Pastor Rob Bell Rises in Popularity

Most Christians who’ve heard of him will be surprised that that’s even possible anymore.

Rob Bell, the pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan, has a two page spread in the latest issue of Time magazine.

(Rob also wrote the excellent foreword for I Sold My Soul on eBay.)

Even as an atheist who disagrees with many of his core beliefs, I’m still willing to lend an ear to just about anyone who can effectively promote an anti-Religious-Right form of Christianity. And right now, he’s the best person out there at doing that.

If more Christians followed Rob (and people like him) rather than most of the other Christian “leaders” in the spotlight, the focus of much of the collective atheist anger would change. There would at least be less overlap between religion and politics.

Polling by the evangelically oriented Barna research group shows that at least half of regular churchgoers ages 16 to 29 think their church is too judgmental, too political and too negative about homosexuality…

Bell, 37, is guilty of none of the negatives. He is largely apolitical, thinks that only those with gay friends are positioned to judge homosexuality–and he tinkers marvelously.

Check out the article as well as what he said during his latest book tour for Sex God.


[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

  • http://nogodsallowed.wordpress.com cg

    I have mixed feelings about Rob Bell. Having lived in Grandville for a few years, I attended Mars Hill and ate up every word during my Christian days. Now as an atheist, I periodically download mp3′s of his sermons, and it’s fascinating just how much fluff goes into them.

    On the one hand, I applaud the newer brand of Christianity he’s selling, only because it is in stark contrast to fundamentalism and it seems to make those fundies all queezy. But on the other hand, having listened to a lot of his sermons, I realize that when it comes down to it, he’s a performer plain and simple. He has a way of story-telling that is more about feel-good living and helping others rather than militaristic evangelicalism. In all honesty, his teachings remind me of the ol’ serpent in the garden with his soothing, slippery tongue. It’s such an eye opening experience to see his performance for what it’s worth after having been held captive by it in my earlier days.

    An agnostic friend of mine comically refers to it as the hippy church.

  • http://www.apprising.org Ken Silva

    “He has a way of story-telling that is more about feel-good living and helping others… It’s such an eye opening experience to see his performance for what it’s worth…”

    From studying Rob Bell’s ministry for three years now that would sum up what I have found. No doubt Bell is a tremendous performer/story-teller, but the comment, “his teachings remind me of the ol’ serpent in the garden” is the heart of what is wrong from a Christian standpoint.

  • Jen

    Is Mars Hill a brand of churches found throughout the US? Is Rob Bell at all related to Mark Driscoll, the guy that thinks that in-the-closet Republicans wouldn’t cheat on their wives if they didn’t get fat after childbirth?

  • monkeymind

    Jen, this confuses me too. Maybe it’s his evil twin? Good cop/bad cop?

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    Wow, did Ken Silva just agree with an atheist? Did it just snow in Hell or something?

    Proof that us emerging church folks are now getting hit from both sides. :)

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    Is Mars Hill a brand of churches found throughout the US? Is Rob Bell at all related to Mark Driscoll, the guy that thinks that in-the-closet Republicans wouldn’t cheat on their wives if they didn’t get fat after childbirth?

    Nope, no relation at all. They are two very different and completely unconnected churches. Rob Bell’s Mars Hill in Michigan is radically different than Driscoll’s Mars Hill in Seattle. In fact, Driscoll just recently publically accused Bell of being a heretic.

  • Arlen

    While I admittedly know nothing about Rob Bell, it seems to me that focusing on “helping others rather than militaristic evangelicalism” is exactly what a Christian should preach. That’s pretty much the moral of the story of all of Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees in the New Testament. Am I hearing cg and Ken Silva correctly? Do they really disagree with that?

    A focus on style over substance in sermons is pretty much the gold standard in most evangelical communities, especially in the non-denominational mega-churches. I’ve heard people refer to this practice as having faith “a mile wide but only an inch deep.” While this complaint may be valid when leveled against Bell (I don’t know), it certainly wouldn’t make him unique.

  • http://www.apprising.org Ken Silva

    Arlen,

    Obviously I can’t speak for cg, and I not an atheist, but from the standpoint of the historic orthdox Christian faith Rob Bell’s problem begins with his higher critical approach to (at least) the Old Testament and with his neo-liberal approach to the text of Scripture overall.

    I’m not trying to “convince” anyone here; however, if you want to know where his drift from orthdoxy begins you can read this:

    Rob Bell and Karl Barth

    And in my opinion, as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ myself for 20 years now, this is dead on target: “A focus on style over substance in sermons is pretty much the gold standard in most evangelical communities, especially in the non-denominational mega-churches.”

    This is true, and you can trace it back to what’s known as the Church Growth Movement, which essentially begins at Fuller Seminary in the early ’70′s. Interestingly enough, Rick Warren’s doctorate is from Fuller, as is Rob Bell’s Masters.

    And you said: “While this complaint may be valid when leveled against Bell (I don’t know), it certainly wouldn’t make him unique.” It is valid with Bell because he is kind of in the middle.

    His is a hybrid of a new evangelical megachurch with very heavy leanings toward the new version of the old social gospel of liberal theology, which is what make Bell so popular in the emerging church as well.

  • http://www.apprising.org Ken Silva

    “Wow, did Ken Silva just agree with an atheist?” I agree with anyone who is correct. :-)

    “Did it just snow in Hell or something?” Mike, Ooh you better not let your friend Doug Pagitt hear you talk that platonic dualism about Hell. ;-)

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    Just an expression Ken… I also considered looking out my window for any flying pigs, or checking the paper to see if the Cubs had actually won the World Series. ;)

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    cg, your experience is interesting to me. I am also one who listens to Rob’s sermons on a regular basis (via the podcast) and still eat them up. While yes, he does have a very entertaining and engaging style, I haven’t found them to be lacking in substance. I guess having read some of the same theologians as Rob (NT Wright for example) I know the depth of scholarship that he is referencing in his sermons. I suspect the average person might not pick up on all these connections, but they are there. And actually that is what I respect about Rob – he has this ability to take deep theology, history, culture, and ancient languages, and somehow make them accessible, and interesting and relevant to the everyday lives of his community. And after all, that’s exactly what a teaching pastor is supposed to do, that’s our job. :)

    But I am curious as to what you find lacking in them now. Do you think you’d feel differently if you still shared the same religious beliefs as Rob – i.e. is it not as meaningful to you anymore because you are an atheist – or is it something else? Just wondering.

    Peace

  • http://www.apprising.org Ken Silva

    I do realize that Mike, and my Red Sox happen to hold that distinction again this year. How ’bout that… :-)

  • http://nogodsallowed.wordpress.com cg

    Arlen – “helping others rather than militaristic evangelicalism” is exactly what a Christian should preach. That’s pretty much the moral of the story of all of Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees in the New Testament. Am I hearing cg and Ken Silva correctly?

    I would agree with your interpretation Arlen, and I wish that more sects of Christianity were focussed on helping rather than converting. Sadly, there are so many interpretations that lead to dogmatic and conversion-based Christianity which lose out of such focus that they’ve all left a sour taste in my mouth. Rob Bell’s church is refreshing amidst the sea of fundies. I guess if we have to be stuck with megachurches, this kind has my vote because of the greater good exuded :)

    Let me also try to clarify my other statement about the lack-of-substance I see in his sermons. MikeClawson, You make a good point – I most definitely would have a very different opinion if I were still a Christian. I don’t doubt that I would still be captivated by his sermons. You are most correct when you mention his strong theological background – that’s something in which I see little added benefit. I’m no student of theology, but he seems to make a habit of tying in ancient Judaism and obscure church history into compelling arguments for the points he makes.

    I concede that to someone wholly devoted to theology and Christianity, these tie-ins would strengthen the foundation of their belief. But to an ex-Christian like myself, I see the foundation of such beliefs thoroughly flawed and tedious. When I hear him preach on loosing and binding new rules or beliefs based on practices of ancient Rabbinical teachings, I can’t help but think in my mind the fact that such rules were entirely man-made and not divinely inspired, so why waste time on trying to interpret them? Dump the exclusive-desert-cult traditions and come up with a new and better set of rules and beliefs! Of course, in a way, that’s what loosing and binding is, as you’ll probably point out Mike? :)

    So how does this tie in with me thinking that his sermons contain a bunch of fluff, when a lot of it involves perpetuating ancient theologies into a modern world? It’s the audience’s ingestion of the message (or at least my perception of). The majority of them aren’t there to learn about how the ancient Jews had everything right from the get go and it just needs tweaking now and then. The audience is there to bathe in the spirituality induced by the singing and the band and the down-to-earth nature of Rob and his message. The vast majority know nothing about ancient theology, and because he’s a so-called teaching pastor, they revel in the knowledge that he probably knows what he’s talking about. That’s good enough for them.

    So as I’m writing this, I concede that in the Christian’s mind, it might not be so much Rob’s message that is fluff – Rather, the fact that most everyone is there for the spiritual high and has no idea how to internalize the scattering’s of ancient customs and traditions other than to leave feeling good and wiser. But my opinion as an atheist still stands, that I believe most of the teachings to be an indefinite perpetuation of tribal superstitions mixed with a tablespoon of guilt and a gallon of we’re-all-ok, with an increasing dose of humanity focused aid.

    It’s been a few months since I’ve last listened to his sermon-casts. I think I’ll have to go check out a few again, my curiosity is piqued. I’m not sure if I’ve strengthened or shattered my original posting :)

  • Tony

    CG,

    I think you might just be a follower of Christ still!!!!! For you to give a rip as to how on target or evangelical his talks are you must not be the atheist you claim to be.

    Or maybe the fact that as an atheist you are believing in something…you want to make sure what you believe is true. So if you can point to Christ followers and their imperfections then maybe what you believe can be true? Just a thought, But please know this, you may claim to no belief in God, but you DO have faith in something!!!

    I dig Rob’s style because his desire is to learn of Jesus and teach others His ways, and not the ways of a church full of broken people and broken promises!! AS a church we have one mandate and that is to live as Christ in the world, period. And I think Rob’s desire is to find out what that means and teach others appropriately!

    Thanks
    Peace
    Tony

  • http://nogodsallowed.wordpress.com cg

    Tony,

    Easy there tiger, there’s a big difference between reevaluating my opinions and being a superstitious follower of Christ. I can still put on the goggles to see what the world looks like through the eyes of a Christian, but I’m afraid I wear them only temporarily.

    I have several Christian friends who harbor a nonsexual lust for Rob and I can understand why. I used to be under the same spell. I respect him for the physical good towards humanity he promotes in the here-and-now, but his promotion of Christ affects me with the same veracity as ancient Greek mythology. After listening to a few more of his sermons since my last posting, I still feel he’s overdoing it in the acting department during his sermons. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

    But if that’s what some people need to be driven towards helping humankind, then let them have it.

    PS – I hope you do realize that there’s a big difference between atheism and nihilism!

  • Brian

    I just moved from Grand Rapids, Mi where I attended Mars Hill. My family and I enjoyed how he related Jesus’ life to us and how we should live as Jesus did. We just moved to Minneapolis, MN and was wondering if anyone out there knew of a teacher that had a similar style as Rob in the twin cities. Any ideas would be terrific!! Thanks in advance!!

  • http://www.apprising.org Ken Silva

    Brian,

    I’d recommend Twin City Fellowship, the church where my friend Bob DeWaay is pastor.


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