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This kind of adoration is exhibited not only by young people, but also by a legion of older followers who see him as a gifted communicator of a message that moved them. One online reviewer described Bell's Drop Like the Stars Tour Film on Amazon: "The idea that a person could essentially preach a two hour sermon, hold the attention of those participating the entire time, make people laugh, make people cry, have them do something during the interaction that not only heals those who are present, but also does some good for a group of people in need, and then records it so that other people can witness what happened during a two hour gathering is ludicrous. And yet, Bell doesn't even look like he's trying. He pulls it off with the same grace and humility we have come to expect from him."
A thirty-year-old volunteer at Mars Hill who had tried out a different churches explained her experience to me like this: "I was looking for a form of Christianity that is real, gritty, and matches the experience of my life—and I found what I was looking for here. We talk about the issues that we all face here and how faith makes a difference; it's real, it's powerful and it gives me hope for the church."
These powerful reactions to Bell don't come only from his own "tribe" of evangelicals. A progressive Episcopalian priest who has one of the fastest-growing churches in his diocese explained, "I was searching for some good, honest, progressive media to use with adolescents as we tried to forge a spirituality of sexuality. I found one of his short films—from his Nooma series—where he talks about sex, the Bible, his own passions, and then pours gasoline on a pile of old timber the size of a house and strikes a match. I came to see that Rob had a pastor's heart of compassion, and an incisive mind that seemed hungry to search beyond the first answer to the questions he was asking. Still, here's the best part: the kids in my high school youth group, when they saw that first Bell film, they 'got it.' "
The love, devotion, and controversy that Rob Bell evokes shows from the sales of his books and films, and also from the popularity of his sermon podcasts (with 40,000 to 55,000 downloads per week while at Mars Hill). Bell strikes a chord.
What makes Bell so attractive? Many pastors and leaders want to create this kind of devotion. Some of the criticism of Bell is based, at least in part, on envy of his ability to attract an audience. What is this "charismatic bond" between Bell and his listeners?
While attendees of megachurches often say that the pastor is not the reason they attend, there is little doubt that these "energy stars" attract and create a fusion of joy, delight, and motivation that create congregations that glow with what they call the "spirit" of God. My interest in the work of Rob Bell stemmed from my work as a sociologist; I know that skilled leaders generate a collective effervescence that buoys groups and charges crowds with a kind of delirium that humans want-and even need. This can happen in any group, but not every leader can produce this kind of multisensory mélange of input that is often called the "feeling of the spirit of God," or "the touch of God." Whatever language you use to describe it, I've seen it lift people out of their seats.
Despite his popularity, Bell's rock star persona repulses many people. Outsiders, particularly those from non-religious backgrounds, find it manipulative or dangerous. Others, including those in the evangelical community, and particularly in response to Love Wins, have thrown him overboard. John Piper, the godfather of the neo-Reformed movement in American evangelical Christianity, tweeted, "Farewell Rob Bell," which he later said was meant as a friendly remark. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, called Bell's views on hell an "unscriptural sentimentalism . . . incompatible with [God's] hatred of sin." And book after book have detailed Bell's heretical ways.