A Visit to One of America's Largest Emergent Churches

John ArmstrongEmergent Church

Mars Hill Bible Church, in Grandville, Michigan, is one of the better known “emergent” (or “emerging”) congregations in America. Begun as a church plant through the leadership of well-known author and speaker Rob Bell, Mars Hill reflects all that is good about emergent Christianity, as well as some of the weaknesses one frequently encounters. I had the unique opportunity to be in Grand Rapids for a meeting with my publisher, Zondervan, on April 6. I came in a day early for the Monday meeting and thus had a “rest” day on April 5, Palm Sunday.With this unusual gift of time away I decided to visit Mars Hill. (I have visited several of the leading emergent churches over the past four years.) Most of what I expected was what I experienced.

The whole congregation gathers for two Sunday meetings, at 9:00 and 11:00 a.m. These meetings are actually called “Gatherings.” The service I attended lasted about 70 minutes. The first twenty minutes-plus was music. Some of it was familiar, some was new (to me). All of it was led by very good instrumentalists/singers on a large platform situated in the center of an old big-box store in the middle of an old mall. I would guess that there were about 3,000-plus people present. Above the platform was a large screen with the words on all four sides. The musicians all faced the center, thus their backs were to the congregation, an odd arrangement from my experience. (Perhaps this is to draw the congregation to focus on worship, not the musicians. I am unsure.) Anyway, we stood for a long time and listened to the music. I say “listened” because the vast majority of people, so far as I could tell, did not sing the songs. ( I tried but I felt so out of place, at least where I was standing.) This is a consistent experience that I have had in such churches and it is one that I find distressing. The center of this whole time was the people on the platform performing their songs for the crowd that was mostly watching and not singing. The music itself was of the kind that a congregation could sing together if the people chose to sing the words together. Closer to the platform (I was about six rows away) some people sang with more involvement and emotion.

Following this time of music a few announcements were made. The most important, and impressive, announcement was the story of how the church had raised $20,000 for water filtration equipment for people in Africa. It was an impressive display of kingdom ministry and concern. I was moved by this step of commitment on the part of the Mars Hill family.

The sermon was preached by a guest, Dr. Don Davis, the director of World Impact, a ministry for equipping leadership for the urban church in America. Don, a former teacher at Wheaton College when Rob Bell was there as a student (1988-1992), was a powerful preacher. His sermon deeply touched me at a point of real need. I personally thanked him for his Christ-centered word from Lamentations 5. I have visited the Web site of The Urban Ministry Institute since I was at Mars Hill. I am very impressed with the work this group does. I hope that I can get to know Don personally and thus wrote to him after we met on April 5.

Mars Hill is clearly doing a lot right. There are a load of young people in the congregation. And many of these young people have obviously influenced their families since quite a few folks around my age were also present, maybe as many as 20% could have been over 50. Mars Hill is deeply committed to reaching the unchurched. I have no doubt that they are doing this better than many churches in America but I came away with a sense that a lot of those at Mars Hill came from somewhere else, like other evangelical churches that they felt alienated from for whatever reason. (I can think of many.) I would love to know the actual data regarding the number of people at Mars Hill who are first generation disciples of Christ. I have no idea if such data is available.

Where does Mars Hill fit in terms of the Willow Creek “seeker model”? I suppose the answer depends on one’s perspective. I felt like it was a younger version of the “seeker church” when all was said and done.

Mars Hill is surrounded by older churches representing a number of Reformed denominations. Grand Rapids is also the center of a significant Baptist and fundamentalist population. One would guess that the children of many of these churches are searching for something else and Mars Hill meets some deeply felt needs. This is legitimate and I respect it. The teaching at Mars Hill, based on the courses that they offer through the week, and the sermons that I have heard in the past on audio and video, and heard from a guest on April 5, are solid.

I took the opportunity to briefly meet Rob Bell Bell
after the service. He was friendly, but seemed a bit shy. This is true of many such dynamic communicators and visionaries. He was accessible and certainly did not seem to be in a hurry to run out, something I appreciated. His skills as a both a writer and speaker are eminent. I already knew all that before attending Mars Hill. What I did not know was how much like the seeker model the Sunday gathering really would be. Maybe I was there on an atypical Sunday but I tend to think not. There was no evidence at Mars Hill of church, as such; e.g, a cross, candles, banners, biblical texts, Christian art, icons, etc. The place was as plain as an old Baptist church and there was no marking even outside that this was a church. And the Eucharist seemed to be held only irregularly, certainly not weekly.

Membership at Mars Hill is treated as a covenant relationship with other believers. This covenant is renewed annually. A clear description of what this means was available in a clearly written form. There is much to love at Mars Hill. The small groups are undoubtedly important and fill in a lot of the life of this church that I did not get to experience. I think Rob Bell is a brilliant practitioner and I admire him a great deal.

Personally, I would starve at a church like Mars Hill. I crave much more than twenty-plus minutes of pop music, an extended announcement on a mission opportunity and a good sermon, at least in public worship. The flow of liturgy, rooted in biblical theology and Christian redemption, is much deeper than this model affords if your heart hungers for deep church.