Robert Holmes "Rob" Bell Jr. (born August 23, 1970) is an American author, speaker and former pastor. Bell was the founder of Mars Hill Bible Church located in Grandville, Michigan, which he pastored until 2012. Under his leadership Mars Hill was one of the fastest-growing churches in America. He is also the author of the New York Times bestseller Love Wins and the writer and narrator of a series of spiritual short films called NOOMA. In 2011, Time Magazine named Bell on its list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. He has since become a freelance writer and speaker appearing on various talk shows and national speaking tours on topics related to spirituality and leadership. He also hosts a popular podcast called,'The Robcast.' In 2018, a documentary about Bell called "The Heretic" was released.
Education and ministry
After graduating from high school, Bell attended Wheaton College in Illinois. While at Wheaton, he roomed with Ian Eskelin of All Star United. With friends Dave Houk, Brian Erickson, Steve Huber and Chris Fall, he formed the indie rock band, "_ton bundle", which was reminiscent of bands such as R.E.M. and Talking Heads. During this time _ton bundle wrote the song "Velvet Elvis", based upon the same Velvet Elvis painting that he used in his first book, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. Wheaton College was also where Bell met his wife, Kristen. The band _ton bundle started to gain some local fame and was even asked to perform at large events, but when Bell was struck with viral meningitis these plans fell through.
Bell received his bachelor's degree in 1992 from Wheaton and taught water skiing in the summers at the college's Honey Rock Camp, making about thirty dollars a week. During this time, he offered to teach a Christian message to the camp counselors after no pastor could be found. He taught a message about rest and was later approached by several people, each of them telling him that he should pursue teaching as a career.
Bell moved to Pasadena, California to pursue this calling for teaching and received a M.Div. from Fuller Theological Seminary. According to Bell, he never received good grades in preaching class because he always tried innovative ways to communicate his ideas. During his time at Fuller he was a youth intern at Lake Avenue Church. He did, however, occasionally attend Christian Assembly in Eagle Rock, California, which led to him and his wife asking questions in the direction of how a new style of church would appear.
Between 1995 and 1997, Bell formed a band called Big Fil which released two CDs; the first was a self-titled disc and the second was titled Via De La Shekel. When asked what style of music they played, Bell would respond with "Northern Gospel!", which later became the name of a song on the second album. Even after Big Fil stopped performing, Bell continued with two more projects by the name of Uno Dos Tres Communications volume 1 and 2, both of which had a similar musical sound to Big Fil.
Mars Hill Bible Church
Bell and his wife moved from California to Grand Rapids to be close to family and on invitation to study under pastor Ed Dobson. He handled many of the preaching duties for the Saturday Night service at Calvary Church. Bell announced that he would be branching out on his own to start a new kind of community and he would call it "Mars Hill" after the Greek site where the apostle Paul told a group, "For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you."
In February 1999, Bell founded Mars Hill Bible Church, with the church originally meeting in a school gym in Wyoming, Michigan. Within a year the church was given a shopping mall in Grandville, Michigan, and purchased the surrounding land. In July 2000 the 3,500 "grey chair" facility opened its doors. As of 2005, an estimated 11,000 people attended the two "gatherings" on Sundays at 9 and 11 AM.[full citation needed] As of March 2011, Sunday attendance numbered between 8,000 and 10,000. His teachings at Mars Hill inspired the popular "Love Wins" bumper sticker, and the congregation freely distributed these stickers after services.
In order to maintain balance in his life, Bell maintained his Fridays as a personal sabbath, where he did not allow contact by electronic means, and had all pastoral duties transferred to other Mars Hill pastors.
In the January 2007 issue of the magazine TheChurchReport.com, Bell was named No. 10 in its list of "The 50 Most Influential Christians in America" as chosen by their readers and online visitors.
Bell stepped down from the church he founded on September 22, 2011 in order to pursue other areas to reach a broader audience. He later said that his book Love Wins had led to a fallout with the congregation and forced him on a "search for a more forgiving faith."
In July 2012 Bell held his first major event since leaving Mars Hill, speaking at the famous Viper Room night club in Los Angeles. Bell hosts conferences and workshops in Laguna Beach for "leaders, teachers, preachers, entrepreneurs, artists, pastors—anyone whose work involves creating something and then turning it loose in the world."
Bell is the featured speaker in NOOMA – a series of short films. The title of the video series, "NOOMA", is an English variation of the Greek word pneuma which means breath or spirit. All the videos feature the teachings of Bell accompanied by music written and sung by local independent artists with the exception of The Album Leaf's music being licensed for the NOOMA DVD Lump.
In August 2005, Zondervan Publishing published Bell's first book, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. Velvet Elvis is, according to the official online summary, "for the millions of people who are fascinated by Jesus, but can’t do the standard Christian package. In his debut book, Bell explores a new understanding of the Christian faith."
Bell's Everything is Spiritual national speaking tour launched on June 30, 2006, in Chicago, drawing sold-out crowds in cities across North America. The proceeds from ticket sales were used to support WaterAid, an international non-profit organization dedicated to helping people escape the poverty and disease caused by living without safe water and sanitation.
Bell's second book, titled Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections between Sexuality and Spirituality, was released in March 2007. In February and March 2007 Bell hosted a "Sex God" tour on six university campuses to promote his book. The tour functioned more as a time for engaging questions and conversation. Questions ranged from Old Testament codes to homosexuality to what should Christians do with the word "evangelical". Each night ended with the showing of NOOMA number 15 entitled "YOU".
In June 2007 Bell toured the United Kingdom and Ireland with a series called Calling All Peacemakers.
Bell launched another speaking tour on November 5, 2007, in Chicago. "The Gods Aren't Angry" again drew sold-out crowds in cities across North America. The subject matter was a narrative defense of justification through faith and not works (sacrifice). Proceeds from this tour were used to support the Turame Microfinance program supporting the poor in Burundi, a mission supported by Bell's church.
Bell's 2009 project, Drops Like Stars, explores the links between creativity and suffering. Drops Like Stars was an international tour and a book, initially handwritten by Bell, with photographs. The title of the project comes from a young child's view of raindrops on a window at night. Rather than focusing on the conundrum of why an all-powerful God would allow suffering, Bell instead looks at the creativity, empathy, new connections, and growth that can spring from suffering. When asked in an interview how he had become interested in suffering, Bell replied that as a pastor he had been given a front row seat in the most poignant moments of people's lives. At the same time he was doing lectures on creativity and realized, "There was a connection between these two halves of my life – all these connections between suffering and art-making."
In September 2013 Bell was interviewed by Oprah for her Super Soul Sunday television show. Bell's book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, was also listed as the first recommended book that month in Oprah's "Book of the Month" club.
ABC television announced production of a new television drama, Stronger, co-written by Bell and Carlton Cuse, the executive producer of the television series, Lost. The show, based loosely on Bell's life and his unpublished novel-turned-pilot-script, would follow the life of Tom Stronger, a musician on a spiritual journey. Ultimately, Bell and Cuse were unable to get approval to shoot a pilot for Stronger.
Bell and Cuse have moved on to another project described as a "faith-inflected talk show" presented by Bell. Two tapings of the proposed show were filmed in September 2012 in a warehouse in Los Angeles' art district in order to put together a reel for network executives. At the time, they were referenced as either That One Show Rob Bell and Carlton Cuse Have Been Working On, or The September Shows for short. A trailer has since been produced using The Rob Bell Show as a title card. His first and second guest each night were Cathleen Falsani and James "Jame-o" Primbram, an eco-warrior.
In his writings, Bell says "I affirm the truth anywhere in any religious system, in any worldview. If it's true, it belongs to God."
Bell says, "This is not just the same old message with new methods. We're rediscovering Christianity as an Eastern religion, as a way of life. Legal metaphors for faith don't deliver a way of life. We grew up in churches where people knew the nine verses why we don't speak in tongues, but had never experienced the overwhelming presence of God."
Bell's book Love Wins caused a major controversy within the evangelical community. The controversy was the subject of a Time magazine cover story and a featured article in the New York Times. In the book, Bell states that "It's been clearly communicated to many that this belief (in hell as eternal, conscious torment) is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus' message of love, peace, forgiveness and joy that our world desperately needs to hear." In this book, Bell outlines a number of views of hell, including universal reconciliation. Though he does not choose any one view as his own, he states "Whatever objections a person may have of [the universalist view], and there are many, one has to admit that it is fitting, proper, and Christian to long for it."
The book was criticized by numerous conservative evangelical figures (in particular, some reformed church leaders), such as Albert Mohler, John Piper, and David Platt, with Mohler saying that the book was "theologically disastrous" for not rejecting universalism. Other evangelicals, such as Brian McLaren, Greg Boyd and Eugene Peterson defended Bell's views. Bell denies that he is a universalist and says that he does not embrace any particular view but argues that Christians should leave room for uncertainty on the matter. As Jon Meacham stated, Love Wins presents [Bell's] "case for living with mystery rather than demanding certitude." Some evangelicals argued that this "uncertainty" is incompatible with Scripture, while others say that the book is simply promoting overdue conversation about some traditional interpretations of Scripture. In the book, Bell also questions "evacuation theology" which has Christians focused on getting to heaven, instead of focusing on God's renewal and transformation of this world. Bell argues that Jesus (and the wider Jewish tradition of which he was a part) focused on God's ongoing restoration of this world, not getting individuals to heaven.
At his Viper Room appearance in July 2012, Bell took a question from an audience member concerned about the church's acceptance of gay members. Said Bell, "Some people are gay, and you're our brothers and you're our sisters, and we love you. We love you... [Gay people] are passionate disciples of Jesus just like I'm trying to be, so let's all get together and try to do something about the truly big problems in our world." On March 17, 2013, in an interview at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, Bell said, "I am for marriage. I am for fidelity. I am for love, whether it's a man and a woman, a woman and a woman, a man and a man...And I think the ship has sailed. This is the world we are living in and we need to affirm people wherever they are."
Bell has expressed frustration with the current state of conservative evangelicalism, calling it "a very narrow, politically intertwined, culturally ghettoized Evangelical subculture." He says that Evangelicals have "turned away lots of people" from the church by talking about God in ways that "don't actually shape people into more loving, compassionate people," adding that Evangelicals "have supported policies and ways of viewing the world that are actually destructive, and we've done it in the name of God and we need to repent."
- Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith (Zondervan, 2005) ISBN 0-310-26345-X
- Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections between Sexuality and Spirituality (Zondervan, 2007) ISBN 0-310-26346-8
- Everything is Spiritual (DVD) (Zondervan, 2007) ISBN 0-310-28556-9
- The Gods Aren't Angry (DVD) (Flannel, 2008) ISBN 0-310-29074-0
- Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile (Zondervan, 2008) ISBN 0-310-27502-4
- Drops Like Stars: A Few Thoughts on Creativity and Suffering (Zondervan, 2009) ISBN 0-310-32704-0
- Love Wins (Harper One, 2011) ISBN 978-0-06-204964-3
- What We Talk About When We Talk About God (HarperOne 2013) ISBN 978-0062049667
- The Zimzum of Love: A New Way of Understanding Marriage co-written with Kristen Bell (HarperOne 2014) ISBN 978-0062194244
- How to be Here (Harper Collins 2016) ISBN 978-0007591329
- NOOMA Videos
- "What Is the Bible?" (HarperOne 2017) ISBN 978-0062194268
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