Driscoll’s words, unsurprisingly, drew rapid and sharp criticism from the Christian blogosphere. Seemingly in response to the swift reaction he received to his post, within a few days Driscoll removed the status, which had garnered hundreds of comments.
This incident suggests that the nature of accountability in non-denominational evangelical Christianity, and perhaps the church at large, is evolving as the internet, especially social media, becomes more and more a part of church life, ritual, and public relations.
Churches have always been in the business of broadcasting. But in the social media age, that sense of broadcasting has been amplified, especially for someone like Driscoll who is trying to reach a younger population that generally interacts through the web.
Apparently, Driscoll’s hyper-masculine image and posturing is attractive—thousands attend his multi-campus church—so it’s unsurprising that he sometimes broadcasts that image online (he has over a hundred thousand followers on twitter).
In terms of outside institutional accountability, Driscoll has none. Mars Hill Church is not tethered to any particular denomination. This (rhetorical) situation gives Driscoll quite a bit of latitude to do and say what he wants. He is institutionally unconstrained (which is not to say that we would like the constraints placed on him if his church were a part of a denomination).
One could argue that his congregation acts as a constraint on what he says and does, but this seems improbable. Mars Hill itself is built on the Driscoll brand and has grown phenomenally, arguably in large part because of Driscoll himself, hyper-masculinity and all. Driscoll appears to be at the top of the power pyramid at Mars Hill as evidenced by the job descriptions on the church’s website. (To be fair, the other two “Executive Elders” may exert some influence on Driscoll, as Driscoll claims he considered their opinions of his controversial Facebook status.) Further, we can reasonably assume that his congregation generally consists of self-selected individuals who are attracted to Driscoll’s ethos and/or the kind of culture that has grown up around that ethos. Therefore, we can reasonably assume that a large portion of his congregation either supports his words and actions, is generally unfazed by them, or finds them relatively unimportant given what else he and his church have to offer. Also, given the hierarchical nature of the church and its emphasis on authority, we can reasonably assume that the congregation has little power over his words or actions.
The internet, however, yields a different kind of audience. Unlike Sunday mornings, which consist of a self-selected and relatively silenced audience, the internet consists of a vocal, interested, and even partisan audience, some of whom desire to shut Driscoll down (unlikely). It’s difficult to know Driscoll’s own thoughts on the incident—if he was simply being provocative, seeking attention, even if it was negative, or if he really thought he could get away with what he wrote. But whatever his thoughts, it seems that he could not ignore this internet audience. While it’s hard to estimate how many people tweeted, blogged, and reposted Driscoll’s words, enough pressure seems to have built up that Driscoll apparently felt the need to in essence retract his statement (though he certainly has not retracted his views or positions as no apology was issued). Driscoll’s free reign was circumscribed by his internet audience.
As what once used to go on within the closed walls of a church moves to the public, indefinite memory of the internet, with an audience that has the potential to pounce at any misstep, a new kind of accountability, a new set of constraints emerge. The independent church is no longer independent, at least not if it wants to thrive in the social media era (i.e. if it wants to attract younger members). This phenomenon is not limited to the Mark Driscolls of the world who pastor churches of thousands. The world, Christian and non-Christian alike, pounced on Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who threatened to and eventually did burn the Koran. At the time, his church had no more than a few dozen members.
Welcome to accountability in the social media age.