Brief informational segue: Spiritually, I’m still bruised and recovering from growing up in West Michigan. Its religious climate – multiple Christian radio stations and Christian schools, avid Dr. Dobsonites, and Christian Reformed churches on every corner – made life difficult for me as a religious outsider. Growing up “RLDS,” I was unacceptable. I wasn’t really anybody. Not Mormon, not Protestant, nor Catholic. For many, I wasn’t even Christian. I consistently had friends who were worried about my salvation.
Tracts about how to save people from cults like mine were printed in Grand Rapids by Zondervan. They were on the “Welcome” racks of many churches, even in a few local eating establishments. Half of my family came from this version of Christianity. I remember the tensions that lurked underneath family gatherings. I was 9 or 10 when my grandparents lovingly showed me the passages in Revelation that they felt condemned people like me to the plagues and pestilence of His Word. There’s a feeling in those memories that accompany me to this day. I learned later that my own church had a rich history of this kind of exclusive approach to faith. It took grad school for me realize this was part and parcel of something called “sectarianism.” Sectarianism underlies almost all my personal and intellectual struggles with orthodoxy. In a way, I’ve spent my lifetime trying to theologically and emotionally figure how faith in Jesus came to all this.
So anyway: I went to Mars Hill not knowing what to expect. I liked the the Nooma videos I saw and knew something of Rob Bell’s celebrity. But I’ve also been a victim Christianity. More significantly, I’ve always found celebrity amidst Christ’s church a bit of a tragic irony – a contradiction beyond repair. But, still, I was not skeptical. I don’t ever leave my head nor heart at the door of any church, including my own. But, I was looking forward to worship yesterday morning and wanted to learn something from Mars Hill. I didn’t know Pastor Bell was teaching.
One quick confession: I confess, too, I felt jealous of Mars Hill. In the past, I’ve felt bound to a denomination that hasn’t seemed able to articulate the simple, yet deep and ungraspable words of Jesus’ Gospel in a clear and thoughtful way. I’ve seen Bell do this with thoughtful exegesis and the benefits of modern media. This is something I wish I had been able to be a part of.
So, back to my story. I wanted to sing and pray.
The praise was good at 11AM. I loved seeing my cousin at home in song and leading rich praise.
But, then, this testimony began to unfold. Before Rob Bell had a chance to teach, I turned to Philippians. I wanted to read. Paul’s description of the mindset of Jesus and God kenosis (Gr. ~ self-emptying) has always meant alot to me. I didn’t know Rob had been working through Philippians for over a year. I didn’t know we’d be in chapters 3 and 4 that day. So when he began by having us turn to Philippians, I felt the Spirit in a small but generous way. The words almost broke out of context; I was already there…in more ways than one.
Then, like most deeply personal experiences, what happened next is hard to explain. I had an encounter with God about Rob Bell and Mars Hill. I felt God speak to me.
As Rob Bell spoke, I – myself, a full-time minister, student on the search, and first-time visitor – felt spiritually connected to Rob and Mars Hill in a deeply personal way. All of the sudden I knew why Rob is a successful pastor. I knew why Mars Hill exists. I knew why people responded to Bell’s ministry.
He loves them. That’s why Mars Hill exists and why Rob Bell shares his ministry.
It’s hard to say exactly what I mean. I think people either have eyes to see and ears to hear what I mean, or don’t. My testimony is that the love at the heart of Bell’s ministry isn’t about “liking God alot” or caring a whole bunch. The love I’m talking about is the well-spring of the Gospel.
Its the love that’s born within you because God has gotten ahold of you. It’s the Love that makes you want to serve and want to let God use your gifts. True, church-growth gurus and distraught church leaders can get caught in the presentation and use of your gifts, but they are just instruments. The heart of any successful Christian ministry is the Love at its source. This source is God. Think John.
Its the love that scriptures tell about, but no church, ministry, prophet, or teacher possesses. Only the Living God truly possesses it. This energy needs no glory, though in our fallenness, we can fall victim to the recognition it gives us.
This love doesn’t celebrate in wrongs, but perseveres until the time is right. When it gets a hold of you, it inspires hope and a thirst for justice. Its greatness is its simultaneous power and humility. Once it’s gotten a hold of you, it beckons you. It becomes the source of your ministry. You can’t have it for yourself, but you can follow its leadings and urgency. Slowly, you let it claim you. It is the Love that came down off its throne to fulfill its own purposes. It is the heart of the Gospel: always intentional, personal, and purposeful. It is Love.
Whether Bell ever confirms my testimony about what’s at the heart of his ministry or not, it’s not important. I saw it at work in his teaching and at Mars Hill. It’s a God-thing, and I am grateful for the personal testimony.
This post really is not about the success of Rob Bell or Mars Hill. It’s about what God does to us amidst our worship, service, and response to Jesus. God is consistently doing a new thing. It is the heart of ministry. Loving the people.
In the name of Jesus, Love on.