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 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.