A new, curious question has been haunting me at the beginning of this year: how can my work defeat death? How can the things I’m working so hard to build now last for the long haul? Will they outlive me?
The event that has brought these questions to the surface to me is a scheduled death. On December 31st, 2014–just last week–one of the largest churches in the United States stopped existing. It was so vibrant, so loud that a few months ago the mere thought that it would die by year’s end was absurd. Like, no way. It was a fast-growing church with a big-name pastor. But there it is: Mark Driscoll no longer is around, and Mars Hill Church no longer is.
My point here is not to criticize or defend him or the end of the church. There is plenty of both on the web. My point is just: wow! I did not see that coming. Actually, I kind of did; some things seemed unhealthy and out of balance. But no one could imagine that the church would stop existing so suddenly and definitely. Many of the individual congregations the church was composed of will keep on. But the fact that the mighty Mars Hill was discontinued still amazes me.
And haunts me too. The whole point of institutions is to outlive the individual. Churches (and schools and banks and other social entities) are meant to last longer than their founding individuals. They can go on for several other decades, centuries, sometimes millennia. Institutions can die too, of course; that is as natural as biological death. But they are supposed to outlive the presence of its founder at least a bit more. Founders are supposed to find successors, decentralize, and create mechanisms that extend and outlast their reach.
That is one of the elements of this surprising ecclesial obituary: the church was fully intertwined with its pastor. Mark Driscoll has been quoted as saying, “I am the brand.” Yes, he was. If he resigned, like he did, it was hard to see how the church–at least as a network video-fed by a celebrity preacher–could function without him. Large churches have a hard time finding successors, but Mark built a church that really depended on him. If you put someone else in this place, no matter how talented, it would not work. He was the appeal.
So here are my New Year’s questions: how can I create the things I am going to create this year in a way that will eventually outlast me? How can I give of myself and have the result of my efforts not be just an extension of myself? How can I bring other personalities along and create something out of us? How much do I have to be present to find the sweet spot between absence and over-presence? How can I be replaced well?
Have a great year, folks.