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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Even amid stormy seas, Mars Hill church plans to open

Seattle’s controversial Mars Hill megachurch has had a tough summer.

Its flamboyant pastor has stepped away temporarily in the wake of some boorish comments about women and conflicts within the church. Mars Hill has recently closed and consolidated churches, and new internal battles are being reported almost daily on the West Side.

It might not seem like a great time to “plant” a new church in Spokane. But Miles Rohde, pastor of the fledgling Mars Hill branch here, says the church has formed a core group of 120 members, is in the middle of remodeling the former First Covenant Church building at Second and Division, and is on track to open within a few months.

“We are on target for our official launch in early 2015,” said Rohde, 42. “The Spokane plant is really strong.”

In an interview this week, Rohde acknowledged that others in the community, from clergy to potential members of the church, have come to him with concerns.

“There are certainly legitimate questions,” he said. “It’s in the paper. It’s on national news. People have questions.”

He treats the questions seriously, with an eye on what – for him – is the ultimate purpose: “People come to the Gospel, they’re saved, they get baptized.”

If Mars Hill opens its doors next year, it will be doing so in a key location – a spot where the downsides of downtown have often been most apparent.

Right behind them is the giant pit left at the former site of St. John’s Lutheran Church; city efforts are underway to put up an art-based sign project to obscure it. Just down the block is the former Spokane Public Market, a valiant experiment in a year-round farmers market that expired earlier this year.

The House of Charity homeless shelter is not far away, and the homeless population is a prominent presence. Those folks lost a critical resource when First Covenant left the neighborhood; homeless people made up a significant part of the church’s small membership.

Rohde said he’s heard concerns that homeless people might be “shunned” at Mars Hill, but “that’s not our intent.” Still, it is not planning to be focused on that population to the degree First Covenant was.

First Covenant Church sold the building to Mars Hill for $1.25 million, and has moved to a new spot in the Garland neighborhood.

Rohde said that being a good neighbor and contributing to that part of the city is important to him; he also said the location is a good one for Mars Hill in particular, because it is close to a major intersection, near the University District, and central to the whole region.

“We’re really excited about redeeming this corner,” he said. “We get to continue the legacy of the Gospel on this corner.”

The Mars Hill story follows a boom-and-bust template that is not uncommon for groups with charismatic, controversial, powerful leaders. Over the past 18 years, the Seattle-based network of churches has grown rapidly, led by Mark Driscoll – a brash, blunt pastor with a younger, edgier vibe than many church folks. In 2009, a New York Times profile said “he has the coolest style and foulest mouth of any preacher you’ve ever seen.”

And yet his theology is decidedly old-school Calvinist: heaven and hell, predestination, and complementarism – the belief that women are meant to submit to men in the home and church. Driscoll preaches a particularly macho brand of this; a lot of it is hard to take, if you have any post-Paleolithic views of men and women.

In recent months, an even uglier side of that has emerged, in the form of online comments Driscoll wrote under a pseudonym in 2001. Some fell under the heading “Pussified Nation.”

The most recent example, which came to light this week: “The first thing to know about your penis is, that despite the way it may seem, it is not your penis. Ultimately, God created you and it is his penis. You are simply borrowing it for a while. … Knowing that His penis would need a home, God created a woman to be your wife and when you marry her and look down you will notice that your wife is shaped differently than you and makes a very nice home.”

Other complaints about Driscoll have spiderwebbed. Members have complained that Driscoll has abused his authority and created a culture of fear. Nine pastors called for Driscoll to step down in August; some of those have since been fired. Some members picketed a service; many have left, disillusioned, while others defend the church and the pastor. Reports of financial abuses and excesses by church leadership have emerged, and Mars Hill this week closed some West Side churches and laid off staffers.

Rohde said all that is hard on members, but not a sign of how things are going with the Spokane branch. He said that he puts Driscoll’s comments into the category of mistakes made as a younger man, one who has grown and who deserves forgiveness. This is similar to Driscoll’s own apologies for his comments.

“I’ve only been at Mars Hill a year, but the Pastor Mark I know is not the Pastor Mark that is portrayed in some of these controversial things,” Rohde said.

As for the church’s financial difficulties, he said there is one major advantage that the Spokane church has – and it’s a familiar one to anyone who’s bought a home here.

“Spokane is actually one of the more financially viable locations, because property is less expensive than it is in Seattle or Phoenix,” he said.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman. com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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