It’s Not All About Rob Bell: An Interview With a Member of Mars Hill ChurchArts, Books, Featured — By Emily Timbol on April 15, 2011 at 11:34 am
Now that the dust has settled from the controversy over Rob Bell’s latest book that rocked the Christian world, and inspired not one, not two, but three Burnside posts, I figured it was time to approach the subject that very few people (myself included) took into consideration when writing their reviews: the several thousand members who attend Mars Hill Bible Church. It seemed that almost every Christian I came in contact with these past few months had an opinion about Rob Bell’s book, and Rob Bell himself, but none of them had any comments to make about the thousands of people who call themselves members of his church. The fact is, these members watched noted and widely respected writers, pastors, and theologians, frankly and openly accuse the leader of their church of being a Universalist heretic. Since all of us believers are comprised of one “church,” I thought the experience that these thousands have gone through was something worth noting. Thankfully, one of Burnside’s own contributers and columnists, Diane Nienhuis, has attended Mars Hill Bible Church since 2002 and was willing to grant me an interview.
1) Could you tell us a little bit about your spiritual history, and why you started going to Mars Hill Church?
I grew up in a Christian home, community, and am a product of Christian education from Kindergarden through twelfth grade. I graduated from Reformed Bible College in 1995 with a degree in Urban Missions, and three weeks after graduation, I packed up my things and I moved to North Philadelphia to work as a missionary with inner-city teens for five years. In 2000 I moved back home and returned to the church I grew up in, but only for a year. My time in the City had really changed my outlook on God, my faith, and how I read Scripture. During the summer of 2001, a friend of mine told me that my former high school Bible teacher was a guest teacher at this new church called Mars Hill Bible Church. I had never heard of the church, but I was ready for some good teaching!
My first impression of Mars Hill was not a good one, but that is because I was still filtering the world through my worldview of “why doesn’t everyone care about the poor??” It wasn’t that Mars Hill doesn’t care about the poor, on the contrary. It was my own hang-up that I couldn’t get past what I initially saw. Mars Hill met in an old mall (which I found ironic), was filled with white people, and had a huge budget. The first time I entered the Resource Room, I nearly cried because I thought of the scant resources of my church back in Philly. My main objection to Mars Hill was that it was a large, white, wealthy, suburban church, which went against everything I wanted from a church. Why would God lead me to such a place?! But through time I heard God pushing me to attend Mars Hill, so in 2002 I starting attending, sometimes kicking and screaming, and I have never looked back. I had no idea who the pastor was because a series of guest teachers were teaching, including Rev. VanderLaan. About three months later, I realized that the pastor of Mars Hill was a guy named Rob Bell, someone I had never heard of.
2) So you hadn’t read Rob Bell’s books prior to attending Mars Hill?
Some people on the internet predicted that this would split our church or at the very least our numbers would diminish, but I haven’t seen anything of the sort. We’re moving forward, and I love how resilient our church body is. Amongst my friends, we’ve had discussions about the controversy, but none of us have yet read the book. What I have seen is a huge extension of love and grace to the critics, instead of fighting back with more biting and hurtful words. Again, I love that about my church.
My first response to this question is, “who said those pastors are respected?!” or maybe, “who respects them?” because from what I’ve seen from those pastors, they do not have my respect. I understand that they feel the need to protect God, the Bible, and The Story. However, God is big and does not need us to protect Him.
I also don’t like the phrase, “Bell’s church,” which is just my own thing. I am a member of Mars Hill Bible Church and Rob Bell happens to be my pastor. He goes to MY church. WE are the church body. He is one of two teachers. The fact is, I am a member of Mars Hill because I hear the Good News of the Gospel preached every single week, not because of Bell. The community that I have found there is like none other in my life. I have encountered people who have literally sold all of their possessions and moved to Africa. I know of a little girl who thought it was unjust that all people do not have access to clean drinking water, so she started a Walk for Water to raise funds and awareness. Good friends of mine moved to Egypt, learned Arabic, and worked with the Muslim community in Cairo. The people of Mars Hill do more than just sit in church on Sunday and then return to their normal lives the other six days of the week. To me, we are a people who are called to action and we answer the call. Mars Hill is also an incredibly safe place to ask questions, seek answers, and admit that we’re all screwed up. It is the first church I have ever attended that showed me what Grace looks like. I learned that Love doesn’t keep record of wrongs. We talk a lot about finding the Third Way to react to people, which has been an extremely powerful idea in my personal life. And, to top it all off, we have two incredible teachers who share the pulpit on Sundays.
Recently someone said to me, “…based on your life experience, I am shocked that you aren’t using more discernment in your choice of a church.” You know, because I went to a Bible College and was a missionary apparently I shouldn’t be attending Mars Hill. He questioned my discernment which I thought was arrogant, to say the least. It’s comments like that, actually, that keep me out of other churches because if that’s how members of other churches are behaving, then I don’t want to be a part of those churches.
I have also been insulted with comments like, “Rob Bell’s followers” which I take as an attack on my intelligence. I am a follower of Jesus, not Rob Bell. Rob is a teacher at my church and through what I have learned and heard at my church over the last nine years, I have grown tremendously as a person. Also, since the invention of the printing press several hundred years ago, I am able to read the Bible on my own. I have never heard Rob preach a sermon that went against what I have also found to be true in the Bible. I have, however, heard him preach a sermon on singleness that really ticked me off, but that’s not what this is about!
One of the reasons this interview is important to me is because when Critics are busy criticizing Rob, they have also made broad sweeping statements about those of us who attend Mars Hill. I’ve read sentiments which have insulted my intelligence, questioned my discernment, and doubted my ability to read the Bible on my own. All the while, I’m wondering, “They must think God is really, really small if they feel the need to defend him so vehemently. Do they think God can’t handle this? They worry about Rob sending the ‘wrong message,’ yet look at the message of anger and dismissal that they are sending to the world.” Honestly, it makes me scratch my head in bewilderment.
6) Anything else you’d like to say?