Rob Bell, a pastor in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is releasing a new book called “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.” Bell is identified with what has become known as the “emergent” movement in the Christian church, is young, and has carved out a rather large following well outside of his local congregation with some media products that have become popular in a lot of churches, particularly churches of the consumerist, mega church variety.
The previews of the book generated some concerns about whether or not the book advanced the idea of universalism, which is not a new criticism aimed at those in the emergent movement. A lot of it is coming from the Calvinist/Reformed segment of American Christianity, including the session being held to discuss the book at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, where Al Mohler, a noted critic of both emergent Christianity and a staunch Calvinist, is president. None of this is really surprising, given that Grand Rapids, where Bell’s church is located, is headquarters to several Calvinist denominations and publishers, or that Bell’s media products are popular because they are trendy and catchy, especially among younger audiences that traditional, conservative churches have an extremely difficult time reaching.
As with most books of this sort, I’ll read it when it comes out and draw my own conclusions. I’m a little bothered that controversy is helping to market the product, though I doubt it will be available to check out at my local public library any time soon. What bothers me more is the impression that is being generated by the controversy, which could very easily lead someone to believe that this isn’t really about orthodoxy, or correct theology within the Christian church, but it is a controversy that has occurred when one “big name” popular preacher and author has bumped into the territory of another.
The mega church mentality that is beginning to dominate American Christianity is skewing the Biblical model of the church. Already divided by interpretations, practices and culture that sets most churches well inside a barrier of denominationalism, with the accompanying accusation that churches who call themselves “non-denominational” aren’t uniting the church, but are, instead, weakening it by their lax orthodoxy, it now appears that the “big names” and popular preachers are fussing over market share.
Are the differences, and the doctrinal perspectives of the “emergent” movement all that different from those of what would be considered the center of “Biblical orthodoxy” (if that can even be defined as tightly as some seem to think) or “conservative evangelical” Christian churches? The practices and the culture that has developed does deviate somewhat from what we see as being traditional, though I think a lot of that is simply a reaction to what a lot of younger people, including those raised in church, see as being boring and lifeless. I think it will take more than a few book discussions to determine whether writers like Bell have stepped outside the boundaries of the scriptures into universalism. I doubt they have.
The other problem that needs to be addressed here, though, isn’t related so much to orthodoxy as it is simply to whether or not the celebrity status accorded to the pastors and leaders of the movement is replacing the place of Jesus in his own church, and is shoving the Holy Spirit out the door. People rush to get the latest book, or the latest video series, and I still can’t get used to the idea that certain pastors promote a tour, come to speak in a particular city, and admission is charged in order to get inside. You pay a hefty fee, and in addition to the time you get to share with others who gather around the speaker, you are also exposed to more books, videos and media products in the exhibit hall and in the break out sessions. You’re supposed to walk away inspired for your investment, and I guess, equipped to take on your world while the conference leader walks away with a fat check.
A lesson from 2 Corinthians 11:7-12 might be in order.