This past Sunday I went to Rob Bell’s Mars Hill Church in Grandville, MI (not to be confused with Mars Hill Church in Seattle, or Mars Hill Graduate School in Seattle, none of which are related).
I read Bell’s book Velvet Elvis last year and found it to be an entertaining read. I’ve also listened to a few of his teachings online. He is quite informal in his speaking style, and conveys a great deal of excitement about what he is speaking about. He also devotes a lot of attention to the Jewish cultural background of the New Testament, and I must say that I have benefited from that.
This Sunday, though, was an atypical Sunday. Not only was Bell not speaking (though he was there, introducing the speaker and playing a guitar as part of the band), but there was also a snowstorm that had started early in the afternoon and was raging by 6 p.m., when the evening service started. My dad and I walked in and were underwhelmed by the amount of people there. We sat down, and people continued to trickle in, but the seats were only about half full (this is highly unusual, as there were a couple of jokes made about how many people were there in the morning compared with the hard-core people who showed up for the evening). Even though nowhere close to all the seats were filled, I’d say there were easily more than 500 people there (it could have been closer to a thousand; I’m not so good at estimating crowd size).
The service (or Gathering, as they are called at Mars Hill) was very simple: we sang a few songs, listened to a sermon (or teaching), sang a few more songs, and then it ended. The services take place “in the round,” with all of the seats arranged around an elevated platform in the middle. This works out very well for the teachings, I think. Though Rob Bell didn’t speak, Ed Dobson did, and he seemed at ease with moving around and directing his attention to the four sides of the audience.
In my opinion, the way the room was organized didn’t work out as well for the worship. A few worship leaders are stationed on each side of the platform, but instead of facing out toward the people, they face inward, toward the platform. There are four screens above the platform, one facing in each direction, that display song lyrics and notes during the teaching. I suppose the worship leaders face inward in order to minimize the feeling that we are watching a band instead of worshiping. But since we all face those screens, it looks a little bit like we are all worshiping a big cube.
(As an aside: I once went to a Russian Orthodox worship service in a church that had a fantastic choir, but you couldn’t see them. They were in a special balcony just above the rear door. So their beautiful sound filled the sanctuary, but when you looked up at the front all you could see was the altar. Maybe something like that could get rid of the worship-leaders-as-rock-band problem?)
But the worship was good; we sang traditional Christmas songs with new, rocking arrangements. Ed Dobson was also a very engaging speaker, and I definitely benefited from his talk about peace. Afterwards, I heard from my aunt that he suffers from Lou Gehrig’s disease. I was even more impressed with his speaking ability after that.
On the negative side, I thought that on the whole it was a little too stripped down for my tastes. I tend to like a little more in the way of liturgy. Like prayer, for example. I’m not saying that they don’t pray at Mars Hill, since I looked at some of the things they have scheduled during the week, and prayer definitely seems to be a part of their life as a community. But I was uncomfortable with the fact that prayer was not part of this large group gathering. Maybe they have a good reason for that, but I don’t know what it is. Also, though Dobson was a very engaging speaker, I thought that he perhaps bit off more than he could get through in one talk. After all, peace is big in the Bible. I thought he spent a whole lot of time doing a word study of “shalom,” when perhaps he would have done better to narrow his scope a bit.
But this is just nitpicking. Overall, it was a positive experience, and I worshiped God in that experience. I’ve never been part of a megachurch myself, but I find the way different large churches “do” church to be fascinating.