OVER THE PAST MONTH, Mars Hill—the hip, controversially conservative megachurch empire that famously colonized Southeast Portland in 2011—has begun crumbling from the inside out.
It began with Mark Driscoll, the evangelical church's co-founder and vivacious leader, taking a leave of absence from his Seattle pulpit in August, shortly before facing a slew of sour mismanagement allegations from church elders. By mid-October, Driscoll resigned—triggering a ripple of surprise and panic across the 13-church network. On October 31, the Seattle headquarters dropped another bomb: Mars Hill will dissolve its entire network of churches by the end of the year, letting them become independent, self-governing bodies.
That is, if they want.
A California location has already decided to close its doors. Many are changing their names. But Mars Hill's three-year-old location in Southeast has yet to divine its own fate.
Pastor Tim Smith does, however, see the disbanding as the start of a new chapter. While he intends to maintain the same extreme views on gender and queer issues heard in Driscoll's sermons, Smith is ready to give the Portland church its own personality.
"Most new churches starting out have time to craft a reputation, while we arrived as just a part of a larger voice," says Smith, who started working with Mars Hill in Seattle more than 15 years ago. "We were stereotyped before we even opened our doors. This gives us a new start."
Mars Hill's 2011 introduction to Portland was rocky ["Welcome to Mars," News, Sept 8, 2011]. By then, many Portlanders were familiar with the evangelical powerhouse and its reputation for likening being gay to having cancer, calling yoga "demonic," and spouting misogyny. The castle-like church, nestled in the Sunnyside neighborhood, faced strong opposition from residents and local leaders uncomfortable with its views. However, hostility eased as the months passed—especially after Smith had a few friendly meetings on mutual acceptance with staff from the Q Center, Portland's local LGBTQ community gathering spot.
Now the disbanding of the Seattle church's satellite network, paired with a slowly shrinking congregation over the past three years, has returned the church to shaky ground.
"It's all still pretty fresh news. Mark's resignation came as a surprise to me," Smith says. "But I do undeniably see this as an opportunity to carve out a new identity for us in the Portland community."
But, he adds, it will take some time to know exactly what that looks like.
The Sunnyside Neighborhood Association, which originally welcomed the church to its liberal community, declined the Mercury's request for comment on the future of Portland's Mars Hill outpost.
Others in the local religious community aren't optimistic.
"[The church] is in a difficult position right now, because they're tied to a failed model," says Reverend Chuck Currie, a Portland minister and civil rights activist.
Currie says that any "personality-driven" church like Driscoll's—with controversial views trickling down from one charismatic and commanding leader—is doomed from the start.
"Once that person leaves, the rest of the church collapses," he says. "And that could be the future of this church."
As an example, Currie points to the recent dismissal of Pastor Mark Dunford, an unpaid volunteer pastor at the Portland church. Dunford was one of the Mars Hill elders who scrutinized Driscoll's management. Shortly after his involvement leaked, Smith dismissed him from his Portland position.
"The response by the local elders at Portland surprised me in its ferocity," Dunford wrote in a public statement posted shortly after his dismissal. "Several of them said that they felt 'personally betrayed' by me. It was called 'immature.'"
That an outspoken pastor was "hounded out" by his colleagues when questioning their former leader, Currie says, is a bad sign.
"What's left is the worst part of the Portland church," he says. "If there's no theological change, no change learned from the failed model, who knows if it will be able to get off the ground."
Justin Dean, a Mars Hill representative from Seattle, said the home church has nothing more to say about the transition than what's been posted on its blog.
"Mars Hill Church has never been about a building or even an organization," Seattle Pastor Dave Bruskas wrote in a recent post. "Mars Hill is a people on mission with Jesus, and that singular focus continues as these newly independent churches are launched."
Smith, a Portland native, seems ready to cut ties with the church's now-messy origin story. Even if some of those connections will linger.
"First and foremost, we are a local reality," he says. "Even if some of our beliefs represent those founded in Seattle, we're going to work hard to distinguish ourselves in this community."