The Common Good

Bare Feet and Dolphins: Rob Bell's Return

Rob Bell in Southern California Tuesday. Photo by Cathleen Falsani/Sojourners.
Rob Bell in Southern California Tuesday. Photo by Cathleen Falsani/Sojourners.

“Oh, a dolphin.”

The speaker, dressed in khaki jeans, a blue t-shirt and flip-flops, interrupts his train of thought about spiral dynamics and the church when some movement in the ocean a few hundred yards away on the other side of the beach house’s open briefly catches his attention.

The audience of 50 — mostly 30- and 40-something-year-old pastors, the vast majority of them men, but with at least a few young clergywomen too (a refreshing change from most evangelical gatherings of this kind) — laughs heartily and more than a few attendees crane their necks to try to catch a glimpse of a dorsal fin in the distance.

The sounds of the Pacific crashing on the shore mix with a reggae tune playing on the outdoor stereo of the bar next door as the speaker, a 41-year-old former pastor and bestselling author, resumes his riff on categories of consciousness and the spiritual practice of meeting people exactly where they are.

Rob Bell isn’t in Kansas … I mean Michigan … any more.

Six months ago, Bell left the position he’d held for a decade as lead pastor of Mars Hill, a “Jesus community” (read: church) in Granville, Mich., and moved with his wife and three children to this seaside surfer town in Southern California to take a break from the limelight and see what God has planned for him in this next phase of life as a more private citizen.

This week, Bell, author of Velvet Elvis, Sex God, Drops Like Stars and last year’s controversial bestseller Love Wins (wherein he boldly suggested that traditional notions of heaven and hell might not be the whole story), casually stepped back into the semi-public square to host a two-day conference, Two Days with Rob Bell, in a beach bungalow for four dozen attendees who have traveled to his sleepy new hometown from around the country to talk about ministry, calling, spiritual health and the creative process.

Bell announced the event, which was not promoted publicly, in early March in a note sent to an email list of folks who have attended some of his speaking events in the past. It was a first-come, first-served invitation limited to 50 people. It sold out in a day.

Among the conversation topics Bell invited attendees to join him for were:

+ How do we feed our own soul when we’re leading and speaking to and giving to so many others?

+ Does the creative process ever get easier?

+ Where do new ideas come from?

+ How do we find space to open up and think and breathe deeply when our schedule is so full so often?

+ How do we handle criticism? And does it get any better?

+ What do we do with doubts/questions we have that if we shared them with the people we lead they’d head for the doors? (Or they’d send us for the door?)

+ How do we communicate to people who are at very different stages of growth and maturity and worldview and yet they’re all part of the same group?

Few other details were offered and as the gathering convened Tuesday morning in the living room of a breezy beach house, no one knew quite what to expect. There were no nametags, no assigned seating, and no carefully planned minute-by-minute agenda, no contrived breakaway small groups to discuss talking points. Bell invited folks to feel free to interrupt and interject questions and comments any time. It’s a conversation. This is a safe place, a judgment-free zone. All are welcome to speak their hearts and minds.

Why is Bell doing this?

“Because sometimes we need to drop what we’re doing, step out of our routine, breathe in some fresh air, and be reminded that we signed up for a revolution,” he says.

Moving to Southern California has been “healing” for Bell, he says, and it would seem that’s an experience he’s eager to share with others.

From the reaction of the intimate crowd on the first day of the conference, it appeared that many of these “professional Christians” were deeply grateful for his generosity. There was a palpable ease in the room. Shoulders dropped. Shoes came off. Conversation came naturally and was plentiful.

Christianity calls us to be our best and most authentic selves, Bell told the crowd. The faith is meant to lead us into who God created us intrinsically to be. It’s a sacred and holy call and looks differently from person to person.

“Who you aren’t really isn’t that interesting,” Bell says, as he riffs on the passage from the Gospel of St. Matthew (Chapter 26) when Jesus tells his disciples that his coming — his ministry, he raison d’etre — is headed somewhere: the cross.

When Peter balks at the news, troubled by human concerns, Jesus says, “Get thee behind me, Satan.”

“What’s interesting is that Jesus seems to totally overreact,” Bell says. “But I wonder if he’s reacting to a spirit of ‘don’t throw yourself all in, hold back.’ No, Jesus says. ‘Get thee behind me Satan.’”

Paraphrasing Martin Buber, Bell continues, saying, “There are Yes and No positions in life. The position of self-centered holding back and then the position of YES…. A lot of leaders spend an extraordinary amount of energy trying to figure out, ‘Who am I to do this?’ That’s a great question, but you’ll never get an answer to that.

“I don’t know why God has you there. I don’t know why you are successful over here and someone else isn’t over there,” he says. “’Who am I [to do this]?’ is a shame question. Who aren’t you?”

Questions about success and blessing can be just as difficult as questions about suffering and failure, Bell says.

“Blessing can create just as many questions that cannot be answered. I don’t know why you have the ability and it seems almost effortless. I don’t know,” he says. “When I wrote my first book, I spent 90 percent of my energy trying to figure out if I was a writer. Who am I to do this? Who aren’t I?

“Especially with success, people’s heads just spin. ‘Why are all these people coming to me?’ I don’t know. The better question is what are you going to do with what you’ve got? As the great theologian Chris Martin [of Coldplay] says, ‘I can’t dance like Usher. I can’t sing like Beyonce. I can write songs like Elton John, but we can do the best with what we’ve got.’”

 As the conference breaks for a long lunch, Bell leaves the group with a word of encouragement: “Take a walk on the beach.”

Today during the lunch break, Bell has offered to take any attendees who are interested surfing. About 40 have said they’re game.

Surf’s up.

Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. Follow Cathleen on Twitter (where she'll be sending updates from today's conference) @GodGrrl.

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