In the end, “Love Wins” did turn out to be a kind of farewell. The members of Mars Hill found themselves having to answer for their membership in a church that was suddenly notorious. Eventually, Bell decided that it would be best for everyone if he left the church he had founded; in September, half a year after the publication of “Love Wins,” he told the congregation that he would be stepping down. By the time Bell greeted his fans in Philadelphia, a few months had passed, but he was still considering his own uncertain future. He ended his talk by delivering a lesson on openness to change. “You have been gripping tightly to how it was,” he said. “You calm yourself, and you breathe deeply, and you open your palms, and you say, ‘O.K., God. Apparently, this is ending.’ ”
“Everything I do, it probably all flows out of something that’s been there for as long as I can remember,” Bell says. “Like, a deep-seated, sort of old-school Jesus belief.” He grew up in a Christian household in Okemos, Michigan, outside Lansing. Sometime around his tenth birthday, he kneeled next to his bed, flanked by his parents, and said the first prayer he truly meant. He invited Jesus into his heart, he remembers, and he thought, Now I am a Christian, and God loves me, and when I die I’ll be with God forever. His new identity made him feel slightly removed from the world around him: he was an avid soccer player, but he learned to keep quiet when the other boys sang anatomically precise songs on the team bus. Bell had a vague sense that Jesus was a radical, and he liked the idea that Christian goodness, in a not always good world, might take the form of resistance, or defiance.
Bell’s parents both attended Wheaton, a Christian college outside Chicago, and Bell never considered going anywhere else. When he arrived, he says, “there were all these smart, funny kids who were Christians—I was absolutely blown away.” He formed an alternative-rock band, which he hoped to turn into a career. In the summer, he worked as a waterskiing instructor at a Christian camp, where, one week, he was pressed into service as a replacement preacher. For a few days, he worried about what he would say, but, when he stood before the campers, his thoughts were interrupted by a reassuring message: “Teach this book, and I will take care of everything else.”
After Wheaton, Bell enrolled at Fuller Theological Seminary, in Pasadena, which offered classes in systematic theology and ancient Akkadian, none of which excited him. Compared with the people around him, he was a theological conservative, more interested in spreading the message of the Bible than in contesting its interpretation. “I just wanted to preach,” Bell says. “I was totally single-minded.” He was hired as a youth pastor at a local church, where he was guided by his belief that faith is best expressed in deeds, not words. One day, he took his charges to a working-class neighborhood, where they knocked on doors and asked startled strangers if they could help them with anything. A beleaguered mother gratefully dispatched them to buy some milk.
Bell loved California, and he imagined that he would probably settle there. But then, during a trip home, he agreed to accompany his parents to Calvary Church, in Grand Rapids. Calvary was a big, nondenominational congregation, led by a great orator named Ed Dobson. Bell remembers being astonished: Dobson was a small man—“like, a hundred pounds, soaking wet”—with big hands and a deep voice, willing to hurdle the flower display in front of the pulpit, if it would help make a Biblical teaching stick. Bell befriended Dobson, and wrote him letters from California. When Dobson finally saw Bell preach, he was impressed. Bell’s style is conversational but theatrical, full of meaningful pauses that make listeners lean forward, and Dobson persuaded the leadership at Calvary to give him a chance. “Not all of the elders felt like I did—some of them were concerned that he was inexperienced,” Dobson says. “But I told them, ‘Look, he can communicate. He really doesn’t know the Bible, but, if we can add the Bible to his communication skills, we’ll have a winner.’ ”
At Calvary, Bell was put in charge of the Saturday-night young-adult service, which sometimes included rock bands and informal discussions. In 1998, he left to start his own church, Mars Hill, taking with him hundreds of Calvary congregants and the proceeds of a special offering, which came to about thirty thousand dollars. By 2000, attendance had grown to a few thousand, and the church soon found a home: a sprawling former mall, right off Interstate 196 in Grandville, a southwestern suburb of Grand Rapids.
At Mars Hill, Bell decided, there would be no dress code, no choir, no pulpit. He preached from a low, unadorned stage in the center of the room. And he cultivated a reputation as an unusually hip pastor: a young guy in slim trousers who loved Radiohead and artisanal bicycles. Bell didn’t think too hard about the theology of Mars Hill; he just knew that he had a knack for getting people excited about the Bible. In his early sermons, he combined emotional appeals with straightforward interpretations of Scripture. He did a series of “blood and guts” sermons, which explained sacrificial laws of Leviticus in gruesome detail. On the topic of sex, he warned dating couples against doing “things that only are proper within marriage.” And, in his eagerness to win new souls, he didn’t always avoid threats. “Jesus is your only hope, and God cannot accept casual, passive worship of him,” Bell told the congregation. “You either are headed to Heaven or you’re headed to Hell. It’s just that simple.”
Bell’s goal was to make worshippers, and himself, feel gently provoked. “A lot of preachers preach on their favorite subjects,” he said. “I would prefer to preach on everything that makes me squirm, because it makes me raise the bar—and then God really has to show up.” Bell talked to his listeners as if he were inaugurating them into a select club of the smart and the righteous, and congregants loved feeling as if they were part of a burgeoning movement. By the early aughts, Mars Hill’s membership was heading toward ten thousand.