Rob Bell recently announced his decision to leave Mars Hill Bible Church, the congregation he founded and guided to mega-church status in Grandville, Michigan, to move his family to Los Angeles and pursue other interests. The church’s official statement said he would “devote his full energy to sharing the message of God’s love with a broader audience.” Like Brian McLaren before him, then, who left a local church to minister to a “global parish,” Bell was leaving the rhythms, burdens and constraints of church ministry for another way of shaping culture and communicating the gospel. Bell explained that he would continue to write and speak on national and international tours. “We serve a big God and none of this is shocking to him,” he said. “All we can do is embrace a future that is going to be brilliant.”
Now comes word that Bell is partnering with Carlton Cuse (maker of the great television series Lost) to produce a series that centers on a musician’s spiritual journey. From Deadline Hollywood:
Carlton Cuse has teamed with author/pastor Rob Bell for Stronger, a drama project with spiritual overtones, which has been sold to ABC via ABC Studios in a hefty script deal. Stronger, which the former Lost co-showrunner and the founder of Michigan’s Mars Hill Bible Church are co-writing and executive producing, revolves around Tom Stronger, a musician and teacher, and his spiritual journey as he becomes a benefactor and guide to others. Music is expected to be a big part of the show, which features autobiographical elements as Bell is a former musician and played with rock/gospel bands in the 1990s.
Lost, of course, famously ended inside a church. Apparently Cuse and Bell met at the 2011 Time 100 gala, where Bell was an honoree and Cuse was in attendance since he had been an honoree the previous year. They hit it off, and began to dream together.
Bell evokes strong feelings among supporters and detractors alike. The supporters will be thrilled to see Bell’s God-given creativity (whatever their theological merits, Bell’s Nooma videos are slick and gripping, and he’s an effective storyteller) given the largest possible platform. The emergent church movement (to which Bell is at least partly attached) has admirably emphasized the full employment of all our creativity and talents for the production of art and culture that communicates the love of God. As Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz has been turned into a movie, now Bell follows — and, really, outdoes Miller — with a series on one of America’s premiere television networks. Bell’s detractors may call his defenders sellouts, but it’s not that simple. C. S. Lewis was never a minister in a church, but he had a tremendous influence through what was, at the time, arguably still the preeminent medium (novels).
Detractors will feel that Bell’s vanity and pursuit of celebrity are getting the better of him, even if they won’t say that out loud. Instead they’ll speak of the way in which pastoring a church serves to humble us and keep us grounded and accountable. Bell’s defenders will accuse the detractors of jealousy, but — again — it’s not that simple. Once you’ve built a certain level of visibility, it’s not terribly difficult to parlay it into celebrity if you set aside your other responsibilities and say what people want you to say. Many pastors and writers who criticize Bell may be tempted to cast aside the burdens and strictures of church ministry, and to write books that create a sensation and say things the culture will celebrate, but they choose not to do so because of their convictions. If the culture celebrates their message, they believe, then their message cannot be the gospel of Christ, which is a scandal and a stumbling block to the world. So when they see another pastor doing what they might be tempted to do, it generates resentment and a good deal of righteous condemnation. Given where they’re coming from, I can understand that.
I have no insight into Bell’s spiritual pride or lack thereof, so I won’t speculate. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that — however mixed his motives might be, as all of our motives are — he genuinely wants to create redeeming culture and communicate the gospel in new and piercing and winsome ways. For Bell, this is an extraordinary opportunity to work in a new medium, and it must be very exciting. We often complain about the spiritual superficiality of network television; well, here’s someone trying to make a difference.
Still, there are reasons for concern. I’m not concerned with what Sarah Pulliam Bailey noted in Christianity Today: the trend of influential pastors leaving their congregations (like Francis Chan, Jim Belcher, and Brian McLaren) for less localized forms of ministry. What most concerns me has to do with Rob Bell, and with McLaren, but also with much more conservative figures like John Piper and C. J. Mahaney. I’m speaking of the evangelical megachurch pastor celebrity culture. It ranges across conservative and liberal, emergent and traditional, Reformed and Arminian — because the dangers to which it speaks are not the province of one or another theological tribe, but of all humankind, and especially homo religiosus.
Last year Piper stepped away from the pulpit from April to December, citing “several species of pride in my soul.” He called it a kind of “fasting from public ministry,” a “reality check” during which “there will be no ‘prideful sipping from the poisonous cup of international fame and notoriety.’” CJ Mahaney, builder of a megachurch and long the head of Sovereign Grace Ministries, has also withdrawn from public ministry as he has been accused of a number of faults. In a statement posted last July, he confesses to “various expressions of pride, unentreatability, deceit, sinful judgment and hypocrisy.” Many of the accusations against him revolve around the kind of spiritual pride and temptations that come from being, in essence, a celebrity pastor who has grown accustomed to something like adulation and unquestioning obedience.
Piper and Mahaney did not leave their churches for Hollywood; they confessed their sins and went on leave. Their theology is clearly different from that of Rob Bell and Brian McLaren and Donald Miller. Moreover, Bell and McLaren may not have spiritual pride to which they should confess. I have no way of knowing for certain. But I’m leery of the evangelical culture that idolizes the “rock stars” of the church world, and I would think that the temptations would be even stronger for the Bells and McLarens and Millers, who are celebrated not only within church circles but by secular society for putting forward a version of Christianity that the secular world finds less threatening and more appealing.
What is the temptation that corresponds to Christian celebrity? Spiritual pride. The temptation to believe that you’re so attuned to God, so much in line with God’s vision and purpose and work in the world, that your word is gospel and your heart is pure and you’ve no need for accountability or rebuke or correction. This is not a criticism of Rob Bell and his career decision. God bless him in his new venture. But I do think that this and recent events with other megachurch pastors presents us with an opportunity to reflect on a kind of pastor-celebrity-worship that permeates the evangelical subculture. When I go to the International Christian Retail Show, or to any number of conferences, or even to the local Christian bookstore, and see towering images of Christian celebrities in thoughtful, spiritually serious poses, promoting their books or endorsing a new Bible translations, I think we have cause for concern.
Or we have, at least, reason to pray. To pray for ourselves, that we might not be tempted the degree of our renown to be the measure of our faith or maturity. To pray for our culture, that we might remember the beauty of simplicity and humility and anonymity, the inestimable value of people who serve God and walk with Christ everyday without a single person noticing. And to pray for those Christian celebrities, who might be tempted to believe they’re too big for the mundane worries and problems of the local church, too insightful to be wrong, or too mature to be held accountable for sin.
In my experience, spiritual pride is the most insidious of all sins, because it takes what is most valuable (spiritual maturity or insight or leadership) and makes it sinful and selfish. Having come so far by grace, we are tempted again to trust in ourselves. And in a culture where megachurch pastors have so much sway, and so much power to represent the body of Christ in the world, the downfall of a pastor to spiritual pride can be immensely damaging.