599: Interview with Rob Bell about the power of preaching (and new media)

f you’re just joining us, it’s (sort of) intermission in Rob Bell’s worldwide tour, “Drops Like Stars.” He’s already extensively crisscrossed North America in 2009, but he hasn’t yet toured the UK (March) or Australia and New Zealand (April). Before that, he’s got one more West Coast swing in the U.S. (February) (Here’s his schedule page.)
    For the holidays, we recommended his “Drops Like Stars” coffee-table-sized book as one of our “10 Best Bets.” If you haven’t seen this strange and awe-inspiring book, you should take a look.
    Then, this week, we listed Rob in our “10 Spiritual Sages to Watch in ‘10,” an influential annual list of people we believe are going to be game changers in American religious life in the coming year.
    If you’re still drawing a blank, here’s Rob’s own home page and the home page for his congregation, Mars Hill.


    DAVID: You’re in the midst of a world tour for “Drops Like Stars.” You’re taking some time off right now. All in all, how’s it going?
ROB: We’re going strong! We’re having a blast.
DAVID: We’ve got readers in other countries, including some of them where you’ll be traveling this year—like the UK and Australia. So, are you still set to make those trips?
ROB: We’re still working through the logistics of Australia. But it’s a little more complicated now. I either leave my family for a while or we take our newborn baby along, which is a whole different challenge for us.
DAVID: You’ve got a new baby? Your audience does follow your family to some extent. Your sons appeared in your Nooma series. So, tell us about the baby?
ROB: My wife Kristen and I had a baby in April, who we named Violet Eileen. Violet is Kristen’s grandmother and Eileen is my grandmother, so the name is out of respect for our grandparents. Violet traveled with us on two different legs of the 2009 tour. We literally put her crib on our tour bus.
But, Mrs. Bell and I now are evaluating how well that worked and whether we can do that in the future.
DAVID: Let’s fill in the family here: Your sons are now how old?
ROB: Trace is 11 and Preston is 9. That means we have a middle-school student playing trumpet, trombone and football—and we have a 9-year-old with science experiments and soccer practice—and, on top of that now, we have diapers again and those brightly colored plastic toys and baby food.
And I just love it!
DAVID: And how about your even larger family? Your congregation. Your community. Your friends and followers.
You know, for a guy who doesn’t really do much social media yourself, you’re one of the best-connected pastors in America. Your social network looks more like the fan base of a movie star than a preacher’s congregation.
Let’s see—beyond the thousands who attend Mars Hill church every week, tens of thousands download your weekly sermons from your Web site. You’ve sold hundreds of thousands of Nooma DVDs.
On Facebook, you’re at close to 50,000 friends and close to 20,000 people follow you on Twitter. Those numbers are growing. You’ve picked up thousands since December.

That means, in any given week, you can speak directly to more than 100,000 people—people who are making a point of following you. They want to hear from you. The average preacher in America speaks to 100 to 200 people a week. How much of your online media do you handle personally?
ROB: I don’t have anything to do with the Mars Hill Web site and my brother does all of the Facebook for me and Twitter? Twitter just makes me laugh.
But if you think about those numbers, they’re actually quite fascinating. At some point, with just one Tweet, you can tell everything directly that previously you would have needed all sorts of organizations and media people to get your word out.
At this point, I can just tell people all by myself. I can just talk to this whole audience.
Before Christmas we were in Nashville for one night and I Tweeted: “I’m at the Spaghetti Factory in Nashville. Whoever finds me gets free tickets tonight.”
People started showing up at the restaurant! This is a very interesting way of connecting with people. One guy told me he was in the middle of a class and got in his car and drove 15 minutes to find me in that restaurant.
DAVID: But you’re sort of “hands off” yourself, right?
ROB: Well, my brother does Facebook for me. I’ve never even touched my Facebook page. These are important new tools, though. We’re reaching a point where I can decide I want to go out on tour—and I just tell people on Facebook and Twitter. Then, I go out and do the tour. People come.
You can build your own things now without this whole structure of media people in the middle and that’s very empowering.
DAVID: When you’ve got numbers like yours—an audience just waiting for the next sermon, the next news—that’s a game changer in ministry.
ROB: It opens up all kinds of possibilities. Like I’ve written a novel. I wrote it earlier this year and it makes me laugh really, really hard. I’ve shown the novel to friends and they’ve laughed very hard, too. So, we’re talking about just doing this book ourselves. Can I literally just put the word out and successfully sell a novel? I probably can and that’s something quite new.
Here’s another example: We hosted a special program for pastors in which I gave five hours of talks about the art of the sermon. I talked about how the sermon actually is an art form, but it’s been drained all too often of its poetry and lyricism and guerrilla theater. We need to reclaim some of those dimensions that once made the sermon very powerful.
So, when it was all over, we began editing these five hours of content into a set of videos: “The Art of the Sermon.” Then, we can literally just Tweet and put it on Facebook—letting people know that they can order a set of the videos. We did all of the packaging and everything ourselves—and we’ll just sell it ourselves.
In one day, I can tell all those thousands of people about it—by myself. That’s a whole new world. Yeah, talk about a game changer!

    DAVID: I hear you’re done with Nooma, your best-selling DVD film series. A lot of filmmakers are very impressed—and thankful—that you demonstrated a market for short videos like this. But you’re done making them now?
ROB: No one had seen anything like it when we started with Noomas. We made 24 of them and we’re saying now: We proved what they can do. They’re out there now. Others are doing similar things.
Over the past year, I’ve started to glimpse the next thing, the next evolution. So, we’re done with Noomas now.
We’ve built a whole team and we’ve worked hard on this so that in 2010 we’re going to release the first of a new series that will blow you away.
DAVID: Confident, hmmm?
ROB: I cannot wait.
DAVID: Well, tell us more. When are they coming out?
ROB: I don’t want to say too much. Our goal is to release the first new film on Easter Sunday morning—free and online.
DAVID: Free and online.
ROB: Right. You won’t hear a new film is out and then have to wait as you order it or drive to a store and buy a hard copy. You’ll have it instantly. We’re setting up links so you can see this new thing free and you can send it to friends instantly.
We’re planning so that we’ll have enough capacity so that X-number of people can see it in a number of hours.
DAVID: How many is X-number? What else can you tell us?
ROB: Just wait for Easter.

    DAVID: Well, we’ll certainly stay tuned and I’m sure your regular followers will, as well. There are millions of videos online right now on YouTube and elsewhere, so there’s got to be something fairly special about this new concept you’re launching to hear you sounding so confident about it.
Are you saying that you can start doing your work exclusively through social media?
ROB: No. No. I think we’re seeing a counter reaction to the impersonal. The New York Times reports that vinyl record sales are up again. Why? Because you have this object in your hands. You place the record on a phonograph. You sit down and listen and there’s this total experience that engages you.
If bands are selling less music, what do they do? They go out and tour. This is the power of flesh and blood, the power of holding something like a record in your hands—it’s very attractive.
The power of an actual room of people with a real human being up front—that’s exciting. As things get more and more virtual in our world—the live, real experiences we can share will become all the more rare and unique and important in our lives.
DAVID: So you’re saying that the power of preaching—the art of the sermon—won’t die.
ROB: Right.
DAVID: By the way, I read on your Wikipedia page that you “never received good grades in preaching class” at Fuller Seminary. Is that true?
ROB: I definitely did get marked down in one class. I specifically remember one class in particular where I refused to stand still behind the podium. In that class, I was not the teacher’s favorite to say the least.
    I don’t want to over-emphasize that. I got an A in another class, but I did get marked down by that one teacher. That’s true.
DAVID: Maybe you can send Fuller an autographed set of your new DVDs, “The Art of the Sermon.” Right?
ROB: (Laughs.) Maybe.

DAVID: Before we close this, I want to make sure that we point out to readers that you’re not kidding about all of this. We’ve given a whole range of examples here and some of them are light hearted. But what you’re talking about is—well, you’re life-and-death serious about these new transformations coming, right? This is far more than a mere matter of being cool.
When you talk about “game changing,” you’re talking about changing lives—thousands and thousands of lives.
ROB: Oh, yes! I said that Twitter makes me laugh and it does. But new forms of interconnectivity are brewing that will change everything—everything in the way we interact.
When I get on our tour bus, it’s common to see six or seven people pulling out their phones and connecting with amazing amounts of news. This communication with the world that’s taking place on a moving bus—it’s amazing!
Remember that the Iranian street protests depend on this new connective power to get the word out. There’s a democratization of events that’s truly changing everything. That’s why it’s so fascinating that I can just Tweet—send out 140 characters into the air—from a restaurant where I’m eating dinner and within minutes there’s a circle of people gathering.
This is extraordinary power right there in our hands.
DAVID: I agree entirely. This can take us places we haven’t been able to go before as communities of people.
ROB: Here’s an example. There’s a group we work with out of New York, called “Charity: Water,” that drills wells in places around the world where people don’t have access to clean drinking water. On the tour, we started partnering with this group and, in my talk, I tell the story of Charity: Water.
    Now, we’re able to hook up with them in such a way that people can give money directly from their telephones. If people in the audience text particular words to a particular number, then they’re giving $10 each to Charity: Water through their phone bill.
In public talks, people usually say: Turn off your phones. But, in this case, I say: Right now, I want you to get your phones out.
A whole roomful of people texting this way can instantly transfer the funds to drill a well—on the spot! That moment we’re together here, making that decision and taking that simple action, can change the lives of people living in a village halfway around the world from the power of something you’ve decided to do in the palm of your hand—while seated in a room with me way over here.
Just like that—lives are transformed. That’s a whole new territory!
In this new explosion of technology, I’m looking for the ways that we can harness that power to turn our compassion into real change in the great causes of the world.
We’ve said for years that there’s enough money in the world to take care of AIDs and poverty and clean water—if we only had the will to do so.
Well, now, that choice is right there in the palm of your hand. Will you make a difference? You have the power. Now.
When your thumb—moving across a telephone—multiplied by all the people around you moving their thumbs—instantly changes the lives of entire communities somewhere else in the world—
When the Spirit can move us to connect with the place of real need in the world almost instantly—
Well, that quite simply changes everything.



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