Explaining Why Rob Bell No Longer Attends Church

In a 2014 interview with Religion Dispatches it was reported that the post-Evangelical author Rob Bell and his family are not part of a local church:

Now resettled near Los Angeles, the couple no longer belongs to a traditional church.  “We have a little tribe of friends,” Bell said. “We have a group that we are journeying with. There’s no building. We’re churching all the time. It’s more of a verb for us.”

Based on other interviews it seemed the Bells felt called to move to Los Angeles to pursue opportunities in television. Meanwhile Bell has refashioned his message into a psuedo-spiritual, Self-Help, Moralistic, Therapeutic, Deism much more inline with the other prophets in Oprah’s spiritual stockade.

What’s strange to me about the Bells move is that they have not found a church home.  Los Angeles is one of the most churched cities in the nation with a wide variety of religious expressions.  There is undoubtedly a church within their proximity that fits their current spiritual outlook and theological ideas.  If there isn’t, Bell could easily establish his own non-denominational church and fashion it to any size he desires.  But instead the Bells are content with a “tribe of friends” without the formal structures of an organized body or theology.

It’s my opinion that this is very intentional on their part.  It isn’t that they can’t find a church, it’s that their thoughts on Christianity now explicitly reject the notion of church.  I’ve come to this conclusion by researching a friend and co-lecturer of Bell’s named Peter Rollins.

Peter RollinsPeter Rollins is a theologian and philosopher who has long endorsed “negative theology”. In short it’s the idea that we can’t actually know anything about God.  Rollins has further pushed those ideas into a radical theology that he calls “pyrotheology'”.  He got the idea for the name from a statement by a Spanish Anarchist that said “the only church that illuminates is a burning church.”

Rollins thinks that any expression of certainty about God is an act toward idolatry.  One of the primary roles of a church is to foster a positive knowledge of beliefs and doctrines. This is contrary to what Rollins think is the true heart of the Gospel of Christianity.  For him faith is best expressed as doubt.  Rather than saying “I know my Savior lives” it’s better to say “I’m not sure my Savior lives” and experience the freedom of ambiguity and uncertainty.

Despite the trend of progressive and liberal churches toward embracing greater doubt and uncertainty Rollins reserves his harshest critiques for these churches rather than Conservative and Fundamentalist churches.  To Rollins it seems they express doubt in their words but deny its power in their liturgy.  You shouldn’t preach on uncertainty and then follow it up with a hymn that affirms the existence of God and sings of his worthiness to be praised. If Rob Bell is truly convinced of Rollins’ thinking, then it makes sense why he would not find fellowship in even a progressive church.

I certainly can find many things in Rollins theology that I like and find praiseworthy.  There is absolutely a place to explore doubt and brokenness within Christianity.  Liturgy and church cultures can absolutely get in the way of transcendence.  Maintaining our structures and edifices should never supplant our directive to build the kingdom of God or disciple people toward transformation.  I understand why people may be interested in Rollins’ message.  But . . . . he seems to forget that knowing the truth will set us free and that it is Jesus who ultimately satisfies and offers us freedom FROM brokenness.  Existentialism wrapped in the code words of Christianity is still Existentialism and the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins should not be confused for the gospel of brokenness.

While I reject his message, as a Conservative Evangelical I’m quite happy to see his name and his message take the interest of the liberal and progressive wings of Christianity. For some of the mainline denominations their death is visible within a generation’s time.  To embrace a theology that teaches its member to actually abandon the church entirely can only speed that process. Godspeed Dr. Rollins.

40 thoughts on “Explaining Why Rob Bell No Longer Attends Church

  1. While I strongly disagree with your statement on the death of mainline denominations, I have to say I don’t find Rollins’ approach particularly compelling for the reasons you mention. The gospel is not a self-help message, it is the transcendent reality of Christ crucified and resurrected for the redemption and reconciliation of all creation. The church needs to repent in many areas but we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  2. I don’t think Tim is completely wrong. I’m about twice your age, Katie, and I’ve sometimes been the youngest one or close to it when I’ve visited a mainline Protestant church. I don’t think any of the major denominations will literally disappear, but if they’re going to do more than survive as a shell of what they could be, they’re going to need young people (like you, perhaps) who see church as something more than a well-meaning social/political organization that has a Christian overlay. I realize I’m stereotyping, but that has been the sort of thing that I have observed.

    The gospel is not a self-help message, it is the transcendent reality of Christ crucified and resurrected for the redemption and reconciliation of all creation.

    I like that. I think that many movements in Christianity (including my own, which too often offers a type of checklist Christianity) and I myself often miss that central message.

  3. I don’t disagree that the church is undergoing some serious transformation right now, but as someone pursuing ministry in the ELCA, a mainline denomination, I don’t see it vanishing. It’s changing. And thank God, even though the death part of the faithful cycle of death and rebirth always hurts like hell.

    Regardless, if any church hopes to have new life breathed into it, it’ll have to start by preaching the gospel first.

  4. Katie, Make sure to report back if you hear anything about Rollins from your professors or classmates.

    Jeremy said:

    So are you saying, Tim, that you are hoping the mainline denominations die out?

    I suppose my hope is that they can be reformed and return to orthodoxy. But I see little evidence of that happening at this point and absent that possibility I would prefer that churches that merely resemble Christianity die out as quickly as possible.

  5. I’m familiar with Rollins, not from school but the internet. There’s definitely that wing of the church (meaning the church writ large, not a particular denomination) but then there are folks like Nadia Bolz Weber who is quite orthodox and very popular. I think there is a resurgence of interest in my generation in liturgical practices and a desire to reconnect to the roots of the faith, including the hope that comes from high Christology, faith in the resurrection, and grounding in classical Trinitarian theology. Having said that, we want to reconnect in ways that are not dogmatic or judgmental (what we perceive as the sins of our parents’/grandparents’ generations) and that have an eye to recognizing sin on a systemic, not just individual, scale. At least that’s what I’m sensing in my little corner of the mainline movement here in St Paul.

  6. Bell and Rollins are dealing with the intellectual problem that is rarely adequately addressed– mainly because the problem does not afflict most people. Most people are not as cynical as they should be about institutions. They are much more likely to believe in popular mythology that things are good and getting better rather than to accept the impossible brokenness of the world.

    It makes a lot of sense that Rollins is from Belfast. Once a person becomes conscious of institutional psychological manipulation and the inherent psychosis of political and religious organizations, jettisoning the carcass of the church seems like a reasonable move, especially when churches have so fully incorporated the mythology of the world into their values and conversation. Abolishing all idols is a recipe for the deepest of cynicism.

    I think the LDS Church can breed the same level of cynicism as bred Northern Ireland. Joseph Smith’s attack of orthodoxy and rejection of worldly government is a very radical position – a rebellion against the social order, religious tradition, and even the political authorities. Indoctrination into the LDS rebellion against traditional Christianity, followed by a loss of faith in the concept of church spits the post-Mormon in a place of deep distrust and alienation from the body of Christ.

    I used to have a lot of sympathy with Rollin’s brand of negative theology. His denial of any sure knowledge of God was my position as well, for quite a long time. Even as I have attempted to adopt Christianity, most all institutions still appear to be primarily pagan of some stripe. There appears to be no sure guidance on what idols are worthy of our sacrifices. Even the cross shows up as an idol in many cases– as it seems to be in mainline churches and Mormonism alike.

    But I still tend to see the “wrestling” instinct that Rollins draws upon to build his theology as an affliction — not a path to joy. I agree with Rollins that we are free in Christ to embrace brokenness, rather than despair in it. But I also see that my desire to wrestle with God while embracing the brokenness of creation is a big part of the disease I am fleeing when I seek Christ.

  7. I tend to agree with Tim that institutions should either be Christian, or not Christian. Following semi-Christianity can lead some people to a deeper pit of hell — at least in this life — than following the antichrist.

  8. On a related note, is the other refugee from another Mars Hill, Mark Driscoll, currently attending a church? If not, perhaps both can be explained by simply not wanting to follow but having been burned on leading are reticent to do it again.

  9. Jared said

    But I also see that my desire to wrestle with God while embracing the brokenness of creation is a big part of the disease I am fleeing when I seek Christ.

    The narrative of the Bible goes
    Struggle (Israel means “wrestles with God”)

    It’s a mistake to focus on any particular aspect of the narrative to the exclusion of any of the others.

  10. Rob Bell, the guy who wrote Love Wins? I have not followed him much and don’t have much of an interest in his books. I’ve never read them because I am not interested.

    But he is now abandoning the church he founded? This seems an interesting development, though…

  11. I find myself rooting for people like Nadia Bolz-Weber in the Mainline denominations. Her progressive application of a consciously traditional theology is challenging to both conservatives and liberals. From what I know about her she has exemplified the purpose of the institutional church.

  12. I find myself rooting for people like Nadia Bolz-Weber in the Mainline denominations. Her progressive application of a consciously traditional theology is challenging to both conservatives and liberals. From what I know about her she has exemplified the purpose of the institutional church.

    Agreed! Her voice was one of the factors that prompted me to seriously consider Lutheranism. 🙂

  13. Broadly speaking the institutional church is the public gathering of Christ’s disciples. A spiritual house, a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ.

  14. What is the purpose of the institutional church?

    Do you believe in gathering with other Christians for mutual worship, edification, and accountability?

  15. Gundek– OK, but in what context do you mean that she exemplifies the purpose of the institutional church”?

    Tim– Of course, as that is precisely what a church is, however an “institutional church” seems to have a more specific meaning, though from what I can tell it is a wishy-washy definition to leave it as broad as that.

    All–I am not trying to be argumentative here, but to get us thinking about the very meaning and purpose of gathering together to worship. Worship, of course, has its own meanings and things to sort out, as there are a variety of ways to worship today, something the mainline traditional churches seem slow to recognize. Also, what and who do we worship must be addressed.

    To me, the term “institutional church” has a bit of a negative connotation in that an institutional church is one a part of a specific institution that separates itself in some way from other churches. The “church” is the body of all believers so an “institutional” church is something a little different, even if a part of the larger body of the “church”.

    Is Rob Bell a part of that? The answer lies in the details, I think. I will say his positions certainly set him apart from many traditional and orthodox beliefs. Nadia Bolz-Weber seems to push some of those boundaries as well, though hers are different boundaries. Pesky details…

    So, I come back to my original questions above and ask what is the institutional church and what purpose does it serve? I’ll add these questions: how broad is it and does what, if any, boundaries are there in how institutional churches address Jesus Christ and our lives in Him? Also, is it helpful to even set such boundaries?

  16. I’m not surprised that “institutional church” has a negative connotation, but frankly it isn’t the institution that causes divisions, it’s the people who cannot agree, grasp for power and privilege or as is more often the case simply fail to live up to the doctrines of our holy religion. Simul Justus et Peccator as Luther and Nadia say.

    When you really think about it some amount of separation between denominations has actually allowed for greater unity and cooperation where doctrinal disagreements would otherwise tear people apart. Other divisions actually allow for greater cultural application of the Gospel to distinct peoples. The idea that one true church© with a united hierarchy survived after the ascension of our Lord is simply a myth or institutional propaganda.

    To be clear, in the Protestant tradition (where Protestant means a theology coming out of the Protestant Reformations) the marks of the Church are (1) the preaching of the Word and (2) the administration of the Sacraments. Some theologians also point to (3) discipline and (4) fellowship as marks of Church. When I read Nadia Bloz-Weber I see someone with a passion to preach Christ even when I don’t agree with her.

    What I try to do is to base my ecumenism on areas of agreement while maintaining that to be part of Christ’s Church doesn’t require people to agree with me. I am also convinced that just as Christ’s atoning sacrifice is sufficient for any sins it is sufficient for any error.

    I really don’t know what to make of Rob Bell. I never have. I understand his “tribe” language is trendy but I am not comfortable with it. In my experience tribalism tears people apart and has no place in Christianity, but I am not sure we are using the word in the same manner. Tribe to me signals division while church points to assembly. In a post Christendom world Christians cannot afford tribalism.

  17. Well said Gundek. To me a big part of the wisdom of institutional churches, and why I’m not ready to throw out denominations, is because, when they are following the Spirit, denominations can provide a check on abuses and other problems that can run rampant when everyone’s just “doing their own thing.” Note that I come from Mormonism, where the institution itself has run amock and I believe is terribly abusive in many of its key practices, so I’m not saying that having an institutional structure is a slam dunk. I’m just saying that it can be wisely and effectively run.

    As long as we recognize that our denomination isn’t the “true church” but rather one expression of the Body of Christ denominations and institutional churches can be very useful.

  18. Speaking of Nadia Bolz Weber, she has said that she’s glad she has a bishop to keep her in line. 🙂 I think more pastors should think like that. It’s not a small thing.

  19. First, I don’t disagree with anything Gundek or Katie have said. However, to be clear on my position, one of the problems of the modern, protestant mainline tradition is that in my opinion the gospel is becoming watered down. I have never read Ms. Bolz-Weber, but I did read she has a drag queen on staff at her church. Call me crazy, but I am not sure Peter or Paul would have been OK with someone living in such sin to be a teacher of God’s word.

    Now, I suspect some will question whether or not that is sin, but that is precisely the point I am trying to make. And it has nothing to do with forgiveness. I believe everyone, and I mean everyone, has a place within the church regardless of their past. However, I don’t think someone so blatant in such questionable behavior does much to aid Christ’s plan, and should not teach.

    Am I therefore close minded? I’ll let you decide but Jesus standard is high, even if we don’t live up to it. The miracle is that he forgives us despite it, and his hope is that we leave all that behind and follow him. What does that mean to leave “it” all behind? The writer of Hebrew’s says we should leave all sin behind and run the race patiently and with endurance. Paul more than once uses imagery of armaments and defenses to defend ourselves from sin. Paul also tells us that only mature followers should lead. And, as already stated, Jesus tells us to drop everything, sin no more, and follow him.

    Far too many mainline protestant churches, those most readily associated with ‘institutional churches’, kinda let those things slide, largely on the basis of defining sin and ultimate forgiveness. They miss the boat of defining sin (usually done under the guise of not wanting to judge) and getting the forgiveness point 1/2 of the way.

    “Institutional churches” are falling the way of men, that is to say, sinning and allowing sin because they are led by men. Sometimes hearing Jesus in the messages at these churches is difficult. Maybe hearing a passage or two is all you will do as you sit through a sermon. Yet, Jesus is our God and Lord and Savior. We need to set our sights on Jesus, not the ‘institution’ or its hierarchy or tradition.

    A couple of points to make before someone misunderstands. Many of these churches do thrive. And there are many good things to learn from the liturgy and tradition. More contemporary non-denominational churches are wise to learn from them. Nonetheless, when the message gets watered down, it loses power and effect. One thing I have always noticed are that the churches with the strongest and clearest message about Jesus are the one’s thriving the most.

  20. I think you’re making the mistake of equating the “institutional church” with (mainline) denominations. If you attend any sort of church on a regular basis, you are part of an institutional church.

    You’re grievances with liberal denominations are a separate issue.

  21. Tim- That’s why I asked for a definition earlier. The definition seems pretty wishy washy and it is not entirely agreed upon that an institutional church is as broad as that. If any church is intitutional then the meaning is pretty useless if you ask me. But sure, pretty much any organized religious group is by definition an institution. What, then, is not a religious group that is not institutional?

    Does that help clarify my comments and where they come from?

  22. Tim, I’ll add that my first question above was what are the benefits of the institutional church. I’d say that when if any church is institutional not all are beneficial. Does that make sense why I would say that?

  23. Katie, did Matthew continue to take advantage of people and continue in that sin? Hence the difference.

  24. I don’t know about drag-queens but where are they supposed to hear the Gospel except in a Church? To paraphrase Calvin, if God is to be your Father the Church must be your mother.

  25. Gundek, individual Christians, the Bible, prayer, book, music, God himself… I am sure there are others.

    Men have to physically lead a church but His must lead spiritually. And God’s standards must be the aim. They are indeed high. God’s message must be taught. It’s not an easy message, despite the inclusiveness of it. Forgiveness is available for all, but with forgiveness comes changes behavior. As Jesus told more than one person: sin no more.

    As to the drag queen, I read in a BBC article she had a no hater of fabulousness named Stuart. I may have mispokwn above as he seems just a member of the congregation but he is celebrated there. According to the website of her church there is a gay minister.

    Some of you have no problem with that but I am not sure a church like that does the name of God any favors. Without the change of behavior God’s message is diluted and is not lifted up.

    Am I being judgemental? I don’t think I am, as we are not to celebrate sin but we are supposed to lift up righteousness.

    But back to the point of ‘the institutional church’ not all are positive. Or do you disagree with that sentiment?

  26. But back to the point of ‘the institutional church’ not all are positive. Or do you disagree with that sentiment?

    I don’t think any one would disagree that not all institutions are positive. Be they churches or not. Is that really all you’re trying to get us to say; “not all institutional churches are positive”?

    Maybe I’m missing something.

  27. Tim, at its heart, that’s it. However, there is more. It seems there is a notion that any church is good. Gundek brought forth the benefits of the institutional church, and quoted Luther in saying that if God is the father, the church must be the mother. There are assumptions in that statement that we have to be careful about: that is precisely that not all churches are good.

    You, even, seemed to be wary to address that not all ‘institutional’ churches are good.

    Now, I reread your original post and I think we are generally in agreement on that. That is to say that any church that denies Christ, or even that we can know Christ, can die out with no issues from me.

    And that gets me to my larger point in all of this: its not about the institution. The institution is irrelevant. Christ matters, not the institution. If an institution replaces (with anything) Christ and his message of transforming lives through Christ’s forgiveness to a new, righteous creation closer to what Christ designed us to be, with anything else, that institution is not serving Christ.

    This, I think, is consistent with your statement here: “Maintaining our structures and edifices should never supplant our directive to build the kingdom of God or disciple people toward transformation.”

  28. I never said that all churches are equally pure. I’m not even saying that every institution that claims to be a church is actually apart of the body of Church. Certainly discernment is needed when selecting a local church to attend.

    Of course I am pretty sure that personal devotion with the bible and prayer apart from the Church even with a steady diet books and music paraded out by the evangelical industrial complex was not the answer Paul gave to his questions “how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?”

    Simply put I think evangelical culture is just reflexively antagonistic against Mainline denominations, missing the irony that by having a singularity of focus on the homosexuality the evangelical celebrity culture has no issue with turning a oneness Pentecostal who denies the most basic doctrines of the Church into a made for TV martyr deserving a place in Hebrews 11. Heaven forbid anyone compliment someone for being a Trinitarian who preaches Christ crucified.

    Sure I don’t agree with Nadia Bolz-Weber on a whole host of issues but she does make effort preach the Word and in the world of truly orthodox Protestantism the Word preached, even by imperfect sinning pastors, is a powerful tool.

  29. Gundek, there a saying about roads and good intentions.

    As to evangelicals and homosexuality, THIS evangelical does not care what the sin is people who blatantly flaunt the sin should not be given leadership positions. One of the roles of church should be to move its congregation away from it. Leaders who blatantly sin destroy that goal. Thus a fundamental problem exists no matter the sin of a church allows it in leadership

    I’ve said I have no problem with mainline protestant churches. I have problems with any church who preaches a message apart from Christ. That message includes forgiveness and turning from sin.

    I am well aware of judging others inappropriately. A gay man is no worse than a habitual liar. The drunk has as much opportunity for forgiveness as the greedy. An evangelical is just as prone to sin as the Presbyterian.

    While I applaud the efforts of someone like bolz Weber I am not sure she does the kingdom of Christ any favors because she seems to tolerant of sin. Jesus certainly befriended sinners but he described them as needing healing and did not tolerate sin.

    In my opinion the church should do the same. As the body of Christ on earth sin should not be tolerated. No matter the background of a church that i think is true.

    As always you are free to disagree but I am not sure what is controversial apart from saying sin should not be tolerated, but then it’s more a matter of defining sin…

    More than anything Gundek I want unity in Christ but I just don’t think we can casually address sin, and Christ is pretty important in and of himself…

  30. Slow, it really seems like you are trying to find a disagreement here where there is none. I think if you adjusted your frame of mind you would see that you and Gundek are in agreement.

  31. Maybe, Tim. However, Gundek did write this: “Simply put I think evangelical culture is just reflexively antagonistic against Mainline denominations…” and goes on to say that Evangelicals have the wrong priority.

    I was trying to clarify that, in my experience at least, that is not true. While I am sure there exist those who do exactly that, I would condemn them just the same.

  32. Slow

    I take you at your word that you don’t have anything against the Mianline.

    Now, what are we to do with the evangelical celebrities flaunting heresy in their Kim Davis praise-a-thon? You don’t see the irony that many of these people condemn Mormonism for not being Trinitarian?

  33. Nope, nothing against the mainline. As long as Jesus’ message is taught fully and completely, including turning away from sin, I could care less denomination.

    Kim Davis. I am honestly not sure her theology. Her political stand was foolish and not helpful, though I tend to separate the religious from the political in her case in that I think the government should have found a way to accommodate her religious beliefs. I think there was a reasonable alternative besides throwing her in jail, even though she should have been more accommodating herself. An ugly situation all around.

  34. On a base level, I attend my small Mormon branch in Brooklyn, because it gives me a completely accessible method of communing with God in the best possible way I know how: serving others and being served. In my experience, a “small group of friends” would not do that for me in the slightest – just because my easy friends tend to be a lot like me in background, economic status, education etc. Its by attending my branch that I put myself in the path of other completely different brothers and sisters. When I am truly engaging that scenario, its transcendent – forget everything else. Doctrine, liturgy is important obviously, but I’ve concluded that i don’t have time to wrestle over a lot of it. Too much to do. I can’t imagine finding God outside a committed community. (which obviously can take many forms.)

  35. Christian J, I was young men’s president for a year in the Park Slope branch in 1999. I see a lot of value of the church for the reasons you mention.

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