Velvet Elvis Part One

I'll give you a heads-up and warn you that the next couple of posts are aren't going to be humorous reflections on my life, but dialogue about religious stuff. If you find this kind of thing boring, check back later in the week. I'm sure I'll be in a less pensive mood by then.

My wife had a friend growing up, Emily, who went to Cornerstone College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. One time while she was in Cincy visiting, Emily told us that she went to a newer church in town, the Mars Hill Bible Church, that was growing at an extreme rate because of her pastor's teaching. She claimed that he was an awesome speaker. I remember laughing to myself thinking, "everyone thinks their pastor is an awesome teacher." About a year or so later, Kelly represented Standard Publishing at a youth workers convention in Sacramento and I tagged along. The first speaker of the main session for the convention was the preacher at Emily's church. "We'll see how good he really is," I thought to myself. Emily was telling the truth: her pastor was an awesome speaker.

The first time I listened to Rob Bell preach, I was excited, not so much at what he was saying, but at a truth being confirmed to me. I had finally found someone doing it the way I always wanted to. I was naive enough to think that, in preaching, you could take people deep into the Scriptures and still make it interesting. Rob Bell accomplishes that, and quite brilliantly. We had Emily send us some of his sermon tapes and became familiar with his blend of relevant insight and sharp humor undergirded by a love of the Bible. He's also a master of the object lesson, using whatever it takes to drive a message home. On a vacation to Cedar Point, we swung by Grand Rapids and went to Mars Hill on a Sunday. They meet in a rehabilitated shopping mall. The main worship area is a warehouse area, painted battleship gray, with a stage in the middle of the room. They have about 10,000 attendees every week. Rob wasn't even speaking that weekend but we saw church being lived out simply and passionately. We purchased tapes of the very first sermon series he taught in the church: a series on Leviticus.

About two and half years ago Rob hosted a teaching conference for pastors at the Mars Hill so Aaron and I went up to see what we could learn. He walked us through a series he was preparing about the Ten Commandments and basically showed how he prepared for sermons. He reads and ton of books and uses people like local Bible Lands expert Ray Vanderlaan [who taught that weekend Kelly and I attended] as resources. While our time in Grand Rapids was enlightening [except it was in the middle of January and cruddy Michigan weather] we did a catch a disturbing glimpse of how Rob is perceived by some.

At a lunch event during the conference we sat with a woman who seemed obsessed with Rob Bell, to the point that she was wanting to move from Chicago to Michigan just to join his church. Through other dialogue we discovered that his teaching was THE driving point in the church's growth. Now before you think I'm negative or skeptical about this, I should emphasize that I don't believe this to be Rob's intention. In fact, I think he tries to deliberately downplay himself as this "cult leader" type figure. I think he sincerely is trying to elevate Jesus above all things. There are just some people out there who get caught up in following a certain leader [see 1 Corinthians 1:11-17] and take it to the extreme. It's sad but true.

I guess all of this is to preface the fact that Rob Bell just published his first book through Zondervan Publishing Company. It's entitled "Velvet Elvis," an interesting title to say the least, which he explains in the beginning of the book. This book is stirring up a bit of a controversy in Evangelical Christian circles because some of the stuff he has written in the book. Honestly, it's the same stuff he's been teaching for years now, but since it's in book form it's more accessible.

I want to allow ample time for those interested to check out some of what's being said by other people about the book. I just finished reading it yesterday so I'll offer up my reflections about Velvet Elvis and the Rob Bell controversy in my next post.