12 Ways to Preach Like Rob Bell…Without Being a Heretic.

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.)

19 Comments

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  • http://rockedbygrace.blogspot.com/?m=0 Mike

    This is quite helpful. Thanks.

    • nmcdonal

      Thanks, Mike. Glad you enjoyed.

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    Nick, this is outstanding, and the care you took in writing this really shows. I have a couple comments on items 2, 10 and 12:

    2 – I think I tend to write in the Act 1, Act 2, etc., format sometimes. I see some of my posts shift from one scene to another as they progress until finally they reach climax and denouement.

    10 – When I have been asked to fill a pulpit, I waver between the desire to focus on a single point in the passage and the desire to turn the sermon into a study of the passage as a textual analysis, getting at everything there is to see in it. Perhaps one of them is a sermon and the other is a lecture.

    12 – Before I had Lasik, I wore cool glasses. Now I’m just not as effective (read “hip”) a communicator. Oh well.

    Tim

    • nmcdonal

      Thanks so much, Tim. I’ve been thinking about the Act I, II and III format for a while. I might post on it sometime next week.

      I think every pastor struggles with knowing whether to present multiple points, or just one: I think the key is to pick one, and if you have multiple points, they should all come under that one point.

      And no, you’re not as hip. But see, Tim, some of us have to wear cool glasses because we’re actually not that smart. You ARE that smart, so you don’t need them.

      • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

        Me? Well, I’m smart enough to know that I should read your stuff, Nick!

  • David Van Lant

    I’m not an expert on Rob Bell’s sermons—I’ve only read Love Wins. In that work at least, he fails on points 2, 4 &5 of your 12-point analysis. If he has a thorough knowledge of words, material, ancient culture, the biblical languages, etc., he certainly did not show it. It seemed to me that he was betting that his readers wouldn’t go to the Scriptures to after they read his book. Overall, your advice to preachers is rather poor advice.

    • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

      nick’s advice is bad? How so? Nick started the whole thing by saying that while Rob Bell is a good communicator, he fails often on doctrine. Nick’s point was to focus on the good communication style and avoid the unsound doctrine. That sounds like great advice for preachers to me.

  • Rev. M.

    As a man who was on the pastoral staff at Mars Hill with Rob for 3 years, my stomach turns to see how his message has changed. I quit that job in 2001 when things started to go liberal, and looking back it was a wise move. The best part of his preaching, from my perspective and in the view of most of those with whom I spoke, was his knack for large visual sermon illustrations–like a live goat in the sanctuary (read: auditorium), or a large fire on stage. It grabbed attention. But orthodoxy should trump stage presence.

    • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

      “… orthodoxy should trump stage presence.”

      Words to live by, Rev!

    • nmcdonal

      Fascinating perspective, Rev. M. I think it’s interesting that you noted a decisive change from orthodoxy to liberalism. I’ve heard the same from those who’ve followed Bell for a while – we fell in love when he started preaching, because he really was using all the right tools. But then, a few links in the chain slipped, and the whole things seems to be sinking since. Glad you can see the positives and negatives in his ministry.

  • http://wordfocused.wordpress.com cbthomas76

    Great post… thanks for your honest and balanced take on Rob’s ministry. I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve posted a response to this post on my site. http://wordfocused.wordpress.com/2013/03/06/cool-glasses-rob-bell-and-scripture/

    • nmcdonal

      Just replied, cb.

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  • http://gravatar.com/thoff15 thoff15

    Help my understand point #1 a little more clearly. Any examples?

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    You can certainly see your enthusiasm in the article you write.
    The world hopes for more passionate writers such as
    you who aren’t afraid to say how they believe. At all times follow your heart.

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  • David

    Is there anywhere to have a discussion about what he teaches, and the Biblical bases for it/not for it? I don’t want dogma, I want Christ. Don’t we all have the questions about how a Loving God (in whom I whole-heartedly believe) can send small-brained people who live for only a wisp of time into a vast eternity of pain and torment (I know that they choose it, but still, choice is based upon knowledge, and people who live only a wisp have only a whisper of knowledge.) I just want Him for my life, but I want to know 1. how to help others (condemning others often doesn’t seem to help), and 2. what has happened/does happen to those who don’t believe “like me.” There are so many denominations, with so many rules. How do we as Christians sort out the TRUTH. And, if we can’t do it, how can unbelievers do it? Romans 10 says “That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Is that all we need for to preach– that God is love, Jesus is love and He came to save us– Believe in Him, love Him, and you’ll be saved? If so, doesn’t that negate many of our worries on other people’s behaviors/actions? If they believe in Him, have called on Him, then they are saved- yes? no? If that is the case, do I have to worry about them? What if their sin (which we all have them) is something that my branch sees as anathema, such as homosexuality? Doesn’t that passage negate my need to worry if they believe in Him and have accepted Him as their savior? Sorry for the long meandering passage; There are just so many questions, and I have a feeling that the answer is simple, but the consequences of getting the answer wrong are so immense for people that we love (and those we dislike- after all, we are tasked to love them as well.) Thanks!