Three Lessons for Young Leaders from “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill”

NRB | July 15, 2021 | Encouragement

I’ve been listening, as many of you have, to The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast from Mike Cosper and Christianity Today. If you haven’t listened yet, I would highly recommend it. It’s a fascinating story with some important lessons for young and old leaders alike.

Cosper raises some thought-provoking questions that have led me to think about leadership—specifically how young leaders can avoid many of the mistakes Mark Driscoll and others like him have made. Dan Darling’s excellent piece on the perils of being a young phenom is a great resource on this topic.

I’m not writing this as someone with years of experience and wisdom. Instead, I am hoping that some of the things I’ve learned (and am actively learning) will be useful to someone. With that said, here are three lessons for young leaders from the rise and fall of Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill:

1. Surround yourself with people who will be honest with you 

In the early days of your career, it is easy to find people who will give you honest feedback. Editors will tell you that your writing isn’t good enough to publish. Interviewers will tell you that you aren’t qualified for jobs. Even your friends will likely be happy to give you constructive criticism when asked.

That all changes when you find a certain level of success. Those around you will often turn into “yes men” who will not hesitate to praise you and will never criticize anything you do. Your friends and colleagues will often choose to pad your ego in hopes of riding your coattails to their own success or simply just being accepted as part of your inner circle.

It’s human nature to seek acceptance, and that temptation goes both ways. Just as those around us will often silence their honesty in exchange for acceptance, fame and power bring with them the temptation to screen out those who threaten our insecurities or tell us painful truths.

It is incredibly important to surround yourself with people who will consistently be honest with you. Choose people who will encourage you and lift you up when you need it, but who will also call you out and hold you accountable even when you don’t want to hear it.

2. Don’t let your drive for results overtake your passion for the gospel 

One of the things that often sets young leaders apart from their peers is their drive to succeed. We’re taught from an early age that ambition is good, and in many ways it is. We need drive and motivation and dedication to succeed. But if we let that drive for results overtake our passion for the gospel, we are wasting our time. When we become more focused on success than on advancing the gospel, we leave ourselves vulnerable to becoming a toxic leader who sacrifices relationships for results. Mark Driscoll’s pattern of spiritual abuse is an excellent example of this.

I work in marketing, which is an incredibly results-driven field. Amidst the email open rates and distribution scores and unique pageviews, it’s easy to lose sight of the souls that are opening those emails, reading those social posts, or visiting our websites. We have to remember why we do what we do—and if that “why” isn’t advancing the kingdom of God, we should stop and reevaluate our priorities.

3. Be patient enough to let your character catch up with your charisma

In the first episode of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, Ed Stetzer talked about how many young leaders fail because their character never catches up with their charisma. That line has stuck with me, perhaps more than anything else from the podcast.

It’s an excellent word of advice for Christians and even our culture at large. We consistently elevate young leaders and make celebrities out of people who aren’t ready for the spotlight and then wonder why they melt under the bright lights.

But it’s also a cautionary word for young leaders in a culture that drives us to constantly seek the next level. That often means that we sacrifice patience and experience at the altar of ambition. We seek platforms we aren’t ready to stand on. We ask for power we aren’t ready to hold.

Are we willing to be patient enough to let our character catch up with our charisma? That often means being willing to work and listen and learn in the shadows instead of leading in the spotlight. It might mean turning down opportunities we aren’t ready to navigate. Mostly, it means trusting that God has a plan to use the gifts he has given us and being willing to work on his timetable instead of ours.

Dan Darling’s thoughts on this are well worth reading:

“Youth doesn’t always equal immaturity. Sometimes young men and women can demonstrate extraordinary maturity at a young age. But 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 ourselves and young leaders up for failure.” 

As young leaders, we have a responsibility to steward the platforms and positions God has given us well. It’s important to learn from those who have gone before us, especially those who have failed. But it’s also important to recognize that but for the grace of God, we would all follow in their footsteps. We aren’t any more prepared for fame or less vulnerable to the temptations that brought down Driscoll, MacDonald, Hybels, or others.

Our day in the spotlight may never come. Some of the greatest saints never experienced fame or success in their time on earth. But their influence for the Kingdom has been felt for decades or even centuries after their death.

If God has called you to a position of leadership, be thankful for the opportunity. But don’t rush onto a platform you aren’t ready to stand on. Be patient and trust God’s timing. Seek out honesty and accountability. Guard your heart and stay humble.

That’s the only way you’ll be ready to stand on Mars Hill.

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