On Thursday (Sept. 22), up-and-coming pastor Rob Bell announced he's leaving Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Mich. in December. Bell's best-selling book, "Love Wins," raised more than a few eyebrows with the premise that hell doesn't include eternal torment. Now he's moving on.
"Our founding pastor, Rob Bell, has decided to leave Mars Hill in order to devote his full energy to sharing the message of God's love with a broader audience," the church said in a statement.
My point in this is that he is not the first to figure out that his books sell, that books make money, and that he needs to be free from the constraints of the local church in order to capitalize upon his books and speaking tour. We have a host of popular pastors who are even more popular authors -- for whom the ministry is either a sideline or a stepping stone to bigger and better things. Who expects that Hybels, Warren, Osteen, Lucado or Bell spent all that much time in pastoral duties, anyway. They are there as figureheads, faces of a larger "ministry," and presences in the pulpit. There comes a time, however, when the local congregation can get in the way of their expanding career possibilities. Maybe a fellow like Osteen cannot trade his center stage TV moments away yet but perhaps the time will come when even this cannot contain his enlarged personality and presence. For Bell, that time came and went and the congregation had to go. Not that the congregation is entirely sad. Even a new age, non-denominational, emergent church needs a real leader whose presence is there day to day and whose mind is on the church and its people. Bell simply got to the point where he had to choose and he chose to give himself to the wider audience and leave behind the constraints of a local congregation.
I note that it did not take long for his peers in the mega pastor publishing industry to second guess his decision. Within hours of the Mars Hill announcement, best-selling author and Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren was on Twitter, saying pastors who leave churches have less impact and no base for credibility. Another commented that this was not the train wreck Warren envisioned (but this came from a representative of a literary agency that represents megachurch pastors -- did you get that? -- a literary agency that represents megachurch pastors!) Perhaps it is my own sour grapes that I do not even have a dog who worships me much less a publicity manager or literary agent to hawk my wares. Then again, even Methodism founder John Wesley gave up a settled pulpit to be an itinerant preacher.