac Lady Who Brings Her Tambourine to Church? (150-350 People)
5. Jesus, Why Am I Getting Fatter and Meaner? (350-1,000 People)
6. Jesus, Today We Voted to Take a Jackhammer to Your Big Church (1,000-4,000 People)
7. Jesus, We're Loading Our Squirt Guns to Charge Hell Again (4,000-10,000 People)
The book concludes with two appendices and a substantial collection of endnotes from which one could assemble a hearty reading list for years to come.
Though arranged according to phases of numerical growth, the book is better understood as it flows from Mars Hill’s initial days, where failure was a constant reality, to the present day, where Mark is striving to prevent predictability and success from becoming agents of slow corrosion and destruction (144). As a result of this steep learning curve, Mark offers gleanings from the diverse personal, theological, pastoral, organizational, and logistical lessons he has learned along the way.
For example, one of the most helpful lessons Mark describes is the role of repentance in the process of pastoring people. As he discusses the four phases of organizational decline (141ff), Mark identifies the failure of church leaders to repent as the death stage (143). “Rarely does the leadership of a church in this phase rise up to repent of the things that are preventing the church from returning to the life-giving creative phase, and eventually the church dies” (144). Thus, when Mark repented of his quest to have a Generation X church, this “set the precedent of me standing up to recant my dumb ideas so that we can get unstuck on our mission of bringing the gospel of Jesus to our city” (66). This trend continues for the leadership of Mars Hill. For, after years of decrying age specific ministries, Mark shares how the elders most recently repented of this overly idealistic posture and initiated a singles’ and youth ministry (159).
As someone who has been part of a church plant and who, Lord willing, plans to lead a plant in the coming years, I found Mark’s book valuable for the simple fact that it offers a complete narrative of his planting experience. Unlike most resources on church planting that either devise hypothetical examples of Church Planting Larry or provide mere snapshots of actual planters, Mark’s book provides the comprehensive story of his own experience. This provides a unique and much needed perspective.
Within this narrative of self-discovery, Mark pinpoints perhaps the most critical make- or- break issue for the success of planters—he admits that he had no idea what he was doing when he started. “I know this may sound nuts, but when you are the only pastor on staff at a small church, you don’t have a boss, a job description, or a general clue what you’re supposed to be doing. In some ways, I felt like the kid in that movie Home Alone” (51). At its most basic level, the strength of Confessions is the outworking of that singular confession.
A second positive for me is that Mark’s book clearly illustrates the precision and strategy required to plant a “successful” church—even if one disagrees with Mark’s definition of success in the end. Having participated in a church plant that lacked the vision and commitment to guiding principles necessary to produce sustainability, I was consistently challenged both by Mark’s visionary leadership and by the elders’ ability to constantly evaluate their plans and practices. Mark’s discussion of reverse engineering (167, put simply, beginning with the end in mind) under girds the entire narrative, leaving me to conclude that little in Mars Hill Church’s development has been accidental (see also “Question 6: What size shoe will your church wear?” 28).
Unfortunately, for me, the book’s many positive elements are virtually eclipsed by two closely linked negatives. First, the prose of the book is constantly interrupted by what I can only call, “Driscollisms.” Phrases like “as popular as a fart in an elevator” (67) and “worse than being a vegetarian chef employed at a steak house” (41) might be funny if used sparingly, but in Confessions they litter the narrative and create the vibe of listening to a bad stand up. Moreover, phrases like “the drummer…beat the kit as if it were Rodney King” (69) lack anything remotely approaching pastoral sensitivity, let alone the sobriety that should characterize the pen of a minister of the Gospel. This barrage of one-liners, similes, and shock tactics distract from Mark’s valuable, instructional points and had the cumulative effect of really annoying me. In my opinion, this is as much the editor’s fault as it is Mark’s.
As I read, I found myself frequently marking “J” in the margin. At first I thought that these referred to the Driscollese jargon. However, by the book’s end, the word juvenile was at the forefront of my mind every time I marked a “J” in the margin. These “J’s” snowball, making for a bumpy and, in the end, sloppy book. Permit two examples to demonstrate my point.
(1) At a church in the suburbs, I was impressed with their very cool building but a bit bummed that the church web address was the same as the pastor’s name, because it seemed a bit pretentious, like rapper P Diddy a.k.a. Sean John, who wears his own clothing line with his name emblazoned on the front of his shirt. Conversely, I was also a little jealous because it did sound a bit cool to have a church named after me, complete with my photo on the side of buses so that everyone would know that I was pastor izzle fo’ shizzle. From the printed material and the sermon, it was readily apparent that this church was into the bling Christ, who will make you rich and cure all your diseases, except for the epidemics of consumerism and eighties charismullet hair, of course. They even taught that Jesus was a rich man and that only people who lack faith get sick, presumably like the junior varsity Job and Paul. For them, Jesus was a piñata, Christianity was a whacking stick, and their mission was to teach people how to get goodies to fall out of heaven (49).
(2) Scrambling for ideas, I agreed to cancel a Sunday church service to let some of our long-haired public-radio types take us outside to do a large joint art project they had proposed. They gave each of us a large chunk of paper on which to paint something that symbolized our personality, which they would then string together as a large mural highlighting the different personalities of our church. As a truck-driving jock who watches a lot of Ultimate Fighting, I can honestly say it was the gayest thing I have ever been a part of. I feared ending up with a church of chickified arty dudes drinking herbal tea and standing around talking about their feelings, as illustrated by their finger painting. To this day, I twitch like a Vietnam vet just thinking about the mural (71).
Second, whatever you want to call these “J’s,” they will keep people from talking about the points of the book that are valuable, meaningful, and worthy of note (e.g., Christocentric ecclesiology, leadership by plurality of elders, safeguarding marriage and family in the midst of planting, the importance of expository preaching, shepherding a church by keeping them on mission, the indispensability of biblical faithfulness, creative strategy, and hard work, etc). What’s worse, I believe they will compromise the book’s longevity. Even more than the language issue that has generated chaos among the fundamentalist wings of the blogsphere, Mark’s approach often appears to be the opposite of judicious. In this regard, Confessions of a Reformission Rev. lacks the propriety and decorum that marks Augustine’s timeless work bearing a similar title.