He once planted a church by teaching through Leviticus. He can use a rabbit carved from a bar of soap to illustrate the nature of suffering. Google his name and the term "Sex God" will appear among the top entries.
Rob Bell is the most interesting preacher in the world.
Bell is the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, but his reputation as an innovative communicator came largely through his video teaching series, NOOMA. Since launching Mars Hill in 1999, Bell's ministry has expanded into books, DVDs, and live tours, but he is still committed to shepherding his community at Mars Hill through preaching.
Leadership managing editor Skye Jethani sat down with Bell to discuss his approach to communicating, the state of preaching in the church, and the risks the pulpit presents to a pastor's soul.
Your sermons are known for pulling from unexpected sources—everything from art history to quantum physics. Why?
When Jacob woke up after his vision of angels ascending and descending on the ladder, he declared, "Surely God was in this place and I did not know it." And Jesus says, "My Father is always at work even to this very day." Jesus lives with an awareness, an assumption that God is here and he's at work. Dallas Willard calls this "the God-bathed world." This has deeply shaped me.
My assumption is that God can be found in all of the interesting things buzzing around us all the time. So we can take something from here and something from there and bring them together. A friend of mine calls it "tying the clouds together."
What's an example?
In high-end quantum physics they believe matter isn't stable. The atoms in a chair are connected in a pattern of relationships. And the Bible begins with a triune God—a relationship of loving, giving, creative energy. Ah ha, there's something there.
Drops Like Stars began when I realized that basic art theory has all of these connections with suffering. And so it generally starts with some odd moment of connection. And then from there it's just the hard work of hunting things down, digging things up, becoming aware of all that's going on around us all the time. I have journals filled with fragments, and over time they grow.
How is that different from how you were originally trained to preach?
A lot of pastors were trained to read the verse and then read the commentaries. But after a while the two are just talking to each other. One's focus can actually become smaller and smaller until everything is funneled into the particular text. The movement then becomes in rather than out. So it's Tuesday afternoon and a pastor is sitting in the office reading James 2 and four or five commentaries hoping to find that little nugget. When all the while there's a huge world of insight and implication and ideas out there.
Rather than shrinking our vision, the text should become a pair of eyes with which we are able to see even more. There's a great big world out there with quantum physics, and architecture, and economic theory, and the thread count of clothing, and the fact that refrigerators in Europe are smaller—all of these seemingly random events and occurrences and happenings are all connected and help us see how this really is God's world.
That covers content, but what about the sermon structure?
There's a whole world of screenwriting wisdom that we can tap into as preachers. There are storytelling insights about arc, tension, narrative, perspective, point of view—these things aren't taught in most seminaries, but they're essential to understanding how stories work, which means they're incredibly helpful in understanding the Bible.
Imagine a pastor on Thursday staring at this obscure passage in the life of David trying to figure out where the sermon is. One playwright says, "When in doubt, just have a different character give the line." And suddenly it clicks—do the sermon from the perspective of Uriah. Boom! Just one little adjustment and all of a sudden the whole thing works. My experience has been that the modern preaching, teaching, training system doesn't tap people into all this. The imagination involved in the art of the sermon can end up being stifled.
There's a lot of emphasis today on practical preaching, helping people address their felt-needs, and giving direct application. Is that foremost in your mind when you prepare a message?
When I prepare to teach a text there are a few questions I always ask. First, "What's the thing behind the thing?" and "What's the truth behind the truth?" So if we're talking about tithing, we're really talking about generosity and participation. And if we're talking about generosity and participation, then we're really talking about whether you view the world as a scarcity or as a world governed by a Trinitarian God. Is the universe at its core a sliced-up pie where you grab your slice and then protect and defend it? Or do you believe that at the core there is an endlessly self-giving, loving community of God we are invited to step into?
So you can talk about tithing—giving your 10 percent. Or you can wrestle with a scarcity versus a Trinitarian view of the universe with tithing perhaps being an implication at the end of the message.
So you're trying to help people see a larger view of reality, through the lens of the gospel, rather than just giving them practical application.
Yes, exactly. I call it the truth behind the truth; the mystery behind the mystery; reality behind the reality. If you say we're going to do a series on marriage for the next five weeks, there's a chance that people who's aren't married, who are single, or who are divorced are going to think, Well, I guess I don't have to show up for five weeks.
Another way to approach the subject is to see marriage as one of the applications of the truth behind the truth. The truth behind the truth would lead you to preach one week on being honest, the next on apologizing, and the next on serving others. Those truths apply to everyone. And then each week you might include a point on how it applies to marriage.
Does our inability to find the truth behind the truth explain why we ignore large sections of the Bible in our preaching? We just don't see much practical how-to in Obadiah?
It's interesting you bring this up because when our church started, I spent the first year and a half preaching through Leviticus verse by verse. But now it's a part of our church's DNA to assume that every text has something for us—even ones that make no sense the first time you read them.
"I always assume that there is way more going on in the text than we see on the first reading."—Rob Bell
It may be my own warped sense of humor, but it was always the odd places in the Bible that I found most compelling. It's God's inspired Word, and it's all useful. But to really believe that—that's when things get interesting. I'd rather trust God, jump into those texts, and discover what God has for us.
I really like the idea of throwing yourself at its mercy. I'm just assuming there will be things here. Last year we did Philippians verse by verse. It took the whole year. I always begin with the assumption that there is way more going on in the text than we see on the first reading.
With more familiar texts, like Philippians, you have a different challenge. How do you bring forward new insights without deteriorating into novelty?
We use phrases like "historic orthodox Christian faith" a lot, and we ask how Christians before us have understood the text. What did the church fathers say about this? For example, we did Lamentations for Lent. For thousands of years Christians have taken the season leading up to Resurrection Sunday for reflection.
We frame many things like that. Here are ways people have thought about this, understood this, expressed this over the years.
So you're not just trying to be different or innovative, you're trying to be rooted?
Right. We're interested in the way of Jesus and being true to the way of Jesus. If what we dig up is rattling or provocative or surprising, great, but setting out to be shocking or controversial, that's not a goal God honors.
What else have you found unhelpful when preaching?
Focusing too much on something in the text that is an issue of hairsplitting debate among theologians. You are assuming that people care as much about the debate as you do. Somebody may be sitting there thinking, "Dude, I'm a plumber. I didn't know that was a debate, and I didn't know that it needed to be resolved. I'm just trying to figure out life with God and you spent sixteen minutes letting me know that you understood the origins of this particular Greek word." Some things just aren't helpful.
Why do we get sucked into those unhelpful debates?
In some sense we are justifying our existence. We want to appear smart and authoritative. We want to display what we know and prove that we deserve to be up here on the stage rather than humbly receiving the role as a gift.
I have definitely been guilty of trying to show people how much I know about a verse, and that's different than allowing them to see how the truth of it has impacted my life and can transform theirs. When we put language on our experience with a text, then it becomes life-giving preaching.
So for legitimacy as leaders we rely on our intelligence rather than our intimacy with Christ.
"Church is actually about caring for one another, speaking the truth with one another in love."—Rob Bell
Right. It's about walking with God. As a pastor it is easy
to fall into a pattern of life that is isolating, and in a weird way "Church, Inc." becomes your sphere of life. Before you know it, as pastor you're out of touch with what other people are really struggling with.
How has your role at Mars Hill changed?
A few years ago I felt like I was on a treadmill and the dial just kept getting turned up faster and faster. Three services, elder meetings, staff meetings, weddings, traveling, writing. And then some very wise elders realized it wasn't healthy. They said, "Okay, here's the deal. You're a part of Mars Hill, and you'll always be a part of it. But we are going to arrange things so that it doesn't kill you and it doesn't kill us."
It's been a long, long process, but over the past year it's been working really well. There aren't any models for this kind of thing, so it took a lot of discussion, sweat, blood, and prayer. But it's working. I preach a little less than half the Sundays at our church, and then I write and tour and make films and the leaders of our church invite me in to issues and meetings only when it's proper and makes sense.
How has sitting in the seats and watching others teach regularly impacted you as a preacher? Has your perspective shifted?
I've realized how much of my energy and headspace in the past was used trying to get people to do things. I would get all worked up: Why can't we care more about the earth, the poor, the needy, literacy, people who are suicidal? But sitting and listening to other teachers has been such a gift. They've shown me new things. And I've realized how easy it is to make people feel guilty, to tell them they should do something. But through these other teachers, I wasn't being told what I was supposed to be doing. I was being invited to consider what might be true and then act out of that. It's been so freeing. A real gift.
Your NOOMA video series has been popular. What do you think about the increasing number of preachers and churches using video technology to expand their reach?
It's powerful but there's also a dark side. Video is not church. You put images and music on a screen, and people will listen. But it's also dangerous. You're playing with fire. I think video technology deserves to be scrutinized heavily.
Go a little deeper. What makes video dangerous?
I don't think we know yet what the long-term impact will be on disciple-making. In 10 years we may discover what particular kind of Christ follower is formed by video preaching. I see warning lights on my dashboard. It's unclear what video may do to the ways we conceive of life together.
In the New Testament, there are 43 "one another" passages, and during a Sunday morning service you might be able to practice three or four of them. And as the service gets large, you can probably do fewer. A massive group setting is also dangerous. You can come, sit, listen, and go home and think, I've been to church, even if you haven't practiced any "one anothers." And with video that only gets more intense. I'm not sure that's the direction we want to be heading.
We want to be calling people to deep bonds of solidarity with one another. We may gather in a massive group, but from the stage I often say, "This is just a church service. Church is actually about caring for one another, and serving one another, and speaking truth to one another in love. Don't get the two confused."
The evidence suggests that video can have a fast and broad impact. So what's the alternative?
There is something more powerful than simply beaming yourself into other locations, and that is raising up disciples. Over time that will go farther and faster, but right now it will be more work and slower. With technology today it's easy to spend all of your energies reproducing your own voice, but there is a longer view that says, what if instead of beaming video to those ten locations, we train ten people who can go there and lead? That's a very basic question that should be in the mix somewhere.
Is developing other leaders part of your calling now?
That's the reason we recently did "The Poets, Prophets, and Preachers" seminar, and it's why I've got seminary students I meet with regularly. Meeting with them also changes my thinking because they ask great questions. There's a reason Jesus sends his disciples out in pairs—everyone learns.
What do you teach these students about the spiritual side of preaching?
First, the public nature of preaching exposes you to a wide spectrum of feedback—from the really good compliments to really venomous criticism. Both can be dangerous because they lead to either pride or pain. We need to work at becoming the kind of person who is so deeply grounded in who we are, the work we are called to do, and the words we are called to speak, that the ambient hype that surrounds the preaching event doesn't get the best of us.
It's important to create a circle of trusting, loving people around you who will tell you the truth no matter what. They can help you think rightly about the criticism and keep you balanced. Preaching isn't just about the sermon, it's about becoming the kind of person who can actually handle the role. It's like a Ferrari. If you don't know how to drive the thing, you're going to crash into a tree.
Based on your metaphor, I imagine you've hit some bumps on the road.
Oh, for sure. Preaching will inevitably reveal all sorts of stuff residing in your soul. The stage is like a magnet, and any little shards of insecurity, pride, fear, or greed in you will eventually be pulled to the surface. So you have to go down a journey toward becoming a particular kind of person or it will consume you.
What does that journey involve?
If you're going to preach long term and do it with more hope, more joy, more passion, and more wisdom, then you've got to be willing to dig down into your own soul and psyche and history. How do you seek approval? What messages did your parents send you? What voices do you hear on your shoulders?
The other part is sustainability. That's an important word for me. Some pastors think about how to survive the next five years. The better question to ask is, how are we going to thrive? How do we construct a rhythm and pace of life that ensures five years from now we'll have more passion, more energy, and we will be filled with new and fresh ideas about life in God's world?
Go into any church office and ask the leaders, "Is this sustainable? Are you more passionate, more expectant, more rested and ready to go than you were a year ago, or is this thing gradually killing you?"
Just this week I asked a seminary student, "What day of the week do you not answer email? When do you take a Sabbath to remind yourself that you're not a machine, you're a human?" And he said, "I don't know if I can do that right now." I was like, "Well, if you can't do it now in seminary, what happens when you have real responsibility?"
How do you balance the church's expectations and what's actually sustainable?
There is a thick church culture that consumes pastors and spits them out. But the pastors also allow themselves to be consumed. So it goes both ways. Both sides need to reevaluate things. The first people a pastor must have this discussion with is his or her family. If you're married, start with a spouse. Then have this discussion with the church's leadership. Start with the people you report to, and assume that these people have "hired" you to give your very best. Explore together how your life can be set up in such a way that you can give your very best in these tasks.
One of my problems was that I didn't understand how to properly bring the leaders of our church into this exploration process. But as we learned how to do it, everything changed.
I don't know any elder in the church who wants the pastor to be burned out. No one wants crappy sermons. No one wants you dragging yourself to meetings with no ideas. So, that's where to start. Tell the leaders, "You have brought me here to serve you well. Let's figure out how I can give to my family first and then give my best to the church.