Rob Bell is back in the news now that his new TV show is debuting on the Oprah Network.
And a RNS article by Sarah Pulliam Bailey (with some quotes) is getting a lot of discussion. Bailey writes: “Now, the man who built a church of an estimated 10,000 people isn’t even attending an organized church. Instead, he surfs the waves near Hollywood and has teamed up with the goddess of pop theology, Oprah Winfrey.” Further along in the article we read: “Now resettled near Los Angeles, the couple [Rob & Kristen Bell] 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.””
It seems strange that a man who was the inspiration for the building of a mega-church would now no longer be a part of any organized church. Except that it really isn’t.
It is easy (if you think about it) to see why a person who was a part of a church plant that grew so quickly and so large would now want to be a part of something that was more like a house church — something small. What’s more, it is easy (at least for me) to see how a church leader and pastor could get “burnt out” by church. And, besides, finding a church is not that easy — as people who have moved from one locality to another can often testify.
But, with this, Rob Bell seems to join the company of the “spiritual but not religious” and the “Nones” — the growing number of people in America who do not claim any religious affiliation. It may seem to some like a betrayal for a church leader to now be so casual in his attitude toward the church.
And, it raises an interesting question: is the Church obsolete?
I used to think about that when I was a child. I was taken to church with my family and was generally not pleased to be there. My brother and I occasionally attended the Sunday morning services — usually we were in Sunday School that ran concurrently. But, when in worship, we were dressed up in little suits with clip-on ties and starchy, scratchy shirts. Worship was boring and I didn’t understand a lot of it. But, I also wasn’t interested. I do recall one sermon the pastor preached, where he raised the question: “Is Church Necessary?” I tuned in to that particular sermon because I was wondering that myself. The pastor said that some people might wonder if they could find salvation without the church. He admitted that that might be possible. But, he said it would be like swimming across ocean with no help. That’s when I tuned him out again. I thought it was pretty self-serving of him to say something like that — his pay check depended on the continued existence of the church. And, to my young mind it was the church that was more like a burden — a swim across the ocean — then a help in finding the way.
And, I’ve thought about it since. Pastors usually have many days, in the course of their career, when they think of quitting. I know I did. Pastors have times when they get sick and tired of the church — or at least, with certain aspects of church life — like bickering and power plays and resistance to change. Pastors often fear that their children will be turned off to church simply because they get to see the church people at their very worst. Pastoral families often become the focus of attack from the church. Many pastors give so much of themselves to the church and see so little positive fruit from their efforts that they burn out.
And, my family and I have additional reasons for being disgusted with the church — reasons that have not gone away. In the last full time parish that I served a conflict arose about my wife and my family. The Bishop of the Michigan Area at the time joined the attack. And, suddenly I was forced to face the reality of the denomination of which I had been a part. I left the ministry because I could no longer serve under that man. None of us have experienced any real closure to that incident. It has shaped who we are today.
And, as a result of that, this line of thought occurred to me: if the church is the living embodiment of Christ in the world, but the Church works to destroy families, and exclude people, and burn people out — hasn’t Christianity itself been dis-proven? What is the point of continuing the charade? If the church is the kingdom of God — or even the focal point through which the kingdom is coming — something has gone wrong with the kingdom. Or maybe there is no Kingdom.
I think that’s as close to atheism as I’ve ever come. And, to be honest, I haven’t experienced the kind of oppression some people have — who were raised in highly legalistic, authoritarian, and judgmental churches. For a good part of my life church has been a positive thing — a place where I came to faith — a place where I found many valued mentors and friends. And, I’m glad Robin & I have found a place to worship now.
But, I do get why people are turned off by the church. And, the situation is pretty bad. I wonder if people within the church realize how bad the church’s reputation really is. People are sick of the public image of the church — with all its internal bickering and its authoritarianism and (in some cases) its alliance with right wing politics. People have come to see Christianity as anti-science — because of the church. People have come to see Christianity as oppressive and legalistic and exclusive — because of the church. People have come to see Christianity as judgmental and condemning — because of the church.
And, at the very least you have to wonder if all this church stuff is necessary.
A lot of the functions churches used to have really have been rendered obsolete. The early church lectionaries were originally ways for people to hear the Bible. They came to church in part to hear the story read — because they may not have had access to a handwritten, copied Bible or they may not have been able to read it if they did. But, Bibles are readily available now in many different translations. You can search and study the Bible online. The church used to be a place of social gathering. There are other avenues for that now. The pastor used to be the most highly educated person in town — thus spawning the deplorable title of “the parson.” Not so anymore. I think the years ahead will see an acceleration of the process of dumbing down the clergy. People will need to look to the internet for Biblical and theological knowledge because their entrepreneurial pastors will be sharing very little — possibly because they know very little.
In a recent post Christian Reformed blogger Paul VanderKlay writes:
I don’t know if many of us deep inside the church world have any idea how bad a reputation the church has in the land that loves Oprah. Whether it’s science (the Galileo narrative) or the “church” portrayed bloodthirsty brute looking to dominate and control the world, for many people who don’t actually know many Christians there isn’t a lot more harm that can be done.
So, you might wonder, having said all this, do I think there is any value to the church any more. Do I really think the church is obsolete? No, actually, I don’t. But, I think “church” takes many forms.
The Church is more than a building or a human organization — it is the gathering of Christ’s people together for worship and for mutual support. And that still needs to happen — however and wherever it can.
Worship is a basic human therapy we need. When we genuinely enter into worship we take the focus off of ourselves and put the focus on God, on God’s word, and on the needs of others. It is therapy for our selfish and narcissistic tendencies. There is power in corporate prayer. There is power in what we call “fellowship” or community — Christians gathering together in mutual prayer and support for one another.
All these things are healing and life giving and not oppressive.
But, the church is going to need to adapt — and adapt quickly — to its changed situation. It will need to demonstrate its value to a world that really is spiritually searching — but wouldn’t think of the church as a place where that search can be satisfied.
The church has adapted before and I believe it will again. The denominations may die — and they may need to die. But, new forms will emerge. They will have to.
And, in the mean time, I’d suggest that you not complain about the fact that Oprah Winfrey has given Rob Bell a worldwide TV platform to say a good word for Jesus — to an audience largely estranged from the church. Somebody needs to do that.