Is Rob Bell Too Provocative? (and other thoughts)

My last post was on how the Piper types could help the Bell types and initially I wanted to see what the Bell types could do for the Piper types but in honesty, I don’t really know how a to offer the opposite intelligently. Maybe you do, feel free to comment.

What I keep hearing from some is that Rob Bell is being “too provocative”, so here are some thoughts on that.

Let me up front here and mention for those who might not know me, I appreciate a lot of what Rob Bell says and does.  I love the creative artistry, the brilliant wordsmithing, and the pastoral heart that extends way beyond Mars Hill. I’ve shown just about all the Nooma videos to our students, taken people to see him on his speaking tours, been handing out his beautiful book on suffering and hope Drops Like Stars, indeed, I’m an appreciator. It’s ok, in some sense, I like just about everybody, and in another, I have a problem/issue/concern with everyone too – I honestly think that’s normal and healthy.

I am also among the countless that appreciate Rob not taking the “safe route”. I appreciate the many like him that ask the tough questions that we have been/should be should be asking and wresting with. It tells the world that we are not afraid to question our beliefs but still trust Jesus. If there’s ever an issue that should be wrestled with, it’s the fate of every soul who ever lived.

Over the years, I’ve heard many complain on Rob being “too provocative”. That’s part of his gift-set. In addition to his creativity and speaking ability, he is able to communicate especially well to the “over-churched” and the intelligent “non-churched” and to do so, it would not serve him well to be a traditional type or a corporate type among other types. Given the scope of the Mars Hill ministry, his personal platform, he’s quite the exception.

But isn’t telling someone to not be “too provocative” similar to telling someone to not be “too beautiful”? Certainly I’ll be the first to say some beautiful people have objectified themselves for their own personal gain – people like Pamela Anderson and myself would be obvious examples. But being beautiful or being provocative is also in our nature and some people are more gifted with it. For me the trait is not a moral issue, it’s the how/what we do with it. Lastly, I think it’s easy to make the case that Jesus certainly was provocative.

All that said, I am very prepared to disagree with Rob’s thoughts in this book, future books and sermons, just like there were things about Velvet Elvis I wasn’t sure of. (Loved the book, but I remember thinking at some parts, if I was brilliant, I would have said it differently :). Like everyone, sometimes you hear things in a sermon that you not really sure of either (sometimes I listen to a recoding of mine and think the same!).  But this is what I and so many others like about him – he doesn’t need me to agree with him.  It’s in this sense, that people like Rob Bell are ideal for X’ers and Millennials, (even some Boomers) because they do not project themselves as controlling authoritarian figures who preach they have the only way to know/understand/love God. In a world of personality tests, gift assessments, talent evaluations, different approaches by different people sharing their message in different ways to different audiences makes a good deal of sense.

Perhaps my biggest concern for people like Rob Bell would be to not take advantage of his platform or to be “too provocative” for the wrong motives. Further, I think we all have seen what happens to evangelical egos when they are left unchecked. Turning into Gollum would be the same betrayal of any sexual or financial scandal. May he rely on the strength of the Lord to keep Christ-like in all his ways. We pray for you Rob Bell.

I am anxious to read Love Wins and I think this whole debate in some part, has been good for us a church. More on that another time. Also, my wife, a good friend are headed into New York to see Rob on Monday. Let me know if we can coordinate a ride or meet up (it’s general seating).  Here’s the event page and if you can’t come, you can watch it online here.

Reflecting on How the John Pipers Could Better Serve the Rob Bells And the Church

On John Piper
Years ago, John Piper was an important voice in my life. Alongside of figures like Dallas Willard, Eugene Peterson, Richard Foster and Chuck Colson, I thought books like A Hunger For God and the Pleasure of God were quite excellent. The years following, I became a bit more annoyed with the Piperclones than with the pastor himself. There is only so many times you can hear a sentence begin with, “John Piper says …”. Not his fault but in these recent years, I admit that I have become quite confused with his behavior (to put it politely). And then last weekend, if we ever needed to see what a church version of an attempted “pre-emptive strike” looked like, Dr. Piper gave us one.

I can handle the type of drama that came with his sparring with NT Wright. It was whispered through the blogosphere that he was upset that Tim Keller invited the good bishop to Redeemer and that’s ok too. As a post-conservative, I can respect his convictions on theological and political issues. My problem is more as a young brother in the Lord in not only how he deals with his differences but also how his thousands follow him and what that does to us as a Church.

I am in no position to point my finger at a man like John Piper, I regard him as a spiritual father, but this type of nonsense really has to stop. And what I mean specifically is this one-man watchgroup against what he feels is liberalism and heresy.

It seems from where I sit in my corner of the internet, that Dr. Piper cannot wait for certain people to fail like NT Wright, anyone in the emerging church conversation namely Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt and many others. And we should remember that it was people like Doug Pagitt who posted on their blogs to pray for Dr. Piper during the sabbatical he was taking because to paraphrase, he was being consumed in the pride wars he was fighting were starting to affect his home and soul.

I’ll tell you this, if Dr. Piper was ever caught in a scandal, I have no doubt that it would be the Brian McLarens, the Jay Bakkers, the Tony Jones types that would be among those that would say, “Hey it sucks but he’s a brother and we stand by him …”

This is partially why it’s so odd to me that he would be so trite and worse, dismissive, with Rob Bell. I believe people like John Piper to love Christ and have a genuine concern for the church and the world in general. But judging from his use of social media from the past few years, I would say that he is lurking in the bushes waiting for anyone he has pre-determined as “liberal” so he can pop out with his stones and say, “Haha, I told you to sin no more, now suffer the consequences of your rebellion.”

Please, Dr. Piper wrote a fantastic book that I handed out to high school graduates for years entitled, Don’t Waste Your Life, is there not some irony here? And if he’s sitting in his office thinking “Come on people, I was just joking around”, then he really needs to learn how to effectively use social media. Does Bethlehem Baptist not have a youth pastor that can help him out?

I know some will think I am naive for saying this but since I hold out hope for a united church, I offer this. I think it’s the John Pipers that can be a great help to the Rob Bells. Years from now Bell will get old, perhaps even trade in his cool eye wear for bifocals. It’s the Pipers that can be of assistance there. People like him should consider offer genuine friendship and assistance to the next generation of evangelicals and he should include those outside his theological tradition. We are one church, serving one Lord. Though it seems extremely unlikely for such a thing to happen, I cannot help but think that not only is it possible, but it should actually happen.

Second, because of the following of pastors like John Piper, this is a church issue. The Piper appreciators and the Bell appreciators need to converse. As someone (sorry I cannot remember who) on Twitter pointed out that this is very similar to the Apollos, Cephas, Paul “I follow” issue that the Corinth church was tripped up in. The declining evangelical church would be wise to break down the walls of sectism (among some other walls), unite under the banner of Christ, then dialogue while serving the world and worshiping our God. Again, I know it sounds naive but at least admit, it is very Pauline.

On Justin Taylor and the Gospel Coalition
First, I’d like to be among what I assume would be the many to suggest that they change their name to something a bit less militant sounding? Second, I’m sure Justin is a cool guy and there’s some good content on his blog but it could use some diversity though. A Rob Bell type would really only help the conversation, not hurt it. Third, I appreciated the updates to the original post but perhaps a bit of humility could have been demonstrated as well. A line like, “Perhaps these words were a bit strong for not having read the book yet so I extend my apologies. Universalism is a dangerous idea and I am passionately against it but perhaps I hasted my judgement on Bell and his book.” Is that realistic for us as Christians? It will be interesting to the how/what post will sound if/when Justin reviews Love Wins.. I would advise an edifying brotherly discussion over a disuniting theological rivals tone.

On Rob Bell soon …

Come see the new Invisible Children movie Tony next Wednesday

Our youth group has been involved in Invisible Children for the past few years. In addition to hosting screenings at our church, in their schools, creating School for Schools campaigns, this tragic issue of trafficked and abducted children forced to become child soldiers has been on our hearts.

Next Wednesday (March 16th, 7:30p), we are hosting the new Invisible Children film, Tony at our church (141 W Grand Ave. Montvale, NJ). If you have never seen an IC film, consider coming, they are well-made documentaries that have an incredible soul to them.

The event is free and there will be tshirts and dvds for sale to help support the cause. Hope you can make it and hope you bring a friend.

You can learn more on their website –


Recapping The Rob Bell Controversy

Primary Audience – To those of you who keep saying, “What’s going on with this whole …?”
Secondary Audience – Evangelicals.

A few of my friends have asked for my thoughts on the Rob Bell controversy.  Like so many, I too have a lot of thoughts and to be honest, though this last week was pretty drama-crazy, I think there’s a lot of good to see here.

But before I post those and because everything is contextual (and spiritual :), this is the recap from where I sit.

On the Saturday (2/25) before the Grammy’s Rob Bell released this video to promote his new book to be released March 15th Love Wins. Here’s the book description from the publisher Harper One: In Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith–the afterlife–arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering. With searing insight, Bell puts hell on trial, and hismessage is decidedly optimistic–eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins.

Sunday night, (Feb. 26), John Piper, Pastor of Bethlehem Baptist, author, etc. made this tweet and included a link to Justin Taylor’s post.

No joke, #Rob Bell was a twitter trend alongside on Grammys, James  Franco and Justin Bieber.


Justin Taylor blogs for the Gospel Coalition. This post, entitled “Rob Bell, Universalist?” was clicked thousands of times and went viral.

Thousands of tweets, FB status updates, blog posts, and conversations ensued.

Among the best posts I read were Scot McKnights “Waiting for Rob Bell Part 1″ and “Part 2″.  I think it’s also worth noting that Relevant Magazine used McKnight’s posts for their blog.  Also, in Part 1, Scot includes a brief overview of how his college students generally see ideas of the afterlife/universalism.  As a youth pastor, just this mention was of great interest to me.

Jason Boyett had an excellent post, “Thoughts About Rob Bell, John Piper, and Justin Taylor”

Tony Jones offered his two cents and asked if Bell was the Jason Bourne of Evangelism in “What’s Up With Rob Bell?”

My friend Evan made some excellent points in his post, “Rob Bell – The Belle of the Universalist Ball

Last week the NY Times had an article … on the front page.

My thoughts? I hope to express them Christianly (as so many actually have) throughout the week. Last week I was really irritated with the backlash from those that hadn’t read the book.

My wife and I are also going to go see Bell in NYC. Join us – Here is the ticket link and if you don’t live in the area or unable to attend, it will be streamed here.

My Review of Matthew Paul Turner’s Churched

I had the opportunity to review Churched for the Blogging for Books program by Multnomah Books.  I think I’m supposed to say that I am not required to write a positive endorsement, only an honest one.  Faithful readers should know that by now, new readers, beware :)

As a fan of MPT and his blog Jesus Needs New PR, I’m not sure what took me this long to read Churched. It’s a pretty fast read, I finished it in a night.
Here are my thoughts:

It is legitimately funny. Matthew is not only a fantastic story-teller but also has an excellent sense of humor that you can tell has been refined over his years on teen-retreats in a church van.

Second, it’s therapeutic. You cannot help but feel comforted by the similarities of your own family, church, and inner monologue.

Third, there is a warning contained here for all of us pastors, church leaders, parents – these kids we have now eventually get older, acquire book deals and do a tell-all as if they were a politician’s girlfriend. Ask the Lord to help you bring your A-game everyday.

Lastly, based on this, there are two types of people who should read it: Christians raised in fundamentalist churches (especially in the 80’s and 90’s) and parents who raised their children in these types of churches. The book is marketed to the former, but I think it would be extremely interesting for Boomer parents to read what was going in our heads throughout those years. I kept thinking, I bet a lot parents have no idea that this is how so many of us felt. It is written with enough humor and exaggeration that I think it’s very possible for it not get overly personal. Just a thought.

MPT does a great job in not preaching at all in this book – it’s all in the dialogue and the sarcasm. He creates these caricatures (please let them be caricatures) that reminded me of what Matt Groening did with his own family and upbringing when he created the Simpsons (yes, the concept of the Simpsons is based on a true story).

Perhaps the most insightful thing I can say about the book is this – the greatest thing fundamentalism did for kids like us, is that our existing faith is evidence of the Holy Spirit. There are thousands of us who were raised in this no long hair, no tattoo, no secular music message of Christianity and crawled out the other end of the CCM sewer, found Jesus and raised our hands like freed people in the Lord Shawshank Redemption style.

Again, it’s a fun read, hope you check it out.

O Lord, Give Me Half The Faith of an Ecclesia Church-Planting Cubs Fan

Last week I was given the opportunity to attend the Ecclesia Conference in DC and it was an excellent time. For those unfamiliar with the “Ecclesia”, it’s basically a network of missionally minded churches across the country. Now, my church is not a part of Ecclesia, but my interest is more in the people and the conversations in it and that seems to be ok. Here are a few of my observations as somewhat of an outsider.

Having attended my share of conferences over the years, each gathering has a “feel” to it. This being my second time at this gathering, there were a few things I had my eye on. Of course there are the cliched jokes that we all love, it’s a room full of macbooks, moleskins, and manbags. Further, we all hate cheesy aliteration but cannot help using it from time to time either. Cool eye wear? Check. Cool jeans? Yep, not a pair of khaki’s in the house. Some of these people not only adopt kids but adopt parents – yep. In this room, it makes more sense to pay more for your XLR than your car. Most of this stuff is simply true of people in their 20’s and 30’s but you know you are not at a Southern Baptist gathering because there are tattoos, women, and amillennialists. I’m telling you, it’s a pretty cool group of people.

They are also a very welcoming group. While that is typically true of most church leader groups, if you know anything about twenty-thirty something, educated, post-evangelical, radical church planters, many of whom had difficult church congregant/pastoral experiences (catch my breath), well, you’re a bit surprised that it’s such a friendly place. As a bit of an outsider, it feels like everyone here knows everyone else. Some of these pastors and leaders have been meeting together (multiple times) for years and you can tell by the number of inside jokes (and some you know because of the social media world).

It’s a very sharp, intelligent, well-read room. Many I spoke to are/were a part of the emerging church conversation. I would assume that everyone would say that New Kind of Christian was an important book for them. So much more could be said here but I’ll leave it with, it seems that many of us in the missional church conversation have roots in the emergent/emerging church conversation.

Like I said, it’s a sharp and intelligent room so you don’t ask a question like, “Have you read any Dallas Willard?” You will get a polite answer like, “Well, sure, he was our speaker here last year and a number of us have read his books over the years …”. The question that an Ecclesist wants to ponder is more like, “What do you think Dallas Willard is thinking about right now?” “Well, JR (there are like 8 JR’s, so you never really know which one is being referred to) was just talking to him because Dallas had just update his secret Tumbler and he said Dallas has been wrestling with the idea of …”.

But they are not condescending either. This took me a while to figure out because I simply thought that they were better at being polite but this year it dawned on me – These pastors don’t have enough people or power in their church to be condescending. In some ways, I don’t really fit in this group. I admit, I can be condescending but even more, I’m not bivocational, I don’t design websites, my church doesn’t meet in a bar, and no matter how hard I try, I don’t look like Topher Grace, not even an Egyptian version of “Eric”. My church has a youth ministry, I’m one of the youth pastors, we even have a budget.

This year’s theme was spiritual formation. If you want to read on what what actually spoken about, I recommend these reflections:
Scott Emery’s, Eric Phillips, especially loved this one by Dave Kludt, the summary of tweets,
and keep an eye out on the Ecclesia site for when they post the mp3’s. A summary of tweets.

This year, I came late (though I enjoyed what I heard from Todd Hunter, found Marykate Morse’s leadership seminars to be fantastic, and loved the panel discussions from the many that shared) and I left a little early, so driving home, I reflected more on the conversations and relational elements I enjoyed those 36 hours I was there.

After some reflection, I think the greatest element that I am walking away with is that many in this gathering are very faith-led. Perhaps it’s their seminary training from Fuller, Talbot, Tibet, or it could be their collective choice in MLB teams. Which brings me to my point, “Is there anyone out there in American Christendom who has more faith than a married with children, bivocational, missional, church planter who cheers for the Cubs??? My prayer this Lent is that the Lord would give me half the faith of these people. Amen.

Reflecting on My Experience Leading an Adult Sunday School on the Faith of Teenagers

Primary Audience – Youth workers and those interested in youth ministry.

Last month I had the privilege of leading an adult Sunday School class that I entitled, “The Faith of the American Teenager”. I’m grateful to say this four week class for parents went pretty well. I have always known that a youth pastor my age cannot teach a class on parenting but I was hoping that I would be credible in sharing on the faith of a teenager. Relying on the research from the National Youth and Religion conducted by Christian Smith and Melinda Denton was the key for me. From the research, Smith and Denton released a book called Soul Searching, and from that book, there is Kenda Creasy Dean’s contribution called, Almost Christian. It was Kenda’s book that I had based much of the Sunday School content on.

Here’s what I learned:

Being in youth ministry for a few years truly helps in providing enough anecdotes to make a class like this a bit more personal. When the research says, “The average teen sees God as a cosmic butler”, you probably have a few stories helping to unpackage that. As the class went on, I found that I needed more stories than I realized to help communicate the findings of the research.

Don’t make the class a commercial for youth ministry. If you understand the research by Smith and Denton, you’ll know you can’t because parents are the key to a student’s spiritual formation; the youth ministry is to serve as a support to the home. Namely in nurturing a Christ-centered teen community that equips, challenges and inspires the Christian faith.

Allow people to see your passion and your thoughtfulness concerning the faith of their children and the youth ministry you are called to serve in.  As we all know there are a lot of stereotypes concerning the youth pastor position, allowing parents to see you “in action”, helps them understand a little more about you and your ministry.

Presenting research in this type of a setting allows for questions, push-back, discussion that you as the youth pastor do not need to defend or take personally. I truly felt like an ally to our church families.

The use of disclaimers is helpful in talking about other people’s children. Research and commentary tells a big-picture story. Just about every week, I offered the reminder that not all of this is necessarily true of their own child. In fact, for many of our families, they represented the highly committed statistics (evidenced by them being at the Sunday School class).

Allow for discussion. There are so many different types of people/parents. Some can lead a company and not a home – some can do both and then some. Allow for their voices to be heard. Our last Sunday, we broke up into discussion groups and allowed the parents to respond to the 11 Findings of the Research (found in the appendix of Almost Christian)

I was encouraged by the positive feedback. But I admit, I was a bit surprised that quite a few of our students had a lot of good things to say about the parents taking the class. Some felt very validated that they were the subject and others shared stories of resulting conversations with their parents. They convinced me to present a condensed version of what I shared with their parents. I’m interested in seeing how they respond to what was shared on their behalf but I believe most will find it very helpful.

The need to do this more often, maybe quarterly? I drafted a few ideas like “Teens and Social Media”, “Teens Dealing with Stress” and “Teens and Love”. Feel free to chime in if you have thoughts for other needed discussions.