Cult of the Seattle sex pastor?

From Christianity Today to The Tennessean, Seattle megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll has been making a ton of headlines lately. Most, but not all, concern a new book by Driscoll and his wife, Grace, titled "Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, & Life Together." (Just to be clear for those not paying real close attention, Driscoll is not the sex-on-the-roof pastor, although both were mentioned in the same ABC News report on Valentine's Day.)

Slate.com magazine produced one of the more interesting pieces on Driscoll that I've seen. Fascinatingly  (or strangely?) enough, the 1,650-word report published Friday does not even mention the sex-in-marriage book, even though the story is about a disgruntled former member who alleges Driscoll's Mars Hill Church subjected him to heavy-handed church discipline after he violated the megachurch's sexual conduct covenant.

The Slate story — dubbed "A Shunning in Seattle" — bills itself this way:

A powerful megachurch's harsh tactics raise questions about how much control churches should have over their members' lives.

It's intriguing subject matter, but sadly, the report falls short as a piece of serious journalism, assuming that's how the magazine intended it.

There's too much innuendo — and too few named sources — to deem this an accurate, evenhanded accounting of the facts and key players involved. That's unfortunate, given that — in some ways — the writer flashes remarkable insight into the makeup and mechanisms of the modern megachurch.

The top of the story:

Until last fall, a 25-year-old Seattle man named Andrew was happily committed to Mars Hill Church, one of America’s fastest-growing megachurches with more than 5,000 members. He volunteered weekly for security duty at his branch of the church, joined a Bible study group, and had recently become engaged to the daughter of a church elder. Then he made a mistake that found him cast out: He cheated on his fiancee with a community college classmate. The fury over Andrew’s experience—and his decision to publicize the church’s internal disciplinary procedures—has led to accusations by other Christians that one of the most powerful evangelical voices in the country, Mars Hill pastor Mark Driscoll, employs a cultlike leadership style. Now, for the first time, Mars Hill is speaking out in response to its former member’s charges.

My three main problems with the story:

* The squishy approach to the facts:  About one-third of the way into the story, the ex-member — indirectly — gives his side of what happened:

According to that account, Andrew cheated on his fiancee, engaging in some kind of sexual contact short of intercourse with another woman. Racked with guilt, he quickly confessed to both his fiancee and another member of his small group. About two weeks later, he also admitted to having a premarital sexual relationship with his now ex-fiancee.

Slate takes that side of the story and uses it as the overriding narrative. Not until the next-to-last paragraph — roughly 900 words later — does the report present the other side of the story:

Dean describes Andrew as “a man who cheated on his fiancee, lied about it, and only confessed after being pressed about suspicious details.”

* The 'cult' label without adequate probing: In the lede, the story introduces the C-word, attributing it to "accusations by other Christians." Later, "fellow evangelical Christians" are cited as those concerned about Driscoll's practices. In another case, "some critics" is the all-encompassing attribution used.

The only actual named source using the term "cult-like" is a blogger, while a separate reference cites an unidentified ex-member who compared his experience — in a separate newspaper report — to people "drinking Kool-Aid."

Is there true concern that Mars Hill Church is a cult? If so, more serious — and more in-depth — reporting is needed.

The Religion Newswriters Association's stylebook guideline on cults is helpful:

cult

A term that has come to be associated with religious groups far outside the mainstream that have overly controlling leadership or dangerous practices. For that reason, journalists should use it with the greatest care and only when they are certain it fits. On rare occasions, cult is an appropriate description. Two groups whose members committed mass suicide are examples: the Peoples Temple (Jonestown in Guyana, South America, 1978) and Heaven’s Gate (1997, California). Another example is the Branch Davidians, whose founder, David Koresh, died along with 75 followers in a 1993 standoff with government officials.

* The one-sided perspective: From beginning to end, it's pretty clear in this piece who's right (hint: it's not Driscoll) and who's wrong. That approach works great for an editorial, but not for a news story.

It would be interesting to see an actual mainstream news report on these allegations and Mars Hill Church's approach to church discipline. In seeking to uncover the truth, such a report would, of course, need to quote actual church members by name — and not just one disgruntled ex-member identified by his first name only.

Such a piece also might explore questions left unanswered in the Slate story, such as the role of church elders at Mars Hill. It's telling that the ex-member's fiancee was the daughter of a church elder. Did that connection change the dynamics of how this particular situation played out? Hey, such a piece might even quote the fiancee and her father and seek to tell a fuller, fairer version of the truth.

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