Rob Bell in the New Yorker

The New Yorker recently ran a story authored by Kelefa Sanneh on Rob Bell, the controversial former pastor of Mars Hill in Grand Rapids, MI. (This is not the Mars Hill of Seattle where Mark Driscoll is the pastor). For years the very talented Mr. Bell loved to play the role of evangelical provocateur and built a rather large following of younger evangelicals especially among those who identified themselves as part of the hipster and emergent demographic.

Rob Bell got his start as a youth pastor in California and then was brought on to the staff of Calvary Chapel in Grand Rapids because of a relationship he’d developed with its long time pastor Ed Dobson.

“Not all of the elders felt like I did—some of them were concerned that he was inexperienced,” Dobson says. “But I told them, ‘Look, he can communicate. He really doesn’t know the Bible, but, if we can add the Bible to his communication skills, we’ll have a winner.’ ”

So there were signs from the very beginning that this wasn’t going to have a happy ending.

While the whole article is worth reading (attention Tim Keller devotees: he’s quoted more than once), what I found most interesting was the inverse relationship between watering down theology and the church’s numerical growth. The conventional wisdom seems to be that if the church would soften its message making it conform to the new cultural realities, its size and influence would grow.

That’s exactly the opposite of what happened at Mars Hill under Bell’s leadership. In its early years with it’s more evangelical, gospel oriented approach, the church grew to a weekly attendance of 10,000. But then Bell pushed the church to accept women’s ordination and attendance dropped a couple thousand. Next was a shift that promoted social justice at the expense of the gospel and the church lost another thousand people.

In 2011 Bell released Love Wins, a book in which challenges the historic, orthodox understanding of hell. As a result Bell’s notoriety increased but the church he pastored suffered. When he left the church only 3500 people attended.

All of this led the article’s author to offer the following assessment:

“Throughout American history, the most successful church movements have not been the ones that kept up with contemporary culture, but the ones that were confident enough to tug hard against it.”

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