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Profile: Mars Hill Bible Church pastor Rob Bell | MLive.com
Profile: Mars Hill Bible Church pastor Rob Bell
Published: Sunday, March 23, 2008, 12:00 AM Updated: Wednesday, April 02, 2008, 11:19 AM
The Rev. Rob Bell hops up onto the circular stage in his tennis shoes, his headset microphone in place.
“Hi,” he says. “Good morning. If you’re coming in late, we still love you. Make yourself at home.”
It’s Sunday morning at Mars Hill Bible Church, and Bell is doing his thing, using “Philippians” and “awesome” in the same sentence and waiting for a musician to strap on an accordion.
Then, he starts talking about his big thing: Hope.
Sometimes, he says, just as Paul did in Philippians, you have to borrow some.
“You don’t have to have it all together,” he tells the crowd earnestly. “It’s OK to say, ‘I don’t have any hope today — can I borrow some of yours?’ Ask somebody you don’t know. It’ll be fine. Weirder things have happened here.”
Bell, 37, is the founding pastor of Mars Hill in Grandville.
It’s the church that used to be a shopping mall, where each Sunday between 8,000 and 10,000 people stream into three services they call “gatherings.”
Five things to know about Rob Bell:
He was in a band in college called ___ ton bundle. They left a blank in front and would periodically fill it in. Nun ton bundle, Rapunzel ton bundle, etc. “It was nuts,” he says with a grin. “We had a guitar player who dressed like a pirate.”
He’s a jock. He plays soccer twice a week, takes boxing lessons and is quick to grab a snowboard, skateboard or water skis.
“I inhale books and magazines,” he says. “On everything — economics, art, politics. I get on a subject and learn everything I can about it. For every two or three ideas I crank out, I’ve probably inhaled a hundred.”
He’s behind the LOVE WINS bumper stickers. He handed them out after a sermon a few years ago and now the church gives them out after its Sunday gatherings.
He’s a health foody. He loves the green burrito at the Gaia Cafe on Diamond Avenue. He buys locally grown ingredients, makes guacamole almost daily and simmers black beans with polenta.
Learn about Rob Bell’s church Mars Hill Bible Church
See a sample of one of hisNOOMA films or watch one of his clips
A 2006 article in the Chicago Sun Times called the charismatic Bell the next Billy Graham. A year later, TheChurchReport.com named him No. 10 on its list of “The 50 Most Influential Christians in America.” He made TIME magazine in December.
Acclaim makes him squirm.
His speaking tours sell out, and a new speaking request comes in about every 10 minutes. But he’d rather talk about how billions of people have no safe drinking water and how you can help. His nondenominational church is huge on social activism.
Bell is geeky-hip, with his black plastic glasses and skinny black jeans.
He loves British transvestite comedian Eddie Izzard, an elusive graffiti artist named Banksy and U2. He rents vintage Rolling Stones concerts from Netflix. On his day off, he hangs out at a bike shop on Leonard Street.
“I’ll spend a couple of hours with the bike mechanics and listen,” he says. “That’s a good time.”
Bell embraces mystery. He asks questions. It goes back to his childhood, he says.
“My parents were intellectually rigorous,” he says. “Ask questions, explore, don’t take things at face value. Stretch. I’ve always been interested in the thing behind the thing.”
It can make church people nervous, he says.
“If a pastor is asking questions about theology, that alone upsets churches that have been around for 50 years,” he notes.
He’s casual and friendly, exuding a “let’s go hang out” kind of vibe, but Bell is doggedly protected by the Mars Hill staff. He has become the kind of famous that breeds autograph seekers and stalkers and people who flock to him figuring he must hold the meaning of life.
“We can’t go anywhere — anywhere — without people coming up to him, wanting to talk to him, wanting to thank him,” says Bell’s friend of nine years, Tom Maas. “Because of the way he speaks, people think they know him. He pours his heart out about stuff.”
“There are dimensions to my life that have become surreal,” Bell says, sitting in an office at Mars Hill on a Thursday afternoon.
During a stop in Louisville for his speaking tour, 1,000 people lined up for his autograph, including a woman in labor who wouldn’t go to the hospital until she secured his scrawl.
“The TIME Magazine thing …” He shakes his head. “This is my life? I’m under no illusions this is normal. We left normal a long time ago.
“On the other hand,” he says, “I work hard at this. You want your work to help people.”
Bell talks in amazement about the worldwide reaction to NOOMA, his series of short videos that have sold more than 1.2 million copies in 80 countries, according to its publisher, Zondervan Books.
The video series, named after the Greek word for spirit, features Bell at his most earnest, talking about love, loss and forgiveness. Produced by local production company Flannel, they pack an emotional wallop.
He’s heard from Muslim high school girls in Morocco, villagers in India. A recovering heroin addict stopped him on Division Avenue the other day and told him they’re using NOOMA in her recovery group. He just heard the Green Bay Packers are watching them.
He says he turns down most interview requests — there are too many — but likes to support his hometown paper. With limits. No photos of his young sons. His wife, Kristen, declined to be interviewed.
“Kristen and I have worked hard to establish a normal life, under the radar,” he says. He lives in a former crack house in the core city. He and his wife share one car. He walks his kids to school in the morning.
The crowds, the autographs, the fame. As Bell might say: Dude — why?
His friend Maas, who has attended Mars Hill since week three, sums up the appeal:
“He approaches the most difficult topics of the day and dives deep into them, approaching things like theology with a childlike wonder, so a fifth-grader can understand them. Not naive, not simple, but understandable.”
Bell says he’s trying to connect.
“If people have been thinking about God and life and Jesus, and somebody comes along and puts words to some of their deepest fears, theories, intuition, a pretty nuclear reaction goes off,” he says.
“For many people, there’s a widespread, low-grade despair at the heart of everything,” Bell says. “If we can tilt things a few clicks in the hope direction, that would be beautiful.”
Hope is his bottom line, he says.
“There’s nothing to fear,” Bell says. “At the core of the Christian experience, there’s resurrection. The story ends better than anything you can make up yourself.”
But along the way, he talks about all the crud you face first, the stuff that has the guy in the Harley T-shirt nodding over his Bible in the 14th row.
“I can be totally honest about how dreadful the world is,” Bell says. “It’s OK to acknowledge that. Half the Psalms are laments — ‘Lord, why have you forsaken me?’
“Many people have been presented a message that’s candy-coated. It doesn’t ring true. It has a nice red bow on it, but there’s no blood and guts. I fully acknowledge the suffering and pain, but at the same time there’s great hope.”
He smiles. “There’s an open tomb.”
He grew up in Okemos, near Lansing, with his parents, Helen and Robert Bell, sister Ruth and brother John. His dad is a U.S. District Court Judge.
“I had no idea where I fit,” he says. “But I’ve always been drawn to the outcasts, to the girl with the black fingernail polish.”
His mom, Helen, tells how young Rob used to tie a red bath towel around his neck, jump off the porch and pretend to be Superman.
“He never wanted to do what everybody else did,” she says.
He went to Wheaton College in Illinois, his parents’ alma mater. He studied psychology, met his wife there and fronted a punk rock band that played Chicago clubs.
“We thought we’d be the next R.E.M.,” he says. “It was taking a statement, crafting it, delivering it. Something was birthed there. It was all a warm-up for the first time I ever preached.”
But during his senior year, he got viral meningitis, and the brain inflammation landed him in the hospital. The band broke up.
“I had absolutely no idea what to do with my life,” he says. “No plan.”
Starting a church
People kept telling him he should be a pastor. The plan solidified one summer when he was teaching water skiing at a summer camp and was asked to fill in at a camp service.
“I thought, ‘This is what I’m supposed to do.’ But I knew it would have to work for my world. It would have to be vibrant and subversive.”
After graduation, he went to Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., then interned at Calvary Church under the Rev. Ed Dobson. He took over the hip Saturday night service and soon got thinking about starting a new church.
“I thought there was a whole generation of people hungry for Jesus, but unable to connect with the churches they had experienced,” he says. “I had a defining moment in 1998 on the green futon in the upstairs bedroom. It was: If nobody comes, it’s still a success. Because we tried something new.”
It’s church stripped down to its core: message.
“Success,” he says, “is not living with what if.”
“I thought, ‘I’m either barkin’ mad or there won’t be enough seats.’ I knew there would be no middle ground.”
That first Sunday nine years ago, more than 1,000 people showed up. They ran out of chairs. Six months later, attendance had swelled to 4,000.
Bell was doing everything — weddings, funerals, spiritual direction, visiting prisons and hospitals and doing all the preaching.
“It was absolutely surreal,” he says. “Total joy and celebration. You know that feeling you get when you’re in the hospital when your kid is born and everybody has tears in their eyes and is taking pictures and you feel like you’re floating?”
He pauses, takes off his glasses and leans his head back against the wall.
“Then it’s three months later at 4 a.m., and your child is keeping everybody awake.
“There are giant down sides,” he says quietly. “I didn’t have any tools. There was no instruction manual. I went from an intern to senior pastor in a couple of years. I was 28. It was freakish growth.
“I thought, ‘This is a roller coaster, and if it goes up, it must come down. Somebody will pay.'”
One Sunday morning, as thousands streamed in for the 11 a.m. service, Bell hid in the storage room behind the sound booth. He listened, holding his car keys in his hand, as the room filled up with people.
He wondered how far away he could get by 11.
“I was burned out,” he says. “By our fifth anniversary, I was fried. As my doctor put it, ‘You’re going too fast, too hard for too long.’ I had to learn a new normal.”
He found a therapist and took a 10-week break.
“I spent days in the woods just staring at trees,” he says. “It began deep in my soul — that I had nothing to prove. I had to die to the need to achieve and impress.”
Life beyond church
He set aside Fridays as his sabbath. No cell phone, no e-mail. He turned over pastoring duties to another lead pastor, focusing on sermons he calls “teaching,” his writing and NOOMA.
His third book, “Jesus Wants to Save Christians,” written with Mars Hill lead pastor Don Golden, is due out this fall. His first two, “Velvet Elvis” and “Sex God” have sold more than a half-million copies, according to publisher Zondervan Books.
“My brain is quiet and empty,” Bell says with a smile.
He’s home most days by 5 to hang out with his wife and sons Trace, 9, and Preston, 7.
He builds ramps for skateboarding, they toss a football around in the park across the street.
“Work is what I do while I’m waiting for my kids to get home from school,” he says.
His mom, Helen, tells how he lives what he preaches.
“He’s a man of prayer and conviction,” she says. “That’s real. It’s not just to get a sermon together.”
Helen says people always ask if she expected her son’s success. She laughs. “Do they think we’re delusional? Obviously, we wanted him to do well, but for it to have exploded like this, it surprised everyone.” She says her son knows the importance of boundaries.
“Some people in the ministry have a house filled with people who need a place to stay,” Helen says. “He’s more reserved than that. He doesn’t collect people. He’s not one to surround himself with wounded birds. He’s more private than that.”
His friend Tom Maas calls him “kind of introverted, if that makes any sense.
“He doesn’t really need to be protected from the public,” says Maas, 52. “He needs to be protected from himself. He’s kind and generous, almost to a fault. He’s just trying to teach and live the gospel of Jesus.”
With success comes criticism.
“I don’t Google my name,” Bell says. “Somebody told me there’s somebody out there doing seminars against me.” He grins. “Wow — I’m helping somebody out there pay their bills.”
Bloggers question his substance, his theology, his very Christianity.
Does it bother him?
He leans his head back against the wall and thinks about that.
“Part of it hurts,” he says. “It just hurts. It’s painful. But it’s fear and misunderstanding. These are mean and angry people.”
Then he laughs.
“You know, God could give me 50 more years,” he says. “So don’t wind me up. If you’re offended now, I’m just getting going.”
E-mail Terri Finch Hamilton: firstname.lastname@example.org
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