Kent Dobson, Rob Bell’s Successor, Follows a Similar Path: “The Edges of Faith and the Center of the Zeitgeist”

Greg Strand – December 7, 2015 1 Comment

Kent Dobson, Rob Bell’s successor at Mars Hill, Grand Rapids, MI, recently announced his resignation from the church: Following Rob Bell: The Edges of Faith and the Center of the Zeitgeist Here is how the article begins, including a quote from Dobson about the questions he has about the Christian faith. 

Several days ago, Kent Dobson, successor at Rob Bell’s famous Mars Hill Bible Church, stepped down as teaching pastor. He opened his announcement/sermon by reading the Scriptural story which gives name to the church, the account at Mars Hill. Dobson says when he first came to Mars Hill, he was animated by Paul’s example of cultural engagement. Paul quoted the poets of the people; he spoke their language. Dobson said he understood Paul to be preaching a traditional gospel message but using different, more relevant, packaging. 

Likewise, he said the church was meant to have the same gospel but deliver the message in a more hip way. Specifically, he wanted a “cool church” with “cooler shoes” than the traditional church down the road. However, Dobson said he not only began to question the packaging of traditional “church,” but also the message – the gospel. To fully understand his evolution he says, “you’ll have to read my memoirs.” The CliffsNotes version, for those of us who can’t wait, goes thusly:

“I have always been and I’m still drawn to the very edges of religion and faith and God. I’ve said a few times that I don’t even know if we know what we mean by God anymore. That’s the edges of faith. That’s the thing that pulls me. I’m not really drawn to the center. I’m not drawn to the orthodox or the mainstream or the status quo… I’m always wandering out to the edge and beyond.” 

For the author of this article, here is the nub of Dobson’s pilgrimage:

When was the last time Pastor Dobson talked with someone on a college campus, in a gym, or in a coffee shop? Does he really think the “open” and “inclusive” vision he’s casting is novel? Is the “status quo” really Christian orthodoxy among Dobson’s peers? As a young, fit, white, upper-middle class male, Dobson’s sermon is not a rebellion to his culture. It’s a product of his culture. The mystery and romance he attempts to conjure around his spiritual evolution is laughable to anyone with a television. He’s not moving forward into the unknown; he’s sitting perfectly still in the safe, cozy space where Oprah is queen, tolerance is the law, and anyone with a firm opinion on just about anything is suspect. 

It is a sad commentary about one who finds more meaning and significance in being trendy and hip, than in being faithful to the truth once for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 3). In throwing off the shackles of the old (for a contrast, cf. Jer. 6:16 and a fulfillment in Jesus found in Matt. 11:28-30), and seeking to launch out into the future in a new, fresh and unique way, it really is a reflection of the culture and what many others are doing as well. There is nothing really unique and avant-garde about what he is doing. Rather, it is a reflection of the contemporary culture in which he lives. As noted, what Dobson has said and is doing “is not a rebellion to his culture. It’s a product of his culture.” 

It is also a sober reminder to us. Commanded and committed to be salt and light in a dark and decaying day (Matt. 5:13-16), it is tempting to move in one of two directions. Either we capitulate/accommodate to the culture, seeking first and foremost to be relevant, and then discern biblically how to do that. Or we retreat and separate, removing ourselves completely from the culture. It seems that for many Evangelicals, we are more tempted by the former than we are by the latter. In our zeal to influence, to impact, to make a difference, to transform the culture, is there something we have assumed or lost or given up in this quest? It is an important question to ask. Thankfully, many are asking these important questions, and many are remaining faithful to God and his truth as they do so. 

Reading this also reminds me that our battle is not either for or against culture. It is not against flesh and blood. Rather, it is for the gospel of Jesus Christ and it is against the principalities and powers (Eph. 6:10-18). It leads us to pray: Lord, as ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ, a ministry which has been entrusted to us and to which we seek to steward well (1 Thess. 2:4), by God’s grace, may we remain faithful to the end.

Greg Strand

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Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

One response to Kent Dobson, Rob Bell’s Successor, Follows a Similar Path: “The Edges of Faith and the Center of the Zeitgeist”

  1. Dear Pastor Strand:

    Thank you for the interesting news and commentary above. Before reading that I did not know that there has been a second ministerial casualty at the Mars Hill Church.

    In general, I agree with the commentary that you wrote about the Mars Hill events, but, if it’s not untoward for me to say it, I might disagree a bit with one small point.

    You stated above that “our battle is not either for or against culture. It is not against flesh and blood. Rather, it is for the gospel of Jesus Christ and it is against the principalities and powers (Eph. 6:10-18).”

    I wholeheartedly agree that the mission of the Church is not to carry out a war against the dominant secular culture or against the liberal big government political party, which is what I think is meant by the term “culture war” as used approvingly in some Evangelical circles.

    Rather, the mission of the Church of course is stated in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:16-20. The New Testament shows the apostles and disciples preaching faith and repentance, and discipling new believers, not carrying out a campaign of public criticism, agitation, and activism against the laws, customs, habits, parties and leaders of the lost worldly people.

    Some Christians even speak of “evangelizing the culture.” But “the culture” cannot be evangelized, only individual people, and according to Scripture (Matt. 7:14) most people will not come to Christ. So the dominant culture will always express the unbelieving point of view, will always be friendly to the Unbeliever, and will always be hostile to Almighty God and to the Believer.

    But there may be one point on which I might respectfully disagree with what you wrote, Pastor Strand.

    Perhaps I have misunderstood you, but you almost seem to indicate that the dominant secular culture, and world and the flesh, are not the enemies of the Believer, that only the powerful invisible wicked spirits are the enemies of the Believer.

    Again, you wrote that “our battle is not either for or against culture. It is not against flesh and blood. Rather, it is for the gospel of Jesus Christ and it is against the principalities and powers (Eph. 6:10-18).”

    Pastor Strand, you cited Ephesians 6:10-18. That passage includes this verse (12): “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

    But does that verse mean that the dominant culture and political ideologies produced by Unbelievers are something neutral and harmless to, and no threat or danger to, the Believer? It almost seems like that is what you mean when you write “our battle is not either for or against culture.” It almost seems like you are saying that culture is neutral, that someone could simultaneously be “in Christ” and be an active, enthusiastic, wholehearted partaker of and participant in the dominant unbelieving culture.

    Again, you wrote “our battle is not…against flesh.” But what about Galatians 5:17–“For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want.” In some sense, our battle is against flesh (at least our own fleshly desires), isn’t it?

    Pastor Strand, you also wrote: “Commanded and committed to be salt and light in a dark and decaying day (Matt. 5:13-16), it is tempting to move in one of two directions. Either we capitulate/accommodate to the culture, seeking first and foremost to be relevant, and then discern biblically how to do that. Or we retreat and separate, removing ourselves completely from the culture.”

    But according to the Biblical Doctrine of Separation, Christian really are supposed to separate themselves from the ungodly culture of the Unbelievers surrounding them. There are hundreds of verses that say this, but one is 2 Corinthians 6:17–“ ‘Come out from them and be separate, says the Lord.”. Every Christian pastor knows that verse, of course. But is it practiced by the members of every Christian congregation? I don’t think so.

    In about A.D. 215 there was written a work by Hippolytus titled The Apostolic Tradition. This document says that no one was accepted by the church as a new Christian unless he ceased to be an actor in the theater or a charioteer in the public chariot races. This document doesn’t explicitly say so, but I think it is a fact that Christians in A.D. 215 simply did not attend the theater show or the public sports games. This is Biblical Separation. The Puritans practiced it. The Amish, Mennonites and some independent fundamental Baptists still practice it.

    I just recalled of that old phrase from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer: “the world, the flesh and the devil.” While that exact phrase does not occur in the Bible, the grouping of “the world, the flesh and the devil” together as a united enemy does seem to express very well what the New Testament says.

    One passage that shows this is Ephesians 2:2-3–“You once walked, following the THE COURSE OF THE WORLD, following the PRINCE OF THE POWER OF THE AIR, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience — among whom we all once LIVED IN THE PASSIONS OF OUR FLESH.”

    Satan is even called “the god of this world.” (1 Cor. 4:4). Perhaps that could legitimately be translated as “the god of the culture.”

    1 Cor. 4:4 goes on to say that “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel.”

    I believe that the blinding referred to in that verse takes place nowadays mainly through the dominant worldly culture: Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, hip hop music, rock ‘n roll music, jazz music, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt, Hollywood movies, TV dramas, violent sports games televised as entertainment, the never-ending cold war between the two political parties, ever changing fashions in clothing, jewelry and makeup, materialism, consumerism, money as a status symbol, Oprah Winfrey’s New Age religious beliefs, Star Wars, Star Trek, Stephen King, Batman, Superman, NFL, NHL, NBA, a porno filled Internet, Kim Kardashian’s sex tape, etc., etc.

    This is just my opinion, but I believe that the horrific catastrophe of Rob Bell and the Mars Hill Church shows what happens when churches cease to conform to Biblical Doctrine of Separation.

    My conclusion is that while the case of Rob Bell and Mars Hill is an extreme example of disregard of the Lord’s call for Separation, this lapse is a grave and injurious problem at something like 90% of the Christian congregations in the USA.

    In general, Christians in America are wildly in love with the world.

    In general Christians in America may attend to the things of God for a couple hours on Sunday, but the rest of the time they are wildly in love with luxuries, money, worldly status, clothing, jewelry, cars, houses, NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, NCAA, gambling, computer games, Hollywood, Taylor Swift, the Kardashians, social climbing, porno, cliques, gossiping, partisan politics, smart phones, sexy bodies (their own, those of others), etc.

    I speculate that pastors are generally reluctant to preach about genuine Separation, because they fear that their congregations will dwindle down to just a handful, or because they themselves don’t want to be hated, mocked and rejected by their worldly neighbors, or because they themselves are in love with the world.

    Nowadays Christians generally want to fit in and blend in at school, at work, in political party settings, in the neighborhood, at sports games, at theaters, etc. Hardly any Christians want to be anything like the Puritans, the Amish, the Mennonites, or those independent fundamental Baptists (e.g., the Duggars).

    But in my opinion a church without full adherence to the Biblical Doctrine of Separation is, to a large extent, just a Sunday morning social club. At least that’s how many attendees will experience involvement in such a congregation.

    The phenomenon of church hopping can be attributed in part to the lack of adherence to the Biblical Doctrine of Separation. People end up always shopping for a better social club experience just as they may prefer Wal-Mart for a while, but then later on rave about Target, and later on make K-Mart their go-to store.

    In my opinion, the main reason most people hate and reject Jehovah’s Witnesses is not because Jehovah’s Witnesses reject many essential doctrines of the Christian Faith, but because like the Puritans, Amish and Mennonites they do practice the Biblical Doctrine of Separation.

    I know of a Jehovah’s Witness, a boy, who, when he was in high school, sat down in the cafeteria at a table with some male classmates with whom he was friendly. One of the boys at the table began a conversation about when the first time each of them had sex with a girl. Immediately upon hearing this topic, the Jehovah’s Witness kid picked up his lunch and his books and left the table. Later in day, someone asked him why he left the table. This Jehovah’s Witness kid opened up his Bible and showed the other kid Ephesians 5:3, and read it, saying, “Let not unclean things be mentioned among you even as it befits holy people.” To my shame, when I was in high school I was a Christian, but I never had the courage or sense to say anything when my buddies on the football team bragged about their sexual conquests and plans. The congregation of which I was then a part did not in any meaningful way teach the Biblical Doctrine of Separation, and no one lived it out.

    The Biblical model, I believe, is that the church practices both Separation and Evangelism, and that the Separation is actually a fundamental element of the Evangelism. When Christian congregations actually practice Biblical Separation, nonbelievers see that Christians actually live differently, actually are a people set apart. Nonbelievers see that Christians are not consuming and consumed by the “things of the world” (1 John 2:15). Nonbelievers see that Christians are not ambitious for money, luxuries, worldly pleasures, popularity, better and bigger toys, prettier younger wives and girlfriends, and so on. Rather, they see that such Christians actually follow Hebrews 13:5–“Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have.”

    In summary, I think Christians cannot be neutral about the dominant secular culture around us. Even if we are not at war with the culture, the culture is at war with us. The culture is extremely hostile and dangerous because “the whole world is under the control of the evil one.” (1 John 5:19). Our Puritan forebearers knew this, but we have largely forgotten it. But the Christian response to this dangerous, hostile dominant culture is not to wage a “culture war” against the culture. Rather, the response is two-fold: (1) Separation, and (2) Evangelism. In doing Evangelism, we regularly, repeatedly, actively and thoroughly go to the Unbelievers for the purpose of preaching the Gospel. In doing Separation we establish and maintain our own separate private alternative culture, centered on home and church. Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Stephen King, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have no part in this separate culture unless and until they submit to Christ. Separation and Evangelism are not opposed to one another. Per the Bible’s witness, they must coexist. In my humble opinion, most Christian congregations in the USA are seriously lacking in both Biblical Separation and Biblical Evangelism. It is easy to look at the case of Rob Bell and Mars Hill Church and see the terrible dangers of consorting with the unbelieving culture. But, in my opinion, it is much harder for most Evangelicals to see that the same thing is going on in most of their own churches to a very significant degree.

    I should be fair, and be critical of my own opinions, too. Perhaps I am guilty of Utopianism, Perfectionism, even something akin to Donatism or Jansenism. My opinions are subject to the judgment of other Believers. I’ve never been a pastor or evangelist. I’ve never attended a seminary or Bible college. I am just a student of the Bible. What I call my own opinions are really just the viewpoints I have absorbed or copied from a handful of people who have been my main Bible teachers. I have nothing to boast about. I have no original insights. I have no idea if my comments like this one accomplish anything (I pray that some good will come from them). Perhaps my writing comments like this is nothing more than a manifestation of my ugly egoism, vanity, ambition, wish to be quarrelsome, wish to be the greatest, etc. Some people in Christian cirles just like to argue, alas. I’m sure I’ve written some things in this very comment that are completely incorrect, and other things that are only half true. Perhaps, in a world with so many various teachers claiming to speak for Christ, I am just trying to clarify in my mind what the Lord really commands. I am not a member of any of the denominations I mentioned in the above comment. In any case I am a pitiful creature, truth be known. Please forgive me and pray for me.

    Pastor Strand, for the benefit of your readers, I have included below some of the Scriptures that have helped me understand the Biblical Doctrine of Separation.

    2 Corinthians 6:14-17
    Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Therefore, “Come out from them and be separate, says the Lord.

    James 4:4
    You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.

    1 John 2:15
    Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them.

    Romans 12:2
    Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

    John 15:19
    If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.

    Matthew 13:22
    But the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the Word.

    Matthew 4:8
    Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.

    Ezekiel 16:32
    You adulterous wife! You prefer strangers to your own husband!

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