Mars Hill Church brought its hard-driving worship music, a giant video screen and lights, and even a generator to ensure adequate electricity for its first meeting at First Congregational Church in Tacoma.
About 500 people from the Seattle-based megachurch packed one of Tacoma’s oldest houses of worship Thursday night to hear leaders explain their plans to buy the First Congregational building and renovate it into a hub for expanding Mars Hill’s reach in the South Sound.
The Rev. Bubba Jennings, pastor of Mars Hill Tacoma, told worshipers the most important work they can do is spread their faith in Jesus to others and “help grow God’s kingdom.”
“We see ourselves at a place of great opportunity,” Jennings said.
In Tacoma, the City of Destiny, “Jesus is our destiny,” he said.
Several hundred people already meet in small groups in the Tacoma area.
Mars Hill announced earlier this month that it is buying the historic church building at Division Avenue and South J Street as the site of its 15th church. It now has 14 sites in four states and draws an average of 13,000 people per weekend across the locations, making it one of the fastest-growing churches in America. Puget Sound locations include downtown Seattle, Ballard, Bellevue, Everett, Federal Way and Olympia.
First Congregational Church has stood as a spiritual fixture near Wright Park for 104 years. But with Sunday attendance ranging from 25 to 40, First Congregational members voted in May to put the building up for sale. The purchase will rescue the Gothic-style sanctuary and three-story education building – which total 36,996 square feet – from the possibility of being torn down.
Mars Hill has a purchase-and-sale agreement to pay the asking price of $1.9 million. But it won’t be final until the deal closes Oct. 17.
Mars Hill plans to start having services at the building in fall 2013 after spending about $1.5 million on renovations. The church needs a new roof and electrical system. Mars Hill kicked off raising that money with a special offering at Thursday’s “vision and prayer night.”
The Rev. Mark Driscoll, Mars Hill’s founding pastor, said the church’s numerical growth is an indicator of its health.
“This is a place where the Bible is taught and people grow,” Driscoll said.
The church started in 1996 in Driscoll’s Seattle home. Mars Hill Church gets its name from a location in the Book of Acts where the Apostle Paul spoke.
The church is known for its high-energy worship music, a strong social media presence and Driscoll’s preaching. Podcasts of his sermons are popular downloads.
He’s also become a spiritual lightning rod, drawing both critics and fans.
Mars Hill does not allow women to serve as pastors or elders because it says that’s what the Bible teaches. The practice has contributed to a perception of a male-dominant church culture.
Some of the church’s teachings and practices, such as discipline of members, have sparked criticism voiced on blogs and in some media reports.
When asked about it during an interview, Driscoll said: “Anybody who has concerns, I would just say they’re welcome to visit and check it out for themselves.”
He added: “Not everything on the Internet is true.”
People at Thursday’s meeting expressed excitement about Mars Hill buying First Congregational.
“I love it,” said Bradley Bradberry, 24, of Tacoma. “I love this city. It needs more Jesus.”
Julianne Olsson, 27, of Gig Harbor, will have a shorter church commute, to Tacoma instead of Federal Way.
“It would be nice to be able to invite people I know and love in the community to church with me,” Olsson said. “I love it’s an old church that the city loves as well.”