My first introduction to Rob Bell was in Atlanta at a Catalyst Conference in the early 2000’s. He was just being discovered by those outside of his home base at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, MI. I remember he was introduced in an up-and-coming typical evangelical-superstar manner, and the fact that his church was growing into the thousands must have been mentioned a half-dozen times by the emcees. Normally this would be enough to make me gag (the reason why I don’t attend that sort of conference anymore), but then he hit the stage and I was spellbound. I instantly fell in love with his communication style and was deeply impacted by his talk. It was the one entitled, “Tassels on Garments.”
I went back to my job as a youth pastor and quickly began buying up Nooma videos, listening to his sermons from MHBC, and keeping tabs on what he was up to. Velvet Elvis remains one of my favourite books; I still give it to people. Rob’s teaching was instrumental in helping me put words and ideas to my faith. And in many ways his teaching helped deepen my faith in Jesus and his Gospel.
However, it was only a short time before some of my peers and “the internet” started picking on Rob. At first he was accused of bad teaching, but that quickly morphed into name calling. Words like “liberal” and “heretic” started to be used (not like anyone could ever agree on what being “liberal” meant, exactly). He got lumped into the emergent church movement which was quickly becoming passé and outlawed in some evangelical circles (though I don’t remember Rob ever claiming to be a part of any movement outside of his home church). And eventually the reality of the, at times, messed-up evangelical machine started making it dangerous for someone to remain a fan of Rob. If you admitted aloud that you liked Rob, you took the chance of being immediately dismissed or labelled in some pejorative way. I still maintain that most of the negative critique of Rob’s teaching was completely unwarranted — the result of clashing Christian cultures and vernacular.
And then came Love Wins and the whole world blew up. (Unless of course you aren’t in some way tied to the evangelical church, then you didn’t care at all.) I remain confused by the reaction to the book. Discussions concerning Christian Universalism have been going on within the halls and writing of academia for centuries. My view is that Rob took on a particular subject at the worst possible time for him; the wolves were out to pounce. And then he didn’t do the best of jobs in writing on the subject. Regardless, Rob was mostly anathematized by evangelicalism and eventually had to leave his church for the beaches of sunny California. He disappeared from the scene with only the odd interview popping up here (this one’s worth the watch!) and there. And any sort of interview that did emerge was usually only about investigating one thing: is Rob still one of us in any shape or form, or can we indeed say, “Farewell, Rob Bell”? (Many Christians, ashamedly, love deciding whether or not people are “in” or “out.”) His answer-a-question-with-a-question answers drive many people crazy. (Hmmm…now who’s that speaker from the 1st century who did that an awful lot?) And his “unclear” responses to questions that include the words “do you believe…” have only helped to make those who doubted him already, doubt him even more. (I sympathize with him. Most of the time I think he’s put in a lose lose situation by his interviewer. It’s no wonder he refuses so many interviews.)
Now, a few years later, he’s emerged again and has a new and powerful friend in Oprah Winfrey. Of late he’s been on tour with her and yesterday The Rob Bell Show debuted on Oprah’s television network. And because of all this, the evangelical internet has once again weighed in on Rob and it’s been mixed reviews (see here and here). Now he’s not just a heretic, he’s “new age” and in bed with the empire. Or he’s doing something extraordinary for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus on a massive stage. Everyone is sure they know which option is happening, they just don’t agree with each other.
Okay, so none of this is news to anyone. And why am I bothering to write just another blog about Rob Bell? Well, for some reason unknown to me, I’ve had a handful of people ask me in the last month, “What do you think about Rob Bell?” I usually respond with, “You don’t have the time to hear my take.” I’ve also been paying attention to the internet’s latest discussion concerning Rob. So I want to answer that question and I want to give my two cents about the recent internet dialogue. Most importantly, I want to do so in a way that I hope someone would treat me were I in Rob’s shoes (understanding fully that I’m not famous, don’t want to be, and likely never will be).
The American evangelical machine, not unlike the American entertainment machine, has a way of making people famous and enabling us as the viewer to successfully remove the person from his or her fame. The fame becomes what we know. The person behind the fame is unknown. Now, much could be said about how some people promote themselves into such status: some people willingly or unwillingly allow the machine to promote them, and some maybe even fight the machine hoping to remain un-famous, but fail. To further complicate things, even if I, from a distance, tried to know the person behind the fame, that would be incredibly difficult because I’m not his or her friend or family; I’m an outsider making judgements about someone, no matter how it is that they became famous. This is dangerous on many levels.
Despite the danger, here I go.
My family and I visited Mars Hill Bible Church in August 2010 and May 2011. Both times we heard Rob preach. But what I will always remember about those visits isn’t the content of Rob’s sermons (as good as they were), it was the experience at MHBC, a church deeply influenced by Rob (he did, after all, start the ministry), his personality, and values. And I loved it.
I’ve visited several “famous” churches in the States. They all had several things in common: big shiny expensive spectacular buildings, book stores filled with the pastor’s writings/dvds/cds, their own curriculum for the world to purchase, and an aura of corporate America that always made me very uncomfortable. MHBC had none of that. Not one ounce of it. It was an old abandoned mall that was donated to the church when they outgrew the run-down warehouse in which they were meeting previously. It didn’t even have a sign out front. The thousands of people that walked into that building over the weekend were only greeted by a 3×10 inch sticker on the doors that said, “Mars Hill Bible Church.” Inside, well, it was an old abandoned mall with new carpet and paint. That’s it. The Sunday School classes were the old stores. And the large gathering space was what used to be a Zellers. In the middle of that space was a platform about 15’x15′. No big lights. No big show. Simple. In fact, the one thing that MHBC had that I never saw in any of those other churches was racks of Bibles at the start of every aisle for people to take to their seats and use during the service. And the service itself was as plain and simple as you could get. They didn’t even dim the lights.
And no book store. I couldn’t have bought an “I Love Rob Bell” t-shirt even if I wanted to. There was a welcome table in the foyer that consisted of a handful of different sheets of paper to tell you about what was happening at the church, but there was not one inch of that place dedicated to its pastor.
So there was this church of a few thousand people with their “superstar” pastor, and you’d have sworn that no one in that building knew any of that to be true. It was a breath of fresh air. Humility. A sense of their smallness in the grand scheme of things. And an even deeper sense, for me anyways, that something powerfully spiritual and meaningful was taking place within those walls and then out into the community. It was the only big church I’ve ever attended that felt small.
For these reasons, I have never bought into the idea that Rob is out to make a name for himself. It just doesn’t fit.
The second time we visited MHBC was only weeks after the release of Love Wins. Rob preached from 1 Corinthians and then led the congregation into communion. But it was evident that he was shattered — broken. He was visibly sad and came across beat up. He asked for care from his friends and asked that the church would break bread with him, symbolizing the care and compassion of Jesus in the midst of their community. Again, I felt a sense of authenticity and genuine desire for Jesus’ presence in and through the church that has therefore always made the caricature of Rob, suggested by his critics, sit uneasily with me. Liberals, if there are any true liberal Christians left, don’t live into resurrection.
Now Rob is working with Oprah. Not surprisingly this has come under fire. He toured with the likes of Deepak Chopra and has since been lumped into that camp. And now his new show is being slammed by some evangelicals for being a capitulation to culture, liberalism, the “empire,” new age philosophy; they say “he’s watering down the gospel”… and the list goes on. All this from the 30 second teaser that’s been out for the past few weeks.
These recent events have once again brought up the notion that Rob is a lone wolf, accountable to no one, somehow outside of the church, and dangerously making up his own religion as he goes along. I find this to be a complete misnomer. It’s true, responding to a question about which church he currently belongs to, he said, “We have a little tribe of friends…We have a group that we are journeying with. There’s no building. We’re churching all the time. It’s more of a verb for us.” But again, I find this to be a simple case of in-house bickering about vernacular. Is he a registered member of a denomination or community church? Not that I know of, and not that he’s making public. However, if you’re into Gungor or their project, The Liturgists, then you’ll notice that Rob seems to be a part of that “tribe.” (He also seems to be spending more time with Richard Rohr these days.) Now, you can critique these individuals all you want for their theology, but it seems to me like they’re living out a form of community. From what I know off them, I chose to believe that within that community are opportunities for accountability, discussion, critique, prayer, and Table. I’ve seen mega-churches do far worse.
So this, for me, is one of those moments when I can choose to believe the best in someone, based on my limited and very distant connection to that person, or I can decide to take a stand and publicly denounce this person and intentionally work against him or her, believing that this approach is somehow more beneficial for the cause to which I subscribe. I choose the former. Do I plan on directing people to Rob’s new show? No, not really. But I certainly won’t be blogging about the perils of watching it, because my hope isn’t with Rob Bell somehow using his stature and position to “save” or “rescue” Christianity from the grip of rampant secularism. I hope he uses his position well. I hope he helps people come to know the hope of Jesus Christ. I hope he helps people to see and realize that Christianity can handle intelligent conversion. I’m actually inclined to believe that he will, in fact, do those things. But whether he does or not, I’m a Christian. My hope for this world is in Jesus and his church, not in Rob Bell.
Though I would very much like to grab a cold beverage with him someday.