“Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.”

Origins of A Church Where “The Scripture Would Be Taught In A New Way”

One of the things that had always intrigued me, being that long before Apprising Ministries I also once planted a church, was the beginning of Mars Hill Bible Church (MHBC). This of course is the home base for “Teaching Pastor” Rob Bell who is also author of Velvet Elvis: Repainting The Christian Faith (VE). The back cover of VE further tells us that MHBC is “one of the fastest growing churches in American history.” It’s always had kind of a mythical dimension when one reads anything about the actual start of MHBC but I do have to admit the rapid growth is very impressive indeed.

At the same time however with the unquestioned success of MHBC it would be little wonder that Rob Bell is often looked to as someone who knows much about how to start and grow a church. That’s why as he describes the planting of MHBC in VE it is of very special interest to me. First we will begin with some information gleaned from “Movement Four.” By the way, that’s “chapter 4” for those who might be Emergent impaired. On page 096 Bell recalls, “My wife and I and several others started this church called Mars Hill in February of 1999 with dreams of what a revolutionary new kind of community could be. I was twenty-eight.”

I know I’m personally interested in just how many Emergent Church pastor Bell means here by “several,” but the date of the plant itself is confirmed by Jeff Robinson of who tells us in his September 2004 article Engaged by the culture: Michigan megachurch goes egalitarian that:

Mars Hill Bible Church opened its doors in February of 1999 with a stated desire to exist as a “church where scripture would be taught in a new way, a way that would reach a changing culture.” Gary Knapp and his wife, Becky, were among the first members of the Grandville, Mich., church,…

In fact at the MHBC website under HISTORY we are also told:

Mars Hill began as just an idea, a desire to open a church where the scripture would be taught in a new way, a way that would reach a changing culture. In February, 1999, Mars Hill Bible Church opened its doors — actually the doors of a school gym we rented to hold our first services, what we call “gatherings”.

So there we have it, the Bells “and several others started this church called Mars Hill in February 1999.” I was still curious as to how many others made up this “several” because when I planted my church I had done so through starting four or five home Bible studies. And then from the thirteen to fifteen people this involved I also had “several” with me when we would go out from Monroe Avenue Baptist Church and start a church back in the late nineties. But for now, we’ll have to wait to see how many were actually with the Bells as they planted MHBC.

Then Bell goes on to tell us in VE that people who also want to plant churches themselves often “ask me when I knew it was time to do it. And I actually have a coherent answer.” I must say this in itself proves to be a refreshing change as Bell says:

I knew it was time when I no longer cared if it was “successful”. I’m serious. I had this moment in October 1998 when I realized if thirteen people joined up with us, and that was all it ever was, that would be okay. This thing inside me was so strong that I had to act on it. (096,097)

Not Knowing What To Expect?

And now we get to “unleashing a monster” in MHBC. As we turn over to page 099 of VE Rob Bell informs us that we need to understand that “to this day” he has “never read a book on church planting or church growth or been to a seminar on how to start a church.” Then Bell tells us:

I remember being told that a sign had been rented with the church name on it to go in front of the building where we were meeting. I was mortified and had them get rid of it. You can’t put a sign out front, I argued; people have to want to find us. And so there were no advertisements, no flyers, no promotions, and no signs. (ibid., emphasis his)

Whew, this is pretty outrageous and very bold I do have to admit. As Dan Clendenin brings out in his very favorable review of Velvet Elvis:

I first heard of Rob Bell at a pastor’s conference, where his publisher advised me that Velvet Elvis had sold 100,000 copies in less than a year. He also said that 30,000 people a week downloaded his sermons from the Mars Hill church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that he founded in February of 1999 at the age of twenty-eight.

As Bell tells the story in this book, six months after Mars Hill opened their doors, 4,000 people attended; in two years the number grew to 10,000 people… This from a remarkably candid voice that insists that “the thought of the word church and the word marketing in the same sentence makes me sick.” (emphasis Bell’s)

That last quote comes from VE itself where Bell goes on to tell us that:

We had these ideas and these dreams, and we went with them. People would come in, there would be some singing, I would talk about God and Jesus and the Bible and life for about an hour, and then it would be over. And the strangest thing happened: People came on the first Sunday.

Then back on the MHBC site the history section further enlightens us:

We had no idea what to expect, but God amazed us! Without ever advertising, just through word-of-mouth, our first Sunday’s two morning gatherings saw over 3000 people visit us! During the first year we added a third meeting time and an overflow seating area in a multipurpose room next to the gym, but we were still forced to regularly turn people away because we didn’t have enough room.

Something Just Didn’t Quite Add Up

And then finally concerning that first Sunday at MHBC, Rob Bell, a man who told us he had not read any books on church growth or had ever gone to any clinics on church planting, says:

Now I am going to give you some numbers. And I hesitate to do this because few things are more difficult to take than spiritual leaders who are always talking about how big their thing is. But it happened and it’s true and it’s part of my story. There were well over 1,000 people there the first Sunday. (099,100)

Based on my own personal experience in planting a church, when I read all of this something just didn’t quite add up. It also appeared to seem a bit odd to Joel Kiekintveld as well. In his own largely pro-Bell review of VE for the Emergent Kietintveld makes a couple of interesting observations:

This is just one spot in movement four where the explosive growth of Mars Hill Bible Church, where Bell Pastors in Grandville Michigan, is broad brushed and reveled as a mystery and 100% God. I believe God has his hand on Bell and that the growth there is an act of the almighty.

What I’d like to see is more truth in telling that story. Never mentioned is the parent church of Mars Hill, which was at the time one of the biggest churches in West Michigan. Also not mentioned was that the number of people from the parent church that helped plant Mars Hill is more that attend most churches on any Sunday.

I didn’t agree with much in Kietintveld’s over-all review of VE but this did strike me as rather peculiar. You see in general when there is a new church plant it will usually come out from another local fellowship. I began to wonder why Rob Bell didn’t mention whether or not this was the case with MHBC. Well, a little investigative research unearths some rather important information that Bell happened to leave out. It turns out that Bell was sent out to found MHBC from Calvary Church (CC) in Grand Rapids where he had been on staff for around five years.

Planting Mars Hill Bible Church With “Miracle Grow”

Now many already know that Dr. Ed Dobson was the senior pastor at CC during that time but what has not really been covered is how many comprise the “several” people that Rob Bell was actually sent out with from CC. However a reviewer from West Michigan on Amazon.comadded some key details that struck me as very important background information, if they were factual:

This is fascinating book. Especially to those of us from West Michigan. So for those of us from the West Michigan, we should help those from outside of this culture understand the the history of Mars Hill as it relates to the Rob Bell phenomenon… I have just a few questions for Rob and his followers since he encourages us to ask them.

I scratch my head when I read Velvet Elvis pages 99-105. You paint the picture that you and your wife were sitting at a Taco Bell in LA and you randomly moved across country and had a supernatural first Sunday at a building with no sign. This section sounds really cool, sounds really miraculous and is critical to your defenders and critical to your story. Sounds good, but, factually it is only partially true and bordering on an out right lie.

Factually, Mars Hill is a church plant from Calvary Church in Grand Rapids. Factually they encouraged their following of 5,000 to break off and go and support your church. Factually, they marketed for you… Read this quote from Christianity Today: “Ed Dobson says of Bell, ‘Rob is driven by a passion to teach the Bible, shaped by understanding the Bible in its context, then applying the Bible to where people live. At the core, he’s about the Bible.’ ” It was with Dobson, at Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, that Bell served as associate pastor…

So with endorsements like this from the most respected leader in West Michigan why would you leave this out of your story? I don’t understand why there is not one acknowledgement of Calvary or Ed Dobson in your book. Has something changed between 2004 and the publishing of your book? Again, I am just asking questions because I am confused and you have given us that ability with your instructions… If you turn your back on a nice church that supported you are you not going to turn your back on nice people that have supported you from the beginning as well?

That Dr. Ed Dobson was senior pastor at Calvary Church is easily verified, however I wondered about the rest of what that reviewer said. In fairness I left out a couple of incendiary comments but I wondered was it true that Bell had been sent from a church of 5000 to plant MHBC? And then an AM reader tipped me off to an email response they had received from official CC spokesperson Ruth Gudbrandson that definitively answered this question. Unfortunately I tried on numerous occasions to confirm the information in it with her and each time my letter would be returned timed out and unopened:

November 6, 2006 – These recipients of your message have been processed by the mail server:; Failed; 4.4.7 (delivery time expired)

I really did not want to publish this information until I had given Gubbrandson the opportunity to speak to it herself but as you can see she made the choice to refuse to even read my letters. So I had given her ample time and warning that I was going to use this information. And since she wouldn’t even give me the courtesy of so much as a cursory reply here is what CC spokesperson Gudbrandson had said in her earlier email:

Mars Hill Bible Church was started, I believe in February of 1999 and Rob was on staff at Calvary Church for 4 possibly 5 years. Sorry, but I don’t have the exact dates. I believe between 700 and 1,000 went with Rob.

As you can plainly see Rob Bell had between 700 to 1000 people who were sent and/or went with him from Calvary Church to plant MHBC. Then in a personal phone conversation a spokesperson from another church in Grand Rapids told me it is common knowledge in the Grand Rapids–or “G-Rap” as Rob is known to refer to it–that Bell had a 1000 people with him when he started his church. So I think we have every reason to wonder why Rob Bell would leave this information out of his account of the plant of MHBC in VE? Quite honestly, all but those under the spell of Bell, will have to admit that the word “several” is much closer to the 13 to 15 I told you I had when I planted my fellowship where in Bell’s case the word “hundreds” would have been a more truthful number.

Testimony From Readers Of Slice Of Laodicea In Grand Rapids

The following comment from a reader to this post as it appears on Slice of Laodicea (SOL) now confirms what our church spokesperson from Grand Rapids told me as well:

I had never heard Bell’s spin on his church plant. But living in Grand Rapids, it is common knowledge here that Calvary Church was getting too big and they wanted some of the congregation to split off into another church. It is totally correct that at least 1,000 people went with him to the new Mars Hill church–probably many of the younger ones.

And although this commenter at SOL, by his own words, is not someone necessarily sympathetic to me his eyewitness testimony further validates what I have been revealing here when he sets Bell’s shrouded in myth record straight:

For those who don’t wish to believe Ken, I was eyewitness to the whole birth of MHBC. I was in Rob’s living room when he approved the logo for the printed materials. I admit that I find Ken a little hyperbolic, but I have also been deeply troubled by what I’ve heard coming out of MHBC.

Rob was ordained at Calvary by Ed Dobson and did, in fact, teach Scripture well without a hint of Emergentness. Calvary was, and remains, one of the most doctrinaly conservative churches in America. Very, very solid on Scripture. Think MacArthur.

When the idea for the plant came up, Rob told the board of elders he was going to go do it whether or not they ultimately approved of it. I was there for the first service after my bible study group was finished at Calvary. MHBC was packed with 2000 Calvary people.

Because of these facts, I too was deeply troubled by the Velvet Elvis account of history. The whole thing is a rotten mess, in my opinion. Those who came in after Rob had his nervous breakdown-type thing backstage that he talks about in Velvet Elvis seem to have no idea.

So when we consider all of these facts it leads me to believe that in VE Bell himself would certainly appear to be misrepresenting this plant as if to shroud it in myth. And it would also seem that the “history” section at MHBC is being somewhat disingenuous itself as well when it says “we had no idea what to expect.” Because based on Gudbrandson’s letter we have been told there were 700 to 1000 people sent with Rob Bell to start MHBC. People whom he would have come to know quite well through his nearly 5 year stay on staff at CC. Then we have the reviewer from West Michigan corroborating MHBC was a plant of Calvary Church, there’s the other church spokesperson who has been in Grand Rapids for over a decade, the Slice reader also from Grand Rapids confirming the fact that Bell did have 1000 people with him in order to plant MHBC, and yet another sahring his eyewitness account.

With all of the above facts now in I’m guessing that contrary to Rob Bell’s assertion in VE and the history section at the MHBC website we would have a very good idea concerning what we might expect on that very first Sunday–sign or no sign: Anywhere from around 700 to 1000 people could conceivably be expected to show up. And when all the actual facts about this MHBC plant are brought into the light we can see that there’s just a little bit more to this story than meets the eye in Bell’s account in VE. And it’s really no wonder at all that Rob Bell would then say of that mythical first Sunday of his Mars Hill “miracle grow”:

I am going to give you some numbers. And I hesitate to do this because few things are more difficult to take than spiritual leaders who are always talking about how big their thing is. But it happened and it’s true and it’s part of my story. There were well over 1,000 people there the first Sunday.

Yeah, though now it’s not such a big surprise is it Rob…

NOTE: This article also appears at Slice of Laodicea with an open comments section.