In case you’ve been living under a rock, Rob Bell is leaving Mars Hill Bible Church, which he founded, in Grandville, Michigan. He’s moving his family to California and developing a television show for ABC. Knowing Rob as I do (I don’t), I’m guessing he’s also working on a movie script, a tour, and probably a time machine. He’s a person of unique aptitudes. Thinking that he would stay indefinitely in a parish church situation is akin to thinking that Steve Jobs should have been the manager of an Apple Store.
Zach, a mutual friend of Rob and me (see, I’m only one degree of separation from Rob Bell!), has written a provocative post in the face of criticism that Bell’s departure has received from conservative Christian leaders like Mark Driscoll and Rick Warren. Zach writes,
In a nutshell, more conservative folks seem to be more skeptical when a successful, well-known pastor decided to leave their churches behind.
Then he continues,
Nowhere have I seen any prominent liberal voice object to Bell moving on. (If so please point me to it)
Well, I’ve got an answer for Zach:
Prominent liberal Christians aren’t objecting to Bell’s departure from parish ministry because they’ve never heard of Rob Bell.
On occasion, I speak to groups of mainline clergy (believe it or not, I don’t get evangelical invitations anymore). As is my wont, I drop Christian cultural references here and there when I speak. And it’s become clear to me that most mainline clergy have never heard of Rob Bell. They don’t know what the emerging church movement is. They don’t read Jesus Creed. In short, they are not familiar with anything evangelical, with the possible exception of pastors who appear on CNN, like Joel Osteen and Rick Warren.
Of course, some mainliners have heard of Rob, and maybe even read his book(s). But, as a whole, mainliners read the Christian Century, and they read their own denominational magazines, newsletters, and websites. They don’t read Christianity Today, where news of Bell’s departure was, ahem, big news.
If you don’t believe me, take a poll at your next denominational meeting: raise your hand if you can tell me the name of the church Rob Bell founded. I bet you’ll get about 25%.
In response to Zach, I would venture to say that if mainliners did know who Rob Bell is, they, too, would be unhappy about his departure. Even more than evangelicals, mainliners are committed to parish ministry — sometimes blindly so. I imagine that if someone they knew — like Adam Hamilton at Church of the Resurrection (UMC) in Kansas City — left his parish for Hollywood, there would be similar hand-wringing on the Christian Left.
The real tragedy about all of this is how large the rift has become between conservative and progressive Protestantism. Not that long ago, mainliners were looking to evangelicals like Bill Hybels for advice on planting and growing churches, and evangelicals were looking to mainliners for…um, well, nothing. But, as our country’s politics have become more polemicized, the two primary versions of American Protestantism have retrenched.