034: Conversation With Rob Bell

     It’s very difficult in a faith that’s 2,000
years old and boasts 2 billion members to come up with anything truly
innovative –- yet Rob Bell has done it again and again.

    He created a best-selling line of direct-to-DVD sermons, called
“Nooma,” and sold his first 100,000 copies virtually under the
publishing industry’s radar screen. Now, of course, Rob Bell and Nooma are
widely acknowledged as The Top Brand Names in this field.

    Then, he wrote a pair of best-selling memoirs, which is tough to do, but isn’t a unique
accomplishment. However, his next move was unique. He followed up his huge success on DVD and in
these two books by hitting the road for a truly unique revival tour in
the summer of 2006.

    He called his tour “Everything Is Spiritual,” and the best way to
describe what unfolded in dozens of cities all around the United States
is that Bell abandoned everything associated with centuries of American
revival tours –- except the Bible itself.

    Each night, he would walk out on stage, dressed in black, then
lecture for well over an hour about Genesis, while sketching notes and
diagrams on an enormous white board that spanned the width of the stage.

    No music. No multimedia. No collection. No altar call.
    He actually talked about quantum physics, at one point!
    He sold tickets to these inspirational shows — and raised money to
help bring more safe drinking water to poor people in Africa.

He and his wife and their two kids lived in a giant, luxurious touring bus that
usually was  leased to the road shows of country singers and rock
    But Rob’s on-stage wardrobe for the tour could have been picked up at
Target –- right down to his comfortable tennis shoes.

    Since I’ve been reporting on religion from Michigan for more than
20 years –- and Rob’s unusual mega-church, Mars Hill Bible Church, arose
right here in Michigan, I have talked with him through the years,
visited him near his home, shared dinner with him a couple of times, occasionally attended his church and his
public appearances.
     I can tell you this: He’s the real deal.

   (By the way –- the DVD documentary on “Everything Is Spiritual” –- which is one way
cool film –- goes on sale TODAY. We’re showing you the cover of the DVD at
left here. Click on the cover and you’ll jump to our Amazon store where you
can buy a copy hot off the press. Now, because Rob’s work moves so fast,
Amazon has a perennial problem keeping up with his covers. The Amazon
store, as of deadline, still was not showing this cover image –- but you
can order the film, nevertheless. OK –- back to our story …)

    Here is our Conversation With Rob Bell as he prepares to kick off his second nationwide tour, “The God’s Aren’t Angry” …

    DAVID: I don’t think I’ve ever asked this: How did you come up with
the idea of revolutionizing on-the-road evangelism in America. You
threw all the old revival baggage out the window. You don’t even visit
churches, while you’re on the road. You play comedy clubs, small
theaters and bars. Where’d you come up with such an idea?
    ROB: Oh, great! See, that’s what happens when I talk to you. You ask me
questions I don’t expect. And I didn’t expect this question from you;
so let me think of something wise to say about it. Where did I get the
idea for this kind of tour? Let me think about that.
    DAVID: I’m just curious if it came to you as a brainstorm, an answer to prayer, or, you know –
   ROB: No, actually the idea wasn’t difficult. It was simple, really.
If I go to a city, where would I hang out? Well, I would want to go
where people exchange new things they’ve created. I’d want to go where
I’d find poets, songwriters, activists -– people like that who are
sharing creative new things. So, I’d go to theaters, clubs, places with
a stage. You know, these are the places where I would go to see my
favorite bands. That’s where people feel at home.

    So, that’s where I decided to go on the tour.
    DAVID: And you never did appear in churches on that tour, as far as I know, right?
    ROB: Let’s be careful about this, though. I don’t believe there is secular space and sacred space. That’s a worldview that’s terribly destructive. All ground is holy. I never left holy ground.
    DAVID: And the ideas for these very long talks that you give in
these appearances? I know that hundreds –- if not thousands -– of clergy
are among the thousands of people who download your sermons from the
Mars Hill Web site
each week. So, where do you come up with these big ideas
for your talks on the tours?
    ROB: Content is so important. For me everything begins with content, so everything is about asking myself: What is the new, fresh word? And, it’s usually something that really is very old that is forgotten or was lost along the way. So, I ask myself: What is fresh that’s brewing in me?
    I let things brew. Some things that are brewing I finally decide are short films. Or, oh, that thing that’s been brewing – it’s a sermon. Or, that’s a book.
    But, “Everything Is Spiritual,” when that was brewing, it turned out to be a sermon on steroids. It was like an hour or two long! What could I do with something that big? That long?
    I thought: Can I just walk out and do that – and then leave? Well, I decided to try it.
    DAVID: Your brother told me a story, while you were on that 2006 tour that I think shows how unusual this was for you to attempt. He told me that on the first morning, out on the tour, the bus driver refused to start driving unless he was paid by the day. As your brother told me the story, he said that bus drivers on rock tours know that their passengers are unpredictable enough that they’d better get paid each and every day. So, he didn’t know you at all — but you were on a tour of clubs and he needed money every day to move the bus.
    Was that true or was your brother kidding?
    ROB: No, that was true.
    DAVID: What else surprised you on that trip?
    ROB: I already knew I had an awesome wife, but we had our two boys on the road us for two months and I discovered that was awesome, too. For me, I thought there was no point in doing a trip like this without my family. They had to be with me.
    I’m glad they were. It’s surreal to travel like this. Each day, we went to sleep and the next morning we were in a different city. After while, that can mess with your mind in a big way.
    But we were together and it all worked out.

    DAVID: You told me, part way through that tour you discovered people greeting you in these cities –- including some cities you’d never even visited before -– greeting you not as an outsider. They didn’t see you as a visitor. They knew you so well from your sermons online and the Nooma movies and your books that it felt more like you were coming home.
    ROB: Yeah. A lot of people have been on this journey with me for a while, so there’s a sense that we know each other. I think there are a lot of people everywhere who are up for the search, who are up for the discovery, who want the real depth, who want the real, fresh insights. So, when we finally get together, it becomes a powerful experience.
    DAVID: You’re known as a master of new media -– that’s the way people think of your work with the downloadable sermons and Nooma films and your church’s unusual Web site. But you don’t use a lot of that on stage. Not at Mars Hill and not in these tours. What you do on stage is very basic. Why?
    ROB: We have to be extremely cautious. We shape our tools and they shape us.
    I’m completely open to whatever new technologies present themselves, but we also must be aware of what these new things are. They’re tools and they shape our messages.
    Some of these tools are so powerful that they will gather lots of people. But filling a room with thousands of people who watch a performance –- that’s not church. Church involves feeding the poor, talking somebody out of killing themselves, helping someone pay their grocery bills when they can’t afford to do it. That’s church.
    If these technological tools separate us –- then they aren’t doing the work we need to do.
    DAVID: That’s the tight rope. Exactly. In this new project I’m heading up –- ReadTheSpirit –- the success of this project will be spiritual connections between real people around the issues that really matter to them in their daily lives. The technology doesn’t matter — unless it helps people make connections in their daily lives.
    ROB: I don’t spend that much time wandering around the Internet, but somebody found a site the other day –- then they showed it to me, because it was this guy on some Blog out there trying to shred me to pieces.
    This was some dude stuck in a basement somewhere in Peoria and he had this arrogance about everything he was putting up on this Blog –- attacking me over and over.
    And I think: Who is this guy? He doesn’t know me. He’s never met me. He’s never been to our church. He’s hiding away down in his basement, throwing fireballs upstairs at people he doesn’t even know. Now, that’s not a good use of these technologies.

    DAVID: I am always surprised by your honesty as a preacher. You deliberately share things with your congregation –- with your audiences –- that other preachers would never disclose. Like the fact that you’ve seen a therapist to work with psychological pressures you have faced. And you’ve got a counselor that you see. You mention your counselor on your new Nooma, “Name.”
    You’ve said that you do this because you don’t want your listeners to think that they have to be perfect. We all need help from time to time. You’re remarkably honest about that.
    ROB: That’s true, but I make a distinction.
    Some people just share every thought that they have, and that kind of uncontrolled sharing of everything is not always helpful or pastoral. I actually make sure that I am not just sharing everything.
    I spend a good deal of time wrestling with what I will share from my personal life. There are several Noomas that have stories about my boys that my wife and I have discussed before I do them. There was one Nooma, Lump, that we really wrestled with because once I tell a story publicly, then it’s public property.
    So, we waited a while before I told that story that involved my son in Lump.
    But some things do need to be said openly –- in public. Some things need to be said honestly and openly to be pastoral.
    DAVID: So, you’re very carefully weighing the powerful use of that honesty in your preaching, your storytelling.
    ROB: Oh, yes. For the past three years, when I talk about stories involving people I’ve met –- I do not use any names. I’m very cautious about that. This is not just a random spilling of the guts.

    DAVID: And, talking about people spilling their guts. Or, people being publicly very vulnerable -– let’s talk about altar calls. I’m fascinated that you abandoned one of the oldest revival techniques in the book. You don’t do altar calls while you’re on the road. Why? It’s obvious that you move people. I’ve watched it happen. Why no altar call?
    ROB: Well, with the right music and lighting, you can get people to sign up for almost anything. The altar calls historically were used for campaigns like signing people up for the anti-slavery movement.
    As old as the idea may seem to us, I think the altar call is essentially a new idea in the scope of human history. It’s an odd idea, isn’t it? This idea that people can hear something once and instantly get out of their seats and sign up for something for the rest of their lives.
    Jesus said he wanted to make disciples. That’s a different process.
    DAVID: That’s a strong rejection of a popular technique.
    ROB: I’m just listening to how Jesus taught people. Read it yourself. Listen to how Jesus taught. The images Jesus gives people are organic. He speaks of planting seeds and waiting for them to sprout and grow. He talks about yeast and yeast takes time to rise. He talks about organic processes all the time.
    I want people to expand and grow, too, but I want them to grow in the right ways. You can set up the right kind of lighting and play the right music and you can get people into a froth over almost anything and then you can tell them where to walk and what to sign up for.
    I could do that, but it’s not the way I hear Jesus teaching.
    DAVID: Well, if people do come to hear you teach on this tour, how long will your message be this time? I sat in one theater with a crowd that was so quiet and so focused on your talk that not one soul even got up to go to the bathroom through the whole long talk.
    So, let’s prepare people a little: How long will this one be?
    ROB: It’s probably an hour and a half -– or an hour and 45 minutes.
    DAVID: And can we tell people anything about what they’re going to see and hear this time?
    ROB: I don’t want to give away too much. But I’m going to take people through a journey of the evolution of religion. I’m going to talk about: Where did people get the idea that there are supernatural forces out there? Where did altars come from? Where did sacrifices and offerings come from? Where did humans get the idea that some power needs to be appeased?

    DAVID: So, tell us why that’s relevant today. Why is this idea of appeasing an angry god relevant today?
    ROB: I see this problem everywhere.
    In one day –- just one day –- I ran into three different women who cut themselves. You know, they cut themselves out of shame, stress, embarrassment, agony, hate. All of those things are going on in their lives, so they cut their skin.
    And yet, remember the prophets of Baal 3,000 years ago? They cut themselves to appease an angry god. And, then, you meet a girl in 2007 who cuts herself.
    What is that about? After 3,000 years.
    You know how relevant this is to people? I told someone the name of the tour the other day. I just said, “The Gods Aren’t Angry.”
    And he said: “Well, they are with me.”

    DAVID: And you say, again and again, that the answer is community. The problem is isolation and the answer is community. And I know that you see community as a very, very big vision — all around the world.
    ROB: The problem is that we separate ourselves so easily. Here’s an example. We now have a culture in which, if you have the money you can buy a swimming pool and put it n your back yard -– whereas in other neighborhoods there are community pools and you get to know everybody because you swim together.
    When you talk about community you have to get away from this idea of buying something and putting it in your back yard for the purpose of isolating yourself into this totally independent living unit.
    There’s nothing wrong with having a pool or having things in your back yard, I’m not saying all of that is bad. But the question is: Are you doing these things to separate yourself -– or are you trying to organize your life around true community?
    DAVID: A lot of churches talk about this idea. You can’t walk into a megachurch these days without people talking about small groups.
    ROB: But some of those ideas miss the real importance of intimacy and the kinds of relationships that truly create community.
    People have approached this idea in hundreds of different ways. There are lots of churches that say: We know exactly how to do it! Here’s how! Set up a house church! Set up a regional church! Do it this way! Do it that way! Do prayer! Do Bible study!
    But so many of those programs just wind up stale, don’t they? Ugh!
    Now, I’m not saying that small groups are bad. Yes, I do believe that sign-up sheets for small groups can help people. Yes.
    But there’s something more. We have to encourage intimacy and relationships that go deeper. Community is more than just a small group that meets once a month.
    My wife and I have chosen to live pretty simply in a city neighborhood, because we have this community around us that we love. Across the alley, we have best friends. Then, my brother bought the house across the street from us.
    My wife and I have 1 car because we can get by with that.
    Tonight, my wife and a friend are planning a communal meal. We’ll eat together tonight. We sit on each other’s front porches. For us, this is the way we are to live –- with friends and family and community around us.
    Because, really, that’s what Jesus talked about. We’re growing into a community where we care about other people and we know when they’re hurting. We care for each other.
    It’s the most valuable thing in the world.

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