As part of my research for the ecclesiology course I have been teaching, I have been trying to listen to some sermons by those involved in the "emerging church". In particular, I have subscribed to the weekly sermon feed from Mars Hill Bible Church, where Rob Bell’s sermons can be heard (not to be confused with Mars Hill Church in Seattle where Mark Driscoll is the pastor, and whose sermons are also on my subscription list).
I have been hoping to catch Rob Bell explaining clearly what he believes "the gospel" is, and what it means to become a Christian, yet despite listening for several months I am still waiting. With time running out before I do my talk on the emerging church, I fear I will not manage to get an authoritative quote. If you know of one, perhaps from one of his books, do let me know.
Anyway, the sermon of his I listened to today was entitled "I Do Not Know", and was the latest in a series of sermons on Philippians. One of the good things about Rob Bell, unlike in many evangelical and emerging churches, is that he can often be found doing an expository series working his way through a section or book of the Bible.
His sermon title comes from chapter 1:22, where Paul says
If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know!
From this, he draws out some points about the real pressure that Paul was under, so much so that at one point he confessed to being at the point of giving up (2 Cor 1:8). He talks about the need to admit to our doubts and struggles.
Of course, this is a recurring emphasis in the emerging church – the need for openness about the issues and battles we are facing, rather than keeping up appearances and pretending never to struggle with doubt or sin.
And what Rob Bell goes on to say about the need to "doubt your doubts" rather than just giving in to them without challenging them is excellent. However, I did think it slightly revealing that while preaching a whole sermon entitled "I do not know", he somehow managed to avoid telling the congregation that merely three verses later, Paul says
Convinced of this, I know that I will remain…
So while we should not minimise the reality of his doubts and struggles, the fact is that Paul moved past them, and arrived at a place of real certainty. It is this type of certainty that borders on being a sin in the minds of some emerging thinkers. And yet it characterises all the New Testament writers.
In what was on the whole a good sermon, Rob Bell concluded in what I thought was a disappointing manner. If you have doubts about the existence of God or the resurrection, the answer is just to do good deeds of kindness, and in so doing you become "the resurrection" or "divine" to those people around you. At this point, he was repeatedly asking his audience, "are we tracking?". No, I wasn’t tracking.
Why not? Well simply, its back to what Rob thinks the gospel is. I honestly don’t know what he believes. Sometimes he hints that he is very clear on the message of salvation by grace alone, and then out pop these statements that sound very much as though he considers beliefs irrelevant so long as you are doing good deeds. Which may be a popular sentiment, but its not the gospel.