You're in your 30s, married with kids, you've just written a book and produced a series of hugely successful short films, you also happen to lead one of America's fastest growing churches. What's more the church you pastor is pulling in 10,000 of what is widely regarded as the missing generation in many churches in the UK and the US - the 20s and 30somethings. Author and pastor Brian McLaren, has called you, "One of the most courageous pastors in the US" and Christianity magazine editor John Buckeridge has raved about your teaching style. So I was intrigued to meet Rob Bell pastor of the Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan and the man man behind it all.
Rob came to the attention of publishing giant Zondervan not only because his church meets in a shopping centre, and not only because it's in the same city as their headquarters, but because out of his church came 'Nooma'. Noomas are the new format of teaching for a new generation, so says the DVD cover, and 'Christianity' editor John Buckeridge loves them. But so does the manager of my local Christian bookshop. Oh and many of the youth leaders in my town. And then there's my preaching class - who all love them for their simple, refreshing and compelling communication. They really, really like them, and so it seems do several million other people around the world. It seems that the guys behind Nooma are onto something.
Nooma, before you get too confused are a series of spiritual short films on a variety of topics such as prayer, forgiveness, love - all presented in a very down to earth way by Rob Bell. Beautifully shot and intelligently crafted these short films are fragments of Christian teaching for the iPod generation. They even got a five out of five in a review in Christianity. The heart of Noomas, which is a play on the Greek word for 'spirit', is about real life, joys and tears, faith and doubt. It's about being authentic.
Hence the potential dilemma facing America's latest mega-church leader. In a church culture where style can take over from substance, how do you keep it real?
To begin with Rob Bell is not your typical Super Pastor, the latest in a long line of America's mega-church pastors with unmoveable hair, expensive suit and a picture taken against soft pastel backgrounds. Rob Bell is tall with bleached messy hair and trendy glasses - but he professes to be just an ordinary guy and one that seemed quite happy to swap his mega-church for something a whole lot smaller. "To be brutally honest on many occasions I've longed for that," he laughs easily and somewhat wistfully. "It's really messy," he says with genuine feeling, "it's just messy with lots of screwed up people. There is no five year plan, no mission statement, no seven points or three objectives and no glossy brochures."
So is there a feeling that in American Christianity there is a lot that is inauthentic, fake? Tom Rinks, part of the team behind the Nooma films and a close friend of Rob's who is sitting on the conversation decides to answer this one. "I was, my friends were, my family is. That's what I can answer, I can't answer for everybody else... but everyone around me was and continues to be."
Clue #1: Ask questions and don't be afraid of the answers not being neat and tidy. Leaving room for doubt makes it more real. Real is good.
Rob picks up the thread, "There's a popular saying in American churches that 'we're keeping the message the same but we're changing the methods'. The idea is that you keep saying the same things but maybe with some candles and some better music and maybe some coffee in the back, then people will listen. I'm more interested in asking 'did we even get the message right?' So for us, simply another round of methods, slicker, faster, video-ier, isn't that interesting. That's a treadmill that many are on. Our interest is did we even get the message anywhere near what it actually is? So that's what I'm talking about an even larger theological issue."
"So when people say what is the gospel? We would say we would want to question the dominant views of what we even think the gospel is? I don't know how you can even talk about a Christian worldview without talking about the environment? And issues of justice...these to us are not tangential to the gospel they are the gospel. So this for us isn't just about individual souls getting out of here when they die, it's the restoration of the whole world to how God originally intended it. To us it's a big, big message."
Clue #2: The Christian faith needs to speak into the big issues in the world as well as the personal, individual issues. Both have a place in people's hearts and minds.
It was because Rob's teaching and preaching was having this impact on thousands of people that the idea of recording Rob on film came up. Tom was adamant that Rob was not going to be turned into another tele-evangelist. "Well the idea we originally talked about was setting up cameras in the church and I'd attended church and it was a church I wanted to go to, the first church that I really wanted to go to and I didn't want to turn it into a church that I didn't want to go to. So we'll really keep repeating the same thing, I wanted it for me I wanted it for my kids. I wanted every decision we made and still make today to be about what's appealing to me as opposed to 'how do I reach people?' If I make it appealing to me and to my friends and to my kids and if other people find that appealing then that's great, if they don't then that's ok too. I trusted that if I kept it, if we kept it true to what we want, to the way we wanted it to look, the way we wanted it to smell, and touch and feel and sound that others might find it appealing too."
Clue #3: Avoid bandwagons. Don't do what Rob Bell is doing. Just do what you need to do to follow God.
And so the Nooma journey began and on the night of 9/11 they shot 'Rain', the first in the series. But Nooma's are fragments, pieces of the puzzle and helpful, challenging as they are they don't tell you what the picture on the box is. So they began to realise they needed the big picture, but not in some nailed down watertight systematic theology but in the language of a journey they wanted to know 'where have we come from, where are we going and does anyone know the way?' Thus arose the need for 'Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian faith for today'. It's a book that could, and my guess is will, become a bestseller.
As Rob says, "I'd been thinking about writing for a while but I would have written something worse, earlier. So I began to outline what the whole picture of our faith might look like... on a wall. On a whole wall actually, just kind of wrote it out and it was the whole length of our offices and we would sit on chairs on wheels and we would all slide along, slide on, slide in and that became the overall skeleton structure of the book."
The book as with the films, as with the church came out of a need, a need that a generation of Americans had who wanted to find out how to be a Christian without being a fake. So it all seems to come back to the individual living out a genuine, real faith in the real world and not in the Christian sub-culture. Which is all very well and sounds ok but coming from a mega-church? I mean this might all be very humble and earthy but it's about numbers and influence and being seen right? So how does being the pastor of Mars Hill one of the 'fastest growing churches in America' sit with this 'it's really about what works for me and my friends' approach?
And that's the thing about this, whatever 'this' is, it's about ordinary people trying to live out a faith that is real. It most definitely is not about method or particularly on going somewhere with this. As Rob said in a sermon I heard him preach, 'it's not about a destination it's about the journey'.
And when you mention the topic of being real or being on a journey you get a response, "I think we all find in the message of Jesus the most beautiful, most compelling way to live and the endless challenge is all the things that get attached to this beautiful, simple, revolutionary message and you have to just strip it away. And Christians have really mucked it up in the western world and taken this really great thing and for many people made it a stench rather than an aroma. It's supposed to be compelling and instead it's quite repulsive in a lot of settings. So instead essentially we feel we're going backwards rather than forwards in getting to this essential, beautiful compelling message of Jesus."
Clue #4: Fix your eyes on Jesus, others will follow your gaze.
"We don't use grand language about mission and reaching people. First and foremost we need a faith that works for us here and now, that helps me make sense of the world and life and the people around me. So we like all the big 'save the world' kind of language but we ourselves need quite a bit of saving (at which point he chuckles). And that's probably part of the problem for us. One of the central postures of Christians has been that we're saved and you're not, so let us reach down and reach out and help you become like us, rather than a people that are in the endless process of essentially being saved."
So still working out your salvation with fear and trembling? "We actually take passages like that quite seriously, we actually believe them. So that's why essentially the 'nooma's' are not this complete theology, they're fragments of...of life."
It struck me that I was witnessing, and excuse me if I get a bit technical here, the beginning of the American church grappling with and communicating directly to the post-modern generation, out with the language of big answers to the solutions of how to transform your church and the world and instead in with being part of a story, of shrinking it down to the essentials of one life at a time being authentic and genuine. It's not about grand designs it's about implementing an individual faith that works in the life of the individual.
And of course the whole point is not to share with others what isn't real or true for you, a point that is not lost on super pastor Rob as we return to the dilemma of living an honest faith when you become the latest pastor in demand. "I have people around me who tell me the truth. They aren't impressed and they tell me, which I crave. I want people to give me fair critiques and love me enough to tell me the truth about myself, I'm distrustful of people who have nothing but good to say. It's scary. But I spend a fair amount of time just staring out the window. It's easy to let all the things that God is doing to become the point. So the focus becomes what God is doing through you and not what God is doing in you. So I've tried to orient my life around what God is doing in me. Assuming that if that's alive and well then the things that God does through me will naturally fall into place. It's perhaps an issue of focus."
"The point is speaking and sharing a message to people that actually you're experiencing and living and believe is true because it's becoming more and more the story of your life...you know what I mean? Like the forgiveness film 'Luggage', that forgiveness is a better way to live, so hopefully we made that film out of our own growing realisation that harbouring bitterness and revenge is just an awful existence. So that film comes out of our journey of when Jesus says 'forgive' it is actually the best way to live. So that's our interest and getting the communication that comes out of that, whether it's the book or the films hopefully it's coming out of a real thing that's actually being lived and not just talking about some stuff."
Clue #5: People need to see and hear the story being lived out among those that claim to lead it.
In many ways Rob and co aren't saying anything new, nor are they, I think, trying to, but they are making a real effort to communicate the truths of the Bible, the truth about Jesus to a generation that doesn't want something neat and packaged and all sown up, they want something with room for questions, room for doubt, something tangible, relevant and most of all real. If you want the method to make your church grow or give you the five keys to a victorious life then you'll go away disappointed but if you're hungry for a faith that can deal with real life, joy and pain, triumph and disaster, laughter and sorrow then join Rob in a journey to follow the rabbi.