Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Jealous of Rob Bell, or, On Pastoral Poetry

When people ask me why I want to be a pastor (which, of course, is a trick question, since in the end it has very little to do with what I want), I'm coming more and more to want to say that it's because ministry is an opportunity to create. A pastoral vocation is a call to become an artist for God, a resonance often overlooked with the loss of the study of poetry, in which the word "pastoral" refers to a genre of literature, art or music that re-presents the bucolic existence of shepherd-life, often idealizing a lost golden age of agrarian bliss and harmony with nature and the gods before the advent of urbanity. But since I was an English major and citing such obscure knowledge is one of the only actual skill sets with which I was equipped, I hold the quaint view that the work and witness of a pastor is precisely to become a kind of lived poem, a performed poetic representation of the life of the Shepherd, and to chorale words, ideas, actions, and people into a kind of representation of what created life was not only intended to be, but also what it can and could be, in light of the Gospel that lost sheep, like lost knowledge, can and will be found. Pastoral ministry is poetic, and poetry can and must be the goal of pastoral ministry.

In my journey to become a true pastoral artist, no one has played the Virgil to my aspiring Dante more than Rob Bell, founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, MI, where my wife attended worship while at Calvin College. His sermons not only nourish me spiritually, but are also my primary inspiration and model for my own homiletic style. His imagination is a well-spring of scriptural and spiritual insight, and his endless delight and wonder have had a profound impact both the broader church, on members of my family, and on my own life. I couldn't agree with him more when, for example, speaking of the theological academy, he says

I begin with the assumption that I'm not saying anything new. Please don't credit me with originality. Lots of people swam in this stream. My task is simply to translate. Not a lot of people are going to read, say, J├╝rgen Moltmann’s “The Spirit of Life,” but there might be ways to put that in language that more people have access to. If what I say is unique, that's humbling beyond words, but we don't need more people talking like that.
Rob is a person who believes in people's capacity for deep spiritual understanding and growth, and is not afraid to clothe his creative brilliance in a humble, accessible, and very human manner of speaking. In this, he shows his devotion to and great faith in the potential of the Holy Spirit working in the church for the sake of the world.

I'm also insanely jealous of Rob Bell. In a recent interview with Duke Divinity's Faith and Leadership, in which he pulls back the curtain on his unique creative process, Rob makes the following confession:

I didn’t do well leading a church. The week-to-week “How are we doing? Where are we going? How do we get from here to here?” -- I’m not wired like that. A team of people actually leads our church now. I do much better cheering those people on.

A few years ago I did a tour, and we made a film called “Everything Is Spiritual.” It combined quantum physics, dimension theory, string theory and Hebrew numerology in Genesis. Imagine sitting in a church meeting, and they’re discussing when you were 200 volunteers short in the children’s ministry, and I had that in my head!

I deeply respect the kind of self-knowledge and self-differentiation required of someone like Bell to step back and recognize the limitations and possibilities of his own vocational gifts. It would be foolish not to lead from one's strengths and calling. And look where honesty gets him! Imagine, belonging to a church staff where your only job was to create, invent, preach, and tour! No pastoral care visits, no church administration, no budget meetings or stewardship campaigns, no committees - just, you, your Bible, your theology texts, and your imagination. And you get paid mega-bucks to do it. (Sounds not unlike the vision of academic contemplation defended by Matt Milliner's video in a previous posting.) Sounds wonderful! A shepherd reclining in one's pasture, daydreaming out loud, and making beautiful music - what more could a pastor hope for?

Well, sheep, for one thing. Pastoring is about people, about being Christ with them and discovering that they are also Christ with you. I was saddened to see that, when asked if there was a communal aspect to his creative process, Rob stated, "It is extraordinarily solitary. You can talk to others all you want, but then you have to sit down and actually make that paragraph. It’s a pure, undiluted slog." While I agree that in the end one has to write one's own sermons, I find that even when I sit down on Thursday night to start birthing new words, I am never alone. Pastoral theology, like pastoral art, is rarely if ever my own solitary creation. It is painted in the colors of hospital visit, vision statements, committee conflicts, financial crises, and even and especially in post-sermon complaints. While I would welcome freedom from such tasks with open arms, I do not think my own pastoral art would have integrity - or beauty - without the full use of the palette of my ministerial vocation.

Rob Bell and I live, breathe and create in different ecclesial worlds. I continue to enjoy reaping the benefits of a megachurch polity that provides patronage to pastoral artists of Rob's stature. And I will probably never cease to covet his luxury. But I also firmly believe and have great hope in the opportunity my call affords me to remain in the pasture with the sheep - mud, grime, busy schedule and all. I am thankful to Rob for being true to his own sense of calling; in doing so, he has helped me clarify what is beautiful in my own. May God give all pastors the time, the space, and the verses they need to compose lives of poetic glory from in the midst of things, and may we have the humility to hear the rhymes the Spirit supplies from the mouths of the flocks with whom we are privileged to dwell.


  1. Nice post Matthew. As I read your words and juxtapose them with Rob's overall expression of thought, I don't see that you two view or do the communal aspect of ministry all that different. I'm sorry for your "saddened" thought/feeling and hold hope that it is rather something lost in translation. Having been a covenant member of Mars Hill for a few years, being privy to Rob's struggles, strengths and weakness up close, I, as one sheep, can say this. I don't know much, yet what I do know is whatever he is doing, however he is doing it, he communicates God, Truth, to me in such a way that none other has before. He has given me a new or widened lens to view God through. A true poet for sure. Inspired by God and people yet solitary in the end.

    I believe you too have the potential, as future pastor, to be a great communicator of, and poet for God. I'm excited for your calling!