If someone would have asked me in 1996, "Should I start a church in Seattle?," I am not sure how I would have responded. I would probably have suggested that other locations would be easier and even more productive, but to go where God calls—knowing that the planter might be going to a hard place and in for a long slog.
Yes, Seattle is an unlikely place for a church planting success story. It is not the normal place to plant an evangelical church. Yet, I can tell you from research and experience: Mars Hill is not a normal church.
I started following Mars Hill in 2002
. A couple of years later, I served as a consultant on a documentary that aired on all the ABC stations in the country. I suggested they include Mars Hill—back when it had a couple of thousand people. As I have watched Mars Hill, I have seen an amazing story unfold. As Mark Driscoll, preaching pastor of Mars Hill, said in a recent podcast
, "God did something – and if you pull God out of the equation it’s missing a variable, it doesn’t make any sense."
Yet, my guess is that most people at Mars Hill just think that is normal. I am always fascinated by the fact that most people consider their own experience "normal." For example, when you talk to a brilliant scientist or a record-breaking athlete, they often seem to think that who they are and what they do is, well, normal.
The same is true of churches. So, a couple Sundays ago, I gave the weekend messages at Mars Hill's Ballard campus and remarked that that fall, they'd had over 10,000 people at their weekend worship services, something they had never seen before in a non-Easter weekend at Mars Hill. However, they just did not seem that impressed. For them, I think that is just what they knew. They have never known a time when the church did not grow by about 1000 people a year. So, as they see it, of course they would have 10,000 people now … and 11,000 a year from now.
Mars Hill Church may seem normal to those who attend, but it is hardly so in the landscape of churches in America. I track churches for a living. At LifeWay Research we do the list
of the largest and fastest growing churches published in Outreach Magazine, and we study thousands of other churches each year.
The following stats about Mars Hill are encouraging:
- A 15% growth rate in annual attendance
- 10,000 people attending 25 Sunday services across 9 campuses
- A "Top 100" church in America in both the largest (54th) and fastest-growing (30th) categories
But I am more encouraged by:
God is changing lives through Mars Hill in high volume in multiple locations. And, this is happening at an amazing rate. In other words, Mars Hill is, by any statistical standard, one of the leading churches in America. Yet, what makes it remarkable is not just the "How many?" but the "Where?"
Seattle is an unlikely place for a church to break through. Yet, that is exactly what has occurred in and through Mars Hill Church. It is a church of great influence, but increasingly a church that is fostering a movement of theology and church planting around the world.
Ed Stetzer, from Nashville, has planted and pastored numerous churches. Today he trains pastors and church planters, teaches, writes, and is the president of LifeWay, a Christian research group. Earlier this month, he preached at Mars Hill on Luke 12:35-48. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.