(Excerpted with permission from Inside the Organic Church: Learning from 12 Emerging Congregations by Bob Whitesel, Abingdon Press, 2006)
Mars Hill, Grandville, MI
This is not your father’s mega-church.
A community preserves a sense of unity despite differences and forces that seek to splinter it… – Stiepan Mestrovic, postemotional sociologist and author[i]
When visiting organic communities I have found it helpful to interview a person engaged in entry-level volunteer ministry. Such interactions often connect me with those who give an insightful appraisals. I soon encountered Doug Luyk, and explained to him the reason for my sojourn this morning with Mars Hill.
“This is a large church,” I mused. “What’s the key?” Expecting to hear about the pastor’s oratory skills, or about the church’s popular music ministry, Doug quickly replied, “It’s about small groups …. everyone needs to be in a small group. It’s the purpose and power behind Mars Hill. Small groups are the ‘church in the world,’ not just the church on Sunday.”
The remark was unexpected, but welcome. I wondered if Doug was a leader of a small group and thus might have a bias. But it soon became clear that Doug was simply a volunteer, who found small groups to be the glue that connected him to Mars Hill.
Church: Mars Hill
Leaders: Steve Webber (lead pastor), Rob Bell, Jr. (teaching pastor), Joe Hays (student ministries pastor), Denise Van Eck (community life pastor).
Location: The former Grandvillage Mall in Grandville, Michigan
Size: 10,000+ per week
Audience: people in their twenties to late-forties, middle to upper middle class, college/postmodern thinkers, multiple generations, dechurched and unchurched people
A Fusion of Rhythms:
The Rhythm of Place
At first encounter, Mars Hill feels like a boomer mega-church,[ii] with a large auditorium filled three times on Sunday. The venue is a former mid-sized mall, in the auditorium of a former anchor tenant. With little decoration, the iron beams and metal roof give the impression of a warehouse; which could easily be mistaken for the habitat of boomers. However, a closer introspection of Mars Hill’s unassuming yet pervasive strategies reveals that this is not your father’ mega-church.
The Rhythm of Worship
The worship setting and format share common elements with boomer churches, perhaps more so than they do with many organic churches. Due to the congregation’s size, features of the organic church such as low-lighting, interactive stations, comfortable chairs, and the like were missing. And, the direct and concise format was similar to many boomer churches: twenty minutes of worship, an engaging sermon of forty minutes, followed by ten minutes of praise. Though the format was reminiscent of boomer congregations, the content was not, with a refreshingly modest and unpretentious spirit. This ability to create an unassuming ambiance amid a mega-sized congregation is a unique rhythm that will be discussed later in this chapter.
The worship music and its mode of presentation on the other hand paralleled other organic congregations. Worship songs by Matt Redman, Paul Oakley, and Delirious were given an edgy musical interpretation, that fused together a spiritual rallying call with personal submissiveness and introspection.
The culmination of this atmosphere led, as it so often does in organic congregations, not to an emphasis on the music, musicians, execution, or even my enjoyment … but rather on the majesty and supremacy of our Lord Jesus Christ…
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[i] Stjepan G. Mestrovic, Postemotional Society (London: SAGE Publications, 1997), p. 95. This is Mestrovic’s summation of Ferdinand Tonnies classic arguments on the distinctions between communities and societies in Community and Society (New York: Harper and Row,  1963).
[ii] Former city-planner turned church growth consultant Lyle Schaller, tendered the first well-known classifications of church size. He labeled churches over 700 attendees as “mini-denominations,” since they function as a network of sub-congregations (Lyle E. Schaller, The Multiple Staff and the Larger Church [Nashville: Abin
gdon Press, 1980], p. 28; see also George G. Hunter III, The Contagious Congregation [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1979], p. 63). Gary McIntosh in his book, One Size Doesn’t Fit All: Bringing Out the Best in Any Size Church (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Fleming H. Revell, 1999, pp. 17-19) labels churches over
400 “large” and notes the “organizational basis” of their focus. While these labels are better descriptors for ecclesial management, the more trendy mega-church label has prevailed in popular culture, and customarily describes a church of over 1000 weekend attendees.