The Peril of Being a Young Phenom

Some thoughts after listening to The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill

I hesitated to listen to the special podcast series at Christianity Today produced by my good friend Mike Cosper, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. It gave me pause because I’m weary of the kind of anti-evangelical cottage industry that exists. Scandal and corruption and abuse of power can and must be covered. And yet there is a difference between exposing the works of darkness and revelling and relishing in the demise of brothers and sisters in Christ. There’s a prurient, sensational, click-bait, tabloid fever that I am loathing more and more.

And yet . . . more and more of my friends who I trust have told me to listen to it. Plus, I knew it would be well-produced. Cosper is a gifted storyteller and a friend. So this week I listened and realized that The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill is not the sensational ear-tickle I feared it would be. Instead, it’s a very nuanced, thorough, sympathetic treatment of the rise and fall of an influential church. If I have any critique, It’s that Cosper probably relies a little too much on the insights of emergent guys like Tony Jones and Doug Padgitt who have all but abandoned the faith.

I’m struck by a few things. First, Cosper does such a good job of telling just how influential and how much life change happened at Mars Hill. It’s easy to caricature people as either villains or heroes in the social media age, mainly because we want someone to feel good attacking and we want to see ourselves, always, on the side of the angels.

You end up listening to the podcast and at times cringing from what you remember Mark Driscoll saying at the time and at times remembering how gifted he was in preaching the gospel. I know so many blue-collar men, for instance for whom Driscol’s podcast was an onramp to the church.

Yet there was something lurking underneath all of this that was unhealthy. I remember when I first started noticing Driscoll. My theology was becoming more and more reformed, influenced by people like DA Carson and Tim Keller and Al Mohler and Matt Chandler and Kevin DeYoung. I never resonated with Driscoll though many did. I was always a bit nervous about his tendency to cross the line.

Cosper does such a good job of mapping church history that lead us to this moment. The second episode was especially helpful on this score. He also keeps asking the question about why we so often elevate leaders whose giftedness outpaces their character. There are a lot of interesting answers to this, but one I’ve been mulling over is this: there is a spiritual danger in being a young phenom.

Consider this: Mark Driscoll became an almost worldwide sensation, headlining major Christian conferences at the age of 27. I can think right now of several other fallen leaders who were household names, with amazing ministry success, in their late 20’s or early 30’s. And I just wonder if we are meant to bear all that responsibility and leadership and fame without the years of seasoning and maturity that build character? This phenomenon happens in pop culture: we give a musician or athlete a massive worldwide platform and then we wonder why their lives meltdown. I’m not sure we are made for this.

I think of other leaders whose ministry sort of slowly emerged. Tim Keller comes to mind. He pastored in obscurity in Virginia before he moved to New York to plant Redeemer. By the time he got to Manhattan, a city that seems to chew up and spit out Christian leaders, he knew who he was. His notoriety and conference speaking didn’t seem to happen until he was older.

This isn’t the only factor in epic failures by leaders, of course. It’s much more complicated, but I hear Paul’s words to Timothy, a young leader in his own right. Paul says for Timothy not to give a platform to someone who is a “novice” (KJV rendering of 1 Timothy 3:6).

Of course this doesn’t have to happen. Youth doesn’t always equal immaturity. Sometimes young men and women can demonstrate extraordinary maturity at a young age. But man early fame is so toxic to the soul. The yes men and the green rooms and the demands arrive before a young phenom has had time to breathe. There is a reason many of the leaders in Scripture were forced to wait: David waited 14 years between his anointing and assuming leadership of all of Israel. Joseph had to endure hardship and suffering before becoming prime minister in Egypt. Paul had to labor in the desert in Arabia before leading missionary journeys.

There is something about experience that only experience can teach. We often confuse platform giftedness with leadership ability. We confuse the ability to move a room with the ability to shepherd people. In doing so, we set up ourselves and young leaders up for failure.

There is a reason every single list for spiritual leadership in Scripture (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1; I Peter 5, Matthew 20) all mention traits of temperament (not brawling, not arrogant or quick-tempered, self-controlled, disciplined, etc). We often focus so much on the moral qualifications (which are essential) that we too often forget to ask if the leaders we platform are, actually, good people. This doesn’t mean we should expect perfection. The best leaders will lose their cool, make bad judgments, etc. But we should see patterns of character that reflect what we see in the biblical qualifications in Scripture. Rhythms often take time, years of walking with the Spirit, and some seasoning to develop. As my friend Portia Collins said on Twitter, “It takes a while for maturity to catch up with zeal.” When we try to microwave character, everyone loses.

One more thought: if you’ve not experienced crazy, wild success early in your life, perhaps that is a gift from God. If you’ve labored in the ministry trenches while other seem to headline conferences, if you’ve been writing books and articles while others’ work seems to go viral or hit the New York Times lists, maybe that’s a gift from God. If you’ve built a modest business, but haven’t made the Forbes 500, maybe that’s a gift from God.

I encourage you to listen to this podcast. I hope it causes all of us to reflect and repent. I’m learning a lot from it and asking the Lord to teach me things about my own leadership. And I find myself praying for Mark Driscoll and the former Mars Hill family.

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photo credit: Christianity Today