It’s Sunday morning at Resurrection Church in Tacoma, and several hundred members are being exhorted to “Fight the Good Fight.”
As the Rev. Bubba Jennings preaches from a sermon series by that name, his listeners learn about Christian suffering. They take notes and follow along with their iPhone Bible apps.
Later they lift their hands in praise and sing traditional hymns with a rock-and-roll arrangement. They fill the aisles between the pews to receive Holy Communion.
Jennings ends the service with a prayer and a thank you. Church members have raised $51,000 in six weeks for a new roof. They hope to raise $100,000.
This is what the former Tacoma campus of Mars Hill Church looks like on a late-spring Sunday morning, six months after the Seattle-based megachurch split apart in December following the resignation of controversial founder-pastor Mark Driscoll.
In some ways, Resurrection Church is quite different than its predecessor, starting with the obvious: The name has changed, and the congregation no longer has Driscoll as its primary thought-shaper.
“In the Mars Hill model, decisions were made for us, but (now) as a church body we have to systematically go through each of those points and ask, ‘what honors Jesus’ call for our church?’ ” said Peter Briggs, lead coach of several community groups at Resurrection Church.
“It’s been a healthy, reflective process.”
Other aspects of church life are similar to the previous model. Resurrection Church has four Sunday Services and continues to meet throughout the week in 40 community groups, a structure implemented by Mars Hill to cultivate “family.”
“As a church we say we gather for corporate worship and scatter for life together,” Briggs said.
There are no mid-week services or programs in the 106-year-old building near Wright Park that Mars Hill bought from First Congregational Church less than three years ago. Resurrection’s leaders say they hope to start a midweek service next fall.
Jennings said Mars Hill paid $1.9 million for the historic building in 2012 and financed it through the Evangelical Christian Credit Union. ECCU allowed Resurrection Church to assume the $1.2 milllion loan.
“That’s home base and we not moving,” Jennings said.
He said 30 people were baptized on Easter Sunday, and average weekly church attendance is 825. But he said counting people in the pews is not a good way to measure success; being fed spiritually and being connected as a church family are what matter the most.
The Rev. Dean Curry, lead pastor at Life Center church in Tacoma, said he expects Resurrection Church to grow. He said he gets together to talk with Jennings about every six weeks. He said Jennings has become a leader in the local community very quickly.
“You have to remember that Bubba has always been the pastor of that church,” Curry said. “Everything changed but nothing changed. Stuff in Seattle happened but this church has always been healthy from the day they opened.”
Curry emphasized that the two talk about Jesus, not their churches, when they get together.
Curry described Resurrection as “the church for everybody” in the way it loves the poor, desperate, addicts, singles and families.
It wasn’t always viewed so inclusively after Mars Hill announced in 2012 that it would buy and renovate the First Congregational building and open a campus in Tacoma.
Outside community members voiced concerns that Driscoll espoused ultra-conservative views about gender roles, as well as non-acceptance of gays, lesbians and transgender individuals.
Two months prior to the church’s local opening, a Tacoma restaurant had to cancel a “Replace The Roof” fundraiser led by Mars Hill Tacoma because of threats on social media, emails and a website called Tacoma Demands Better.
Jennings acknowledges it hasn’t always been easy, but the backlash is less dramatic without the Mars Hill name attached to the church.
“We just want to love the community,” Jennings said. “We don’t want to be a part of controversy, that’s not our thing. But I often wonder if the history of Mars Hill is going to stay with us forever and I really don’t know.”
As far as the church’s current doctrine, Jennings said only that Resurrection is nondenominational and believes in the Bible as its “highest authority.
“We want to be an asset to the city, even if we don’t agree on everything,” he said.
Conner Wittman and his wife Kristin live in Milton and have been attending Resurrection Church since it got started as Mars Hill Tacoma.
For them, the only difference is that now they watch their pastor preach in person. Before, Driscoll was the main preacher, but his recorded sermons would be shown at Tacoma and other satellite churches one week after he gave them at the main campus.
“I was never a big fan of the TV,” Conner Wittman said. “The content was good, though.”
The biggest appeal for the Wittmans are the community groups and young families that go to the church.
Community groups are made up of about 15 to 18 people living in the same area. They share a meal, review Sunday’s sermon and hang out. They meet throughout Pierce, Kitsap and South King counties.
“We are a unique group, six families with lots of babies,” Kristin Wittman said. “We are at the stage where it’s really noisy and busy.”
Since its inception in 1996, Mars Hill Church often emphasized the idea of family, encouraging young men to volunteer in the nursery, maybe meet their future wife at church.
Mars Hill’s founding mantra was to “Preach the Bible, plant churches and train men.”
Eighteen years and 15 churches later, it had more than 13,000 Sunday attendees.
It all began to fall apart after allegations of plagiarism and bullying began to swirl. A church investigation last fall ultimately concluded that Driscoll led the church “in a domineering manner” but was not “disqualified from pastoral ministry.” He resigned two weeks later.
(Multiple reports indicate Driscoll is beginning to travel and preach again, including an appearance at a church in Mill Creek.)
Remaining Mars Hill leadership decided to disband as a multi-site church and let each location determine whether to continue as its own self-governing, self-funded body.
Eleven campuses made the decision to continue as independent churches, including Tacoma and Olympia sites. The former Mars Hill Olympia is now called Harbor Church and has two Sunday services and 10 “life groups,” according to its website.
“One church in multiple locations is incredibly complicated and takes a lot of unity and trust,” Jennings said. “When looking at how we create health for every church, it became apparent as a whole that Mars Hill was not healthy.”
The heart behind the decision was less about “how do we keep this huge thing alive and more about how do we love and care for these people,” he said.
Briggs said he and his wife Karla, don’t plan to attend anywhere but Resurrection Church.
“There’s so much of contemporary Christianity that’s pasteurized and processed, boiled down to this little life of what we are expected to be,” Briggs said. “But here we can be ourselves and be loved and not be perfect. We value that.”