Despite the ongoing turmoil surrounding Seattle-based megachurch Mars Hill, the congregation is putting its best face forward, announcing it will throw a "Downtown Seattle farewell bash" marking the last Oct. 5 service at Mars Hill Downtown, as the flock retrenches and abandons its Fifth Avenue location.
Seattle PI reports that the church will hold a single Sunday service at 11 a.m., ending with shared stories and testimonies and then an "old-fashioned potluck."
"This will be a weekend of both celebration and of mourning for the Mars Hill Church body," said Mars Hills' weekly bulletin. "The Downtown Seattle and University District church families will be having services in those locations for the last time this Sunday, October 5. They have been preparing for this final day since the transitions were announced in early September. As we've communicated for the past month, these closures are a grievous result of the current financial crisis Mars Hill is going through."
After 18 years of explosive growth, Mars Hill church officials say financial pressures due to recent controversies--including charges by 21 ex-elders against Senior Pastor Mark Driscoll-- are forcing them to cut staff and eliminate some branches, including consolidating the downtown Seattle and University District congregations with the Ballard church. Meanwhile, the Mars Hill Phoenix congregation has decided to reconstitute themselves as the independent Phoenix Bible Church.
The announcement comes several months after Driscoll announced he was stepping down for six weeks while accusations against him were investigated
According to Mars Hill spokesperson Justin Dean, attendance at all Mars Hill branches at the start of the year combined was about 12,000 to 13,000 a week, but is now down to 8,000 or 9,000 a week.
"We've basically found ourselves in a tough financial position," Dean said. "We started the year the strongest we've ever been, but since then we've seen a decline in attendance and giving, and we saw a steep decline over the last two months."
A blog post on the church's website more than a week ago revealed the magnitude of the church's financial struggles:
"We have done much this year to prepare for a decline in giving, such as two rounds of staffing reductions and the cancellation of various events and projects, but we now find ourselves in a tougher financial position than we expected," the website announced Aug. 29. "The drop in giving revenue has exceeded what we have been able to cut in expenses. This has required us to now consider further ways we can reduce expenses, such as additional staffing reductions.
"The reality is that just because we are a church does not mean we can defy economic gravity - we can only operate the ministries and programs our members and attendees provide the resources for. We simply cannot spend money we do not have; this is true for any church."
."This is definitely something we've been looking at for quite some time, but not to this level," Dean said. "I think the last two months have shown us that it's gone deeper than anticipated."
However, as Mars Hill struggles to survive amid the ongoing controversy, congregants are working to stay positive.
"Although these changes are really sad,we know that the church body isn't a building, but is made up of the people, the body of Christ," said Faith McCracken, who regularly attends Mars Hill's downtown location.
"The church will rise from the ashes."
A statement released by the Mars Hill staff also encouraged congregants to stay hopeful:
"We know that Jesus is bigger than our current situation and we also know that the church is simply a gathering of Jesus' people. This transition is great evidence that it really is all about Jesus."
"We are saddened, but we are hopeful, because we are setting our hope fully on the grace of Jesus and nothing else (1 Pet. 1:13)."