A few days ago, I was able to attend the first two tapings of the Rob Bell show which is (tentatively) set to air on OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network) this fall. As someone who has followed Rob for a long time, this was an exciting experience. I’ve read all but one of Bell’s books, attended Mars Hill Bible Church when he was their pastor, and personally benefited from his preaching. (Even the haters have to agree; my goodness that man can preach.) This however, was a fresh Rob.
A few hundred of us entered into an urban studio in South Central LA, anticipating what Bell would offer us. Would he go full blown TED Talk? Maybe a series of non-judgmental interviews with people selling books about being “spiritual but not religious”? Or as a few of my Fuller friends joked on our way into the taping: “Would Rob just stand in front of a 30x40ft blank screen, push back his surfer-hairdo, and speak spiritual one-liners… just. like. this.”
Jokes aside, I am actually convinced that the Rob Bell show has some serious potential. Let me provide a brief history of how the show came to happen, and then recount the content of the show before giving my own two cents on the potential of the show.
If you remember much about the Love Wins hullabaloo, you may recall that Rob was named one of TIME’s 100 most influential people. As a member of this prestigious group, Rob and his wife were invited to a TIME 100 party where he befriended (fellow TIME 100 person) one writer/producer Carlton Cuse. Carlton and Rob hit it off and ended up making a pilot episode for a show on spirituality which they hoped would fill an empty space in television/media arena. That pilot ended up in the hands of OWN and Harpo Studios president Sheri Salata, and eventually, Oprah Winfrey herself. Enter the Rob Bell Show on OWN.
As a house band played we entered into the studio and found seats in wooden folding chairs, coffee tables, and empty barstools. Sheri Salta (president of OWN) and Carlton Cuse (Lost, Bates Motel) take the stage one after the other, casting light on their vision for the show, their love for Rob, and the story behind how this night came to be. Then entered Bell. This was not battered Rob, returning from thousands of “conversations” with fuming Evangelicals (who maybe never read enough C.S. Lewis).This Rob looked really, truly, happy.
1) As Rob enters the room he pulls from his pocket a printed copy of anonymous responses from audience members which was compiled through a survey we all took beforehand. Rob has studied this list. He sets up this time by reminding us, “We asked you to tell us anything about yourselves, and this is how you responded.” It gets laughs right away. Then Rob reads actual responses. Some are hilarious—e.g. “I have a fascination with wax houses”—and some are touching—e.g. “I survived brain cancer”. Rob then calls these people out with playful pastoral concern, and simply gets to know them. Brilliantly, Rob is then able to improvise part 2 of the show by working in their stories into his message, helping us notice that the ideas he speaks about are already presently unfolding in the room we sit it.
2) In part two of the show, Bell gives a sermon/TED Talk/teaching that highlights the most obvious reason why a pastor from Michigan is able to become friends with Oprah. Rob’s teaching is artistic, story-driven, and told with the timing of a seasoned stand-up comic. His teaching was also distinctly and obviously Christian. Certainly, Bell speaks in such a way that transcends the particularity of Christianity, but his also makes use of the cross, he uses Jesus name regularly, and at least in these two first episodes, the only sacred text mentioned was the Bible. My main anxiety about Bell being on OWN was that he would have to water down his Christian perceptive. So far at least, this doesn’t seem to be the case.
Those who follow Bell closely will notice that content of these episodes is made up of mostly recycled material. Rob spoke of creativity and the need to embrace and heal through one’s own wounds. He did so in a way that was totally accessible (no in-house language) and practical (he even did the ol’ Baptist 3-Point Outline!). Classic Rob.
3) The final part of the show is dedicated to a session of question and response between the audience and Bell. Because Bell does his teaching job so well, most of the questions people had were thoughts like: “This message spoke to me deeply…how can I understand/heal a certain part of myself in order to live into the beauty I saw tonight?” Bells responses, in my opinion, were practical and pastoral. Before answering any questions directly, he asks the person about themselves and about their own story. I believe this third section will often look a lot like a lesson in pastoral counseling.
Then the show ends. Bell gives a benediction, we clap, credits roll.
As you can tell from my description above, I am a supporter of Rob Bell who is optimistic about this new project. Even if you don’t agree with all of Rob’s “theology”, I think a show like Bell’s on a stage like Oprah’s can do some great things for a wide spectrum of non-religious people to dedicated Christian ministers. It seems like this show is built around the best parts of Bell’s ministry; a ministry that has already helped people like myself deconstruct unhealthy perspectives, build creativity, and strive for new ways to share the gospel of Christ.
Let’s pray that if the Rob Bell Show does take off, that the opportunity and status available to Rob is used in ways I saw it unfold at these first tapings. God knows we do not need another celebrity pastor with too much power and not enough accountability. Maybe it’s my bias, but I really think Rob has a chance to help millions without losing his soul. Time will tell. In the meantime, watch the Rob Bell Show this fall because at worst it’s an exciting new project, and at best, it could change the image of American Christianity for the better.