Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Rob Bell, preaching and the local church – some reflections

Like many others in recent years, I’ve been stimulated and positively provoked by the ministry of Rob Bell. I’ve enjoyed his books (albeit with an increasing sense of frustration that he’s often better at deconstructing than providing answers) and also found his Nooma DVDs to be beautifully evocative, touching the heart as well as the head as all good preaching should. And I’ve even had the privilege to hear him once in the flesh, on his Drops Like Stars tour which explored the theme of suffering. I came away dazzled, impressed and frankly a little jealous – I doubt my communication skills will ever scale the heights I saw him attain that evening.

But I have to confess to being disconcerted and disappointed by some comments made by Bell in a recent interview given to promote his next book due out in 2013. You can read the interview here – what caught my eye was a section where he commented on the new freedom he’s found since leaving the local church setting of Mars Hill in Grand Rapids to become a freelance writer and speaker. The interviewer comments on how he’s able to speak more openly on a controversial issue and then says:

DAVID: What’s most remarkable about that segment of the video is: You seem so relaxed in saying that simple yet important thing. You’re smiling. You’ve got to be breathing a sigh of relief that you’re able to say this now without a panel of church elders to whom you’ve got to answer—or other critics in the church. So, what I want to know is: Does it feel good to get that off your chest?
ROB: I am smiling right now at that question. I am smiling.
It was a joy and honor and privilege to be part of a local church. It was absolutely amazing through all those years, but believe me—I know what you are describing here on a cellular level. Yeah. That’s all there is to say—yeah. I am smiling.
Reading these words makes me want to make a plea to preachers everywhere. Let’s never reach the point where we see the local church as something which cramps our style or limits our freedom. Every time I step into the pulpit I see a group of people with whom I’m in a covenant relationship, the leaders and members to whom I’m accountable. When I feel frustrated and I’m on the verge of ‘letting rip’ I hold back because I’m conscious that what matters most is sustaining those relationships. When I’m tempted to say something controversial or provocative I’m forced to weigh up whether the impact will be worth the upset, hurt and division which could be caused in this local expression of the body of Christ. Sometimes our critics are God’s gift to us.

And just one more plea, to the folks like Rob who’ve earned themselves the status and authority which goes with this kind of speaking and writing ministry. Remember that when you throw a hot potato, there’ll be someone somewhere still leading a local church who has to catch it and deal with the fallout...

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