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Oral Sex, Yoga, and God's Eternal Wrath: Inside the New Hipster Megachurch That Tells Modern Women to Submit

Mars Hill tries to pull a young hipster crowd to Christianity. One of their biggest draws is separate spheres for women and men.

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When Jess came to the University of Washington as a freshman, she was a feminist economics major whose postcollege goal was to land a position at an organization dedicated to social entrepreneurship. Now in her early 20s and just a few years out of college, she is married, looking forward to a life as a homemaker, and involved full-time at the Seattle-based Mars Hill Church, one of the hippest, fastest-growing, and most conservative evangelical churches in the nation.

Mars Hill might as well be named Mark’s Hill, after its founder and leading pastor, Mark Driscoll. Its home campus is a 40,000-square-foot warehouse in Seattle’s Ballard district, the neighborhood where hipsters go to raise families.

The church’s blend of pop culture and strict Calvinist doctrine allows congregants to occupy a unique, rebellious niche between middle-aged conservative Christians and their secular liberal contemporaries. Mars Hill members talk about sex, drink alcohol, get tattoos, and swear. They listen to Fleet Foxes; they love Star Wars and graffiti art. They also believe homosexuality is a sin, men are meant to lead, and wives must submit to their husbands as the church submits to God.

Mars Hill is part of a movement of “emerging churches” struggling to keep Christian faith relevant in the postmodern world. They typically meet in nontraditional locations (coffee shops, concert venues, living rooms), sermonize through rock music, and connect to their congregants via Facebook and Twitter accounts. Lauren Sandler, author of the 2007 book Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement, calls them the “Disciple Generation...[an] ever-growing population of people ages 15 to 35 who are equally obsessed with Christ and with culture as a means to an evangelical end.” Cloaking the gospel in pop culture is a model most often associated with televangelists of the 1980s, like the Lakewood Church’s Joel Osteen, who modeled churches after shopping malls, playing on capitalist culture to make God’s message palatable. Mars Hill is not a commercial center, but an indie concert where the Kool-Aid comes with a PBR chaser.

A writer for the Christian blog called Driscoll, with his stocky frame, six o’clock shadow, and torn jeans, “the original cussing hipster pastor.” It’s Driscoll’s snarky straight talk about everything from oral sex to yoga to God’s eternal wrath that has ignited passion in the hearts of his millennial disciples. After Driscoll and his wife, Grace, founded the church in 1996 in their Seattle home, it grew at a rate of about 60 percent a year—all the more notable when you consider that Seattle is one of the most left-leaning cities in a state that, according to a 2004 Gallup poll, ranked as the third least religious in the nation after Oregon and Idaho (Washington dropped to eighth in 2012). Mars Hill now has more than 5,000 members, with campuses in Portland, Orange County, and Albuquerque. In the late 1990s, Driscoll founded Acts 29, a “church planting” network that trains men who wish to open churches; this led to the creation of the Resurgence, an online training resource with links to sermons, blog posts, music, and forums—essentially, a Mars Hill starter kit. Affiliates of the church are now spread out all over the world, with disciples everywhere in between.

New converts often discover Mars Hill by stumbling upon Driscoll’s sermon podcast. For evangelists, who essentially devote their lives to making Jesus go viral, social media has literally been a godsend, and it’s what Mars Hill does best. In addition to Driscoll’s podcast, the church has a presence on nearly every social media platform, from Facebook to Pinterest to Instagram, as well as a YouTube channel and an iPhone app that launched back in 2009. The church’s website has an entire music section devoted to Mars Hill’s indie worship bands; in May, Driscoll announced the church’s plans to start a record label. A church with an online presence is nothing new, but Mars Hill’s statistics would make a small media company jealous: as of May 2012, it had 43,245 “likes” on Facebook, more than 10 million views on YouTube, and 39,356 Twitter followers.

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