I read with a broken heart today the news that broke through WORLD Magazine how “popular” author Mark Driscoll paid $210,000 to circumvent the safeguards put in place by the NYT to prevent authors from manipulating their rankings to get on the list. In the article they report,

According to a document obtained by WORLD, ResultSource Inc. (RSI) contracted with Mars Hill “to conduct a bestseller campaign for your book, Real Marriage on the week of January 2, 2012. The bestseller campaign is intended to place Real Marriage on The New York Times bestseller list for the Advice How-To list.”

The marketing company also promised to help place Real Marriage on the Wall Street Journal Business,USA Today Money, BN.com (Barnes & Noble), and Amazon.com best-seller lists.

They go on to report,

The details of the agreement between Mars Hill and ResultSource are complicated. ResultSource received a fee of $25,000 to coordinate a nationwide network of book buyers who would purchase Real Marriage at locations likely to generate reportable sales for various best-seller lists, including the New York Times list. Mars Hill also paid for the purchase of at least 11,000 books ranging in price from $18.62 to $20.70, depending on whether the books were purchased individually or in bulk. The contract called for 6,000 of the books to be bought by individuals, whose names were supplied by the church. Another 5,000 books were bought in bulk.

Mars Hill would not say whether the funds for the purchase of these books, which would total approximately $123,600 for the individual sales and $93,100 for the bulk sales, came from church funds.

According to the terms of the contract between ResultSource and Mars Hill, “RSI will be purchasing at least 11,000 total orders in one-week.” The contract called for the “author” to “provide a minimum of 6,000 names and addresses for the individual orders and at least 90 names and address [sic] for the remaining 5,000 bulk orders. Please note that it is important that the make up of the 6,000 individual orders include at least 1,000 different addresses with no more than 350 per state.”

The purpose of this instruction appears to be a way to outsmart systems put in place by The New York Times and other list compilers to prevent authors from buying their way onto best-seller lists. ResultSource apparently uses other techniques to work around the safeguards of the best-seller lists. According to its agreement with Mars Hill, “RSI will use its own payment systems (ex. gift cards to ensure flawless reporting). Note: The largest obstacle to the reporting system is the tracking of credit cards. RSI uses over 1,000 different payment types (credit cards, gift cards, etc).”

Mars Hill Church has defended this practice via their PR spokesman, Justin Dean, who wrote the following  to WORLD Magazine.

Mars Hill has made marketing investments for book releases and sermon series, along with album releases, events, and church plants, much like many other churches, authors, and publishers who want to reach a large audience.

Ah… the all-too-familiar refrain, “everybody is doing it”… and sadly they may be right. Tony Jones writes in his Patheos blog, “Mark Driscoll Gamed the Publishing Game“:

Years ago, Rick Warren finagled his way onto the bestseller lists. Before Purpose-Driven Life came out, Warren had hundreds of churches lined up to buy thousands of copies, all of which he bought through Pastors.com and resold to said churches. It was so effective that Warren’s marketing rep and Zondervan left his job there and wrote a book about the process. Warren vehemently disavowed that he’d done anything unethical. Instead, the 35 million copies he’d sold was not marketing but “God’s supernatural and sovereign plan.”

So why does this story break my heart?

For me, it is not about Driscoll or others who do the same thing. Instead, the story is so troubling because this reflects a sickness both in myself and the Church. Aside from the fact that money given by the church is used for self-aggrandizement, I am grieved that the Church in general has made an idol of fame. My heart breaks because I have, at times, in my own life been consumed by those same idolatrous thoughts. For years it bothered me that sales of my own books seemed to “fail”, but through time and through stories like this one from WORLD Magazine I have come to realize that I was judging myself against a false image.

In my recent discussion with Jim Belcher on, “Ghostwriting and the Sin of Idolatry“, I concluded the following:

Much like the fiction of the Victoria Secret model, “famous” writers create a fiction about their intelligence to impress the world with a false image of who they really are.

Leaders in the Church, corrupted by the lure of fame, have “airbrushed” their way into notoriety and set up a standard of success that is neither biblical nor real.  Mark Driscoll is the Martha Stewart of publishing; using other people to do the work while one person takes the credit.

My prayer?

I pray, first, that my own heart will not be consumed with false images of success and that I can remain faithful to the mission of the Gospel.  Where I have failed Lord, forgive me and make me a better person tomorrow than I am today.

Second, I pray for the Church, that She will discover Her sin and focus again on storing up a treasure in heaven that cannot be purchased by PR companies (see: Matt 6:1-24).

Updated On March 10, 2014

In response to the above story, Christianity Today reports that Mars Hill has released a statement which, in part, reads:

In 2011, outside counsel advised our marketing team to use Result Source to market the Real Marriage book and attain placement on the New York Times Bestseller list. While not uncommon or illegal, this unwise strategy is not one we had used before or since, and not one we will use again.

Let’s be clear. Marsh Hill hired Result Source to create the fiction that Driscoll’s book was a bestseller. The reason they were hired, according to their website, was to increase demand for Driscoll as a speaker for conferences and events.

Publishing a book builds credibility, but having a Bestseller initiates incredible growth—exponentially increasing the demand for your thought leadership, skyrocketing your speaking itinerary and value,

The reason the Executive Elders of Mars Hill used the tithes from the church to hire this PR firm was to purchase the impression that Mark Driscoll is a “thought leader” who more people should bring to their events.  However, more important to the conversation is the phrase in The Mars Hill press release that their actions were neither “uncommon” or “illegal”.  As I teach all of my graduate students who take my course on Ethics and Leadership; we, as followers of Christ, should never determine right action based on its commonality or legality.

Updated On March 19, 2014

Just a week after Driscoll’s Public Relations manager for the church released the statement, “everyone is doing it”, Driscll has decided to release a new statement acknowledging his tactics were wrong.  As reported in Relevant Magazine, Driscoll writes,

First, a marketing company called ResultSource was used in conjunction with the book Real Marriage, which was released in January 2012. My understanding of the ResultSource marketing strategy was to maximize book sales, so that we could reach more people with the message and help grow our church. In retrospect, I no longer see it that way. Instead, I now see it as manipulating a book sales reporting system, which is wrong. I am sorry that I used this strategy, and will never use it again. I have also asked my publisher to not use the “#1 New York Times bestseller” status in future publications, and am working to remove this from past publications as well.

In reading Driscoll’s open letter, the editors of Relvant are reminded of a similar apology from Driscoll in 2007. In reading his sermon, this seems to be the significant passage.

It comes up in the book [of Philippians] and so I need to preach it. But let me say this, that in all honesty, having reflected on this, I believe that humility is the great omission and failure in my 11 years of preaching. I believe that this is my greatest oversight, both in my example and in my instruction. I therefore do not claim to be humble. I do not claim to have been humble. I’m convicted of my pride and I am a man who is by God’s grace pursuing humility. And so in many ways, this is a sermon that I’m preaching at myself. This is a sermon that you’re welcome to listen in on as I preach to myself. But I truly believe that were there one thing I could do over in the history of Mars Hill, it would be in my attitude and in my actions and in my words, to not only emphasize sound doctrine and courage and strength and commitment and conviction, but to add in addition to that, humility as a virtue.

Mark Driscoll, “The Rebels Guide to Joy In Humility” preached at Marsh Hill Church in 11/04/2007, Mark Driscoll Sermon Archive 2005-2009 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2009). 

Seven years later, we seem to be at the same place again.

The one immediate change announced is that Driscoll plans to take a “personal” break from social media. However, since Driscoll stills pays other people (including the Mars Hill Public Relations “Deacon”) to Tweet on his behalf, I am not sure what change, if any, this announcement really reflects. That being said, one can only pray Driscoll is more than just “sincere” in his latest remarks, but that he actually makes personal & structural changes that lead to discernible change to contrast against his historically onerous lack of discernment (viz a vie, calling a Social Media Marketing employee of the church a “Deacon”, or servant, to the church. Slapping a biblical name on a secular occupation does not make it any more spiritual.)

Dr. J.R. Miller is a Professor of Applied Theology and Leadership & Dean of Online Learning at Southern California Seminary. Outside work, he is a church planter. Dr. Miller has a diverse educational background and authored multiple books on church history, biblical theology, and Leadership. Joe and his wife Suzanne enjoy the sun and surf with their 3 sons in San Diego, CA.

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