Appealing to the
post-modern approach to teaching the Bible attracts
millions worldwide through DVDs, books, podcasts
and live sermons.
suggested that he could have the potential to become
the heir to the Rev. Billy Graham. But his message
and style also have prompted criticism from other
To the thousands
of West Michiganders who attend the weekly gatherings
at his Mars Hill Bible Church, Rob Bell simply
provides a little inspiration, a little hope and
a little love.
Photography by Johnny Quirin
If things had turned
out a little differently, Rob Bell might have been
a rock star.
Instead, if there’s
such a thing as a rock star preacher, he’s
rapidly becoming one.
Bell is a major draw for many of the thousands
of Christians from various denominations around
West Michigan who attend Sunday gatherings at Mars
Hill Bible Church in Grandville.
His teachings in the short film format he calls
NOOMA (from the Greek word “pneuma,” meaning “spirit”)
have been viewed by more than 30 million people
in 80 countries. As of January 2008, his first
two books — “Velvet Elvis: Repainting
the Christian Faith” (Zondervan, 2005) and “Sex
God: Exploring the Endless Connections Between
Sexuality and Spirituality” (Zondervan, 2007) — have
sold more than half a million copies combined.
His speaking tours have sold out theaters and nightclubs
across the U.S. and the U.K.
But as Bell explains in “Velvet Elvis,” he
really just stumbled into this gig.
While Bell was still an undergraduate student
at Wheaton College (Illinois) around 1990, he took
on the role of singer/yeller — his words
to describe his contributions — in a band
called “ _ton bundle.” The band enjoyed
a strong regional following, but just when it seemed
broader success was eminent, Bell contracted viral
meningitis. As a result, _ton bundle had to cancel
a couple of high-profile gigs. They never got another
break, and the band broke up.
Bell was not sure what to do next. He spent summers
at Wheaton teaching water skiing at the college’s
HoneyRock Camp. One summer, he filled in for the
preacher and delivered a sermon to the camp’s
counselors. After that, people began encouraging
him to enter the seminary. He moved to Pasadena,
Calif., where he earned his Master of Divinity
from Fuller Theological Seminary.
While he was in college, Bell’s parents
had relocated to Grand Rapids from the Lansing
area (Bell grew up in Okemos). Rob’s father,
Judge Robert Holmes Bell, had been appointed by
President Ronald Reagan to serve on the United
States District Court for the Western District
Rob met Edward Dobson, former pastor of Calvary
Church in Grand Rapids, while in town visiting
his parents. Dobson invited Rob to come to Grand
Rapids for a mentorship after he finished seminary.
In 1995, Rob and his wife, Kristen, moved here
and Rob became an assistant pastor at Calvary.
In that role, he took on the responsibility for
the church’s popular youth-oriented Saturday
West Michigan had no shortage
of churches in 1999 when Bell broke away — with
Calvary’s blessing — to become the
founding pastor for the new faith community of
Mars Hill Bible Church. In a region known for
its plentitude of Christian places of worship,
Bell’s new church might easily have gotten
lost in the crowd.
Instead, over the past nine years, attendance
at the church’s three Sunday gatherings has
grown to more than 11,000 worshipers. Mars Hill
has become one of the fastest-growing and most
influential churches in the U.S., according to
the Web site www.churchreport.com.
When Bell, then 28, formed Mars Hill with Kristen
and a group of friends, he might easily have gotten
lost in a crowd himself — if the crowd were,
say, at a rock concert. Today, at age 37, Bell
still would be less conspicuous in his indie rocker
glasses browsing through CDs at Vertigo Music than
attending a pastor’s conference — if
he attended such conferences. The man whom Time
Magazine’s Dec. 6, 2007, issue called “The
Hipper-Than-Thou Pastor” doesn’t find
the discussions taking place at such conferences
“I’m more interested in the new Radiohead
album,” he quipped.
That is not to imply that Bell is not interested in contemporary Christianity — just
not the version of it that is frozen in time.
“Some things have always been true,” Bell
explained. “And there’s this tension
between these things that have always been true — this
deep stream that has always been flowing — and
today’s world. …
“For some, the new world and all of its
change and ambiguity, their response has been simply
to retreat, or to stay entrenched. ‘This
worked for my parents.’ Or ‘This worked
for dead guys in Europe 500 years ago.’ So
their response is to stand on the banks of that
stream and say, ‘See this stream? This is
the stream that’s always been flowing. Just
This point of view does open up the floor for
debate on all sorts of touchy subjects among Christians,
but it’s a discussion worth having, according
to Bell. In “Velvet Elvis,” he explores
these ideas in depth, contrasting his view of Christianity
as continually reforming with that of what he calls “brickworld,” which
views Christianity as fixed and unquestioning.
You can imagine the response from the most conservative
corners of Fundamentalism.
“If people think you’re messing with
whatever sacred stones they’ve piled up on
top of one another — whether it’s God,
Jesus, Bible, heaven, hell, salvation, judgment — if
they think you’re messing with those, people
who follow the Jesus of peace and love can get
very unpeaceful and unloving … ” Bell
said. “They talk about faith, when it’s
Cultural relevance is
important to Bell — not only for
the teachings he delivers at Mars Hill on Sundays,
but especially in his writings and other projects.
The best example is NOOMA, a short 10- to 15-minute
film format that explores the spiritual dimension
of everyday issues through a mix of Rob Bell monologue
with visual metaphor and music. The format was
conceived as a response to requests from members
of Mars Hill who wanted to pass on Bell’s
teachings to friends outside West Michigan.
“Some people around here were like, ‘These
experiences that we’re all having, you have
to find a way to capture these, because not everybody
can be in Grand Rapids on a Sunday,’” Bell
explained. “So we just formed a nonprofit
group and turned some people loose to figure it
The nonprofit group known as Flannel produces
the NOOMAs out of an office in downtown Grand Rapids.
It has no official affiliation with Mars Hill.
Like Bell’s books, DVD copies of the NOOMAs
are distributed through Zondervan. They’re
also sold directly at www.nooma.com. Many of the
films are shot locally, but some are filmed in
Chicago. “NOOMA 017 Today” and “NOOMA
018 Name” were filmed near Jacksonville,
Overall, the productions are very polished, but
according to the Grand Rapids-based filmmaker who
directs them, the films’ artistry is meant
to serve their higher purpose.
“It’s not about making these products;
it’s not about making these films and making
these films great,” Santino Stoner said. “It’s
an invitation to start a conversation.
“It’s not meant to say, ‘This
is your perspective on this topic and you should
view it this way.’ Or, ‘This is what
Rob Bell thinks.’ It’s meant to start
a conversation across the glass — be it your
TV or your iPod or your computer screen — wherever
it is you might see it.”
The NOOMA style — a bespectacled man riffing
on a particular issue over music and shots of seemingly
unrelated visuals — has been parodied, both
lovingly and not-so-lovingly, by fans and critics
alike. Dozens of NOOMA-esque videos can be found
on www.youtube.com, along with snippets of the
Zondervan planned to release the latest NOOMA — “NOOMA
019 Open”— on DVD March 1. Next, the
company will roll out Bell’s third book this
summer: an ambitious exploration of war, oil, poverty
and empire titled “Jesus Wants to Save Christians.” According
to Bell, the fundamental premise of the book looks
at the Bible from the perspective of persecuted
minorities who are under the thumb of global military
superpowers — basically, the historical perspective
of Bible authors.
“Jesus is a Middle Eastern man living in
an occupied country who is crucified by the global
military superpower of his day,” Bell explained. “So
when you are a citizen of the lone global military
superpower of your day, which is occupying a small
Middle Eastern country, there’s a chance
you could really muck that up.
“So if you are citizen of the wealthiest
empire in the history of humanity … there’s
a chance in reading the Bible that you might miss
some of its big themes. Because when it talks about ‘people
who trust in chariots,’ for the scriptural
writers, they’re talking about us.
“The idea in our culture that a lot of Christians
are known as this sort of belligerent, power-hungry,
religious right is not what Jesus had in mind.
It’s anti-Jesus. He came to set people free
from all of those illusions and oppressions. So
that’s what the book explores.”
Bell doesn’t mind ruffling
a few feathers, but for him, it’s not about
It’s not about becoming a rock star preacher,
“This path beat my ego to a pulp a long
time ago,” Bell said. “I mean, I started
out like everybody else — ‘You’re
going to conquer the world and you’re going
to be awesome and people are going to be blown
away.’ Then you get the crap beaten out of
you because of criticism and exhaustion and people
don’t get it. But this brings me great joy,
and if it brings others great joy, wonderful.
“And if they don’t care and don’t
listen, that’s fine.”
But people are listening. Beyond the books and
the NOOMAs and the growth of Mars Hill, Bell also
is reaching tens of thousands of listeners weekly
by podcasting his sermons on the Mars Hill Web
Critics might argue with points of his theology,
but few would deny the power of Bell’s appeal.
He brings the same casual, approachable coolness
to the pulpit that he would one-on-one were you
to meet up with him for coffee, though the services
include traditions such as communion (sometimes
referred to by Bell as mass or Eucharist).
Stylistically, Bell’s sermons are thoroughly
engaging. They’re often peppered with witty,
sometimes self-effacing humor — and a memorable
spectacle is not out of the question. To Bell,
preaching was the first form of guerrilla theater.
Live goats, fire, piles of dirt — all par
for the course as visual aids in a standard Mars
Hill teaching series.
“Sermon is like this ancient art form,” Bell
explained. “I mean, the prophets were the
original performance artists. And think about famous
sermons in history — from women’s rights
to the freeing of slaves — sermon was an
event. It was a happening. You didn’t know
what was going to come out. And you might agree
or disagree, but it was going to be something.
And for many people in our culture today, sermon
is something to be endured.
“So, like, when people come here this Sunday,
it begins with the Bible but it’s meant to
get unleashed: redemption, grace, hope, help for
people who are suffering.”
The Mars Hill community is converting Bell’s
message into action. Service projects focus on
the needs of individuals in West Michigan as well
as those who are in need around the world.
Locally, the Mars Hill community works with Habitat
for Humanity and the Coalition to End Homelessness
to increase the availability of affordable housing
in West Michigan. The church teams with Grand Rapids
Opportunities for Women and the Women’s Resource
Center to provide more economic opportunities.
Beyond its own backyard, Mars Hill partners with
the Turame microfinance program in Burundi in East
Africa. Similar to the work of 2006 Nobel Peace
Prize winner Muhammad Yunus’ Grameen Bank
in Bangladesh, the Turame program provides small
loans to individuals in order to give people in
the world’s poorest economy a chance to help
With the Rob Bell multimedia
experience unleashing his teachings well beyond
the renovated Grandville mall that Mars Hill calls
home, Bell’s commitment to his family and
his church’s congregation helps keep him
When asked about keeping a balance in his life,
Bell contends: “I only do a couple of things.”
During the week, he walks his sons — ages
7 and 9 — to school. Every day.
He spends his mornings at home working on “the
next idea,” whether that is a Sunday teaching
series or a script for the next NOOMA. He usually
spends his afternoons at the church, but he makes
a point to go home at 5 p.m. to be with his family.
He spends Fridays with Kristen, and on Saturdays — their
family Sabbath — the couple does whatever
the boys think would be the most fun.
“My wife and I are really, really intentional
about having a life,” Bell said. “This
thing did almost kill me in the past, because there’s
so much to do. You just end up going all the time.
And because it’s like — whatever you
want to say — ‘God’s work’ or
church or ministry, people use that to excuse what
would normally be called dysfunction or workaholism.
I mean, how many pastors’ kids do you know
who are really, really screwed up?
“My boys don’t care what I’m
doing. They don’t care how big the church
is or who reads my books. They just don’t
care. It’s like, ‘Are we going skateboarding
And Bell claims the Mars Hill community is with
“I don’t think a lot of them have
any clue what I’m up to,” Bell said. “They’re
like, ‘You’re Rob. C’mon. Who
are we kidding? You’re a pastor from Grand
Bell claims there hasn’t been any star power
generated within his church community from the
increasingly national profile of its teaching pastor — including
the June 4, 2006, article in the Chicago Sun-Times
that heralded him as the next Billy Graham. Graham,
a fellow Wheaton alumnus, served as spiritual advisor
to most U.S. presidents since Truman.
To further illustrate his point, Bell shared the
Mars Hill community’s response — or,
rather, lack thereof — to the recent profile
of him in Time Magazine.
“I don’t think I have had one person
in this community mention the Time Magazine article,” he
said. “So either they don’t read Time,
or they’re not impressed, or they don’t
care, or they’re sitting there on Sunday
going, ‘C’mon. Give me the next thing — because
I’ve got a tough week ahead of me, and if
you can give me a little inspiration, a little
truth, a little hope, a little love, I’d
His sons might not be impressed. The Mars Hill
community might not be impressed. But the amazing
reach of Rob Bell’s ministry is a powerful
force in West Michigan. One year ago, on Easter
Sunday, that power was on full display.
Bell asked those gathered at Mars Hill that day
to “practice resurrection” with him.
He asked, “What does an open tomb look like
for people who right now got a serious Bad Friday
Buckets were placed around the stage. Bell talked
about the specific work in which the church is
engaged — fighting homelessness and expanding
economic opportunity in West Michigan and working
with the Turame program in Burundi — and
he invited the community to come forward and drop
whatever money they could spare in the buckets.
The total collected that Sunday exceeded a quarter
Bell may have stumbled into becoming a pastor
when his dreams of becoming a rock star were dashed.
And Mars Hill may have stumbled into becoming one
of the fastest-growing mega-churches in the U.S.
But Bell has a pretty clear idea about where it
all goes from here.
“What we are interested in is — say
you have all these people here. What would happen
if they rallied around the greatest issues of suffering
in our world? Our only hope is to convert all of
this mayhem into blessing or into good for those
who need it the most,” Bell said.
“I mean, we think that’s what Jesus
had in mind with this church.” GR