Rob Bell held his last service as lead pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church Sunday, in an emotional farewell that also affirmed that Shane Hipps, who has preached alongside Bell, will continue teaching the congregation. But who is Hipps, and will he work to prolong Bell's vision for the Grandville, Mich., church?
Hipps joined Mars Hill as a teaching pastor in 2010, and has quickly established his presence at the church, founded by Bell 12 years ago. Hipp's official biography on Mars Hill's website reveals that he formerly worked as a strategic planner at Porsche Cars North America, but left because he wanted to pursue his interest in spirituality and theology. After earning a Master of Divinity degree at Fuller Theological Seminary, he moved with his wife and two daughters to serve as a pastor at an urban congregation in Phoenix, Ariz.
Mars Hill's covenant members are yet to decide whether there is a need for appointing Bell’s replacement. In the meantime, Hipps will continue teaching and guest speakers will occassionally be invited to speak.
Expressing his views on Bell’s final sermon, the now solo Mars Hill pastor, writing on his blog, called it a “beautiful service the team put together with some incredible moments.”
“I learned when I become a pastor that it is a unique vocation. Becoming a leader in any profession can be a lonely experience. This isn’t always bad, in many ways it forces you to grow up fast. In time you learn to allow the loneliness to become a divine ingredient in cultivating depth and resilience. Over the years I learned to befriend it as a teacher. And as I’ve said here before, there is a difference between being alone, and being lonely,” the pastor wrote.
Hipps admitted that at first, becoming a co-teacher with Bell was a strange experience, because both pastors had previously served alone as leaders and were not used to having a partner. However, he described it as “a fantastic experience,” which he thoroughly enjoyed. Hipps also shared of the hospitality he received from Bell, whom he credited for giving him the chance to build “a really beautiful relationship with a community that I love.”
The pastor said that Bell’s decision to move on was not surprising to him, as he had sensed something stirring in the former pastor for some time. He expressed that he felt both grief and joy over the decision, emotions he painted as “two different kinds of athletes” – grief as a sprinter, and joy as an endurance runner that eventually outpaces grief and keeps going.
“Today I have joy. So, Rob thank you for your partnership and friendship in ministry. It was a joy. And now my joy goes with you as you continue to follow your purpose in the world. Love, Grace, and Peace,” Hipps concluded.
Hipps has also received an outpouring of support on his Facebook page from members of the Mars Hill congregation.
David Joseph Goodrich wrote: “I have always loved Rob's teaching, but when you joined staff, the love grew ten fold due to the 'synergy' of your friendship and partnership in ministry. These days, I continue to be challenged and encouraged in my faith by you, even if by flickering pixels and zeros and ones. Regardless, you benefit me and my local church body, and I thank you both.”
Heather Mepyans Buck expressed: “My husband Joel and I have been so blessed since you joined the Mars Hill community. We look forward to growing with you in the coming months and years!”
Hipps is a published author with two books: The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture: How Media Shapes Faith, the Gospel, and Church (2006) and Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith (2009). He has several film documentaries available for purchase on his website that focus on some of his main theological ideas, such as the influence of technology in our lives and how human beings are a medium for God. The website also features a section with 307 free recordings of his teachings on various subjects.
Pastor Hipps was not available for an interview, but Mars Hill Bible Church shared in an email with The Christian Post that Rob Bell now holds the title of Pastor Emeritus, which is an honorary title given to retiring individuals for their dedication and service.
Bell gained public attention in 2011 after the release of his controversial book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, which questioned whether the Bible teaches that a literal and eternal hell truly exists.
The book, lauded by some and considered troubling by others, prompted quite a few responses from the evangelical Christian community, with Francis Chan releasing Erasing Hell, Mark Galli authoring God Wins: Heaven, Hell, and Why the Good News Is Better than Love Wins, and a group of theologians including R. Albert Mohler, Jr. and J.I. Packer collaborating on Is Hell for Real or Does Everyone Go to Heaven?
Hipps, who has expressed support for Love Wins, commented recently on the many responses Bell's best-selling book has attracted.
“As a Christian who believes in the Bible and Jesus, I have found the intensity and certainty of the debate all very bizzare [sic]. It’s strange that so much passion and ink has been spilled over something that is all speculation,” he wrote in September of last year.
Explaining the distinction between empirical fact and personal belief, he wrote, “I have never died, so I don’t have a theological position on heaven or hell, I can only entertain theological possibilities. There is a big difference.”
Hipps continued, “I take a position when I know something with certainty. ... I consider a possibility when it’s something I don’t know. This is something I merely believe. Either because someone I trust told me, or the Bible seems to say it, or reason supports it. But until I’ve experienced it, this is only something I believe – a possibility. And possibilities should be held with an open hand, perhaps with some humility and even humor. Who knows, I could be wrong about what I believe?”