Beyond the Picket Fences

Mars Hill Bible Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan

You may be wondering why we chose to profile Mars Hill Bible Church, since usually we profile churches within the Reformed tradition. Mars Hill, led by Rob Bell, has a national reputation for being a growing, leading-edge church. While many churches are grappling with the seeming exodus of their young adults, Mars Hill and churches like it are attracting young adults in droves. That led me to wonder what it was about Mars Hill that appealed to young adults, and what we can learn from that church. So I invited Allison Graff, a young adult, to visit Mars Hill and talk to some of its members. Her report follows.
—JB

There’s no sign for Mars Hill Bible Church along Fairlanes Ave. in Grandville, Michigan, so I just follow the long line of cars getting off the highway. I find myself in a huge parking lot outside what looks like an old mall. I make my way into a huge, dimly-lit warehouse of a space referred to as “the shed” by church members and find a seat facing a platform in the center of the space. The opening chords of a guitar-driven rendition of “Be Thou My Vision” reverberate off the walls of the mall anchor store-turned worship space. The Gathering at Mars Hill has begun.

Situated at the edge of a city that boasts the most churches per capita in the United States, Mars Hill Bible Church draws an estimated 10,000 worshipers to three services each Sunday. The draw could be attributed to a variety of things: the experimental music (one Sunday was designated “Bring Your Horn to Church Sunday”; people were encouraged to bring their instruments to play along), the innovative teaching, the thriving outreach ministries, the mass appeal of such a large congregation. What’s certain is that the church is doing something that attracts the demographic that is so often missing from many traditional churches—the twenty-something crowd. What, exactly, is getting these college and career folks out of bed and into the sanctuary each Sunday?

More than a few have tried to answer this question by categorizing the church and its worship practices. It’s a megachurch with postmodern accents. Or it’s a cutting-edge church trying to be hip and relevant to the youth culture. Certainly it’s an “emerging” church with lots of room to express skepticism about faith and the traditional church, and its pastor speaks the language of twenty-somethings.

We’re Not Cool

Those who attend Mars Hill hesitate to affirm these or any other definitive statements about their church. The truth is that they’re only beginning to understand where they fit in the body of Christ. This congregation—which has expanded from one thousand to ten thousand worshipers in a matter of seven years—is a bit dizzy from all this growth. Indeed, the church never planned on becoming as big as it has.

Dustin Anderson, a nineteen-year-old drummer who’s been a regular at Mars Hill for many years, knows exactly what the church is not. For all the buzz describing Mars Hill as “hip” and “relevant,” Anderson says that Mars Hill is not a “cool” place.

“Mars Hill isn’t one of those churches where you have to be cool to be a Christian. We emphasize that Jesus wasn’t cool. We just try to apply his teachings to our lives.”

Perhaps that’s why Mars Hill Bible Church is, if not cool, at least incredibly successful at reaching out to so many. All kinds of people, regardless of fluency in “church language,” are drawn to the church. Some of them have never been the church-going type; others rarely missed a Sunday service when they were growing up. What these people have in common is that they’re looking for a place of worship where it’s safe to ask questions and have doubts about faith and religion.

Even without a clear order of worship or formal liturgy, Mars Hill designs its Gatherings to encompass themes the church emphasizes. Former worship leader Aaron Niequist has written numerous songs (many of which are available online at marshill.org) to fit the unique community gathering for worship each week. The lyrics of the song “Enchanted” were written specifically to combat cynicism, beckoning worshipers to open their eyes to the wonders of God’s creation. The song “Love Can Change the World” is a confession of Mars Hills’ theology of mission; it includes the lines “bridges are more beautiful than bombs,” “an open hand is stronger than a fist,” and “wonder is more valuable than Wall Street.”

Solid Scripture Teaching

Each Gathering consists of a time of singing and a time of teaching. Sometimes the teaching comes first, followed by music, and sometimes music precedes and follows the lesson. Once in a while, Mars Hill’s founder and main teaching pastor, Rob Bell, will stand on the platform and declare that he simply has too much to say and will be taking the entire Gathering time for his teaching. Ushers promptly pass out Bibles and pencils so worshipers stay awake and engaged for the full 75 minutes.

Rob Bell makes self-deprecating jokes as he teaches, using down-to-earth examples in today’s teaching about wine and its place in the Christian life. And yet if you’re expecting a stand-up routine with a few inspirational platitudes thrown in, you’ll be surprised to receive instead 50-75 minutes of teaching. A hallmark of Bell’s teaching is the way in which he uses information about the ancient Hebrew and later Jewish cultures to illuminate the meaning of Scripture for his listeners. And he always finds a way to make a connection with life in the twenty-first century.

Sharing a Mission

Bell’s use of contextual information in his teachings is related to one of Mars Hill’s “Directions”: short, accessible statements about the kind of church Mars Hill is trying to be. The first of these directions is labeled “Roots.” It begins with a commitment to historic Christian orthodoxy and ends with the statement “To know where we’re going, we have to know where we’ve been.”

Five additional Directions—“Journey,” “Wholeness,” “Community,” “Serving,” and “Celebration”—each articulate one part of the holistic pattern of life Mars Hill members commit to living together. These statements use simple, gracious language that beckons people to join Jesus Christ in his mission to bring the kingdom of God to earth. To get worshipers on this path of discipleship and mission, the “Directions” are sometimes recited corporately during worship times between songs related to the theme of the statement featured.

More recently, leaders at Mars Hill have been talking about how to tap into the enormous resources of their 10,000-strong congregation in order to bring about some of the world transformation that their Directions call for. The result is a focus on mission called “XYZ” that, among other things, commits Mars Hill to helping alleviate poverty around the globe. In one project, Mars Hill worshipers are pooling their financial resources to support an organization that provides small business loans to impoverished entrepreneurs in the poorest nation of the world, Burundi. Teams of workers from Mars Hill are working with Habitat for Humanity and families in need of affordable housing to build a three-family condo in an urban Grand Rapids neighborhood. These outreach efforts are part of why Anderson appreciates his home church.
“I like Mars Hill because it’s not all talk. It’s a lot of applying [Jesus’ teachings] to life and taking care of people in the community,” he said.

The secret of Mars Hill’s success seems to boil down to something only tangentially related to its worship style and Rob Bell’s teachings. While the church certainly engages worshipers with its services, worship and fellowship extend beyond the sanctuary. For instance, a 26-year-old professional might get involved in a project with his house church to provide much-needed graphic design work for a small nonprofit organization and also take part in a Mars Hill running group that gathers several nights a week to train for 5Ks and marathons.

The answer to the original question, then, may not be what Mars Hill offers its young worshipers, but how it involves them in community and outreach efforts. Sure, Rob Bell may have mastered a comedic edge that appeals to a Daily-Show-watching audience and the worship band may delight with a Coldplay-like guitar solo, but with hour-long “teachings” and virtually no multimedia used in worship Mars Hill doesn’t give the impression that it’s trying to cater to a young crowd. Instead, it’s doing everything it can, through music, teachings, fellowship opportunities, and outreach ministries, to get its largely white, suburban members beyond their white picket fences and into the difficult truths of Scripture. At the same time, Mars Hill leaves room for questions and slow, halting movement in the right direction, making discipleship both a joy-filled and grueling experience.

Allison R. Graff (arg2@calvin.edu) recently graduated from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan with a degree in English. She is now a freelance writer and editor working as web communications coordinator at her alma mater.