Justin Brierley meets US “mega-pastor” and author Rob Bell, whose congregation has grown from scratch to 10,000 in less than 10 years
Driving into the parking lot of Mars Hill Bible Church felt strangely familiar. It looks just like a shopping centre – and that’s because until recently, it was. Only when you come to the entrance doors is there a clue that you are entering a church building. There are no directions on the way, no flashing neon sign to greet you – just a very plain, brown, former retail outlet. For a church with 10,000 people in attendance each week, this was not what I had expected.
Rob Bell is signing copies of his latest book when I meet him during the break between morning services at Mars Hill. Dressed casually and wearing his trademark thick, blackrimmed spectacles, he represents one of the most successful examples of what has been branded the “emerging” church in the US. It’s 10 years since Bell launched Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan with the philosophy to “keep things as simple as they could possibly be”. “Minimalist” is the word that springs to mind when seated in the large auditorium. Plastic chairs surrounding a central bare stage and the grey walls of the gutted shopping mall prove that the church remains true to its original vision of simplicity.
The colour comes in the form of Bell himself, who bounds onto the stage to deliver a 40-minute sermon that is energetic and captivating throughout. That same communication ability abounds in his “NOOMA” films. These short features fuse cinematic professionalism with Bell’s theological take on everything from the problem of suffering to the feminine qualities of God. They have sold in the millions and made Bell a familiar figure to many in the Christian world. Hundreds of thousands have downloaded his weekly preaching and invitations to international events are never in short supply (he was a headline speaker at the UK’s Greenbelt festival in 2009).
Inevitably there are detractors. “Just type my name and the word ‘heretic’ into Google,” Bell quips when asked about those who view his theology as too liberal. He preaches a “narrative” theology that is more open-ended than most evangelical American pastors would allow. Those who accuse the emerging church of selling out biblical truth will often point to the Mars Hill pastor as its hippest purveyor.
For Bell however, the message of the Gospel can only be understood when it is applied. The church has been instrumental in setting up local development projects and creating a microfinance project in Burundi. The focus on peace and social justice in word and deed is refreshingly different to the personal prosperity message that seems rife in other American mega-churches. At Mars Hill they are bucking the trend in more ways than one.
Finding Mars Hill Bible Church wasn’t easy. There’s not a single sign for it, despite it being one of the largest churches in Michigan. Why is that?
It’s not a church, it’s a building. And church is people. So to put a sign out in front would be theologically incorrect. Perhaps it could say “the occasional meeting place of Mars Hill Bible Church” but that would be a bit of a long sign. Did you find it?
We did – if you seek then you will find…
Well then, I rest my case. Its church for those who want it bad enough!
Plenty of people do seem to want it bad enough. Why do so many attend Mars Hill?
I think we are far less interested in “attend”, and far more interested in the stories that are
being told. Numbers were never the driving impulse; it was always just an interest in
pursuing the question: “What does the Jesus movement look like in the world we find
Secondly, attending a large gathering is just “attending a large gathering”. That’s a different thing to confession, repentance, generosity, reconciliation and acts of compassion, justice, love and mercy. Anybody can just “attend an event”. So in some senses we have a very high view of what’s possible in a public worship gathering. But we also have a very low view, because it’s a gathering where you can come and just sit. We live in that tension.
Why the very simple décor and plastic chairs? Lakewood Church in Houston spent $95 million dollars refurbishing their sanctuary. This is very different.
Ours is probably as nice as their storage closet!
So you’re purposely steering away from associating church with the building?
If you’ve travelled just a bit, you’re less impressed with American altars to spiritual achievement. If someone wants to build a really nice building then that’s fine. The problem for us is that we have a lot of people in our congregation who are having trouble paying the rent and their food bill. We’ve been trying to help out with a microfinance bank in Burundi and we’ve engaged with people who are living on less than a couple of dollars a day.
It becomes hard to justify expenditures when the world is suffering like it is.
In fact, what we have here is extravagant on a global scale. I was in Costa Rica and saw a church where they don’t have any walls because they can’t afford them. It’s all a matter of perspective.
I spent some time in Texas – all the churches had big signs with large advertisements for the senior pastor. Is that the model in the US? Is it a danger?
Well you were in Texas, so in some ways you landed on a different planet! I think what you find you will look for. If you look for excess and ostentatious displays of wealth and flamboyant spirituality then you can find that. But if you want to look down the street and round the corner in a basement or in the back of a club then you will find
all sorts of fresh expressions that don’t look anything like that.
My experience is that “church” is a pretty dangerous word to use because people have all sorts of understandings of what that means. We may think we are talking about the same things when in fact we might be talking about very different things. The spectrum is quite wide.
So the “successful mega-church” model isn’t the only game in town?
You can find places where it’s all show, and you will also find places where they realise it’s about people and taking care of each other. Go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting – it’s people committed to each other, and asserting themselves to a higher power. That’s very powerful stuff. They don’t own a building in AA because they understand it’s about people – people recovering from the disease of alcoholism.
Is there a sense of community at Mars Hill that people feel they won’t find elsewhere?
I don’t believe community is created, I believe it’s discovered. I don’t think that if you just do the right things, then all of a sudden you will have created a community. One of the things the first Christians talked about was that in Jesus we find a new humanity.
Our culture divides us politically, economically, socially and ethnically. If we can get past all those walls of division then we can get back to our common humanity. Our understanding is that a Jesus community is a place where you are constantly finding out that you have something in common with these people who, at first glance, you assumed you had nothing in common with. We are interested in the kind of place where you look around and think, “What in the world do these people have in common?” And your only answer would be, “Apparently, the resurrected Christ, because nothing else makes sense.”
Do you think you reflect the demographic make-up of Grand Rapids?
This church reflects the make-up of the area right around the church. But no, this church is very white and if you go five miles further you have all sorts of racial and ethnic diversity. We don’t make any claims to have cornered the market on the new humanity. That is sorely lacking in our midst, and we’re honest about that.
You are well known for your NOOMA films. Your sermons are downloaded by thousands of people every week. What does that mean for your ministry, that you are such a public figure?
We live on the other side of town from this building and we have tried to create a life for ourselves where I am interacting every day with people who couldn’t care less what I do. We have very much tried to live under the radar because I’m not interested in living in an artificial world of my own construction. As far as the public side, I’ve hardly travelled in the last year (Greenbelt being the exception). I’ve just been mowing my lawn and taking my boys to soccer practice. That “out there” dimension we try to keep “out there” – so I’m not too aware of it.
What are the individuals who make up Mars Hill Bible Church doing to make a difference around them?
There’s a story about one of the bigger gangs in town who are responsible for quite a few murders. A group of them wanted an “out of the gang” lifestyle. There is a guy here at our church who has been mentoring them. That’s not a programme, it doesn’t have a budget. There isn’t an advert on a website saying “Come mentor kids who used to kill people like you.” And yet a really powerful thing is happening as he meets with these guys and is mentoring them.
Our hope is that when people feel empowered and are growing in their awareness of the Christ in the common,
they will cook up all sorts of interesting things. Just before I came out of the service today I ran into a couple. The husband is an engineer and they have designed a water collection system for Rwanda. On a regular basis they are out in the middle of nowhere in Rwanda helping to provide people with drinking water and filter systems that are
This morning’s service was very simple – prayers, worship songs, announcements, you preached and then it was over. Is that intentional?
I definitely believe in design by elimination. How clean, pure and simple can you get it? In our particular culture people are bombarded by something like 3,000 advertisements per day. We live in a world where everything is fast and coming at you at 100 miles per hour. Part of the simplicity of it for us is creating a space where people can take a breath and go “aahhhh…” [lets out a breath].
We’ve all heard the preacher who keeps saying: “I just need more time, I just need more time.” Or people say: “We just sang for a while and it was so refreshing” – well then why don’t you just sing for a while on a regular basis? What are these other incredibly important things? Keep it simple – do the things that are important.
Some mega-churches in the US seem to promote a “health and wealth” prosperity message. What message do you want people to leave a Mars Hill service with?
What Jacob experiences when he wakes up from his dream and says: “God was in this place and I was not aware of it.”
I’m most interested in people discovering the sacred in the common of their everyday lives. We are not interested in creating an institution where people come and escape from the world. We are interested in people growing in their ability to identify and recognise the resurrected Christ in the ebb and flow of everyday life. I’m interested in the woman who’s sitting in a dead-end job at a crap company in a windowless cubicle. I’m interested in her growing awareness of Christ present even in that. That’s interesting.