Rob Bell is striding toward the sanctuary of his Grandville, Mich., church, the barely improved husk of a former shopping mall, when he runs into one of his favorite congregants. They immediately address a topic close to both their hearts. "Man!" says Bell. "Can I hear it? Can I hear the demo?" The congregant, an affable young part-time musician named Joel, who dresses like a long-lost Ramone, mumbles bashfully, "I can burn you one." "Great!" exclaims Bell, whose geeky-hip glasses, black pants, black shirt and polyester white belt make their own statement. "Hey, man," he adds, "I saw the Arctic Monkeys." This is cool, Joel agrees. That itch scratched, Bell, whom the Chicago Sun-Times has called an heir to Billy Graham, heads off to give a sermon on parenting that starts with a soccer-dad riff and ends with a recording of Bruce Springsteen talking about the Virgin Mary.
Evangelicalism worries chronically about its youth. Polling by the evangelically oriented Barna research group shows that at least half of regular churchgoers ages 16 to 29 think their church is too judgmental, too political and too negative about homosexuality. Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow describes today's young adults as spiritual "tinkerers."
Bell, 37, is guilty of none of the negatives. He is largely apolitical, thinks that only those with gay friends are positioned to judge homosexuality--and he tinkers marvelously. At 28, he founded a megachurch that threw out the conventional sermon-and-worship service and instantly drew thousands of attendees. He has sold hundreds of thousands of books with titles like Velvet Elvis and Sex God that find the sacred in the profane. And he has created a form of video message he calls Nooma (phonetic Greek for spirit or breath) that may make him to YouTube what Graham was to the arena. "He could be one of the most important 21st century Christian leaders," says Bible professor and evangelical blogger Ben Witherington. He and several other thinkers feel that in a "post-Christian America," whose basic assumptions are increasingly secular, the faith needs someone who can defend its tenets in the argot of the day. Bell does this effortlessly. The question now is whether he can sell his approach to the rest of Evangelicalism or whether, as Christianity Today editor Andy Crouch puts it, he will "remain more of a singular rock star in the church world."
Bell comes of faithful stock: his parents met at Wheaton College, known as the Evangelical Harvard. But his first ambition was to be David Letterman. ("The birth of irony," he jokes. "The Betamax was a portal to another world.") Next came rock. As a student at Wheaton, he fronted a band that seemed poised to break nationally. When it didn't, he attended Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., and apprenticed at a megachurch before founding Mars Hill just outside Grand Rapids. The town is notoriously well churched, but Bell saw an untapped audience: some were his music fans, others Christians left cold by traditional services. "A hundred people a day were calling and saying, 'Dude! Give us the real thing.' I was like, If someone could speak to these people in their mother tongue, they'd be here in droves." Fifteen hundred people, alerted by word of mouth, came that first Sunday. Nine years later, Mars Hill tallies 11,000 weekly.
Watching Bell there, I found it easy to see his appeal to the young. He delivers stand-up-style monologues, not three-point sermons. Comic riffs alternate with seemingly naive questions--Letterman crossed with NPR'S Ira Glass--until Bell tightens the rhetorical noose and produces tears or thoughtful silence. His stagecraft is legendary. To illustrate a passage from Leviticus on sacrifice, Bell brought on a live goat, which he released--underlining Jesus' role as the last and greatest sin offering--intoning, "The goat has left the building."
In 2002, Bell went to video. Attempting a sermon for a standard 21-min. TV slot, he and three friends came up with just 10 strong minutes. These morphed into the Nooma--a 12-min., high-end short melding Bell's spoken narrative and a seemingly unrelated visual into a compelling homily. The format is unique in the world of Evangelicalism or, really, anywhere. If the father of a young child can watch Rain, a divine-love parable featuring Bell and his son during a storm, and not fight tears, he is Christopher Hitchens. The 18 Nooma DVDs have sold 1.2 million units.
They epitomize Bell's trademark combination of deep cultural savviness and deeper piety. Unlike others currently posing fundamental questions, notes Crouch, Bell will "come out on the other side with something to proclaim." Thus Bell derides a "score card" approach to sin. Rather, he maintains that once you've converted, "you're loved, you're accepted, you're forgiven, you're in." But he leavens the joy of this personal salvation with the message that being "in" means understanding poverty as the Saviour did: Mars Hill is aggressively socially active.
Bell is experimenting with becoming a national brand. He has just ended his second national bus tour in two years. Backstage recently in Manhattan, he acknowledged that the exertions aimed at "large crowds and good book sales can be at odds with" the creativity he associates with "the Eucharist, the breaking yourself open and pouring yourself out." Fans hope that as with the Nooma he can find a way to reconcile two seemingly disparate story lines.