MARS HILL (ROB BELL) TIMELINE
1970 Rob Bell born in Ingham County, Michigan.
1992 Bell graduated from Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.
1995 Bell graduated from Fuller Theological and Seminary and began a ministry at Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, working under Pastor Ed Dobson
1999 Bell founded Mars Hill Bible Church in Wyoming, Michigan; within a year the church bought a shopping mall in Grandville, Michigan for one dollar. The church seated 3,500 people.
2001 Ten thousand people were attending the three Mars Hill Bible Church services.
2001 Bell created the NOOMA video series and created a non-profit film company called Flannel .
2005 Bell published his first book, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith, published by Zondervan.
2006 Bell launched his Everything is Spiritual speaking tour, which was sold out all over North America.
2007 The magazine TheChurchReport.com placed Mars Hill Bible Church tenth on its list of “The 50 Most Influential Christians in America,” as chosen by their readers and online visitors.
2011 Bell was named by Time Magazine as one of the “2011 Time 100,” the magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
2011 Bell’s Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived made the New York Times bestseller list.
2011 Bell left Mars Hill Bible Church and decided to move to California to pursue television opportunities in order to find larger ways “to compellingly share the gospel.”
2011 Bell, having met Carlton Cuse at Time’s 100 event, partnered with him to sell a TV series to ABC television. The series has not been piloted, however.
2012 Bell worked with Cuse on a “spiritually inflected” talk show that will communicate creative ways of looking at faith and spirituality.
Robert Holmes Bell Jr. was born on August 23, 1970, in Ingham County, Michigan. He is the son of Robert Holmes Bell, a federal judge nominated by Ronald Reagan, and Helen Bell. Rob Bell was raised in a conservative Evangelical Christian home in Okemos, Michigan with his brother John and sister Ruth. He recounts that “My parents were intellectually rigorous. Ask questions, explore, don’t take things at face value. Stretch. I’ve always been interested in the thing behind the thing” (Hamilton 2008). Although he attended a series of churches during his youth, Bell remembers being frustrated with them. As he put it, “I remember thinking, ‘You know, if Jesus is who this guy standing up there says he is, this should be way more compelling.’ This should have a bit more electricity. The knob should be way more to the right, you know?” (Meacham 2011).
Bell had both musical and religious interests, which he explored while he pursued higher education at evangelical institutions. He attended Wheaton College, his parents’ alma mater, where he majored in Psychology and met his wife, Kristen. During his time at Wheaton, he and several friends formed an indie rock band, Ton Bundle, which achieved local popularity. Bell received his B.A degree from Wheaton College in 1992 and went on to obtain a Master of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, He served as a youth intern at Lake Avenue church and formed a second band, Big Fil, in 1995. Bell and his wife Kristen then moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Bell interned at Grand Rapids’ Calvary Church, under the mentorship of Reverend Ed Dobson. Bell reports that he then felt a need to establish his own church: “I thought there was a whole generation of people hungry for Jesus, but unable to connect with the churches they had experienced.” He recalls having “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” (Hamilton 2008).
In 1999, Bell founded Mars Hill Bible Church in Wyoming, Michigan. On the first Sunday, Bell welcomed nearly 1,000 people to his church services. Over the next year and a half, Bell quickly drew larger crowds that reached more than 10,000. In 2000, Mars Hill bought the Grandville Mall for $1. They put up a stage and video screens in the middle of the anchor store, surrounded it with 3,500 chairs, painted the walls gray and the ceiling black, and put on what Bell called a “show” that continued to attract large crowds for more than a decade. Bell’s preaching performances and the sophistication of the worship band were the engines of the growth of this megachurch (Wellman 2012).
In Bell’s 2005 book, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith, Bell stated that the success of the church had created a personal crisis; he had to “kill the superpastor.” What he meant was that the Christian faith was not about success, but about understanding how the gospel was incarnated in the here and now, in acts of charity and community (Wellman 2012). The church opened up leadership to women, and expanded its mission to victims of AIDS and to countries in Africa in need of wells for water. Bell and his family eventually downsized, and they moved into a Grand Rapids ghetto in 2007. This period eventuated in his book, Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile, co-athored with Don Golden. The book described a “new Exodus,” in which God’s followers were “To hear the cries of the oppressed.” Bell criticized the Iraq War, and he questioned how some churches “spend 20 million on remodels while 20 percent of the Grand Rapids population lives in poverty” (Bell 2008; Boyd 2007). This liberationist theme caused tension in his congregation and also in his personal life. In 2008, he went on leave to Ireland; he came back renewed in a new found sense of God’s grace. The Bell family moved out of the ghetto (Wellman 2012).
Don Golden left the church, and Shane Hipps, a former advertising executive turned Mennonite pastor, came to be Bell’s co-pastor. During this time, Bell preached only half of the time and continued his national and international speaking tours on themes including, “Everything is Spiritual,” “The Gods Aren’t Angry,” and “Drops like Stars: A Few Thoughts on Creativity and Suffering.”
In 2011, Bell signed with HarperOne for his most controversial, bestselling book, Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. He also was named to the Time’s 100 most influential persons in the world. At the banquet for this award, Bell became friends with Carlton Cuse, who later teamed with Bell to sell a TV Show to ABC, which was not piloted. Bell then moved to California and began to work on another project with Cuse, “The Rob Bell Show,” a spiritually inflected, hybrid talk show. He also continued to write, consult with pastors and occasionally speak (Wellman 2012).
Mars Hill Bible Church invited Kent Dobson (the son of Ed Dobson) to be their next teaching pastor in September, 2012. Mars Hill’s attendance has fallen to between 2,000 and 4,000. The giving, which reached its height of nearly six million dollars in 2007, has dropped substantially as well. The church continues to practice a form of narrative theology and a mission involving, “Living out the way of Jesus in missional communities, announcing the arrival of his kingdom, working for measurable change among the oppressed.” All of this is very familiar and is a product of Bell’s ministry. Kent Dobson was a friend and protegé of Bell’s, and so he seems a likely person to carry on Bell’s legacy at Mars Hill.
Bell began his ministry working out of a conservative form of evangelical Christianity (See Bell’s first sermon, 2.7.1999). In the midst of his early success at Mars Hill, he began to study the Jewish roots of the New Testament (Bivin and Blizzard 1994); the writings of Dallas Willard (1998) on the importance of discipleship; and Brian McClaren’s A New Kind of Christian (2001). Bell moved from a focus on eternal salvation to the centrality of Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God and the belief that discipleship was the experience of God’s new creation in the here and now. Bell investigated forms of narrative theology, and Bell saw himself as an artist in the faith, asking questions and provoking thought and service rather than as one trying to carve out doctrine and dogma in the faith.
This turn to narrative theology moved him into forms of contemplative prayer, spiritual practices and healing ministries. The sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion remained critical acts of orientation: Baptism as inviting people into new life in Christ, and breaking bread and drinking wine as an action of celebrating that, as Bell would often say, the “tomb is empty – Christ is risen.” For Bell this met that death is overcome and sin is forgiven. A new creation is set for all people, no matter what their condition (See Bell’s 12.19.2011 sermon).
Bell argued that what really matters is not what one believes but what one does in actions of charity, justice and compassion toward others. This orientation toward the least and the last was played out in services to inner-city children (several of Mars Hill families moved into Grand Rapid ghettoes) and in providing direct ministry to those in great need, both in Michigan and nations of Africa (Wellman 2012).
Mars Hill fits the definition of the megachurch in the sense that it has more than 2,000 attendees on most Sundays, and yet, relative to most megachurches, it theologically and organizationally
fits more in the vein of the emerging church movement. As mentioned, Bell was influenced by McClaren’s thought and writings early on. However, Bell never joined with other emerging church types, Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, or McClaren; indeed, he refused all labels in describing his philosophy–a very emergent philosophy to follow–to eschew labels, roles and professional titles. Without naming his church emergent, Mars Hill leadership was highly egalitarian, and many would say, disorganized. Bell was criticized for the inefficiency in responding to the needs of his congregation. Eventually, in fact,the church began to hire others to lead the church staff and organize the church infrastructure. Bell devoted himself to the teaching role, and he had no office in the church for much of his tenure at Mars Hill. Moreover, he attempted to place the power of ministry in the hands of lay people, pushing the church to become more missional and lay-focused in its philosophy. Bell wanted the church to be the mission, and he wanted to avoid the church as a place where people were served; that is, they should come to Mars Hill to be equipped to go out in mission to others. And, for Bell, every occupation is sacred. As he would say, “Why don’t we ordain everyone!! Let’s ordain school teachers, plumbers, business people, everyone has a sacred task.” As he was fond of saying, when someone would ask if they should go into full-time ministry, he would ask them, “Are you a Christian?” They would say yes, and he would respond, “Well, its too late, you already are in full-time ministry.” So, this avoidance of hierarchy and central leadership has continued in the Mars Hill leadership and organizational DNA. There is no Senior Pastor as one finds in most megachurches; there is a team of teachers who lead worship, and the invitation to membership is more an invitation to discipleship and leadership than a position or a role. In this way, Mars Hill fits the numerical definition of a megachurch but in its organizational style the spirit of the emergent church movement.
Early in his ministry at Mars Hill, Bell pushed to allow women to hold positions of leadership and to be able to preach. This caused some controversy, yet it was passed. However, in the ensuing discussion and debate the church lost 1,000 members (Wellman 2012).
A second controversy arose around Bell’s leadership, with Don Golden, one that moved the church toward a critical view of the Iraq War. They offered an interpretation of scripture that was based on a theory that God was calling the church to a “new exodus” away from supporting violent forms of political power and empires, such as Egypt and Rome (Bell 2008). It argued that the power of the gospel was not about power but about service to the powerless, the poor and the marginalized. This created some push back from the congregation and led to some attrition in the membership (Wellman 2012).
The final conflict arose from Bell’s book on Love Wins. In this book, Bell questioned the conventional evangelical belief that those who had not come to Christ in this life were destined for hell. He suggested that the idea that Jesus’ blood protected humans from God’s wrath was a misinterpretation of the gospel. The good news of the gospel is best illustrated by the Prodigal Son, in which the Father in the story welcomes back the son, who had betrayed him, with open arms and unconditional acceptance. Jesus and his stories model a God who is always welcoming home the lost, and Bell surmised that this invitation may even be active post mortem. Many conservative evangelical leaders found this belief to be unbiblical and heretical (See Chan 2011; Galli 2011; Taylor 2011 and DeYoung 2011).
Bell again, lost some members of the congregation, though, even as some left, others were attracted to this teaching (Wellman 2012).
Rob Bell’s first sermon at Mars Hill Bible Church, February 7, 1999. Accessed from http://www.box.com/shared/l15eieakxe on 13 February 13, 2012.
Bell, Rob. 2005. Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Bell, Rob and Don Golden. 2008. Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008.
Bell ’s Parting Epistle to Mars Hill: “Grace + Peace,” December 19, 2011. Accessed from http://sojo.net/blogs/2011/12/19/rob-bells-parting-epistle-mars-hill-grace-peace on 5 January 2012.
Bivin, David and Roy Blizzard, Jr. 1994. Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus: New Insights From a Hebrew Perspective Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image Publishers.
Boyd, Gregory. 2007. The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Christian Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Chan, France and Preston Sprinkle. 2011. Erasing Hell: What God Said about Eternity, and the Things We Made Up. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook.
DeYoung, Kevin. 2011. “God is Still Holy and What You Learned in Sunday School is Still True: A Review of Love Wins by Rob Bell.” March 14, 2011. Accessed from http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2011/03/14/rob-bell-love-wins-review/ on 30 November 2012.
Galli, Mark. 2011. God Wins: Heaven, Hell, and Why the Good News is Better than Love Wins. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.
Hamilton, Terri Finch. 2008. “Profile: Mars Hill Bible Church Pastor Rob Bell.” 23 March 2008. Accessed from http://blog.mlive.com/grpress/2008/03/mars_hill_bible_church_pastor.html, on 30 April 2012.
McLaren, Brian. 2001. A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey. San Francisco, CA:, Jossey-Bass.
Meacham, Jon. 2011. “Pastor Rob Bell: What if Hell Doesn’t Exist.” Time. 14 April 2011. Accessed from http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2065289,00.html#ixzz1tZ6LzQp9, on April 30, 2012.
Taylor, Justin. Blog post “Rob Bell: Universalist?” Accessed from http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2011/02/26/rob-bell-universalist/ on 1 March 2012.
Wellman, James K. Jr. 2012. Rob Bell and a New American Christianity. Abingdon Press.
Willard, Dallas. 1998. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God. NY: HarperCollins Publishing.
24 January 2013