Friday, June 10, 2005

DAVID CRUMM: Getting to the root of religion

June 3, 2005


The hottest preacher in Michigan this summer is a former punk rocker who's packing 10,000 people each Sunday into a remodeled mall southwest of Grand Rapids with a risky theology that offers as many questions as answers.

At age 34, the Rev. Rob Bell already stars in a popular series of direct-to-DVD inspirational movies called "NOOMA." In August, his book-length spiritual memoir, "Velvet Elvis," will hit stores nationwide from Zondervan.
But, sitting across the table from Bell at an Indian restaurant near his home in Grand Rapids on Sunday, he shrugged off any interest in fame. What matters, he said, is getting home for supper each night with his wife, Kristen, and maybe an hour of play time with his sons Preston, 5, and Trace, 7.

Anyone who has seen one of Bell's short "NOOMA" movies or has joined the vast crowd at the renovated mall in Grandville, called Mars Hill Bible Church, knows Bell is dead serious.
I drove up to see the church, because Bell has accomplished a feat that has religious leaders' jaws dropping: He's built a huge congregation dominated by 20-somethings, a group virtually missing in most churches.

"This journey we're on at Mars Hill isn't about numbers," Bell said. "You'll never catch me selling 'Seven Steps to a Mars Hill Model.' What we're interested in is real people stepping forward to tell how their lives are being transformed and how they're building healthy communities.

"Remember what Jesus always wanted to know?" he asked. "What's the fruit we're producing? Is justice being done? Are people sharing their possessions? Are the oppressed being set free? Are relationships being healed? To me, that's the point. Everything else is just chatter."
Since Mars Hill's founding in 1999, its charitable outreach has touched four continents. Now, the church is raising $1 million for AIDS relief in Africa.

"My theory of church growth is simple," said Bell, leaning across the table to deliver the coup de grace. "People drive a long way to see a fire."

Mars Hill's blaze may not be visible at first glance. There's nothing new about churches drawing casually dressed crowds by replacing pipe organs with rock bands and traditional altars with stages. That was news in the 1980s.

Instead, Mars Hill is a pioneer in a wave of churches nationwide that have little interest in d├ęcor. Instead, they're trying to rebuild the house of Christianity from its foundations. That's why Bell often preaches about basics.

On Sunday morning, I walked into the battleship-gray church, set up in the gutted interior of the mall's former anchor store. People settled into rows of plastic chairs facing a central stage, most of us curiously staring at the huge pile of topsoil in the middle of what other churches call the altar.

After 20 minutes of rock-style hymns, Bell walked up to the dirt pile in a work shirt. He lifted a handful of soil and retold the Bible story of God taking dirt and breathing life into the first humans. For half an hour, Bell talked about the wondrous nature of breathing, borrowing from Jewish, Christian and Hindu teachings.

He described breath as a form of prayer and urged people to relax and "breathe out" all of their anger and stress from the past week. He knelt and prayed, "God, we are fragile clods of dirt, and we need you to breathe into us hope and truth and love and courage."
Something in that earthy moment moved people in visible ways. One man near me cupped his face in his hands and used his fingers to wipe away tears. A woman kicked off her sandals and sat cross-legged as a beatific smile spread across her face.

As the service ended, parishioner Michael Sullivan, 27, of Grand Rapids said Mars Hill is the first church he's seen "that boils down church to the essentials -- just music and a message about what we're going through in our daily lives."

His friend Tina Boljevac, also 27 and from Grand Rapids, added, "And, Rob's honest."
He's so honest that the title of his memoir, "Velvet Elvis," is a jarring metaphor for how oddly out of date traditional churches appear to many young Christians -- like finding a painting of Elvis Presley on a black-velvet canvas in someone's basement, Bell writes.
That's how alienated many young people feel toward organized religion, Marcus Borg, a Bible scholar who has written several books on reinventing Christianity, told me later by telephone. "In the religious studies class I teach at Oregon State University, I ask students to write down their impressions of Christianity and their adjectives include: anti-intellectual, judgmental and bigoted," Borg said. "So, I think Rob Bell's attempt to change this impression is exciting."
In Bell's envisioning of Christianity, he's also trying to bypass some of the feuds that have left many denominations deadlocked.

Women's ordination? No problem at Mars Hill. A third of the 15 associate pastors who work with Bell are women.

Homosexuality? Bell tells gay people the same thing he tells everyone who walks through the door. It's a powerfully affirming line that he repeated in his sermon on Sunday: "God loves you exactly as you are. Period."

The Rev. Brian McLaren, a pastor from Maryland who has become a national adviser to churches like Mars Hill, said: "Rob's one of the most courageous pastors in the country. What he's trying to do is move past the battle lines that have caused such polarization."
Bell seems well equipped for such tough work, growing up around controversy and jumping into the edgy life of a performer at an early age. He's the son of U.S. District Court Judge Robert Holmes Bell, whose controversial cases have ranged from the expansion of casinos to the storage of nuclear waste. And, even as Rob Bell went from Okemos High School to Wheaton College in Illinois and Fuller Theological Seminary in California, he moonlighted as a guitarist in punk bands.

When he founded Mars Hill in 1999, he named it after the spot in Greece where Paul of Tarsus preached to leading intellectuals and pagan leaders. Criticizing ancient houses of worship, Paul declared, "God ... does not dwell in temples made with hands."

At the restaurant on Sunday night, Bell wiped a final bit of curry from his chin and said: "The bad thing about a lot of theology today is that it works like a box. The church draws a square box around itself and divides the world between people who are 'in' and 'out.' I don't think that's what Jesus intended. He saw the church as a journey we take together. That's what interests me: the exploration, the relationships, the excitement of trying to discover this together. All I'm doing is asking people to come along."


liam said...

that is really really interesting.

I may steal it for my blog

Nick said...

I stole it from someone else's blog so it's all good.