Tying the Clouds Together
He once planted a church by teaching through Leviticus. He can use a rabbit carved from a bar of soap to illustrate the nature of suffering. Google his name and the term "Sex God" will appear among the top entries.
Rob Bell is the most interesting preacher in the world.
Bell is the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, but his reputation as an innovative communicator came largely through his video teaching series, NOOMA. Since launching Mars Hill in 1999, Bell's ministry has expanded into books, DVDs, and live tours, but he is still committed to shepherding his community at Mars Hill through preaching.
Leadership managing editor Skye Jethani sat down with Bell to discuss his approach to communicating, the state of preaching in the church, and the risks the pulpit presents to a pastor's soul.
Your sermons are known for pulling from unexpected sources—everything from art history to quantum physics. Why?
When Jacob woke up after his vision of angels ascending and descending on the ladder, he declared, "Surely God was in this place and I did not know it." And Jesus says, "My Father is always at work even to this very day." Jesus lives with an awareness, an assumption that God is here and he's at work. Dallas Willard calls this "the God-bathed world." This has deeply shaped me.
My assumption is that God can be found in all of the interesting things buzzing around us all the time. So we can take something from here and something from there and bring them together. A friend of mine calls it "tying the clouds together."
What's an example?
In high-end quantum physics they believe matter isn't stable. The atoms in a chair are connected in a pattern of relationships. And the Bible begins with a triune God—a relationship of loving, giving, creative energy. Ah ha, there's something there.
Drops Like Stars began when I realized that basic art theory has all of these connections with suffering. And so it generally starts with some odd moment of connection. And then from there it's just the hard work of hunting things down, digging things up, becoming aware of all that's going on around us all the time. I have journals filled with fragments, and over time they grow.
How is that different from how you were originally trained to preach?
A lot of pastors were trained to read the verse and then read the commentaries. But after a while the two are just talking to each other. One's focus can actually become smaller and smaller until everything is funneled into the particular text. The movement then becomes in rather than out. So it's Tuesday afternoon and a pastor is sitting in the office reading James 2 and four or five commentaries hoping to find that little nugget. When all the while there's a huge world of insight and implication and ideas out there.
Rather than shrinking our vision, the text should become a pair of eyes with which we are able to see even more. There's a great big world out there with quantum physics, and architecture, and economic theory, and the thread count of clothing, and the fact that refrigerators in Europe are smaller—all of these seemingly random events and occurrences and happenings are all connected and help us see how this really is God's world.
Rob Bell is the former pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan.