Thinking Out Loud

March 18, 2013

Rob Bell Returns to Mars Hill Grand Rapids

Filed under: books — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:23 am

To kick off his book tour for What We Talk About When We Talk About God, Rob Bell returned to Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids last Sunday, and this week the sermon was posted online so the rest of us could experience it. 

Rob Bell 2013To his credit, although he was given complete freedom to speak about anything, he asked the church what their current sermon series was, and was told they were doing a “Seven Deadly Sins” series and if he wanted to jump in, he would draw the sermon on sloth. Yes, sloth. Nothing Bell has ever been accused of. He brings his own trademark stamp to this topic, albeit frequently returning to additional personal updates and references to his own enigmatic character.

He began with a story about failing his first attempt at a California driver’s license; the problem being his penchant for “questioning the questions.” Why does this not surprise me? Well, at least he’s consistent.

In the first part of the sermon, he discussed his recent journey; which I thought was probably considerate of people who have joined the church since his departure. If I can somewhat paraphrase his remarks, he stated that people want to talk about their brokenness, their personal struggles; but that as he was serious about treating these concerns the way Jesus would, he discovered that when we let these circumstances shape us, they become relevant to the larger question of what it means to be human. What next happens is that this type of discussion enlarges the circle of people who want to engage the topic, and you suddenly find yourself speaking to a much larger audience.

He also talked about the television project that he has under development and the live audience got to see a 90-second trailer for which we are at least treated to the audio soundtrack.

…I recognize that Bell is controversial and I don’t want to review the entire sermon — nor do I think people should do sermon reviews — so if you wish to listen, here is the link.  Just clicking the Mars Hill sermon page and hearing a Rob Bell sermon is like trying on an old pair of shoes! It runs about 43 minutes.

Also, I’m about a quarter of the way through the new book. I’m also reading another book concurrently, so this may take awhile, but I’ll have more comments next week.

November 25, 2012

Rob Bell Alive and Well in Orange County, CA

Filed under: media, ministry — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:07 am

In my part of the world, when reporters for mainstream media venture into stories of Christian interest, they tend to get it wrong. How refreshing to read Kalefa Sanneh’s profile of Rob Bell and find all the right words used in all the right places. You couldn’t ask for more insider understanding, regardless of Sanneh’s perspective which, for the record, is not known to me.

The lengthy article in the November 26th issue of New Yorker is not available online if you’re not a subscriber; like me you need to venture to the proverbial newsstand to get a copy. Some of the profile covers what is old ground for most readers here: The history of Mars Hill Bible Church (Grand Rapids, MI) and the fallout from the book Love Wins.

There was some newer information, however.

Bell was reported to be working with Lost producer Carlton Cuse on a faith-oriented project called Stronger, for which ABC-TV had purchased rights. However, they failed to get approval to move to the next stage, shooting the pilot episode. Currently, they are working on a faith-themed talk show and have already done some tapings in Los Angeles.

There’s also some good coverage of CraftLab, a mini-conference Bell put together for a small group of 50 pastors in a motel conference room overlooking the Pacific Ocean, complete with surprise guests, surfing breaks and communion. Reading between the lines of the article, one senses that perhaps Bell misses pastoral ministry.

…Rob Bell is 42-years young, and while he may have fallen off the radar of a few over past months, he is not exactly down for the count; in fact, one suspects that anyone who bid him ‘farewell’ might have been a bit premature.

July 24, 2012

Rob Bell: Exploring The Spirituality of Wonder

Yesterday’s comments here notwithstanding, I am all in favor of embracing the mystery of God. As we get several years on in this faith journey we tend to lose the element of awe and wonder.This is a short video, and reactions online — see below — have also been equally shorter — except for this guy who dissects it to the nth degree — the five below are among the few longer than a single sentence.

July 20, 2010

Francis Chan Meets NOOMA in Basic: Fear God

The production team that introduced Rob Bell to a new audience in NOOMA, Flannel, is teamed up with Cornerstone Church (Simi Valley, CA) pastor Francis Chan for a minimum of seven DVDs under the series name, BASIC.

The differences are somewhat superficial, but there are a few of them:  Switching from sky blue to basic beige, modifying the packaging by including a color booklet, adding a second feature, and changing distribution from Zondervan to David C. Cook are some of the differences.

The similarities are the more striking, and they are but two:

First of all, the good news:  Chan’s message about fearing God merges well with the film production team at Flannel pulling out all the stops for an elaborate production that is visually very simple, but guaranteed to evoke one of the primary fears we all have, fear of water.   The musical score is also of the quality we came to expect from the Bell videos.    You almost wonder out loud how they did it, and you are rewarded with one new feature, a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the video that is as visually engaging as the film itself.

Second, the not-so-good news:   The BASIC series will do for Francis Chan what NOOMA did for Rob Bell in terms of awareness and publicity, but for those of us who knew a pre-NOOMA Bell and know a pre-BASIC Chan, it’s easy to wish that instead of these short-form teachings, they simply packaged up some of Chan’s best sermons into quality teaching, long-form DVDs.  Where NOOMA doesn’t represent the “Best of Bell,” neither is BASIC necessarily going to give the world the “Best of Chan.”  Both are phenomenal communicators who can’t be contained in a 10-14 minute video.

In other words, just as a few of knew there was more to Rob Bell than we saw in Dust or Luggage or Rain; so is there so much more to Francis Chan than we get to see on Fear God. However, having said that, I think Chan has a better chance of allowing his teaching to transcend the short-form film medium.

There are some great discussion options available here to youth group leaders, who made up the core of the NOOMA market.   They should find BASIC equally useful in preparing youth and young adult meeting theme preparation, and like NOOMA, it will probably bleed over into an older demographic as well, and even the occasional Sunday morning service.

I’m looking forward to seeing this series develop.

April 7, 2010

Wednesday Link List

The Christian blogosphere today will contain many reflections and tributes to Michael Spencer, aka Internet Monk.   We posted a few of these here yesterday.    For the Christian Church, the Internet is the most powerful tool we’ve been handed since the invention of the printing press.   Here’s how some people used it this week.

  • Blogger Tom at R.IP. Jesus thinks a local church Easter promotion got a little off the rails last weekend.   Well, more than a little
  • Here’s one that might make you think a little.  Seminary student Joel at the blog, Café of the Book, thinks that expressing theology in prayer may solve some of the gender problem.
  • Mars Hill Bible Church pastor Rob Bell has a new, post-NOOMA channel on Vimeo called The Work of Rob Bell, in which he unveils this 4-minute video, Resurrection.
  • Brian McLaren acknowledges some controversy and faces the musical question, “Why Do Evangelicals Dislike Me So Much?” in this article in The Huffington Post.
  • The blog, Red Letter Believers remembers Johnny Hart, the cartoonist of the BC comic strip in this tribute.
  • If you like tracking down blogs you haven’t seen before, consider Macho Lara.   (Warning: His life is currently a ministry roller coaster!)  Here’s a post I could totally relate to about going through a season of Music-less worship.
  • Andrew Jones aka Tall Skinny Kiwi backtracks on his earlier response to John Piper’s comments on the demise of the Emergent Church.
  • In a culture currently obsessed with vampires, Russell D. Moore observes correctly that Christianity is becoming increasingly “blood-less.”
  • Darryl Dash at the blog DashHouse invited his readers to enjoy a free download from pastor Tim Kerr, a prayer manual titled Take Words With You. You might just want to become one of those readers!
  • Youth Pastor and (apparently) part-time EMS guy Don Knoup shares a work-related story with a ministry-related analogy at A Broken Link.
  • Stuff Christians Like blogger/author Jon Acuff notes this week that many Christians really don’t care for Christian movies.
  • Here’s a sneak peek for all you early adopters at a little project I’ve started on the side.
  • You can never read this message enough times:  This one is from the National Review Online, and it’s about Getting Serious About Pornography.   “Imagine a drug so powerful it can destroy a family simply by distorting a man’s perception of his wife…”  Read this two-page article here.

It seemed appropriate to this week’s links that the comic selection for this week should be something by Johnny Hart:

Here’s one in living color from the book I Did it His Way: A Collection of Classic BC Religious Comic Strips (Thomas Nelson, 2009):

January 12, 2010

Rob Bell: Defending Dust

I’m not prepared to go to the wall defending everything Rob Bell says or does, but I think some balance is needed against the mounting criticism online, of which perhaps this piece (click here) is a prime example.

Rob Bell in his pre-minstry days, at 18 months

I’ve watched a number of the NOOMA videos, but I’m not sure if I’ve seen Dust.   I have heard the sermon that it’s based on however, and therein lies a huge difference.   I’m a big fan of Rob’s preaching, but on days like this one, I sometimes wish that NOOMA didn’t exist.   The full sermons offer the full experience.    Nonetheless, I find this concept somewhat straightforward.

Peter asks Jesus if he can join him walking on the water.   Rob brings a lot of cultural context to this request in the full sermon, and in other teachings.   Peter, you see, is a lead disciple.   His impulsive nature is actually manifest in the fulfilling of what is expected of the token ‘older’ talmudim   (Peter has a mother-in-law, so he’s married; Jesus tells him to look inside a fish to find a coin to pay the tax “for you and I;” the other disciples being too young for that tax.)   The disciple is expected to do what [i.e. everything] he sees the rabbi doing.

Peter gets out of the boat.  (Starts well.)   He walks on water.  (Going good.)   Then he takes his eyes of Jesus.  (Not so smart.)    He looks down.  (Getting worse.)  He wonders what the heck he is doing out there.   (Sinking starts.)

Bell points out that it’s not that Peter doesn’t believe in Jesus.   Jesus is unmistakably walking on water.    This is not a matter of faith, it’s a matter of fact that Peter and the other disciples can see plainly.  (We “believe” Jesus walked on water, all they had to do was look.)

Peter is just not sure he can do it, and he begins to sink.    Again, it’s not that he doesn’t believe Jesus can walk on water, or that Jesus can give him the power to also walk on water.   It’s just too big.   Too big for him to handle.    He doesn’t believe he can do it, even though it’s quite evident that Jesus can.

But Jesus believes in him, in fact Jesus doesn’t just restore Peter to ministry later on after his denial, he is constantly about the business of restoring and reinstating Peter to ministry. After the abortive water-walk, after the whole “get thee behind Me” thing, and after the three-time denial.

Bell in a slightly more recent picture

That’s what Bell is saying.   Do you get it now?   No?   Then give up.  Maybe it’s a generational thing.   Maybe it’s not that you can’t wrap your brain around it, maybe you just don’t like Rob Bell. Maybe you just can’t handle the idea that a new generation of communicators is taking the stage. Maybe you can’t remember when your earliest attempts to express your hope in Christ was packaged in difficult metaphors and rough-edged stories.

Rob Bell is not saying that the essence of Jesus’ ministry is “just believe in yourself.”   Bell, if he bothered to respond at all, would say that we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ.    This context is a unique presentation of a unique concept that applies to one disciple in one particular time and place.

His application is that Jesus believes you can do this. You can live this Christ-following life. He will give you the strength and the courage to live out this faith in a world of temptation, trial and opposition. He has faith in you to be His instrument to carry out His plans and purposes in your generation.

Give the guy a break on this one.   Or is that you really don’t want to? I don’t agree with everything he says, I couldn’t finish his friend Peter Rollins’ book, and the hiring of Shane Hipps may prove more problematic than anyone expected.

But as my mother would say, “don’t go looking for the hair on the egg.”

(And, for the record, I don’t agree with everything my pastor says, every author he quotes or every staff member he hires.)

And don’t extrapolate a pastor’s core theology on the basis of a ten-minute “discussion starter” video.

August 13, 2009

Christian Author ‘Superstars’ Charge for Lecture Series

rob_bellSo there I was, on the telephone, trying to explain to an older pastor who Rob Bell is, describe his preaching style, and explain why he is charging $20 per ticket for people to come and hear him.

“But the gospel should be free;” he interjected, a couple of times.   I made no further attempt to try to defend what would always be to him, indefensible.

Bell’s Drops Like Stars tour is already underway, continuing into July 2010; while Donald Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years tour — with tickets at a more modest $15 US — rolls out next month.    Both consist entirely of spoken word content; there isn’t a band opening the shows.

Bell has done this sort of thing twice before, touring major arenas, concert halls and theaters with his The Gods Aren’t Angry and Everything Is Spiritual tours.   Both tours were made into full length videos by Zondervan running approximately 70 and 80 minutes.

donald_miller_Miller has done fewer videos than Bell;  doesn’t pastor a church; and his full-length (61 minutes) DVD for Bluefish TV, Free Market Jesus, doesn’t see the wide distribution of Bell’s two lectures, or Bell’s 24 short-form NOOMA videos.

Both authors write/speak with a postmodern audience in view, and both use provocative titles for their books and lectures.   It’s possible that this kind of audience isn’t as responsive as their parents were to the concept of a “free will offering” or “love offering,” but don’t mind the ticket option at all.

Just try explaining all this to my pastor friend.

Donald Miller – A Million Miles… tour dates
Rob Bell – Drops Like Stars tour dates

July 20, 2009

Preaching as Performance Art: Rob Bell

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:34 pm

We’d been to Mars Hill (Grand Rapids) once before, but Rob Bell was away as was his worship team.   The guest speaker was from an African-American congregation on the east side of town, and he brought his  worship team with him.   “This is the first time I’ve ever experienced two different churches in one service;” my wife quipped at the time.

I wrote about the church on the old blog, but I’ll begin by repeating a few things.

The church is located in a former shopping mall.    There’s no sign outside the building to tell you that you’re in the right place.    If you want to pick up the latest NOOMA video, or Rob’s new book Drops Like Stars (just released by Zondervan), there’s a sign suggesting you do so at the local Christian bookstore.   Nothing is for sale here.

Between services, the coffee and donuts tables are buzzing.   To compliment the “Joy Boxes” for offering — Mars Hill takes no collection during the service — there are “Joe Boxes” to pay for coffee if you wish.    Kids come and go from various age appropriate rooms, which are actually the former stores of this former mall.

Mars+HillThe main auditorium, pictured here is called “The Shed,” and belonged to whoever was the former anchor tenant.   The picture doesn’t adequately attest to the large seating capacity.

Very little has been done to spruce up the room.    As someone observed recently, “When you visit Mars Hill, you get a sense right away that much of what this church is doing is taking place somewhere else.”

The worship team performs facing each other; essentially facing the same direction as the rest of the congregation.   There’s no performance/audience thing going on here.

So catching up to this week: Having missed Rob previously, this Sunday we returned for the full Rob Bell experience.   We were not disappointed.    The sermon, appropriate to it being a communion service Sunday, was about confession.    I could go into detail about the sermon itself, but hey, you can just download it.   (Always linked on this blog under “sermons.”)

Bell preaches “in the round” as they called it years ago at Melodyland in California.   “In the cube,” might be more appropriate here.   He walks around constantly, but he does favor some sides of the audience slightly more than others, and on this score, we luck out and get more visual benefit.   Plus we’re sitting just four rows back.   He’s a bundle of energy throughout.   He’s taller and skinnier than he looks on video.

Rob in person is better than Rob on podcast.    The sermon begins after two short worship songs.    No waiting.    He launches right in, with the first of four story illustrations that will carry this message.   There isn’t going to be three points and a poem at the end; really Rob has one main point which he will weave in and out of; but then again, there are a number of sub-points that are going to hit a lot of people where they live.   He works largely without notes and there are only three or four Powerpoint-style ‘slides.’

He talks about a neighbor who does standup comedy, including a routine as Father Tim, an Irish priest.    It’s a funny story, but then, who shows up walking down a main aisle, but Father Tim himself.    Rob”s description of him makes it hard for ‘the real thing’ to live up to the reputation.   The woman in front of Mrs. W. is clearly uncomfortable with this, as might be any ex- or current-Catholic.

rob_bellRob moves on quickly to talk about an art class he and his sons took this week with one of the country’s top animators.    He seizes on a unique moment in the class that ties in directly with where he’s headed.

Then he pulls a baloon from his pocket and shows how deception grows bigger with each lie that has to be told to cover an earlier lie.    It seems like a slightly different topic at first, but he’s trying to illustrate how the confession of a lie is a daunting prospect if the lie has gotten large enough; but the release of the balloon’s pressure also illustrates the pressure that is lifted when we come clean.   (Some of their kids program is canceled for the summer, so I’m sure the kids were watching closely during this part of the message.)

His final illustration is about how God responds when we confess, it involves a kid at a MacDonald’s restaurant who is — well… you’re gonna have to download the MP3 file for the rest of that story.

Communion is an absolutely beautiful experience.    Twelve tables, three on each side; and Mrs. W. remarks later there is no one ‘presiding over’ them.   You just walk up and take a wafer and dip in the cup.   But returning to our seats, I notice there was also the option of walking to a 13th station on the stage itself, at the foot of the cross there.    I watch as people do this.   One of the worship band members tells me later that they get a close-up view of a lot of special moments taking place in peoples’ lives.

Most of the worship is stacked at the end of the service while communion is taking place.   Five more songs, coming from a real variety of worship sources, with a variety of instrumentation and vocals.

At the end of Rob’s sermon, I remember that there’s a clock at the back that I  haven’t consulted since we started.   It says 11:39.    What?    Did we start at 10 AM or 11 AM?   No, we started at 11.   Has all that I’ve experienced happened in only 39 minutes?  Apparently so; it’s a commendable economy of time.    With communion and worship, the service continues on to about 12:10.

Eavesdropping on conversations in the lobby, it turns out there are a lot of visitors like us.    Some are doing a post-game analysis of the worship, trying to remember ideas they can take back home with them.   Others are visiting relatives in Michigan.    Not surprising, since Rob began the service by welcoming “all of you who woke up in a different state, and drove for hours to get here.”

It’s that acknowledgment that the church is a bit of a tourist attraction that makes me decide to skip the handshake.    After driving eight hours, I think I deserve one, but that would be entirely the wrong reason.   Besides, I enjoy my brief contact with the guy in the worship team.

And what would I have said to Rob Bell?   Probably just, “Thanks, I really enjoyed finally getting to hear you in person.”

Next:  Further thoughts from our visit to Mars Hill, under the title, “The Hundred Mile Church Diet.”

Here’s the link for Rob’s “Drops Like Stars” tour.  Click on “tour dates” near the bottom.

Had we come a week later, we would have caught the next sermon in the Spiritual Practices series, “Why We Sing.”   I’m looking forward to that download on or after July 26th.   Be sure to bookmark the link.  (See “sermons” in our linklist at right.)

April 22, 2009

Militant Mysticism: The CT Rob Bell Interview

“I like to say that I practice militant mysticism. I’m really absolutely sure of some things that I don’t quite know.”

It’s lines like that get some respondents upset after reading the Christianity Today interview with Mars Hill (Grand Rapids) pastor and author Rob Bell.    Of course, to some, Bell will never be able to give the right answers.

rob_bellFor example, in a final question, Mark Galli asks Bell, “How would you present the gospel on Twitter;” which Bell legitimately interprets as, “How you would go about presenting the gospel on Twitter;” but which for some people — including Galli himself — is heard as, “Tell us what you would tweet if asked to sum up the gospel as a Twitter post.”

Galli is just trying to get Bell to give a concise summation of the gospel as he (Bell) sees it.    But when Bell says, “You really can’t Tweet the gospel;” it’s possible he is  (a) realizing that Galli is baiting him, or (b) making the larger point that the gospel is so much more than what we can put into some short propositional sentences, let alone 140 characters.

Which is true.    While much energy is spent online trying to come up with the definitive gospel, and nitpickingly dissecting the statements of others to see who’s in and who’s out of the Truth Club, the fact remains that Jesus’ own statements about the Gospel and the Kingdom are multi-dimensional and not without mystery.

The tension in the interview is not so much Bell’s answers but the interview itself.   It reminds me of the time that I was being hired by a denomination for a paid position which thus required the completion of a four-page doctrinal statement and a four-page “personal testimony” statement.   Not wanting anything to go awry, the pastor doing the hiring slipped me a photocopy of his answers when completing the same process years earlier.

Armed with this perfectly good ‘cheat sheet’ which guaranteed me full marks on each question, I decided instead to reframe the answers in a new way.   I asked myself, “How can I relate the doctrinal truths of which I am personally convinced, without using the proverbial words and phrases?”   And especially, “How can I answer the question about this particular portion of scripture in such a way that it relates to another portion that the person reading my answers may not have considered?”

I got the job.   I think that’s the bottom line in that case.   Years later, I think it’s why I relate to Rob Bell.   Not everyone does.    And I’m perfectly okay with that, I think so is Bell.

You can read the interview at CT online here.

October 14, 2008

Rob Bell Review: Jesus Wants To Save Christians

Filed under: Christianity, Church, Faith, theology — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:46 am

I could write this entire review like this.

One paragraph for every sentence.

Or phrase.


As though my words were poetry.

Then you would get the idea.

Have the experience.

Of how Rob Bell writes his books.


But seriously, although the pages contain a lot of white space, they also contain a lot of great spiritual depth.   So let’s launch in to it.

First of all, this book is coauthored with Don Golden who served on pastoral staff at Rob’s Mars Hill (Michigan) church for three years and is now a director of a relief and development agency.  Much of it is based on a series of messages they did together in the summer of 2006 called “The New Exodus;” and this book espouses a way of interpreting the old Testament that could be called “New Exodus” teaching.   Also evident is the desire to paint for the readers a “big picture” look at the Biblical narrative, clearly seen in Bell’s full length videos Everything is Spiritual and The God’s Aren’t Angry.

Exodus itself — the Biblical book — is the focus of much of the discussion.  Jesus Wants to Save Christians shows how the nation of Israel is not that much different than its neighbors in many respects; how the oppressed nation can sometimes become the oppressor.  The book has a compelling style, with each of its six chapter endings drawing you into the chapter following.

I could go on here, but I think that Ben Witherington III has done an excellent job in reviewing an advance copy of this book back in August.   The problem is that Ben’s review is somewhat of a spoiler, and contains many spoilers, especially given its length when compared to the length (augmented by the style parodied above) of the original book itself.   So you might want to read his review after you’ve read the book.  But here’s his opener:

I thoroughly enjoy the creative material that comes out of Rob Bell’s grace-filled and artistic brain. Even when I disagree with him, there is no denying he is tapping into a deep well of truth and riding the wave of a new movement of the Holy Spirit which the church, especially in America, so desperately needs. Rob Bell, and until recently, Don Golden have been doing this together at Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, and undoubtedly this book comes out of some of their ministry together. This third of the Bell books, this time with collaboration from a partner in ministry has the same bite and passion as the first two, but mostly missing are the personal stories and anecdotes which peppered Velvet Elvis, and Sex God. This book is all business, and it is God’s business the writers are about. Whether the Evangelical world wants to hear this or not, these authors feel it needs to do so desperately.

Witherington goes on to critique the book chapter by chapter, finding what he considers a glaring error in interpretation of one particular section of Acts, but generally offering high praise.   Personally, if I have any complaint, it would be that the book is too short.   Many of Bell’s readers are the same people who read Shane Claiborne, who managed to turn out just under 400 pages on his first book, pages which were typeset with great imagination but ultimately contained many more words per sheet.   I think the danger here is that new readers might see Bell as a bit of a lightweight, when that’s not the case at all.  For that reason, I think the publishers might have included a study guide, or placed the footnotes at the bottom of each page and used the endnote section for some appendices or sidebars to the main work.

Nonetheless, I’d encourage those who know Rob from the NOOMA videos — along with everyone else — to check this out.   It’s available in hardcover at $19.99 U.S. and elsewhere in the world in international paperback edition.

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