Mars Hill Bible Church, the congregation founded by author Rob Bell, lost about 1,000 people over their former pastor's controversial 2011 book, Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, according to the Grandville, Mich., megachurch's new pastor Kent Dobson.
"There was a lot of drama with (Bell's book) Love Wins and that season feels like it's over. This year has been one of sort of settling down a bit and re-identifying our priorities, making some goals for the future and getting reinvested in some new outreach opportunities and finding our feet. (It's) a chance to open up a new chapter, enter into a new season," Dobson said of the transition since Bell's departure.
When asked about the suggestion that Mars Hill Bible Church was once home to about 10,000 people, Pastor Dobson insisted that the figure was not accurate.
"In no way was this a 10,000-member church ever. In the early days people were just intrigued (and wondering) 'What the heck is going on over there?'" said Dobson.
"I would say about 1,000 people left (over 'Love Wins'), and that's okay. I don't think even a lot of them left in anger," he added. "They just thought 'Well, Mars Hill's not the place I thought it was.' Surely some people were upset, but on the other hand it wasn't exactly a mass exodus. Rob had been saying everything in that book for five years."
Dobson told MLive.com that, nowadays, Mars Hill on average welcomes about 3,000 worshippers every Sunday.
Love Wins, which became a New York Times best seller and remains a top-seller at online book retailers, questions whether a loving God would send people to a place of eternal suffering. In the book, Bell raised and revisited questions about orthodox Christian teachings on eternity and the afterlife. Love Wins, slammed as "heretical" by some critics, resulted in response books by other Christian leaders. For example, Francis Chan released Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity, and the Things We Made Up and Mark Galli published God Wins: Heaven, Hell, and Why the Good News Is Better Than Love Wins.
The MLive.com Q&A with Pastor Dobson noted that some of Bell's works, including Love Wins, would be available when renowned Biblical scholar N.T. Wright visits Mars Hill Bible Church on Nov. 20 to discuss "The Big Picture: The New Testament and the Mission of God" in conjunction with a Calvin Theological Seminary conference.
Dobson said he is always asked for his opinion when Bell "says and does and publishes," and that he hopes "he continues to say things that challenge the Christian community."
"That's why we like him," added Dobson.
Bell's newest book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God (March 2013), was recently picked as the introductory title in the new "Oprah's Super Soulful Book of the Month" club. Bell and Winfrey discussed the book during his appearance on her "Super Soul Sunday" program earlier this month. Read about it here: Rob Bell Talks God, Religion and Doubt With Winfrey on 'Super Soul Sunday'.
The Michigan native, currently living in California with his wife and children, has been teaching on a series titled "What Is the Bible?" via his Tumblr page. The former megachurch pastor also occasionally holds intimate two-day teaching conferences, with his next meeting scheduled for January or February 2014.