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||1495: Mars Hill Bible Church, Grandville, Michigan,
Mystery Worshipper: Sabbath Man.
The church: Mars
Hill Bible Church, Grandville, Michigan, USA.
The building: The congregation meets in a former shopping mall that
was donated to the church by its owners. It's a large, rather dreary and
worn 1970s era arcade. The worship center is huge, with an almost industrial
feel, exposed metal beams and speakers hanging from the ceiling. There is
a stage in the center with large projection screens above each side. The
congregation surrounds the stage on all four sides.
The church: Mars Hill was founded in 1999 by the Revd Rob Bell, assistant
pastor at a nearby church who felt the call to plant a church of his own.
Pastor Bell has published several books plus the popular Nooma
DVD series. His church is probably the most well known example of the emergent
church movement in the USA (a rather slippery term, but it usually refers
to a subset of Protestant Christians who are rethinking their faith in terms
of postmodernism in order to attract the young unchurched). The ministries,
outreaches and other activities of Mars Hill are far too numerous to mention
here but are all described at length on their website.
The neighborhood: Grandville is a small town lying to the southwest
of Grand Rapids. It is primarily a bedroom suburban community, with rail
transportation both into Grand Rapids and Chicago. I didn't see much of
Grandville, as the church is located near the interstate highway, but it
appeared rather nondescript.
The cast: Pastor Bell led the service.
The date & time: July 22, 2007, 11.00am.
What was the name of the service?
They call their services "gatherings."
How full was the building?
The old mall can seat 3,500 and was nearly full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
One greeter let out a somewhat lethargic "Hi" as we entered the worship
space. We were encouraged to greet those around us. However, in such a large
crowd everyone seemed resigned to remaining almost anonymous.
Was your pew comfortable?
No pews, but individual chairs. Reasonably comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service
The bluegrass song "Down to the river to pray," from the soundtrack of the
rather offbeat film O
Brother Where Art Thou, was playing through the sound system. There
was a lot of commotion, people coming and going. But then, getting several
thousand people seated isn't easy.
What were the exact opening words of the
"Hey everybody! Good morning and welcome to Mars Hill. We're super glad
What books did the congregation use during the
There were no handouts, except that we we were given a bulletin at the end
of the service. We sang from the words on the screen. Toward the middle
of the service, ushers distributed copies of the Holy Bible, Today's
New International Version, so that we could look up passages that were
being referenced. This surprised me because the TNIV has been criticized
in conservative circles for its gender inclusive language.
What musical instruments were played?
There was a band with keyboard, three guitars and drums. I was pleasantly
surprised and impressed by the band, and will have more to say about them
in due course.
Did anything distract you?
The arena where worship is held was very bleak and poorly lit by some dim
fluorescent lights. The center stage had no color, nothing of beauty at
all. I'm told this is intentional, but for me it was just dreary. Also with
several thousand people present there was a lot of movement, coming and
going in and out. This can't be helped, I suppose, but it made it feel like
a sporting event, not worship.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or
There was a very casual atmosphere, but I wouldn't call it "happy." There
were moments of humor, although often somewhat biting, satirical humor.
Conversely, there was nothing at all stiff about it either! The band's music
was true rock, loud and sometimes dark, not that saccharine pop rock based
"contemporary praise music." The keyboard player spoke some, primarily to
give instruction to the congregation, often dividing singing parts between
men and women. While they were very skilled musicians, I was more impressed
by the fact that they stood facing the screens with their backs to the congregation.
There was none of the primping and mugging for the congregation with contorted,
synthetic smiles, all too common for church bands. Their willingness not
to be the center of attention was so refreshing. Between songs there was
no "sharing" by the band members. Instead, thought-provoking words were
projected onto the screens for people to read silently, while a bass line
subtly played in the background. At one point we were led through a virtual
confession of sin by words on the screens. This was very effective and powerful.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 Rob Bell is an incredibly gifted communicator. He delivered his
talk while sitting on a stool at center stage. Full of ideas and energy,
he could also be surprisingly flippant, even sarcastic. He made us really
want to listen. The content was much more solid, even controversial, than
I expected. Given the church's theological roots, I kept waiting for an
altar call, but fortunately none ever came. But 46 minutes – perhaps part
of the problem with being so good at communicating is knowing when to quit.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon
It was part of the summer teaching series "God is Green," which explored
the relationship between the environment and technology. Men tried to reach
heaven by building the Tower of Babel, using the finest construction materials
available: brick instead of stone, asphalt instead of mortar. But all their
skills and all their fine materials were to no avail. You see, it isn't
about what we do with the brick, it is what the brick does to us. Less consumption
of God's creation equals more connection with God.
Which part of the service was like being in
While I thought the songs were good, Rob Bell was really outstanding. But
maybe too much of good thing.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The end of the service. Bell looked at the clock and said, "Is it really
12.30? The child-care people are going to kill me! We've gotta end. Let's
pray quick and then we'll go!" Not only was it a jarring ending, but it
had nothing worshipful or holy about it.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was no hanging around. There was just a tsunami of rotund, suburban
Americans heading toward the exits to get to their gas-guzzling SUVs, probably
stopping for fast food on the way home.
How would you describe the after-service
I found nothing available.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 I'd like to listen to Bell regularly, but at age 48 I'd feel noticeably
old if I worshipped at Mars Hill regularly. I would also prefer a greater
sense of holiness and ritual.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
Yes – good preaching, not as narrow and fundamentalist as I feared. Lots
of creativity with little showiness or schmaltz.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
"Less consumption means more connection."
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