Emotions ran high as Rob Bell, author of the controversial book Love Wins, handed over the charge of Mars Hill Bible Church to new leadership during his last worship service as the lead pastor Sunday.
Members of the Grandville, Mich., church were wiping tears from their eyes as they wished the founder success in his new calling, which includes a speaking tour and creating an ABC television drama with Carlton Cuse, the producer of “Lost,” in Los Angeles, Calif.
Bell, who founded the megachurch about 12 years ago, announced his resignation in September. He expressed his desire to share the message of God’s love with a broader audience and said, “I have to pursue this new vision.” Along with an unusual spiritual drama which is reportedly loosely based on his own life, Bell has more books planned and has already kicked off his “Fit to Smash Ice” tour.
Mars Hill co-pastor Shane Hipps presented Bell and his wife, Kristen, with a book carrying stories and good wishes from church members and listeners from around the world who were blessed by Bell’s sermons online.
“Grief is like a sprinter and joy is like an endurance runner,” The Grand Rapids Press quoted Hipps as saying in his message. “I hope this community joins with me in the journey of grief fading and joy searching.”
To make the atmosphere lighter, Hipps said jokingly, “I’m hoping 10 years from now you will say, ‘Rob Bell? That sounds familiar.’” Mars Hill, he said, “is not Rob Bell. It’s a whole lot bigger than Rob and Kristen. It’s as big as God himself.”
The thousands of members raised their hands during a send-off prayer after Hipps’ message.
Singer and songwriter David Crowder made a surprise appearance to lead worship. Former worship leader Kent Dobson expressed support for Bell’s new venture. “The spiritual life is not such a safe thing,” he said. “Go for it – don’t be afraid to fail. Take a risk. Try something new.”
The church’s covenant members are scheduled to meet Monday night to discuss management and leadership related issues, including whether there’s a need for appointing Bell’s replacement. Meanwhile, Hipps will continue to teach and guest speakers will be invited to speak occasionally.
In his last sermon in the form of a letter on Dec. 18, Bell thanked his church. “This church, this place, this community, was once simply a hunch. A dream. A vision. A picture in the mind of a new kind of church for the new world we find ourselves in,” he stated. “I will never be able to fully, adequately explain what it has been like to have imagined you, conceived of you – this church – and then have you exist.”
“When people ask, ‘what about Mars Hill?’ or ‘what’s Mars Hill going to do?’ It’s as if Mars Hill is a disembodied reality with a life of its own,” Bell said. But, “here’s the twist: the church is not an inanimate, impersonal product. There is no ‘Mars Hill’ in theory. There is no abstract, disembodied entity Mars Hill apart from the people in this room who ARE Mars Hill.”
Bell closed his letter with a confession – that despite his 12 years as pastor, he was just getting started. “I feel like I’m just getting started,” he wrote. “Like I’m a rookie, a freshman. I believe that that God has made this day. That it’s good. And you can have joy in it, even if you’re limping.”
With that, the church sent him off with this message on its website: “Grace + Peace, brother. You're just getting started.”
Bell caused a firestorm in the evangelical community with his latest book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, which questioned whether the Bible actually teaches that there is a literal and eternal hell. He is reportedly planning to write three more books.