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Appealing to the masses

His unorthodox, post-modern approach to teaching the Bible attracts millions worldwide through DVDs, books, podcasts and live sermons.

It’s been 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 Christians.

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.

By Curt Wozniak
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 of Michigan.

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 night programming.

 

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 very compelling.

“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 acknowledge it.’”

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 really fear.”

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 out.”

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, Fla.

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 real thing.

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 that.

It’s not about becoming a rock star preacher, either.

“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 site, www.marshill.org

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 themselves.

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 grounded.

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 or what?’”

And Bell claims the Mars Hill community is with them.

“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 Rapids, Michigan.’”

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 appreciate it.’”

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 going on?”

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 million dollars.

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

 

   
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