As we came up to the theater, my friends and I were quickly looking at all of the different kinds of people walking toward the front doors. The Wiltern is a classic Victorian-style theater in the heart of Los Angeles. Typically, on any given night, you might hear Silverchair, As I Lay Dying or The Decemberists playing at the venue, but tonight, everyone came for a different kind of event. Two twentysomething guys with long hair and army jackets walked by us laughing as we reached the doors; we saw an elderly couple with canes looking for their seats as we got to the back stairs; a group of suit-and-tie businessmen were sitting in the row behind us; and a bunch of teenage kids played in the aisles as we waited for the show to start. As we sat in our seats, the only clue to what was going to happen that night was the music of Sigur Ros playing over the speakers and a large stone altar on the otherwise blank stage.
The scene looked more like a concert, or a maybe a play, but we were all there to listen to the words of one man: Rob Bell.
Rob Bell is the founding pastor of Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, Mich. He is the author of Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith(Zondervan) and Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections between Sexuality and Spirituality (Zondervan), and he is featured in the series of spiritual short films called NOOMA. Currently Bell is on his “The Gods Aren’t Angry" tour, subtitled “How humans invented religion to make themselves feel better.” Proceeds from the event go to benefit a microfinance project in Africa. RELEVANT recently talked with Bell about the tour and the idea to sponsor a community-building project overseas.
“For me everything is about content,” Bell said. “Everything is about substance. So there’s no point in doing a tour until there’s something worth saying every night for a month. My wife and I and family, we’re committed to living as simply as we can, so I—I don’t need more money or anything—I’m committed to using whatever voice I have to raise awareness for those who have no voice. And the Turame microfinance project, where we’re giving all of the tour profits, has been rated one of the better microfinance projects in Africa.”
Bell began the evening with no introduction, announcements or opening comments, and addressed the audience as a man telling a story. He asked us all to imagine the first people at the dawn of time—how they would have looked at their environment and how they would have imagined the forces that controlled their world. Slowly, this idea of forces beyond us—people would have evolved this thought into the idea of energies, or gods who “made things happen.” So then, to keep those forces “on your side” and to keep them “happy,” society would begin to try to appease those forces through the offering of gifts and sacrifices. But because the gods were far away, humanity was left in the dark. Because the gods were silent, you never knew where you stood.
The strength of Bell’s style as a writer and speaker is his ability to apply big ideas, cultural analogies and personal stories into dynamic illustrations of scriptural principles. It’s this way of delivering his message that has made Bell one of the most exciting leaders in the up-and-coming church, and especially engaging at the evening’s event.
In a world of sensory overload and multimedia presentations, the straightforward approach was refreshing. Bell explained that the idea is to keep it simple. “I walk out and talk for an hour and a half, and then I walk off,” he said. “So it’s a pretty simple format. You come, sit, listen, go home.”
Bell continued in his analogy and offered that with the beginning story of Abraham, a new way of thinking about God emerged—a God who is above all of the other energies, a God who speaks to humanity, a God who lets you know where you stand. He said that as Christians, we sometimes tap into this ancient idea that God is angry. If things are going wrong, then we must do more to appease Him. If things are going well, then we must do more to continue the blessing. But, Bell explained, Jesus came to do away with the old sacrificial system. Hebrews 10:10 says, “We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (TNIV). The truth, as Rob so eloquently points out, is that “you don’t have to live this way anymore.”
Bell continued the narrative, telling us how God broke through the silence and offered another alternative. He offered His Son to be the last payment and final “work” in restoring the relationship. Rob commented that the only one remaining sacrifice that is to be made is the one where we lay ourselves down on the altar. In Romans 12:1 Paul writes, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is true worship.”
The worship of God is brought to fullness in our living for Him; the disciplines, the worship songs, the mission projects—all of that should just be the outward expression of our love, not our obligation, Bell explained.
Bell closed the night by telling stories of people he had come across in his ministry. They were stories of hope, stories of pain and stories of people who reached out and became like Christ to a broken world—in fact, it felt a lot like an ending to one of his videos. Bell ended his benediction with these words: "May you remember that God is love.” The truth is that we are all free from trying to make God love us … He already loves us.
Go here to see the remaining dates of the tour.