Last week, Trevin Wax posted 3 Reasons He’d be reading Rob Bell’s new book. I’ll come right out and say: I’m not saying “Farewell, Rob Bell.” To me, Rob Bell is like Karl Barth or Dietrich Bonheoffer – he says a lot of stupid smart stuff and a lot of smart stupid stuff. For me, he’s worth reading for the stupid smart stuff. Like Trevin, I’m unwilling to relinquish the valuable lessons Bell can teach modern church leaders about what it means to really teach. Here are 12 things Pastors can still learn from Bell:
1. Use biblical images. In the weirdest online dating service of all time, a computer freak-accident hooked up the two unlikeliest people on planet earth: Rob Bell and John MacArthur. MacArthur is big on using biblical images, analogies and pictures rather than modern illustrations. So is Rob Bell. Bell sees richness and life in the images the Bible gives us; he doesn’t use hokey pastoral illustrations to make his points. Whether its rain, life between two trees, or baptism as a mirror, Rob uses the text he’s given to create an image that burns into the brains of his listeners. That’s why I’ve never forgotten a sermon Rob Bell preached. Not one. (DANGER: Bell also often-times replaces the logical force of a text with a great word picture, thus…sadly missing the entire point. In his ambition to find great words-pictures, he can also insert pictures into ancient Greek terms that wouldn’t be as obvious to the original hearers as they are to him.)
2. Tell the whole story. Rob Bell’s preaching style is highly narrative. If there’s a story present, Bell tells it in dramatic style. Sermons aren’t “Point one. Point two. Point three.” But, “Act I. Act II. Act III.” Furthermore, Bell often times takes us back to Genesis, or ahead to the coming kingdom of Jesus. People don’t come to hear Rob Bell give practical tips on life – they come to hear him paint a picture of life. Oh, that gospel-centered preachers could say the same! (DANGER: Bell’s version of the story is different in some crucial ways to the Biblical story, especially on justification and the coming of the kingdom. If you’re going to tell the story, know the story!)
3. Use the vernacular. Strikingly absent from Rob Bell’s preaching are “churchy” words. Rob often talks in a way that resonates with his GR audience, using trigger terms like “The Divine”, “Spiritual” and “Light” that make it clear he’s entered the world of his people and knows how to speak their language. It’s a way of pointing cultural desires and terms to Jesus, and it works. Bell also distances himself from terms like “religion”; a crucial task for a missional preacher. (DANGER: in Rob Bell’s zeal to speak just like the culture, he inevitably ends up saying many times just what the culture says. By not using words like “sin”, “sanctification” or “justification”, we’re missing out on theological depth. Better would be to use vernacular terms regularly, and to define “churchy” terms IN the vernacular, ala Tim Keller.)
4. Know your material. One of the fascinating, unique aspects of Bell’s preaching is his deep knowledge of his material. Bell preaches away from his notes, if he has any. That means all the technical concepts, words and terms he uses are memorized (or put on powerpoint, which many times functions as his notes). I think Rob Bell would come across much differently from behind a pulpit. The beauty of his teaching is incredible complexity presented in an accessible, note-free format. Is it really right that the most dynamic speakers (think TED talks) in the world are prepared enough to preach note-free, but preachers of the gospel of Jesus Christ are not?
5. Love the languages. Whether you like his interpretation or not, Rob Bell knows Greek and Hebrew. And he loves the languages. His preaching reminds one that we are encountering an ancient source, full of richness, subtly and nuance that cannot be captured in the English language. But Rob Bell adds another great reason to learn the languages: to refute him, and other like him, when he’s way off the mark. (DANGER: I’ve never heard a sermon where Bell didn’t bring us a Greek or Hebrew word. How many people do you think go home and read their Bibles after that? Know the languages, but don’t flaunt them.)
6. Know ancient culture. I think it’s safe to say that one great question Rob Bell asks in every sermon is: “What did this mean for the lives of the people who heard it?” Or, “I wonder what kind of story we’ve stepped into?” I don’t agree with his conclusions many times, but the point is, he’s reframing the question in an important way. He knows enough about Greco-Roman and Hebraic culture to tell the story of a culture in a compelling, detailed format. Many pastors can claim this skill, but here is where I think Rob Bell shines: he brings out the details of the text, but ONLY the details that relate to his main message. The audience is keyed in because they know every single ancient cultural description will climax in a single, overlapping point that makes sense of it all.
7. Work hard. Could it be that the main difference between Rob Bell and ineffective Biblical preachers is just plain, hard work? Paul Tripp wrote on this a while back; most preachers just don’t put in the time necessary to craft a good sermon. Rob Bell’s sermons are captivating because they are carefully researched, carefully crafted, and carefully thought-through in their presentation; every week we expect a well-honed work of art. Can gospel-preachers say the same?
8. Emphasize the social implications of the gospel. Mars Hill of GR places a lot of emphasis on the social implications of the gospel. Every week, Bell and his staff emphasize the counter-cultural, justice-inducing nature of the gospel. The gospel changes the world. The people who come to hear him speak want to be part of a global work of justice; they want to see the world through new eyes. He delivers. (DANGER: In emphasizing the social implications of the gospel, Mars Hill unfortunately loses a focus on the offense of the cross. Keller makes a great case that missional churches ought to do both so well that people can’t tell whether they’re in a “liberal” or a “conservative” church!)
9. Surprise people. I can honestly say that I approach every Rob Bell sermon with anticipation. I know, that no matter what my expectations, Bell will surprise me. Bell doesn’t have a single formula he whips out for every sermon. Every teaching has some element of surprise; something that catches us off guard and doesn’t allow us to tune out. In a sermon John Piper delivered on Jesus’ worthiness, he said, “Jesus never says what I expect him to say. I’m always off-balance when he’s around. And I LOVE him for it!” I think to some small degree, we pastors can emulate Jesus’ style. In fact, the variety of the Bible itself encourages it – we ought to preach in a way that keeps people expecting the unexpected.
10. Preach one point. I’m more and more convinced that the problems of most pastors in the pulpit could largely be remedied by a single solution: preach one point. Know the statement you want to stick in the minds of your people, and preach that. Bell doesn’t try to say everything about the texts he’s in – he picks one image, one phrase, and crafts everything toward that phrase or image. Bell knows exactly where he wants to go, and even if we get lost somewhere in the midst, the comfort of knowing HE knows where he wants to go keeps us tuned in.
11. Wonder. I tried to think of another word for this one, but I can’t. Maybe the most attractive element of Rob Bell’s teaching is his unadulterated wonder. Bell loves music, poetry, art, people, solving poverty, language, story…He loves the world God created. Do we really make that clear to people in our sermons? Do we really wonder at the world God has given us; do we really adore the book He’s placed in our hands? Rob Bell’s capacity to say, “I love the world you love” is what, without a doubt, distinguished him from the dutch reformed crowd in Grand Rapids. We must know the world of our audience and be able to say, like Bell, “My God is the God of the world you love; I love that world too.”
12. Wear cool glasses. Finally, the real secret behind all of Rob Bell’s teaching and ministry is wearing cool glasses. If you don’t have cool glasses, I just don’t see how you can be effective preacher of the gospel. Cool glasses communicate: “I’m cool, and I have glasses that I wear.” In our day and age, it’s more crucial than ever to wear cool glasses, and though it’s not recorded in scripture, I’m sure Jesus and Paul did. Cool glasses say, “I’m smart, but not too smart. I’m hip, too.” You know what? Scratch all the other principles. Just wear cool glasses. (DANGER: wearing cool glasses, like those I’m wearing now, can make you see things differently. But you should be fine. We’ll all be fine. In the end, anyway. In the life that is to come. We’ll all…be…just…fine.)