GRANDVILLE, Mich. (RNS) Megachurch pastor Rob Bell, whose best-selling book raised evangelical eyebrows by questioning traditional beliefs on hell, knew it was time to address the “giant, glowing, loud” elephant in the room on Sunday (Sept. 25) morning.
What’s going to happen to Mars Hill Bible Church, his flock wanted to know, after their charismatic “rock star” pastor is no longer delivering sermons every Sunday?

“You’re going to be great,” Bell assured his anxious flock multiple times, sounding almost like a man in the midst of a romantic breakup. “We’ve had this beautiful thing, you and me. And now, we let go of how it was and open ourselves up to how it is, and will be.”

On Thursday, Bell announced that he’s leaving Mars Hill after 12 years as the founding pastor of a church that now draws 10,000 or more each Sunday to a converted shopping mall.

The church’s website crashed under the subsequent deluge of online traffic from people, congregation members and otherwise, looking for answers.

Bell addressed some of those questions during two gatherings on Sunday, but the sessions were not so much sermons as they were heartfelt goodbyes. Bell, as well as many in the audience, got visibly choked up more than once.

Bell said he’s not starting another church but he will continue to write, with “at least three more” books in his head. He said he’s been mulling this move for “a couple months,” describing a calling to continue his work in Los Angeles.

He choked up at the announcement, saying, “It’s come time for my family and I to take another leap into the unknown.”

Before he lands in California, Bell will be going on a $35-per-ticket, eight-stop “Fit to Smash Ice” tour that launches in November in Toronto. He may continue his online podcasts, although he left that up in the air. A companion book to his best-seller on hell is due out soon.

In some ways, the move to carry his message beyond Mars Hill is an attempt to put his money where his mouth is, essentially, as a man who publicly calls on people to “go for it” in their own lives.

“If you don’t make that same leap that you’ve been calling everybody else to make, then something within you will slowly shrivel up and die,” he said.

Lee Jager, the church communications director, said everything the church is prepared to say at this point has been said. The Rev. Shane Hipps seems to be Bell’s heir apparent, but “nothing’s been solidified,” said Jager.

“We’re just kind of embracing the time we’ve had with Rob.”

In the lobby, congregation member Dan Morton echoed that, saying “we’ve been blessed to have him as long as we have—I’m somewhat surprised it hasn’t happened before.”

Morton described the church as a resilient community that has experienced growing pains in the past. He appeared to take Bell’s message to heart, saying “this is another wonderful opportunity for new growth.”

Wendell Moon took in Bell’s goodbyes as an outsider from Nashville, Tenn. He attended with a group from the Christian nonprofit Institute for Cultural Communicators. He said the Mars Hill core will likely survive post-Bell, but in the short term, the new leadership will have to be very good at listening to members’ concerns.

“This is Bell’s brainchild and he’s very much their leader. The father is now leaving the family a little bit and that’s going to leave a hole.”

How big that hole gets is the question. Bell’s final words at the early service on Sunday were this:

“I will be fine, my family will be fine and you will be fine and we will do this because Christ will be with us every step of the way—that’s how it works.”

(Garret Ellison writes for The Grand Rapids Press in Grand Rapids, Mich.)

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