I met Rob Bell and his core team just a few weeks after his phenomenally successful church Mars Hill Bible Church was launched in 1999. Educated, earnest, and entertaining, Rob brings to his pastorate a consummate skill of consistently speaking a clear and compelling message every time he stands up.
Mars Hill was born in a defunk-urban-mall-turned-big-box-megaspace in Grandville, Michigan, just outside of Grand Rapids. This is Rob's home base. It's one of the ugliest church buildings that also happens to be one of the most active and innovative in the country.
From the article:
After nine years Mars Hill now has 11,000 worshipers, but it still meets in the shopping mall where Bell began holding worship services in 1999. Everything inside and outside the building has a warehouse functionality; it's practical, spacious and ugly.
[Bell's] geeky, affable presence and energized speaking style warm up the room quickly and signal a seasoned performer. After you hear Bell speak, it's not surprising to learn that his childhood hero was David Letterman
He says Letterman isn't a bad example for pastors, since he's been on television every night for 20 years, engaging the culture. "What's my job again?" says Bell. "To engage our culture!"
His NOOMA videos [many available on YouTube] have sold 1.2 million copies in 80 countries (NOOMA is a phonetic spelling of the Greek pneuma, or "spirit"). In 2007-2008 he visited 22 cities as part of "The Gods Aren't Angry" tour.
What is Bell doing to earn so much attention? For one thing, he can preach. As Bell warms up a congregation or audience to hear "the truth of the text," he drops jokes based on pop music, references to favorite cheap wines or the quirks of cell phone technology, a mainstay of the 20-somethings among his listeners. In his sermons, he prepares the congregation by announcing that he'll be teaching for 80 minutes. (Some of the visitors thought that he must be kidding. He wasn't.)
On the Sunday I visited, the 80-minute teaching sermon provided a base for on-the-ground ministry. Bell included a strong critique of Christians who, he said, proselytized in Rwanda, saved souls and then took off. These missionaries were wrong to tell people that "if they were saved they'd go to heaven when they died," he said, for it led to a devaluation of life on earth and possibly smoothed the path for the country's genocide of 1994. A Left Behind theology is an "evacuation theology," warned Bell. It is lethal to believe that one can live apart from the world in some kind of "spiritual neverland."
Image by el clinto via FlickrBell's video audience, like the people who come to hear him at Mars Hill, tend to have been raised in evangelical churches, and many are graduates of evangelical colleges. They are restless with the Christianity they've inherited and come to Mars Hill eager to hear someone who knows their tradition and claims core truths of the faith, yet challenges other givens.
Bell challenges those who insist on a literal approach to scripture and believes people can get caught up in the details of the text instead of plumbing the meaning of a passage. When he thinks aloud with his listeners, he carefully paraphrases some passages and avoids technical words and doctrinal terms. Sermon topics often focus on the basics of outreach: how to be a neighbor; how to be a church.
The church clearly expects members to get involved in ministry. Here are words from the mission statement: "We have the opportunity to make a difference. That's why we leverage both our resources and our selves in pursuit of tangible results."