An Interview With Rob Bell
by Vic Cuccia
Rob Bell is the Pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church, one of the largest and fastest growing churches in America. However, this is no run-of-the-mill mega church. For starters, it took us forever to find the place. We had the physical address but drove by it three times before realizing that it was in an old mall. It is curious that a church without even a small sign could grow to over eight thousand people. The ministry of Mars Hill is what draws the crowd, and they definitely do not judge their effectiveness by the size of their steeple, or sign for that matter.
Vic Cuccia: I heard somewhere that you play guitar and you were once in a punk band, is that true?
Rob Bell: I am a total hack musician. In college I was in a band. I cut my teeth on Primus, Chili Peppers, Pixies, Violent Femmes, Midnight Oil…that was on the stereo all the time. I had a band with my best friends called Ton Bundle. We were underage so we would get gigs at clubs in Chicago and then literally wait in the alley until it was time to go on so that we wouldn’t get carded or anything. Then we would run on, do the fastest sound check ever and then play.
I was the lead singer…I did a whole James Brown thing, I would like start to faint and fall over and they would bring a cape out…it was nuts. One of the guitar players was like “yeah dude I was the head trombone player” so we would do a little Celebration by Cool and the Gang, right after we did a song by the Pixies, it was completely bizarre, and great fun.
Stylistically, how would you categorize what you did?
That band was in ’89 to ’91 when alternative meant something. Because you had Bon Jovi and then all of the sudden this guy named Kurt Cobain came along and everything changed. Prior to that you had like Mariah Carey or Bon Jovi but then you had this thing that was kind of emerging with Smashing Pumpkins and bands like that. Now that sound is just the mainstream but back then it was something new and different…I have great memories of those days.
Did you guys ever tour?
No, we didn’t. Our senior year of college the band fell apart and broke all of our hearts. The breakup of the band was actually me saying, “I got to go to Seminary and be a Pastor.”
Now you are a Pastor of one of the largest churches in America. Are there any similarities that you can draw on from be the leading singer in a band to being a Pastor?
Well, when you’re in a band, if you aren’t connecting with people they leave, they just walk out. No one has any allegiance to a band. What do people say,? “I’m going to go check out a band,” which means “I am to go stand in the back and if they aren’t very good I’m going to leave.” So when I got into Seminary and I did my first sermons I asked the question “why would we spend time doing something that isn’t great?” Nowhere else in your life do you give your time things that aren’t great. You don’t go sit through movies that you don’t like. You don’t pay for things that aren’t of a certain caliber that compel you in a certain way. So when I got into teaching my assumption was that the Jesus revolution ought to be the best thing going or do something else.
To this day I meet people who go to church because their supposed to; I absolutely cannot begin to comprehend that. You don’t do this in any other area of your life. You know you meet people who say they are just going through the motions, well why? You don’t do that, you take that CD out and put another CD in, I don’t get it. So back to the question, I guess being in a band has shaped me in some profound ways.
So now you are the Pastor of Mars Hill Church. Why did you choose that name?
Mars Hill comes from the book of Acts chapter 17. There was this hill in the city of Athens where the philosophers, thinkers and poets would exchange all the latest ideas. Paul, one of these first Christians goes in and enters into this discussion and he is really humble and smart and quotes their own writers and poets and thinkers and philosophers. He actually does this really brilliant sermon using their categories of thought.
My assumption is always that a Christian is not hanging out in some sort of anemic little subculture with C-grade art and music. They are in the middle of everything exchanging ideas and they are humble and smart about it. They aren’t just out offending people telling them that they are wrong but they actually love people enough to engage them where they are at. So Mars Hill was built on this assumption that a church should be at the center of culture engaging with whatever the latest ideas are.
From being here on Sunday I would guess there is somewhere between 8,000 to 10,000 people who are a part of Mars Hill. What is it that makes Mars Hill different than your typical mega church?
Any pastor that would answer that, I would be very skeptical. I am as skeptical of the mega church as anybody. In fact I am more skeptical, because I have seen things that people who would say they are cynical of the mega church haven’t seen. So I am just as skeptical as anybody. When you get big and God together, there is trouble there. So you have to be very, very careful. We’ve just simply asked, “all these people have gathered so what are we going to do?” We are going to try to draw attention to all of the causes and people who have no voice and no one is listening to. So we are going to try to help single moms, people in poverty, people who have lost their job, people who nobody will listen to.
We believe that anytime a crowd gathers if you don’t immediately start asking “how can we use this crowd and this gathering to promote the kind of thing that God cares about?” If you don’t ask that question, it becomes about yourself. Then yeah, something really destructive is going on. I think when people say they don’t like mega churches, I think people are scared because they know that when things get big their natural arc is to be all about themselves, so you’re building bigger buildings etc. Like yesterday, I was talking about Marilyn Manson who said, “it’s all relative to the size of your steeple.” It just becomes this giant ego show. We just try to strip it all away. What is this beautiful thing that we are all compelled by? Then let’s pursue that.
We are sitting here in what was an old mall, built in the 70’s or 80’s. Most churches this size would be looking for property to build a large nice facility to house all these people. Any intentions to do anything like that?
(Bell laughs) We are trying to preach sermons to free up some seats. I don’t know, in one of the most dangerous and under resourced neighborhoods in our city there is a warehouse. I would love to move in there. I think there is somewhere we could go but we would want it to be shabbier than this.
So no intentions of the giant steeple anytime soon…
Oh I don’t know how you could ever do that and still have your soul. I guess some people do, God bless them, and that is on the record, but I don’t know how.
I am actually in a church where that is the focus. We are in a 13 million dollar facility where we still owe 8 million and we are about to cast a vision for another 4 million dollar addition. Honestly, it is the kind of thing that breaks my heart and it is one of the reasons I am at this conference.
(Bells leans down close to the recorder) 4 million dollars! Wow you could feed a lot of hungry people for that!
Tell me about the “Everything is Spiritual Tour.” What was it and how did you come up with it?
Most of my days I wake up and I work on things that I am creating. So sometimes it will be like, that’s a sermon series, ok that’s a book, and we make these short films called Noomas, ok that’s a film. I was working on this thing called Everything is Spiritual for like 3 years and it was like a sermon on steroids but it didn’t fit in any of the mediums that I usually work in. So I thought, “I think this is like a club or a theatre, I just walk out and do a two hour talk.” So I told a friend of mine who is in a band. I told him I have this idea to do a club tour. Also, we had a lot people asking, when are you coming to Seattle? Dayton? Florida? So I thought “I’ll just go to all these cities, where apparently I have friends. So I said to my wife “what if we lived on a bus for a month and did a different city every night and took the family and see what happens?”
So my friend said I’ll hook you up with a guy who can book all the venues. I did it in July with my family and it was just awesome. You wake up every morning in a new city and each night I would do the talk. We filmed it so it will be out as a film in a little while. We gave all the money to WaterAid which is a British organization that builds sustainable water systems for people who have no drinking water. That’s wrong and we think that pisses Jesus off, that people don’t have water, so we are trying to do something about that. I just loved it, we are going to do it again, it was great.
I actually caught the Jacksonville stop.
(Bell laughs) Jacksonville was the one where the train came by and I had to stop for about a minute it was crazy.
It was also the one with no AC! Can you get a venue next time in Florida with AC? I can handle the smell of beer and vomit, but hot beer and vomit…
(Bell, laughing more) Hot beer and vomit that is something special right there…a couple of the clubs were just full on punk clubs with the low ceilings and smell like the end of the world and I just couldn’t have been happier. Some of those clubs I would walk into and be like, I would rather be nowhere else than here tonight. It’s things like that, that get you back to why you do what you do. I mean I can hang out here in Grand Rapids in this huge church and that is wonderful but a couple hundred people in Jacksonville…that’s awesome, I just loved it.
So the band never toured but now you have. Your ministry has created some controversy particularly among some more traditional churches and leaders, why do you think that is?
I think that what a lot of people call religion is actually fear. I think they say it is historic Christianity but I think it is a lot of terror and fear and shame and all sorts of other darkness, so they are not free. They are bound and terrified and working very hard to preserve and prop up whole systems and ways of thinking, living and believing things that are actually totally destructive. So I assume that sometimes those are the real issues. When people criticize you it says much more about them. For that matter when people praise you it says more about them. I don’t read reviews, I don’t read blogs, I don’t Google my name…it just has no place in my life, I don’t know what good that would do.
As a pastor what would you say to someone who has become disillusioned with organized church or what they have seen of Christianity?
I would wager that the things that most turn them off are the things that most turn Jesus off. There is not one instance in Jesus’ teachings where he gets angry with somebody who isn’t a follower of his or someone who doesn’t love God. His anger is always for religious people who claim to speak for God but live in another way. So if you find hypocrisy absolutely revolting so did Jesus. If you find people who think they are the moral police of culture repulsive, so did Jesus. If you find people who are ready to throw stones at the next sinner very hard to take, so did Jesus. And if you think that people who use Jesus to accumulate political power, to coerce people to live according to their laws, well Jesus had a problem with such things as well. I would say that your anger is shared by Jesus. He’s angered by all the same things.
It is my understanding that a few weeks ago you got very sick and were not able to speak on Sunday so you decided to show an interview with Bono and Bill Hybles, talking about faith and the aids pandemic, instead of doing a regular sermon. How did people respond to that?
We got great feedback, people were just like, “that was so awesome.” What most thrilled me is the number of people who were like, “yeah we have been hearing that, that is what it really means to be a Christian.” That made me really proud of our people. That is how God is and that is where God’s story always goes, to those who are poor and oppressed, it always goes there. He was born in a manger, how much more do we need.
Unfortunately it seems that many Christians and leaders for that matter seem to have missed this major point of the message.
I think it is really important for people to understand that they live in the empire. The empire is all throughout the Scripture whether it is Egypt or Rome. We’re the empire. There are whole systems of our culture that are devoted to protecting us and our empire. That is how it works, King Solomon built lots of military fortresses and lots of energy has to be spent preserving your empire. So in many ways it is like water people are swimming in. Unless you drag them up on the beach and say “can you see”, they don’t see it.
There is a new Hummer dealership in our town. In America they call a Hummer an SUV, in the rest of the world, it is a military vehicle! People in America use military vehicles to get groceries. So many people are so saturated, they are swimming and underwater in the empire and they don’t go, “wait a second what is going on here.” Then some people get the gift of seeing things from the outside and go, “wait God is going to judge us for what we do with all this wealth, ingenuity and entrepreneurial power, we’re going to be judged.”
A lot of the way you write and teach has to do with asking questions. What would you say to the person who says that too many questions regarding theology and the church can result in a lack of confidence or faith?
Jesus’ teaching is always about how you live and how you act in the world. So for us the questions are never the goal. The questions simply are the natural human response to the difficulty of sorting through what it means to be a person of faith. So if I am serious about taking Jesus’ call upon myself, taking his yoke and doing what he said to do and living how he said to live, a kingdom kind of life. If I am really serious about it, there is going to be a conflict here because the world I live in is not oriented around the Kingdom of God. So I am going to have to wrestle through exactly what that means and that is going to raise some questions but that is not the goal, it never has been and it not a very admirable goal. The goal is that the question, like everything else, would serve the greater thing here and that is us being the hands and feet of Jesus. So our goal has always been to find out how to be the people of Jesus here and do it. So yeah if there were all sorts of esoteric mumblings from the top of the mountain in the lotus position, that is not a very noble or worthy cause, but we are trying to figure out how to act here.
So to question certain issues of theology or tradition is to try to determine how to live this out rather than, let’s fight over this.
For instance a lot of Christians have really warped views about people from other religions. They don’t even know how to interact. They can’t even be human with someone who isn’t exactly like them. That’s a humanity issue and God calls us to respect the image of God in all of God’s image bearers. So we need to challenge the theology that wants to label all the world into these nice neat boxes and that wants to condemn these people because we’re so great. We need to challenge something because it gets in the way of the very thing Jesus calls us to be. Love your neighbor. If you can’t even conceive of your neighbor outside of this giant label, if you have never read their sacred texts and you can make these grand statements about their eternal destiny then how are you ever going to love your neighbor? You have no voice with them and Jesus called you to have a voice with them. So I am going to challenge that because I am trying to be obedient to Jesus
You recently preached a sermon called “God wants to save Christians from hell.” I was discussing the message with a guy who after hearing this message was a bit disturbed and somehow came to the conclusion that you didn’t believe in a literal hell. Let me ask you, do you believe in a literal hell that is defined simply as eternal separation from God?
Well, there are people now who are seriously separated from God. So I would assume that God will leave room for people to say “no I don’t want any part of this”. My question would be, does grace win or is the human heart stronger than God’s love or grace. Who wins, does darkness and sin and hardness of heart win or does God’s love and grace win?
I don’t know why as a Christian you would have to make such declarative statements. Like your friend, does he want there to be a literal hell? I am a bit skeptical of somebody who argues that passionately for a literal hell, why would you be on that side? Like if you are going to pick causes, if you’re literally going to say these are the lines in the sand, I’ve got to know that people are going to burn forever, this is one of the things that you drive your stake in the ground on. I don’t understand that.
Especially when so many fail to recognize the hell that many people are experiencing today and do little about it.
Yeah, I would think it would be your duty as a Christian to hope and long and pray for somehow everybody to be reconciled to God. If you are really serious about evangelism, as I’m sure you friend would claim, and you wanted to save people from hell, then wouldn’t your hope be that everybody reconciles with God? Why would you hope for anything else? It would be your duty to long for that. I would actually ask questions about his salvation.
Ok, last question, what is at the top of your IPOD list these days?
Let’s see…Early Police – Zenyatta Mondatta, Regatta de Blanc, Outlandos d’Armor. Beastie Boys Ill Communication has been getting a lot of spins lately, and my six year old is all over the Jay-Z unplugged album. But I am obsessed with British bands so everything from Doves, who I think are the greatest ever, to Athlete, Starsailor, Ash and Charlatans. I love that stuff…
Sweet…thanks so much for your time.