Is Rob Bell Really Cynical About the Local Church?

Rob Bell photo by Kevin Syes

Last week, Rob Bell did a special book event at The Viper Room in Los Angeles, which was livestreamed online to 1,500+ viewers around the world. Bell’s publisher HarperOne put on the event to promote its re-release of Bell’s earlier books with new matching cover designs, as well as to announce that Bell’s next book What We Talk About When We Talk About God will be coming out in March 2013.

Bell spoke for over an hour and then engaged in Q&A with the live and online audience for another hour. Many of the questions for Bell had to do with local church ministry, and his answers drew both positive and negative responses from those listening/watching.

So, what exactly does this have to do with missional church? Well, keep in mind: Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which Bell and his wife Kristen (not to be confused with the actress of the same name) founded together in 1999, was one of the first to use the language of “missional communities” for its model.

Rob Bell Still Painting Livestream photo by Greg StevensOne online viewer @KeithMDavenport tweeted, “#RobBell is really talking about the Missio Dei and the fact that all Christians are participants in God’s redemptive work.”

However, another person following the #RobBell tweetstream (as it started “trending” worldwide), @DavidUrzi tweeted, “Reading these tweets about what #RobBell is saying show me how cynical & disgruntled he is about the local Church.”

So what exactly did Rob Bell say that elicited these two very opposite reactions?

Here are some of the top tweeted church ministry-related quotes from Rob Bell’s “Still Painting” talk last week:

  • “Whenever you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing, that’s holy ground.” (via @PastorMelissa)
  • “There is always someone better, so you have to find your move and do your thing.” (via @PaulDazet)
  • “Being a spectator is actually a sport in our culture.” (via @3grd)
  • “There is a higher intention for humanity … that we would give, serve, connect, create, poured out … so others can find life.” (via @PastorMelissa)
  • “The really warped thing is when the church is where secrets are kept and not unloaded.” (via @BrandyGlows)
  • “Some churches become shadow managers … Where we pick what shadows to focus on instead of our own.” (via @PastorMelissa)
  • “If you want to know what a church should look like, go to an AA meeting.” (via @KeithMDavenport)
  • “The only models for church leaders is work, work, work & die … That doesn’t work.” (via @PastorMelissa)
  • “The Jesus message is bigger than any doctrine, dogma, or denomination.” (via @PastorMelissa)
  • “The clergy/laity system is tragic to the church — all ground is holy, all tasks are sacred.” (via @PaulDazet)
  • “What Jesus does is destroy temples.” (via @PastorMelissa)
  • “Undo the so-called sacred/secular dichotomy. We are all ministers in the space we are in.” (via @TravisKeller)
What do you think about what Rob Bell said? To get the quotes in context, watch the whole replay of “Still Painting” currently looping on Livestream:

Check out my full curation of “Still Painting” tweets, links, photos, and videos!

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  • Zach Hoag

    I watched the event live, and I wasn’t super bothered by the “all of life is sacred” type comments, but as someone who loves the church, I think his answer to the “Where do you go to church now?” question at the end was a major bummer. He treated that question flippantly (no doubt, he was put on the spot), and basically indicated that commitment to a community of faith is not that important for him or his family.

    I understand that he may be on an extended sabbatical of sorts, but I’m worried that’s not the case. I’m kind of worried that Rob has left the local church behind completely, simply because it’s no longer his main profession. Does anyone have any info to the contrary?

    • Steve Knight

      Zach, from what I recall, he said that he regularly attends a church where he can slip in the back and sit with a group of people who have no idea who he is and don’t care, and that he didn’t want to reveal the name or location of the church because he didn’t want a bunch of Rob Bell faniacs showing up there and ruining it. How is that lacking “commitment to a community of faith”? Because he hasn’t “joined”/become a member of the church??

      • Zach Hoag

        My take was that he was clearly saying he is not a “part” of a church – that he is (presumably solo) attending a Sunday service every now and then. I’m not trying to read too much into it, but as a pastor, I’m worried that there is a trajectory away from the centrality of the local church (which seemed to be his mission at Mars Hill for some years). I’d be bummed if Rob becomes a spiritual guru/entertainer with no substantial connection to the heart of God in the ecclesia. And, if missional means anything, it means that the (local) ecclesia is the mission of God, and the ecclesia has no mission but the missio Dei.

        To be clear, though, I was massively encouraged by his talk, and I’m a fan of Rob’s.

  • dsrtrosy

    Having been caught in the ministry position tweeted about above, that most churches think ““The only models for church leaders is work, work, work & die”, I have no problem if he needs a break from “church”. Ultimately, what building he walks into on Sunday, if any, is meaningless. Completely meaningless. Purely from my perspective of having been where he is now, it sounds in my ears as if he just needs a break. I don’t think it has a single thing do with with what his “profession” is. In fact, that seems to be the heart of the problem–churches expect people with a call to turn that into a “profession” and it DOESN’T work, as he clearly pointed out.

  • iMentieth

    I think what’s crucial is not whether he goes to a church on a Sunday morning.Rather, does he belong to a community into which he is pouring the love of Jesus? Are we? If that’s a local church (in the normally recognized sense) that spills over, where the love flows out under the doors (cf. Ezekiel) or it’s just home-brewing beer with neighbors. I agree there is value in having Christian friends and connection to sort of providea space where you don’t have to give too much, and can just relax.So maybe a coffee with friends or something too.

  • cmacmillan

    It would be a rather abrupt switch in his message to discount the local church, and as yet, I haven’t detected any shifts in what his message has been. He’s always encouraged people to be part of a local community where God’s healing and redemption can take place (I think it likely tough for someone in his position to join a local church – think of the pressure on the pastor!) I do think that he encourages people to re-think what those communities can be and this puts pressure on local churches to look at themselves and ask whether they really are places of healing and redemption….all good, in my view.

    • Steve Knight

      I agree, cmacmillan!

  • Mark G

    If those quotes make Bell a cynical about local church, then I guess I qualify as well… What I have learned over the past 10 years or so though is that if you even make a suggestion about local church perhaps not living up to the intentions God had for it, you’ll be lambasted as a cynic.

  • John

    I know for a fact that he and his family are regular attenders at a church and that his kids are involved in their programs. Like was mentioned above, he loves sitting in the church and being a nobody.

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