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Mars Hill did have parking problems, and Bell's sudden popularity posed some risks for the young pastor. Pride and self-involvement are perennial issues for ministers, who, like politicians, grow accustomed to the sound of their own voices saying Important Things and to the deference of the flock. By the time Bell was 30, he was an Evangelical celebrity. (He had founded Mars Hill when he was 28.) He was referred to as a "rock star" in this magazine. "There was this giant spotlight on me," he says. "All of a sudden your words are parsed. I found myself and I think this happens to a lot of people wanting to shrink away from it. But I decided, Just own it. I'm very comfortable in a room with thousands of people. I do have this voice. What will I say?"
And how will he say it? The history of Evangelism is in part the history of media and methods: Billy Sunday mastered the radio, Billy Graham television; now churches like Bell's are at work in the digital vineyards of downloads and social media. Demography is also working in Bell's favor. "He's trying to reach a generation that's more comfortable with mystery, with unsolved questions," says Mouw, noting that his own young grandchildren are growing up with Hindu and Muslim friends and classmates. "For me, Hindus and Muslims were the people we sent missionaries off to in places we called 'Arabia,'" Mouw says. "Now that diversity is part of the fabric of daily life. It makes a difference. My generation wanted truth these are folks who want authenticity. The whole judgmentalism and harshness is something they want to avoid."
If Bell is right about hell, then why do people need ecclesiastical traditions at all? Why aren't the Salvation Army and the United Way sufficient institutions to enact a gospel of love, sparing us the talk of heaven and hellfire and damnation and all the rest of it? Why not close up the churches?
Bell knows the arguments and appreciates the frustrations. "I don't know anyone who hasn't said, 'Let's turn out the lights and say we gave it a shot,'" he says. "But you can't I can't get away from what this Jesus was, and is, saying to us. What the book tries to do is park itself right in the midst of the tension with a Jesus who offers an urgent and immediate call 'Repent! Be transformed! Turn!' At the same time, I've got other sheep. There's a renewal of all things. There's water from the rock. People will come from the East and from the West. The scandal of the gospel is Jesus' radical, healing love for a world that's broken."
Fair enough, but let's be honest: religion heals, but it also kills. Why support a supernatural belief system that, for instance, contributed to that minister in Florida's burning of a Koran, which led to the deaths of innocent U.N. workers in Afghanistan?
"I think Jesus shares your critique," Bell replies. "We don't burn other people's books. I think Jesus is fairly pissed off about it as well."
On Sunday, April 17, at Mars Hill, Bell will be joined by singer-songwriter Brie Stoner (who provided some of the music for his Nooma series) and will teach the first 13 verses of the third chapter of Revelation, which speaks of "the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God ... Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches." The precise meaning of the words is open to different interpretations. But this much is clear: Rob Bell has much to say, and many are listening.