Robert Holmes Bell Jr. (born August 23, 1970) is an American author, Christian speaker, and the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church located in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is also the featured speaker in a series of spiritual short films called NOOMA.
Bell is the son of Judge Robert Holmes Bell, who was nominated by Ronald Reagan to the federal judiciary and publicly confirmed by the United States Senate. Bell grew up in a traditional Christian environment.
He attended Wheaton College. While at Wheaton, he roomed with Ian Eskelin of All Star United. With friends Dave Houk, Brian Erickson, Steve Huber and Chris Fall, he formed the indie rock band, "_ton bundle", which was reminiscent of bands like R.E.M. and Talking Heads. This is when _ton bundle wrote the song "Velvet Elvis," based upon the same Velvet Elvis painting that he used in his first book Repainting the Christian Faith. Wheaton College was also where Bell met his wife, Kristen. The band _ton bundle started to gain some local fame and was even asked to perform at large events, however when Rob was struck with a head injury, these plans fell through. He tells this story in an interview with a member of the band Jimmy Eat World's blog.
Bell received his bachelor's degree in 1992 from Wheaton and taught water skiing in the summers at Wheaton College's Honey Rock Camp making about thirty dollars a week. During this time, Bell offered to teach a Christian message to the camp counselors after no preacher could be found. Rob says the Holy Spirit impelled him to accept the responsibility and taught a message about "rest." He said he believes that God led him to teaching at this moment. Bell was later approached by several people each of them telling him that he should pursue teaching as a career.
Bell moved to Pasadena, California to pursue this calling for teaching and received a M.Div. from Fuller Theological Seminary. According to Bell, he never received good grades in preaching class because he always tried innovative ways to communicate his ideas. During his time at Fuller he was a youth intern at Lake Avenue Church. He did, however, occasionally attend Christian Assembly in Eagle Rock, California, which led to him and his wife asking questions in the direction of how a new style of church would appear.
Between 1995 and 1997, Bell formed a band called Big Fil which released two CDs; the first was a self-titled disk and the second was titled Via De La Shekel. When asked what style of music they played, Rob would respond with "Northern Gospel!" which later became a name of a song on the second album. Even after Big Fil stopped performing, Rob continued with 2 more projects by the name of Uno Dos Tres Communications volume 1 and 2 which both had a similar sound as Big Fil musically.
In the January 2007 issue of the magazine TheChurchReport.com, Bell was named No. 10 in their list of "The 50 Most Influential Christians in America" as chosen by their readers and online visitors.
Mars Hill Bible Church
Bell and his wife moved from California to Grand Rapids to be close to family and on invitation to study under pastor Ed Dobson. He handled many of the preaching duties for the Saturday Night service at Calvary Church. Bell announced that he would be branching out on his own to start a new kind of community and he would call it "Mars Hill" after the Greek site where the apostle Paul told a group, "For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you."
In February 1999, Bell founded Mars Hill Bible Church, with the church originally meeting in a school gym in Wyoming, Michigan. Within a year the church was given a shopping mall in Grandville, Michigan, and purchased the surrounding land. In July 2000 the 3,500 "grey chair" facility opened its doors. As of 2005, an estimated 11,000 people attend the two "gatherings" on Sundays at 9 and 11 AM. His teachings at Mars Hill inspired the popular "Love Wins" bumper sticker, and the congregation freely distributes these stickers after services.
In order to maintain balance in his life, Bell maintains his Fridays as a personal sabbath, where he does not allow contact by electronic means, and has all pastoral duties transferred to other Mars Hill pastors.
Bell is the featured speaker in NOOMA – a series of short films created by a West Michigan-based non-profit film company called Flannel. The title of the video series, "NOOMA", is an English variation of the Greek word pneuma which means breath or spirit. All the videos feature the teachings of Rob Bell, accompanied by music written and sung by local independent artists with the exception of The Album Leaf's music being licensed for the Nooma DVD Lump.
In August 2005, Zondervan Publishing published Bell's first book, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. Velvet Elvis is for people who are, in Bell's words, "fascinated with Jesus, but can't do the standard Christian package". His second book, titled Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections between Sexuality and Spirituality, was released in March 2007.
In February and March 2007 Bell hosted a "Sex God" tour on six university campuses to promote his book. The tour functioned more as a time for engaging questions and conversation. Questions ranged from Old Testament codes to homosexuality to what should Christians do with the word "evangelical". Each night ended with the showing of NOOMA number 15 entitled "YOU".
His Everything is Spiritual national speaking tour launched on June 30, 2006 in Chicago, drawing sold-out crowds in cities across North America. The proceeds from ticket sales were used to support WaterAid, an international non-profit organization dedicated to helping people escape the poverty and disease caused by living without safe water and sanitation. Everything is Spiritual is available on DVD from . (The link includes a preview clip).
In June 2007 Bell toured the United Kingdom and Ireland, calling all peacemakers.
Bell launched another speaking tour on November 5, 2007, in Chicago, The Gods Aren't Angry again drew sold-out crowds in cities across North America. The subject matter of this presentation was a narrative defense of justification through faith and not works (sacrifice). Proceeds from this tour were used to support the Turame Microfinance program supporting the poor in Burundi, a mission supported by Bell's church.
Bell released his project in 2009, titled "Drops Like Stars", exploring the link between creativity and suffering. The book was initially handwritten by Bell, and features photographic work. "Drops Like Stars" includes a speaking tour of the same name. Tour dates are listed on Mr. Bell's website.
In his writings, Bell affirms things as truth regardless of the source, saying "I affirm the truth anywhere in any religious system, in any worldview. If it's true, it belongs to God." However, he acknowledges Scripture as the authoritative source of truth by which to compare all other truths in the Mars Hill Bible Church statement of narrative theology.
Bell says, "This is not just the same old message with new methods. We're rediscovering Christianity as an Eastern religion, as a way of life. Legal metaphors for faith don't deliver a way of life. We grew up in churches where people knew the nine verses why we don't speak in tongues, but had never experienced the overwhelming presence of God." Bell's comments about Christianity as an "Eastern" religion allude to a variety of sources, including Ray Vander Laan who compares and contrasts Greek ("Western") thinking with Hebrew ("Eastern") thinking.
Commenting on some of the initial critique that members of his Mars Hill Bible Church may have been hearing, a very candid Bell informed the congregation on Sept 12, 2005 to not expend unnecessary energy on debate but to instead use it for more productive venues. He further stated how "reporters can use little sections of anything to twist what I say" and that those who haven't read the book (Velvet Elvis) have no basis of argument.
In a Chicago Sun Times article entitled The Next Billy Graham?, Bell responded to his critics:
"When people say that the authority of Scripture or the centrality of Jesus is in question, actually it's their social, economic and political system that has been built in the name of Jesus that's being threatened," Bell says. "Generally lurking below some of the more venomous, vitriolic criticism is somebody who's created a facade that's not working...But I love everybody and you're next!" he says, giggling. "That's how I respond to criticism."