What I learned from two days with Rob Bell


Since his departure from Mars Hill Church three years ago, author, communicator and pastor Rob Bell has been busy. He's been on a stadium tour with Oprah, co-written a book with his wife Kristen, planned a comedy tour with American stand-up Pete Holmes, co-written a TV drama pilot and successfully pitched his own TV show to the Oprah Winfrey Network. Alongside all of this, Bell has run several '2 Days with Rob Bell' events in Laguna Beach California for 'anyone whose work involves creating something and then turning it loose in the world'. The events are billed as two days with Rob in an interactive, teaching setting where he shares ideas and answers questions from those in the audience.

This week, in partnership with Oasis Church in Waterloo, '2 Days with Rob Bell' came to London. The content was advertised as a chance for Bell to teach on how to stay inspired when you're growing, learning, changing, and others around you are not, and they think you've lost your way.

I've followed Bell's work since the publication of his first book, Velvet Elvis, which had a profoundly positive effect on me as a younger Christian. I was interested in an event that seemed to be more intimate and interactive; a chance to ask Bell all the questions that rattle around in your mind every time you hear him speak or read one of his books.

The introductory session very much stuck to the event description, where Bell explored what happens when you go through big shifts and changes, and "the things you've been given along the way don't work anymore, you were given a map to a territory that no longer exists". He went on to explain and unpack 'Spiral Dynamics', a model attributed to Dr Clare W Graves and Dr Don Beck. The model is made of first and second tier stages, that describe a way of being or thinking. Bell used the model to explain the progression of the church, and how different Christians and churches can function healthily and unhealthily in each stage. He said the goal was to transcend and include – recognising each stage would be a part of us, and loving each person/church in whatever stage they are in. This was a stimulating and exciting part of the day, where many people recognised their own churches and faith journeys within the descriptions.

In the next two sessions Bell talked for a long period of time about quantum physics and theology, giving many facts about the make up of our universe, particles and atoms, and how the universe is being pulled forward from simplicity into complexity. He related this to our lives in several ways, encouraging us to be "fully present in the now," realising that anything is possible for us and that we are progressing forward, just like the universe. It felt like an extended version of his DVD and speaking tour Everything is Spiritual, perhaps with new material but making some similar points. At times it became too complex and detailed, and felt disconnected to the previous session.

The first session in day two was about criticism, of which Bell has faced plenty in his time, particularly in relation to his infamous book Love Wins. During this he talked about being a non-reactive presence in conflict and criticism, not defending but listening and asking questions, seeing what is going on beneath the surface. It was inspiring, moving and very practical, applicable advice. Bell advised having a group of friends who will "tell you the truth before your critics do", so you're accountable and what you do is refined and sharpened. Another key idea from this session was 'the marinade' – letting a new idea sit with you for a while before acting on it.

Bell shared some painful stories from times where he has been criticised and betrayed, sometimes by people very close to him and his family. His honesty was inspiring, and he became emotional as he told one story of a close friendship breaking down. He says his goal is to have a "thick skin and a soft heart" and to let criticism clarify and help him.

A particular highlight of this session was his discussion of the difference between those who have a craft, and those who chase success. Bell drew out the distinctions between the two, a craft being a sacred task that is yours, something you can't believe you get to do, something that gets you up in the morning and that humbles you. Chasing success he described as being all about wanting more, never having enough, selfishly getting all you can and never being grateful or satisfied.

Another session focused on communication, and this felt like a masterclass from an expert. Bell shared on everything from how to construct a sermon and collect information about a topic, to book recommendations and 'existential urgency' – identifying why this topics matters to your audience. It felt like a backstage tour of his mind and creative processes, and it was littered with funny, moving and thought provoking stories as well as an impressive biblical knowledge and a commitment to interpreting scripture in the best way possible.

In a Q&A time, Bell spoke briefly about his journey with church. He admitted to feeling freer to express his views without an institution that "signs the paycheck". When asked about reforming the old or starting the new, he answered "It's easier to give birth than to raise the dead", but did affirm those with a calling to change the church, and said his definition of church was now much wider.

Bell wrapped up the conference with a final section of teaching. He encouraged the audience to have healthy rhythms between work and rest, maintaining Sabbath and receiving the good gifts that come their way. He affirmed everyone as a precious, sacred gift that needs to be cared for and stewarded. He ended with a moving benediction, at the end of which he received a standing ovation.

Personally I found the event moving, inspiring, challenging and thought-provoking. My few and minor disappointments were occasional repeated content, very long talk-heavy session times with few breaks, Q&A being the only form of interaction and some people dominating the Q&A times. I know the cost made it inaccessible for some, although Bell did say he would be back in the autumn for an 'Everything is Spiritual Part 2' tour, and that he is working on a new book called 'How to Be Here' – a look at how to live fully in the present moment and be released from the past.

Whatever your views on Bell, he encourages people to think for themselves, reimagine church and faith, ask questions, be better people and do good things in the world around us, rooted in a relationship with God and a reimagination of church and the Bible. I have been impressed with his vulnerability, honesty, accessibility and kindness to those at the event and I look forward to his return to the UK in the autumn.

Jo is a lecturer, youth worker, film-maker and long term Rob Bell fan. Follow Jo on Twitter.