I've spent the last couple of days in Grand Rapids at the Conference Poets, Prophets, and Preachers by Rob Bell. Today is the last day, I'm really looking forward to it. This is a preaching conference, and it's been great to be around mostly young pastors from around the world because this is a representation of the next generation of preachers - and they are on fire. It's been a delight for me, too, to see some friends from our time in Ann Arbor who came up from Georgia and Alabama to be here, as well as to see friends from seminary and a bunch of other local friends, too.
To the conference: I remember when I first began hearing about Rob Bell. I was a pastor in Ann Arbor, Michigan, working with college students when Mars Hill was really growing in the early years of this decade. Many of my students were from Grand Rapids, and sometimes they would go home for the weekend - and their home church was Mars Hill. They would often come back and say, "You gotta hear this Rob Bell. You guys think about and say a lot of the same things." That was fine and dandy, but I didn't realize then what an impact Rob was beginning to have and would eventually have on the future of the church. These students would bring me stuff from services and I started to listen to his podcasts and eventually read many of his books. So, I've been reading and listening to Rob for years. 3.5 years ago I moved to West Michigan to serve in a church just a few miles from Mars Hill. Interesting thing about the history of this church. During the rise of Mars, this church went through a huge crisis in leadership and well over 1000 people left the church. Many of them went to Mars Hill. In the last 8 years, we've lost many young adults to Mars Hill, not to mention many disaffected with the church. Though I heavily lamented the loss of so many young adults to our church (remember, I was in campus minsitry in Ann Arbor for years), 2 years ago, I remember just being thankful to Rob and Mars for providing a place for our disaffected young adults and those who were hurt by leadership division. So I thanked Rob and the church in a sermon for this, and called for a greater unity among the churches and our brothers and sisters in Christ who are seeking the same things. I hope to see greater unity and cooperation with one another in our community in the future.
Now, I know that Rob has gotten a lot of criticism. I, too, don't agree with all of his theology - even if I thought I could know what it always was or is. I would venture to guess that my friends don't always agree with all my theology either. But let me say this. On a number of fronts, Rob has taken some hard hits. One of those is that Rob doesn't believe in the resurrection, that he preaches just from the Old Testament and avoids speaking of the resurrection. Now, let me just say this to my conservative evangelical friends (and I don't mean that tongue in cheek, you are my people in so many ways): that's slanderous. I have not heard recently a preacher more passionate about the resurrection than Rob Bell. His teachings at this conference on the place or resurrection, the power of resurrection, and the lamb who was slain seated on the throne are in my mind orthodox without question. Where some of you miss the point is that Rob is teaching a more holistic gospel rather than an often prefered abbreviated, truncated gospel of the contemporary evangelical church. He is preaching way better than I could about similar things that I've written about often in these blogs concerning the holistic gospel. Rob understands and is teaching what was visceral to me in my conversion through Paul's words "In him [Christ] all things hold together."
Sometimes Rob is alsosometimes said to be a universalist. I'm sorry, that's also slander and just not true as far as I can see. Sure, he believes that all truth is God's truth wherever it shows up, and that all beauty and all goodness are from his good creation and under his reign and attributable to him. So do I. That's not universalism. In fact, those of you who are reformed should recognize the Kuyperian resonance and reformed theology that undergirds this as well as Rob's understanding of the wide breadth of the sovereignty of God. Don't mistake innovation in words, culture, or even sometimes theology to necessary mean heresy. Fear is the enemy of the good.
I have a lot more to say, but maybe later.