Rob Bell is often one of the more controversial figures in evangelical circles. His books, especially Velvet Elvis, and Nooma teaching videos helped countless people of all ages, but especially millennials, connect with their faith in a unique and powerful way. He founded Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which quickly grew to 10,000-plus members, and Time magazine once called him “The Next Billy Graham.”
However, as publishing executive Justin Taylor described to Relevant‘s Issac Edwards, a perfect storm of sorts was brewing as Bell’s charisma as a communicator and penchant for pushing the theological envelope, though usually within the bounds of orthodoxy, created an increasing divide between those who loved his work and those who found its trajectory troublesome. While it would be an oversimplification to say that this divide was purely generational, the age difference between those who supported him and those who were leery of his work does seem to have played an important role.
That divergence of opinion came to a head in 2011 when Bell published his most controversial book to date—Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. As Edwards describes, “The arrival of Bell’s Love Wins was one of the rare occasions when saying it caused a ‘firestorm’ isn’t an exaggeration.” News sources, both secular and Christian, spent a great deal of time covering the evolving reaction to the book as many condemned it as Universalist and heretical while others appreciated the thought and perspective he brought to a difficult subject.
His argument in that book is closer to the inclusivism that believes God is working to lead people to himself in ways we may never fully understand this side of heaven than the more strict exclusivism that is the default for many evangelicals, but it does not cross the line into heresy. Still, many portrayed it as such—though I would guess a great deal of that number either never read the book or went into it having already decided what it would say—and Bell would resign from Mars Hill shortly thereafter.
While the timing of his move to Los Angeles has understandably led many to conclude that the negative reaction to Love Wins was simply too much for him to overcome, Bell sees it as the next step in “a long, slow, very natural trajectory and evolution in the same direction” from his time at Mars Hill. While the context has changed to one in which he’s often the only Christian in the room, he believes that he’s still doing the same sort of work for the kingdom. Edwards puts it well when he says that Bell “didn’t leave the Church. He’s just trying to take what he does best and move beyond church walls.”
Whatever you may think of Rob Bell, that’s something God has called each of us to do as well. If our faith is bound by the walls of a church, or even if the church is seen as the primary location where that faith is expressed, then we aren’t living out God’s calling for our lives to the fullest extent.
Jesus could have accomplished great things by simply teaching in the synagogues, and he did so on multiple occasions. However, some of the most important moments in his ministry came when he left the places where the Jewish faith was most often lived out in order to engage with people where they were.
The Sermon on the Mount happened because Christ was willing to make time for the crowds he encountered as he went about his day (Matthew 4:25—5:1). Jesus ministered to the woman at the well because he could relate his message to her need (John 4). And he changed the lives of society’s outcasts by simply reaching out when no one else would (Luke 5:12–16, 19:1–10).
In short, while much of Jesus’ ministry occurred in the traditionally acceptable contexts for a Jewish rabbi, his willingness to take his message and his presence into the larger world around him was a fundamentally important aspect of what he came to accomplish.
The same is true for us as well. God has called each of us to live out our faith beyond church walls and to take his message of grace, mercy, and repentance to those he brings across our path throughout the day. That’s how the kingdom was meant to grow with the first believers and with every generation of believers since. When God’s people have forgotten that truth and kept their faith sequestered behind the walls of their churches and their homes have often been some of the darkest and least productive times in Christian history. Ours is not a time that can afford to be counted among that group.
So where does your faith reside today? Does it stay hidden unless you are within the confines of a church, home, or other safe place to be a Christian, or is it a vibrant and vital part of your everyday existence? Your answer to that question will go a long way towards determining your usefulness for God’s kingdom so choose carefully.