A Tale of Two Mars Hills

Nobody should have been surprised at the latest universalism allegations towards Rob Bell. I wrote this post at a now defunct blog way back in January of 2007!

A Tale of Two Mars Hills…

I just got back from a two-day conference for local church leaders at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan (just outside of Grand Rapids). This church started in 1999 and has been touted as the fastest growing church in American history. Within a couple years it grew to 10,000 people and took over an old shopping mall. Today, tens of thousands of people download Rob Bell’s sermons every week. He is a phenomenal communicator who preaches hour-long sermons that connect with young, postmodern-types and those dissatisfied with traditional church.

I went mostly out of curiosity. Obviously, I’m interested in questions of postmodernism and ministry and how others are dealing with them. I’ve read Rob Bell’s book, Velvet Elvis (Zondervan, 2005), and enjoyed several of his short videos called Noomas. He’s definitely someone to be familiar with if you’re intrigued by emerging questions surrounding mission in the post-Christian West. Here’s a young guy that’s successfully reaching young people and gaining a national following for his creative and innovative thinking.

But there’s another Mars Hill. This one’s in Seattle, Washington. It started in 1996 and was recently ranked as the 23rd most influential church in America by The Church Report magazine. Today they have roughly 6,000 people in attendance each Sunday. Mark Driscoll’s sermons are regularly ranked #1 on iTunes in the religion category. He too is a phenomenal communicator who preaches hour-long sermons that connect with young, postmodern-types and those dissatisfied with traditional church.

Mark Driscoll used to be a part of the Terranova Project with people like Brian McLaren. He’s written a couple books, his first was titled The Radical Reformission (Zondervan, 2004) dealing with issues of reaching today’s culture. He has also founded a church-planting network called Acts29 and an online resource called The Resurgence (www.theresurgence.com). So here’s another young guy who’s successfully reaching young people and gaining a national following for his creative and innovative thinking.

I think it’s helpful to set these two churches side-by-side as representatives of two vastly different approaches to being the church in the 21st century. On the surface they may look the same – large, influential, edgy, innovative, led by gifted speakers… even having the same name. But I think it’s SO important that we discern the serious differences.

As I was at the recent conference with Rob Bell there was much that I appreciated, learned from, and resonated with. Clearly our generation has noticed many blind-spots in the thinking of our modernistic, evangelical predecessors. We feel uncomfortable with some of the pietistic and revivalistic methodologies that encouraged many to identify Christianity with “praying the prayer” or “walking the aisle.” We are ashamed at the “easy believism” that this produced. We recognize the Gnostic influences that caused salvation to be understood merely as an escape from this world to a heavenly realm of disembodied souls. And we lament the disengagement with the world that this produced. I felt my soul say a hearty Amen! as Bell spoke about the big picture of the Bible and the need to understand it as a grand story of redemption instead of a random collection of proof-texts; as he un-packed Creation and New Creation; as he declared that history is moving somewhere and one day heaven will come crashing into earth; as he explained how the church is the only institution on earth that exists for the benefit of its non-members. This call to something massive and global and all-encompassing and worth dying for is appealing to our generation and I dare say biblical.

Rob Bell is not the first or only person to be saying such things, though. Much of what he voiced can be heard in people like Tim Keller or other Reformed theologians like Ridderbos. However, as the conference unfolded it became clear that there was something distinct and woefully deficient in Bell’s theology. Choosing to emphasize the goodness of creation, he rarely talked about sin. But at one point he defined sin as simply “the destruction of shalom,” …not a rebellion against a holy God. For Bell, the center of the Bible and theology is love, …not God’s glory. Therefore, his conception of love is not a love that’s so deep it can overcome righteous wrath toward sin and sinners through the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ on the cross, but rather a love that more resembles the amorphous emotion of classic liberalism. In fact, the topic of his upcoming speaking tour this fall is going to be – “The Gods Aren’t Angry.” And so it came as no surprise when he shared “a few thoughts on God, Jesus, salvation, judgment, heaven, hell, who’s in, who’s out, and the end of the world as we know it” that he articulated an inclusivist position and all but reduced the Christian message to – “We believe the way of Jesus is the best way to live and it would be great if more people would live in this way.”

What became crystal clear to me this week is that there are two approaches within evangelicalism to these questions of postmodernity, etc… One is a very Man-centered approach that downplays the effects of sin and neuters the power of the Cross. This approach is found in Rob Bell and Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan and while it recognizes many of the flaws in modern evangelicalism and is wildly appealing to disillusioned young people it will inevitably lead down the same road that theological liberalism did at the end of the 19th century.

The other approach is a radically God-centered approach that stands in the stream of the Puritans and the Reformers, Anselm and Augustine. This approach can be seen most readily in Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church in Seattle and while it makes many necessary adaptations and corrections in keeping with the cultural shift that’s afoot it will prove to be the one that preserves the faith once for all entrusted to the saints in our time. And I believe it will prove to be the most effective in actually reaching people with the life-changing message of Jesus and the kingdom of God in the long run.

These are two very different Mars Hills and I pray that we will be theologically alert and attuned to the dangers of the Man-centered strand as we seek to proclaim the gospel – in all its robust, biblical, God-centered glory – to the pagan, postmodern, post-Christian city of Chicago.

Anybody listening saw this coming.


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