Mystery Worshipper: Sabbath Man
Church: Mars Hill Bible Church
Location: Grandville, Michigan, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 22 July 2007, 11:00am
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.
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.
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.
Pastor Bell led the service.
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 atmosphere?
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 service?
"Hey everybody! Good morning and welcome to Mars Hill. We're super glad you're here."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
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 what?
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 about?
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 heaven?
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 coffee?
I found nothing available.
How would you feel about making another visit (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 Christian?
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."