Rob Bell. The name instantly ignites polarizing emotions within churches and conversations. Some people LOVE him and have made pilgrimages to Mecca (Grand Rapids) to hear him speak on his own stage. Others DESPISE him for what is interpreted as misleading people from “historic-orthodox Christianity (is their one version of this?)”.
He’s had quite a year in the news. I’m actually surprised that he has received this much press, especially from the secular news media. However, I suppose the media thrives on controversy, so what is better than a young, hip pastor questioning the Evangelical Christian faith which the media loves to hate. I was more surprised to see the news of his departing from Mars Hill from secular sources. I imagine they’re connecting the dots in the sense of: Controversy=Resignation. Which may or may not actually be the case.
All we really know is what he’s written in his official statement that he’s decided that it’s time to leave Mars Hill for the purpose of writing and teaching to a broader audience. He’s starting that venture by moving to L.A. which I find to be a curious choice.
My most cynical self wants to make a statement like: “Gone are the days when pastors hear God calling them to live in pallid conditions to proclaim the good news to native tribesman who may or may not kill them. Now pastors are growing large churches and “hearing a call” to move to an affluent celebrity-saturated city and leave the difficulties of pastoral ministry to live off of royalties of books that without the weird spacing would amount to about a mid-length term paper.” Is that cynical enough for you?
My most understanding self wants to cut the guy a break. “Who KNOWS all that has led up to this decision and where it will lead. Who am I to judge his motives? What do I know about what God has in store for him? Any attempt to write on this is fairly speculative and will fall short and possibly even misrepresent what is going on.” Is that TOO gracious?
I’ll admit that maybe I’m over-thinking this, perhaps I’m misjudging his motives or being overly critical. But regardless, the feeling I’m left with in thinking about Rob Bell’s trajectory is disappointment. Why? Because the inherent message is the typical American dream mindset of I’m sure God wants me to be “reaching a wider audience”, “expanding my influence”, etc. And the assumption is, this is not possible WHILE being a pastor in a local church. Somehow either the church administration or association hinders the influence of this one individual.
(Which I think if Augustine teaches us anything it is that while he may have resented the burdensome amount of time that many of his pastoral and administrative tasks took, he was still able to write more works than you will ever read AND be quite influential).
In my more negative moments I speculate Rob Bell’s departure doing a few things:
- His leaving makes those who have faded from a local expression of church because it’s “hard” to be in community with such a diversity of people feel vindicated for their decision. In fact, it almost makes it virtuous. "We TOO have left our church to make God’s message of love known to a broader audience." (To which I would ask: “who are you telling about Jesus?”) It also remains to be seen how leaving Mars Hill will lead to him teaching to a wider audience.
- Rob Bell will continue to embrace his identity as a “celebrity preacher”, tour, write books, make lots of money and be a guest on Dancing with the Stars in 5 years (God forbid that show still exist). And ironically, those that are most judgmental of celebrity-ism, the misuse of wealth, and the lack of serving the poor in the church will still LOVE him.
- The motivation to reach a wider audience is a dangerous one at best. When musicians aim at this, it typically involves compromising musical integrity and putting out any number of songs you hear on popular radio. I would hate to see that same kind of compromise happen with Rob Bell’s theology and teaching (although some believe it to be too late for that). Obviously, controversial books sell and make A LOT of money. It’s a temptation for every pastor and writer to put out what is appealing to our modern sensibilities and tells us what we want to hear.
However, in my more optimistic, hopeful moments, this is where I hope it all leads:
- When Rob Bell moves to Los Angeles, he gets connected to a local church where he is committed to living his life of faith in community with other people. People he can serve, encourage, and challenge, and who will serve, encourage, and challenge him back. No one, even Rob Bell is beyond the need for community in terms of coming to maturity in Jesus.
- I also hope he continues to creatively teach people about Jesus. I have been personally encouraged and challenged by a number of Mp3’s and conference sermons from him in the past. I hope to continue to benefit from those.
- I would love to see Rob Bell write a book that is not founded and marketed on controversy, but is founded on solid and substantive theology and exegesis. He clearly has it in him, someone just needs to show him how to create footnotes to cite his work. :)
Some of you may be wondering, why does it matter what you want him to do? Honestly, it doesn’t. What this event does bring up is something of a much more personal nature as someone who is committed to the local church.
The question I am forced to ask myself is: What would I do if I had this same opportunity? (don’t laugh) If I was financially secure (due to book sales or anything else), would I continue to do ministry in the local church? Would I persevere through the difficult seasons and challenging people? Or would I head for greener pastures trading in the complexities and headaches of ministry for something more attractive and potentially less challenging? Devin Vaughn asks me these kinds of hypothetical questions ALL THE TIME. “If Deschutes Brewery offered you 150,000 dollars to come brew for them, would you give up ministry?” (As you can see, his hypotheticals rarely resemble reality). But he’s looking for my bottom dollar. He’s essentially asking, “How committed are you to this thing? How much do you believe in it?”
I would like to say that I would trust that Jesus is right; that His body comprised of odd-balls, sinners, addicts, children, saints and all the rest is worth investing and rooting myself in. I also know that I don’t always feel this way. Ask me this question on a Sunday afternoon after a particularly humbling morning, or after a particularly frustrating interaction and I may quite a different disposition (ask my wife).
But we do need to ask ourselves the question: Is participating in the local expression of church ‘worth it’? If we are seeking to be people who are growing in love, forgiveness, compassion, patience, kindness, etc. is there a context more fitted to do that than the local church? If everyone has a price, what is yours? When does church become too “hard” to be worth it? Or when does something else become too attractive to stick around? These are hard questions, but they’re helpful in gauging our own level of commitment to Jesus and His family. And if for nothing else, I believe these kinds of questions are worth another tiresome article on Rob Bell.