By In Culture, Theology

Following Rob Bell: The Edges of Faith and the Center of the Zeitgeist

UPDATE: My friend Uri Brito and I had a conversation about the impetus behind (and reaction to) this post here.

Several days ago, Kent Dobson, successor at Rob Bell’s famous Mars Hill Bible Church, stepped down as teaching pastor. He opened his announcement/sermon by reading the Scriptural story which gives name to the church, the account at Mars Hill. Dobson says when he first came to Mars Hill, he was animated by Paul’s example of cultural engagement. Paul quoted the poets of the people; he spoke their language. Dobson said he understood Paul to be preaching a traditional gospel message but using different, more relevant, packaging.

Likewise, he said the church was meant to have the same gospel but deliver the message in a more hip way. Specifically, he wanted a “cool church” with “cooler shoes” than the traditional church down the road. However, Dobson said he not only began to question the packaging of traditional “church,” but also the message – the gospel. To fully understand his evolution he says, “you’ll have to read my memoirs.” The CliffsNotes version, for those of us who can’t wait, goes thusly:

“I have always been and I’m still drawn to the very edges of religion and faith and God. I’ve said a few times that I don’t even know if we know what we mean by God anymore. That’s the edges of faith. That’s the thing that pulls me. I’m not really drawn to the center. I’m not drawn to the orthodox or the mainstream or the status quo… I’m always wandering out to the edge and beyond.”

If you don’t have time to watch the whole sermon, just picture Portlandia doing a Dane Cook spoof. Slouched in his flannel shirt, he swivels on his chair as he muses about his restlessness, his angst, and his exploration into the unknown. I don’t know how he actually came off in the room, in the moment. But watching from a distance, he seemed like a romantic vagabond, a sensitive soul longing for a home he’s never known—perhaps like Huckleberry Finn if Huck were super into Spiced Chai Lattes and self-indulgent journaling.

Of course, I’m not opposed to someone discerning a vocational shift. Not everyone who leaves the pastorate does so out of cowardice or sin. What I am opposed to is the supposition behind his departure—the reason he gives for leaving. For Dobson, he’s been on a journey which started one place and is leading him to another; specifically, to the edges of faith. In actual fact, he’s exactly where he’s always been. His self-professed goal was always to be the cool pastor with the cool shoes. It’s not that he’s journeyed away from the “center” of faith. No, he’s just stayed in the center of the zeitgeist—in the “mainstream” of a culture which is rapidly leaving Christian orthodoxy behind. He’s not energized with a boyish, effrontery audacity, he’s paralyzed with fear.

To his church, he paints himself like a modern-day Ferdinand Magellan, ready to explorer the great spiritual unknown. Motivated by nothing but curiosity and bravery, he’s boldly setting his sails toward the choppy waters which stand between what is and what could be. This is the point at which I take issue. When was the last time Pastor Dobson talked with someone on a college campus, in a gym, or in a coffee shop? Does he really think the “open” and “inclusive” vision he’s casting is novel? Is the “status quo” really Christian orthodoxy among Dobson’s peers? As a young, fit, white, upper-middle class male, Dobson’s sermon is not a rebellion to his culture. It’s a product of his culture. The mystery and romance he attempts to conjure around his spiritual evolution is laughable to anyone with a television. He’s not moving forward into the unknown; he’s sitting perfectly still in the safe, cozy space where Oprah is queen, tolerance is the law, and anyone with a firm opinion on just about anything is suspect.

Perhaps this whole episode wouldn’t be as disconcerting if there weren’t pastors in other parts of the world who actually are venturing into the unsure world of faithfulness to Christ, at the risk of their very lives. It’s difficult to hear a shepherd spin his actions as brave or noble when he’s hiking up his tunic and making for the hills, leaving his sheep for hungry wolves. While our brothers and sisters in the majority world continue to meet in caves and barns in the face of imminent danger, many of those called to the shepherding office in the developed world lack the gall to hide the sheep and stand before the wolves with staff in hand. They can’t stomach the sound of fur parting with flesh—the whimpering is too much. They would rather let the sheep be eaten than seem like boring, dorky-sneaker-wearing shepherds. The prophetic voice of the American church has gone hoarse.

In a world where pastors wait with bended knees and clenched eyes for their heads to roll down the sandy slopes of a Libyan beach, the complacent, comfortable, Western church must reset her vision of bravery as it relates to the pastorate. There was a time—even in the West—where cultural capital was gained by being a Christian. In those days, there were indeed men who risked everything to leave orthodoxy—one thinks of the great George MacDonald. However, those days are long gone, and Dobson is no MacDonald. If he wants to be known as an adventurer, Dobson is a couple decades late to the “I’m just not into religion” voyage. That land has been claimed and settled. Dobson’s predecessor is already giving surfing lessons to the tourists who want to visit.

These days, the real adventurers are those who set sail for the risky land of Christian orthodoxy. The real brave men and women are those who consistently go to church, observe the sacraments, hear the word, and submit themselves to the discipline of the church. In an age of autonomy, it’s those who subject their thoughts, behaviors, and passions to an exclusive Sovereign that are the brave few. Those may not be the memoirs we’re interested in today, but they’ll be the ones that last tomorrow.

117 Responses to Following Rob Bell: The Edges of Faith and the Center of the Zeitgeist

  1. J.E. Lowder says:

    Thank you for speaking truth.

  2. Tony Seel says:

    I was once an Episcopal priest serving in the Diocese of Chicago. At a clergy retreat there was time given for feedback and a priest talked about his spiritual journey. He had come to the place where he wasn’t sure he believed in God anymore. He was applauded by a number of his fellow clergy for his honesty and courage to speak out. He continued to lead his church since in the Diocese of Chicago, apparently, it was acceptable to be a pastor who was not sure what he believed. Many years before his spiritual dark night, this priest was featured in Robert Webber’s book, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail.

    • Wow! Fascinating. Thank you for sharing!

    • Emily Wynsma says:

      Is it considered unacceptable to be a pastor who is at times not sure what he believes?

      Isn’t a huge part of the life of faith- and I am talking about “dorky sneakers” orthodox Christian faith- choosing to live out the belief when you don’t FEEL like you’re sure?

      I’m not being sarcastic here. I’m really confused by your comment. Obviously I don’t know what specifically he said, but from the information you’ve given I don’t see anything terrible. Many of the most faithful pastors I know have had significant seasons where they felt unsure of various aspects of their faith- including for some, even times of not being positive of the existence of God. Their continued faithful actions and perseverance in seeking God in the dark time is what seems to be most relevant.

      I also think it’s important to note that he shared this at a CLERGY retreat- which I would assume was a time for honesty and mutual support among other “shepherds”, where perhaps deep spiritual struggles might be discussed openly. That is a very different thing than if he were TEACHING his spiritual doubts to his congregation.

      I would really appreciate hearing your thoughts in response.

      Thank you, Emily

      • etimodnar says:

        Hi Emily. I read the comment differently. The telling part for me was this, “He **had come to the place** where he wasn’t sure he believed in God anymore”.

        That phrase speaks of the end of a journey. If this fellow had occasional doubts, I’d be with you, but it sounds like he believes ongoing doubt is a good and healthy state to be in, even for a leader and teacher. I profoundly disagree with that idea.

        • bigcg98 says:

          1 John 2:19 — “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.”

          I’m not sure I understand this whole concept of a “spiritual Journey”. When you profess faith in Christ, the Holy Spirit comes to reside in you, and you become undeniably aware that God is real. If there is anything that would cause one to subsequently question His very existence, then I would have to seriously question whether this person is in the faith. Momentary doubt, yes…followed by a conviction of the truth for one who truly believes. However, these immense struggles with one’s own faith I don’t find anywhere in scripture for those who have been indwelt by the Holy Spirit. (Both Peter and Thomas had their moments of great doubt prior to Pentecost. Afterward, not so much).

      • Jeremy Keys says:

        I’ll give the guy credit, at least he knows he shouldn’t be leading (although, it’s more out of his own selfish need for self discovery or whatever, than a caring for the sheep). However, Jesus, when speaking to the pharisees about how they will not accept him, actually addresses this exact situation in John 5:44. “How can you believe since you accept glory from one another but do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?”

        The principle is this: Faith is affected and it becomes impossible to believe when one seeks honour or glory from others and not God. By his admission he wanted the cool church and to be the guy with the cool shoes. If that doesn’t smack of honour from others I’m not sure what does. When this is the desire, that people come because “there’s a cool pastor”, faith first becomes blurred until belief becomes impossible.

        The shepherd doubting is NOT the same as the sheep doubting. God has always held, and will always hold, those who lead and teach to a higher standard. For good reason James tells us that not everyone should presume to be teachers. For too many our decision to lead and teach comes from the desire for honour from men and a need to be seen. When God is the one we seek honour from however, we act very differently than when we are trying to be the pastor with the “cool shoes”.

        Just to add one final thought here. Often these answers are met with something to the effect of, “well, we are not supposed to judge”. Untrue. Jesus said take care of the log in your own eye and then you are fit to help your brother with the speck in his. Paul furthers this idea in 1 Corinthians 5:12 when he says, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?” In fact, we are to observe and make judgements about how those in the body are acting. We are not to judge the world, after all the world will act as the world will act, but when sin and improper leadership/teaching are occurring we are to scrutinize very closely! Paul even goes so far as to tell the corinthian church to expel the immoral brother! Imagine if Paul showed up and taught in our churches today? He would be the most reviled and hated man in Christian circles!

        • Ken Miller says:

          Jeremy- Here is my observation of the “log” you forgot to take out of your own eye before you made your judgment about Dobson. You take an honest admission of Dobson wanting to be relevant and extrapolate that into a hard and fast false dichotomy that he sought glory from others and NOT from God. I have heard this same argument too many times to count. It has now become a tired cliche hurled against anyone who changes their former view of the bible or purported orthodoxy…suggesting they are simply “caving into the culture” out of the fear of man. It may not have occurred to you that thousands of pastors cave into their fear of man (in this case, fellow professional ministers) all the time by espousing orthodox positions publicly while they have privately already concluded from their own study that those positions are no longer tenable. I know this from personal experience, because it took me a long time while I was still in ministry to get to the place where I was willing to publicly articulate my matured view of God and the Bible. And along the way, I had hundreds of conversations with fellow ministers who in private conversations would admit they no longer believed in a variety of orthodox positions, but would get up in front of the church the next day to profess them. Most of them are still in ministry today, and still acting the part. I am not quick to judge them for doing so, because the price they would pay for their public honesty would be immense for themselves and their families. Far easier to write it off as a lingering doubt that may eventually pass in order to keep some semblance of perceived integrity intact. That’ not to say that truly orthodox pastors do not exist…I think they do but they are rare. I have more respect for the Rob Bell’s and Kent Dobson’s than I do for those who are not willing to sacrifice their careers in order to save their integrity.

    • Jofre Y. Perez says:

      If we have this kind of ministers that suppose to be leaders of the church, and they don’t know if they can still believed in God, that’s a very scary thought, and to be a leader in the church.

  3. Very well said. Thank you for your words.

  4. Randy says:

    I don’t know really anything about Kent Dobson and I’m not sure that Christianity is ever about anything ‘cool’ but I do know that there IS real courage in questioning ones faith and being honest about that journey especially when in a leadership role. Shame on you for invalidating that honest expression.

    • It’s not his questioning of his faith that Dustin is critiquing, it’s the shameless way in which he presents the position he is taking as somehow the brave option of discovery, when in fact it’s nothing more than a cave in to the spirit of the age. It’s a slap in the face to the average orthodox believer who attends his church. The language of journey doesn’t come into it, but the language of drift certainly does, if we are to take seriously the Bible from which his church derives its working title.

      • Krysann Joye says:

        It’s only a slap in the face if the average orthodox believer wants to make it into one…. Someone else’s journey has nothing inherently to do with anyone else’s. What kind of a family are we if we don’t have grace for people trying to have honest faith? If people really are caught up in the “spirit of the age” is the best response to tear them down and make fun of their attempts at finding God or meet them with embrace and let them know they are welcome at the table because God welcomes whores and pharisees so he can probably squeeze in room for a doubting Thomas? This attitude just pushes people away. It isn’t helpful and it isn’t Christlike.

    • Don Jones says:

      I would encourage you to read the Pastoral Epistles and look at the qualifications for leadership. There certainly can be questions along the journey, but if one doesn’t have the fundamentals of Biblical truth nailed down, that individual does not belong in leadership in the Church of Jesus Christ.

    • natemup says:

      Because that’s what Jesus and the Apostles did, orrr….?

      • Randy says:

        Show me someone without doubt and I will show you someone without faith.

        • Sorry, but the language of the apostolic letters is not sounded with doubtful tone, but certain rest in the propositional truths of God and his Gospel (“these things are written that you might know that you have eternal life”). Sure everyone has doubts, courageous believers fight those doubts with the Faith once for all delivered to the Saints (the written sure/dogmatic Word), they do not give into their doubts and capitulate to the spirit of the age, then spin it to be somehow courageous and noble.

          • J Dawes says:

            Exactly right. You get doubts, you deal with those doubts, then you encourage others to keep trusting. You don’t, like this wolf, encourage people to doubt.

    • Scott says:

      Not an invalidation, just calling crap what it is, pure junk theology. I am thankful that some Christians still seek Christ and are not trying to “find” themselves! Those who were not among us are welcome to leave. The tares and the wheat shall be sift d in the end by the final Judge.

  5. Grant says:

    I would have given more thought to your concerns about Zeitgeist and cultural capitulation had you not spent the first half of the article critiquing his clothing and taking cheap shots at a fellow brother in Christ.

  6. Nathan says:

    “They can’t stomach the sound of fur parting with flesh—the whimpering is too much.” –

    Worth the price of admission!

  7. Thomas says:

    “the complacent, comfortable, Western church must reset her vision…” says the Christian blogger, plankeye.

    • Thanks for reading, Thomas! I guess I’m missing the reproof/joke. Is complacency a prerequisite for blogging? And even it is (which logically, of course, it’s not) I didn’t exclude myself from the Western church. I too need to constantly be reminded of the bravery and heroism of our brother-martyrs. Hope you’re well, friend!

  8. What an astonishingly obtuse response to Kent’s resignation and explanation of that resignation from pastoring Mars Hill. This was the publicly broadcast resignation of young pastor from the church he has been pastoring to the best of his ability. You’ve misrepresented his tone and his message. His comments are meant to explain to a community who would be shocked by this resignation to understand where it was coming from, delivered in humility and obvious concern for the church. I know you’ll grow up one day, as you continue to pastor, and after you’ve resigned a few pastorates, when you will think back on these words, on this critique that is so inappropriate and out of place, and wince at the ignorance you’ve displayed here. Be kinder as you grow, it will serve you and the people you shepherd more than the attitude displayed in this post will.

    • Thank you for reading, Brian! I’ll consider your words. I don’t have a desire to be overly harsh. And If I misrepresented Dobson’s tone, I did so unintentionally. As for Dobson’s words, the content of his message, I simply don’t agree that it was “humble.” I think my criticism was merited, regardless of the number of churches I may or may not resign from in the future. All the best!

      • Tom says:

        I was in the room. I have been attending MHBC for about 2 months, so I don’t feel so emotionally connected to the place or the person that I feel brittle about criticism. But, I read your comments with growing incredulity. I don’t know you or anything about you, but your comments resonate with the category of those who are pre-loaded to be critical of the context (mega church? format? etc?). And I find those comments to not really represent the reality I experience in that setting. When he spoke, I saw the humility of someone very much in process. I was struck by how he didn’t come to us with a “communication plan” or “talking point” but rather, thought out loud for awhile about his journey. Which is one of the things I appreciated about his preaching, and will miss. To be clear, I think you missed on this one, and not by a little. If you are troubled by aspects of the context, I support your thoughtful, kind and gracious wrestling with that. This was far from that. This has a tone that serves no one well, even those saying “thank you.”

        • Not sure it’s right to put yourself in that leadership position and be “in process “or with “no communication plan”. Those who are charged to lead, they need to see that as an onus, a burden, and one that needs much dedication, prayer, discipline, research, guidance etc. Not someone pandering to their own thoughts and ideas on stage aloud while God’s children, hungry for the truth, sit and listen (God’s truth, not his emotional truth). Great stuff for a book, not great stuff to lead God’s Church. Glad he stepped down, clearly he wasn’t where he needs to be. Hoping a true man of God, Studied, educated, well versed in scripture, and theology takes his place. – My opinion. Loved the article, I enjoyed the indulgent connections to this new pastoral/culture, frankly I hate Latte’s so maybe it just resonated more with me.

          • Tom says:

            Leadership is also modeling – significantly so. He modeled for us an honesty with self and community – not with his faith because I didn’t hear him struggling with his faith at all. I heard him struggling with the fit between his calling by God and the community in which he had been working that out. Some are quick to read him questioning “truth” and I heard him instead questioning the way we sometimes organize ourselves as Christians. Of course he had a communication plan – I didn’t say he didn’t. He didn’t come to us with that – I wasn’t distracted by a “statement” but rather a heartfelt, authentic wrestling with the issues (NOT his faith) that brought him to this decision. That there was a communication plan was evident when the current Board of Elders chair followed immediately and addressed the crowd. Don’t know if that was in video or not. I experienced him doing all of the things you accuse him of not doing – and thus poor leadership – so, what is going on? How can you and I experience this so differently. How is it that I saw this and was moved what I saw as courageous leadership, and you see pandering poor leadership. Are you engaging the same content/person/context I am?

          • Mark Bell says:

            Great understanding of what is going on here. Personally, I’ve noticed no one has even mentioned the name of our Lord Jesus Christ here. It was his blood that was shed and His life that was laid down for everyone commenting here. The pastor does need to “shepherd” but the pastor is not “The Shepherd”, that’s Christ. One closing thought from Scripture (God’s inspired Word, II Tim. 3:16-17). I Cor. 14:7-9, 7Yet even lifeless things, either flute or harp, in producing a sound, if they do not produce a distinction in the tones, how will it be known what is played on the flute or on the harp? 8For if the bugle produces an indistinct sound, who will prepare himself for battle? 9So also you, unless you utter by the tongue speech that is clear, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air.…” Speak a clear word as a pastor/leader or your people will be confused! Thanks for your excellent response to this article Marshal!

  9. whatever says:

    A few thoughts: 1) I find the author really taking advantage of this situation to grind his proverbial axe. Does Dobson really use all the “cool” and “hip” language, or is that the author’s embellishment? I get tired of neo-orthodox shitting on emergents by using pejorative lingo. This is value-laden language and not an actual argument. 2) What you have hear is NOT a pastor recommending his congregation be mainstream and edgy but rather the opposite: the pastor saying that BECAUSE church’s need a centre he is therefore unfit for the pastorate. 3) Contrary to the author’s bias, Dobson’s move may also be seen as the genuine response of a third generation pastor: this is what happens when someone is born into the Christian faith and has not genuinely “left” it. There are far too many nuances to what is happening here than the author recognizes. It is simplistic to lump Dobson in with the “zeitgeist” of secular humanism.

    • Yes, Dobson uses the word “cool.” Thanks for reading!

      • But Dustin, he was using it to bring some levity in a nervous, heavy moment and doing so to clearly poke fun at their own image at Mars Hill. I’m not a Mars Hill fan or apologist but when you write, “His self-professed goal was always to be the cool pastor with the cool shoes.” you are mis-representing the context of his use of “cool shoes” and the tenor of the entire resignation message. I hope your readers will bother to take the 20 minutes to listen to it for themselves. I fear they will not.

        • I’m really not trying to misrepresent the situation. I too hope people will listen to the sermon. You’re right, he definitely mentioned the shoes for levity sake, but his point in bringing the shoes up (which was also my point in bringing them up) was to say they were trying contextualize the gospel in a cool, fresh way. I wasn’t trying to say their whole strategy revolved around shoes anymore than he was trying to say that. My point is simple: Dobson’s goal was to be cool. It used to be cool to be Christian, now it’s not, so he’s ostensibly “leaving” the faith. Again, thank you for interacting!

          • Krysann Joye says:

            Do you really think that was his goal? Not like, “that’s what he said so I’m just going by the words he used,” but on a deep down level – when its just you and God as you pray over what you’ve written, do you really believe he is just trying to be cool? He is visibly nervous in the video and people who were actually there have said on this thread that he came across humbly and sincerely…. Take it from someone wrestling with this stuff: it IS hard and it isn’t “cool” to have friends you call family treat you differently because you have been honest about what you’re trying to think through. It isn’t “cool” to be characterized as just floating with the cultural breeze by generalized posts such as this one. I choose to believe that you are not *trying* to be divisive or hurtful, but please be aware your words are not helping. You have attacked a person for being honest – this doesn’t help your cause. People who already agree with you will laud you, but people with doubts will only be pushed away. You have asserted that he is just keeping with the “status quo” by questioning his faith, but what you have done here is no more novel. Please don’t misunderstand my tone: I am disappointed and frustrated to see another post like this, but I do not think you are a rotten person or that you are trying to hurt anyone. I just have to ask you to please consider the things you’ve said and consider that you may have some wrong assumptions. If you haven’t been there you might not know, but it’s neither “safe” nor “cozy” on the fringes of orthodoxy… The attitude displayed here is what makes many leave Christianity altogether instead of sticking around to see if it really could offer any answers.

  10. Don Pryor says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!!….a wise man loves to be corrected….in a day of “winds of doctrines” a call to the simplicity of devotion to Christ is refreshing….Loved your article!….

  11. This is a superb article, Dustin. Spot on.

  12. jeremyedgar3 says:

    No surprise that the successor to Rob Bell is following in his footsteps. I feel really bad for Mars Hill though, having two pastors in a row basically admit they don’t want anything to do with historical Christianity and aren’t sure where they are going. The pastoral role is meant, at least partly, to be a role of leadership. But you can’t lead people when you don’t know where you are going. Kudos to Rob and Kent for quitting. It’s the best thing they could have done. I only hope that they find their ventures out in the great unknown to be unsatisfying and they discover afresh the God of the Bible. After all, the thing that sparked the sermon on Mars Hill was Paul responding to the altar to the “unknown God”, aiming to make the true God, known. Kind of ironic.

  13. hubert tauchner says:

    “…Dobson’s predecessor is already giving surfing lessons to the tourists who want to visit.” Really?! Are you writing the truth?

    • Thanks for interacting, Hubert! No, there is not literally a land called “I’m just not into religion.” Thus, Bell is not living there (in what I imagine would be a pretty cool bungalow) giving surfing lessons. That was a word picture–a literary tool similar to a simile. All the best!

  14. Murray Baker says:

    “These days, the real adventurers are those who set sail for the risky land of Christian orthodoxy. The real brave men and women are those who consistently go to church, observe the sacraments, hear the word, and submit themselves to the discipline of the church.”
    What a thoroughly undesirable description of an adventurer – and a Christian. Surely there is more?

    • The real adventurers are those who are willing to get up from their la-z-boy comfort and do something. Many people consistently go to church, observe the sacraments, hear the word, and submit themselves to the discipline of the church, but they don’t pray, don’t read the word, don’t really do anything. Unlike many Pastors who go through the motions and pick up their check, Kent is willing to say he won’t do that, and for that he should be applauded. His theology and doctrine and lack of the basic fundamentals of what it takes to be a Christian should be questioned, but he has at least done something, and given what he said, it was good for the Church. There are too many followers of John MacArthur(replace with your favorite celebrity) out there, who instead of following Jesus, follow a man, but nobody has the courage to question them, because they look the part, they consistently go to church, observe the sacraments, hear the word, and submit themselves to the discipline of the church, but they look very much like Pharisees to anyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear.

      • Murray Baker says:

        Thanks for adding a little flesh to my discontent. When everything is about being right and religious practice we seem to have missed the meaning of “Thy will be done on earth as in heaven”. The Kingdom of God being “at hand” seems to suggest so much more.

    • Dean says:

      I agree Murray, in my youth I was awe struck at the immense privilege of knowing God. Just beside myself with the joy of being gods child. The Christian narrative works for a basis of thought for those that are committed to it. The clincher came for me when I honestly looked at the description of hell and the potential consequences of mistakes in this short life we are presented with. The notion of a teenager having made the wrong choices then dying young being condemed forever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever……. STOP ! There must be a mistake here. And because I think there is a mistake I did also question the brick wall of thought that Christianity has refusing to look at the plight of humanity as a whole. ” isn’t there something more to say? Who has the courage to ask our God for the TRUTH, there is something true, there just is or we would not be here. God for me is still my greatest hope and my wildest dream and I am still at 46 yrs absolutely in love and awe at being part of the tare away adventure of being with God. Orthodoxy is a commitment to discipline yet what is true is true, so what is true? I cautiously flag one thing that Jesus said ” you must be born again…” Maybe he meant just that.

    • Consistently go to church – for deeper teaching, and reproof, correction and further knowledge of the scriptures so we can… (here comes the adventure) apply it.
      Submit themselves to discipline of the church – well that’s just biblical, and following the bible is definitely an adventure.

      if this is and “undesirable description of an adventure” to you then maybe consider praying God refocuses your desires. Change your definition of adventure. God’s Desire for us is that we follow him, completely, learn more about him, seek to understand him through scripture, and teaching, then to run across the world telling others about it. This is the true adventure in life. Finding our real purpose – which is to bring glory to God, and to spread the Gospel… it’s all adventure my friend, and he hit the nail right on the head!

      • Murray Baker says:

        It is too bad that Dustin left his description short of what your are describing. It seems to me that his description is where so many have stopped and it is why the church is so ineffective. Orthodoxy and church attendance (with its ceremonies) is where so many stop not realizing that these are only the starting line – there is so much more to the Kingdom of God. Thanks

  15. chosenrebel says:

    Amen. These days it is brave to be orthodox. To such we are called.

  16. mjmesserli says:

    great piece Dustin. Thanks. Mike Messerli

  17. Paul Page says:

    I was saddened by the criticism in some of the comments left here. I enjoyed the writing and the commentary and it was good to be reminded that we have it easy. Thank you!

  18. Al says:

    After confessing that he is not really sure who Jesus is he tells his congregation that he is still going to be teaching for the next few months…

    A Church that would tolerate that is going to suffer greatly and their wounds will be salved by his faux humility, progressive though it may be.

    • YES! can’t agree more. To (finally) admit to where you are spiritually, which in this case is far from where a leading pastor should be, but then to continue to lead and teach… Its amazes me that church leadership allows this. It amazes me that Church leadership doesn’t have checks and balances for this type of issue. How long has this leader been struggling with his faith, with his definition of God (which is located in the bible) and why is the eldership and leaders not meeting with him continually and pursuing this type of issue. We need our leaders to be accountable for their teaching and actions. We need our elders to be mentoring and guiding and praying over these men, so they don’t lose their sight, vision and faith, but when they are on that path there needs to be quicker intervention… definitely not allow them to continue to lead and teach until replacement comes.

  19. gomezrafa says:

    Dustin, how do I watch the sermon. Did not see the link. Then again, I am over 60. Thank you.

  20. Aaron says:

    Presume away…

  21. Lucinda says:

    This is one of the most self-serving, self-righteous things I’ve read in a while. Besides your faulty assumption that you are right (I’ll grant you a pass on this one, though. I mean, none of us can really know if we’re right, right?!), your words are more mocking of the man you’re talking about, rather than offering constructive criticism.

    It is easy to mock, and chide, and attack. I mean, that’s what people do easily and naturally. But when it comes to making an actual argument…that takes a certain strength of premise and conclusion that I’m just not seeing in this piece. You’ve done nothing but baselessly claim that you are correct about God…which is exactly the point of the man, the “culture,” the many people you are mocking, including myself. We’re not saying we’re 100% right. We’re just acknowledging that the word orthodoxy doesn’t always mean what we think it means. And CERTAINLY, nothing in this world can completely capture the immensity of who, and what, God is.

    I am reminded of the old story of Plato. He was the wisest person of all because he knew that he knew nothing.

    Thank you for reminding me why I, and so many others, tend to lean towards the likes of Bell, Bolz-Weber, and Dobson, and Evans.

  22. Nathan says:

    mmmmhmmmmm! amen 🙂

  23. Krysann Joye says:

    It seems strange that a link to the actual announcement isn’t here and could very well be my computer because it’s old, but just in case, here is a link: 🙂

  24. Ken Miller says:

    I’m sure from your vantage point it seems more courageous to “stay orthodox”, but if you have not been on both sides of that equation, you really don’t know. My personal experience is that many of the “faithful orthodox” crowd act very much like the crab at the bottom of the bucket…it’s frightening to see someone actually escape. Some people need the box…if it’s working for you, peace to you.

  25. the99spot2015 says:

    Glorious writing. Still, I’m full of grace for Kent and hope that his doubts lead him into a Thomas-like encounter with Christ himself.

    Grateful for your reminder and your challenge. Hugs from Raleigh!

  26. Chris says:

    “…without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who diligently seek Him.” Hebrews11:6 This verse came to my mind as I thought of making a comment here. The “church” is supposed to be the “body of Christ.” As such it would be in close relationship to its head (Jesus), and would need to be in communication (prayer) to receive direction. Growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ involves dying to yourself, and allowing the Spirit of God to live in you and through you. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Galatians2:20 Let’s get real church! If the Gospel is not GOOD NEWS to you…take another look at your faith. This whole discussion was disheartening.

    • Beth Austin says:

      Well said Chris!!! All the above comments are disheartening except yours. Have we really strayed so far from the teachings of The Bible? Real disciples know that it is those that come to Jesus, hear His sayings and do them can call Him Lord, Lord Luke:6. Stop playing around on the edge and start pointing a dead and dying world to the only hope that can save them–faith in Jesus! Anything else is a useless exercise in futility!

  27. So so wrong in your analysis of Dodson. So so wrong. It takes no courage at all to “stay at home” in the safe environment of “orthodoxy” – whatever you may mean by that code word to distinguish those in the “house” from those who are wandering around the porch…looking in with, not disdain but doubt, yes…looking out, too, beyond the place where their faith is still real – the porch itself – yet, knowing so much of what the “Church” has been preaching/teaching, and continues to do so in many “orthodox” houses, is so out-of-touch with the real world, there is no surprise whatsoever in the documented fact that millions are leaving the Church “house” for the porch of possibility. That takes infinitely more courage than anyone in the house displays. The tragedy is, these brave souls are viewed – naturally – by the guardians of “orthodoxy” as apostates and misguided souls. Are they? Or, is that just the safe conclusion to make inside the house? I believe it to be the latter.

    • machba says:

      Thank you Steve. Your comment is spot on.

    • Murray Baker says:

      Steve – thanks for this. “Orthodoxy” (as you point out means so many different things) is used so often by those in authority to keep the masses in line. I firmly believe that if you honestly surveyed any congregation you would find the vast majority are not “orthodox” by that church’s definition and have many, many doubts/questions/misunderstandings that they are not allowed to express. Signing a statement of faith has very little to do with actually being orthodox. Many understand that “orthodoxy” is used to exclude at least as much as it is to include so they remain silent.

  28. usawhitedude says:

    Everyone doubts. But “he who endures to the end shall be saved” (Matthew 24:13). He who bails out because he wants to explore other cool ideas and “fall of the cliff” may end up doing just that.

  29. Jared Doe says:

    Dustin, I agree with many of your points and I am saddened that Kent is making this choice. He has such a great platform to be leveraged for Kingdom. Unfortunately, you lost me with your condescending tone and personal attacks. Come on man. This article reeks of sneering and scorn and those things cannot be of Christ or healthy for the Kingdom. How well do you know Kent? Have you ever had a conversation with him?

  30. jastheless says:

    I think you make a good point, but I think you’ve used the wrong guy to do it. Putting “cool” first or refusing to support truth claims gets us no where. But Dobson is not actually guilty of those things. He doesn’t advocate for the edges of faith, he’s simply admits that it’s where he finds himself. (and he’s said publicly that he warned Mars Hill of this when they asked him back – they told him they were comfortable with more questions than answers) I’m a pastor, and I don’t think that’s a healthy place from which to lead a church. But, apparently neither does he. So he stepped down. Therefore, Kent Dobson cannot accurately be described as “paralyzed with fear.” He’s giving up his paycheck, his prominent pulpit, and probably any future employment in any significant church all because he doesn’t think he’s helping. That’s not fear. It’s integrity. I’d rather he agreed with me about “what we mean by God” but if he doesn’t, I think he’s making a good and very hard choice.
    Like I said, you make a good point. But you are treating him unfairly to do it.

  31. Ken Miller says:

    Steve–you said it much better than I did in my earlier post. I know what it’s like to be on the inside of orthodoxy, feeling threatened or confused by those on the porch. And I also know what is like to be on the porch. For me, it took much less courage to stay in the safe zone, but I will acknowledge that some who stay there do so with integrity. For a long time, the buffer zone answers of inside orthodoxy were plausible and compelling to me so there was no internal conflict to stay there. Gradually, the certain answers that came from my rock of biblical infallibility could no longer hold up for me. Eventually, when I gained the courage to step outside, it was not a compromise of my faith, but a maturation of it. The pressure I felt to stay within orthodoxy was exponentially greater than any pressure I ever felt to conform to the outside culture.

  32. JJ says:

    I’m curious if you have ever spoken to Kent in person? It seems like you make a lot of assumptions.

  33. Jacob R. says:

    What an excellent read. I had to go listen to the sermon for myself and then come back for a second read. One certainly has to listen to the whole thing to understand where you’re coming from, Dustin.
    I’m thankful Kent’s been given the freedom to have doubts, yet deeply saddened that he’s felt free to indulge them and make doubt his motif. He’s traded “I believe – help me in my unbelief” for “I don’t know what I believe – How exciting it is to be in my unbelief”.

    “[Dobson]’s just stayed in the center of the zeitgeist—in the “mainstream” of a culture which is rapidly leaving Christian orthodoxy behind…Dobson’s sermon is not a rebellion to his culture. It’s a product of his culture.”


  34. Mary says:

    I actually sat through that sermon unlike you, Dustin. You took many liberties proclaiming to know what was going on inside Kent Dobson’s heart and mind when he told his entire congregation that he was stepping down. He could have just given the Elders his resignation, but instead he courageously gave the sad news to both morning services, knowing full well that many like you, would pounce all over him. You are being critical of Kent’s reasons for making his departure. Likewise, what is your reasoning for writing this blog? What is in your heart and mind to make you write such opinionated words about him?

    Though I am old enough to be your mother and have many more experiences than you in life and church circles, Dustin, I know that Christians love to make personal attacks under the guise of theology. My question for you Dustin, why did you even listen to the podcast in the first place if you TOTALLY disagree with Kent’s theology? Why write this negative, personal attack on a blog about him? Why kick him in the “butt” as he steps down? Why not just study, pray and ask God for his guidance as you become an ordained minister, instead of attacking others with condescending words? I hope you attach this blog to your resume when you are interviewing for your first pulpit position. It really reveals your true heart and character young man!

  35. Jeff Gissing says:

    […] Dustin Messer has a great post about the departure of Mars Hill’s (post Rob Bell teaching pastor) Kent Dobson. You can read it here. […]

  36. […] this KC interview, Uri Brito talks with Dustin Messer, author of the article, Following Rob Bell: The Edges of Faith and the Center of the Zeitgeist at Kuyperian Commentary. The article has drawn over 60,000 views and continues to be discussed in […]

  37. Enoch Haven says:

    I agree with the general gist of this article in that Dobson seems to be moving away from the faith. What I find interesting about the announcement video itself is that the head of the elder board who follows Kent says something that he does not say himself. She says he is following the leading of the Spirit. I don’t recall hearing Kent say this, he uses more self-directive language; He “just knows” it is time to move on.

  38. Thank you so much for writing this article. Many are saying that you were overly critical, but watching his own admissions, I see that you were actually quite measured and limited.

    May God direct any remaining leaders at Mars Hill to see the dangers they face on the edges of the Emergent and contra-orthodox movement.

  39. Matt says:

    So he basically doesn’t hold fast to the tenets of the faith and stepped down. Good move. Next…

  40. […] As Dustin Messer puts it, “These days, the real adventurers are those who set sail for the risky land of Christian orthodoxy. The real brave men and women are those who consistently go to church, observe the sacraments, hear the word, and submit themselves to the discipline of the church. In an age of autonomy, it’s those who subject their thoughts, behaviours, and passions to an exclusive Sovereign that are the brave few. Those may not be the memoirs we’re interested in today, but they’ll be the ones that last tomorrow.” […]

  41. tuesday says:

    Good article, but I laughed out loud at the Magellan reference. Clearly, the author knows nothing about Magellan. He was an “explorer,” yes, and that’s where the analogy ends. He was also a crazy dictatorial genius who disciplined his sailors in savage and cruel ways, (torture, executions, abandonments, to name a few of his methods). He ended up murdered because he was trying to ram the gospel down the natives’ throats and his methods pissed off the wrong natives. I’m a Magellan-o-phile, so the analogy, given the article, was just funny to me.

  42. gorddougon says:

    I would challenge what I read as a dualistic idea that is relayed at the end of the article a wee bit. I think your point of view reasons that choosing a single direction is the important thing. It seems to me that you present an “either/or” option: either be an explorer on the edge of faith or one who is committed to Christian orthodoxy. I believe the real fabric of faith is neither and both. Somethings will always remain mysterious and must simply be submitted to. But there are aspects of these same things that some feel invited to explore more fully. In their exploration they may find that they understand the orthodoxy in new and mysterious ways. I have experienced this and it continues to amaze me – how is it that something my Christian peers have stood their ground and fought battles on is actually somewhat fluid? I don’t know… but it seems to me that it is.

    I would encourage you to not be critical of the explorer’s path and to not polarize your thinking along these lines. Instead embrace the vast and beautiful life that Creator offers in the way of Christ and bless Kent Dobson on his journey. What he discovers may be critical to your own path someday.

  43. Park Smith says:

    Very harsh critique. The same purpose of (I’m assuming) showing Dobson weak on his stance could have been accomplished in a much more compassionate manner without compromising whatsoever. It is this attitude that has given rise to and perpetuates a chiding from the left upon those of us who *still* hold to Christian Orthodoxy. I implore *us* to speak truth IN LOVE.

  44. john burnett says:

    i was with the article to the very end— yes, the chiding was a little harsh, but funny on another level— and then suddenly the problem was that Dobson wasn’t “submitting” to “discipline”.

    i was a missionary and dean or director of studies of seminaries in some very poor parts of africa for five years. Can’t wait to go back. But believe me, Christianity is not about “submitting” to “discipline”!

    You can’t say it’s not about Law and then offer nothing but Law! But that contradiction is only the tip of the iceberg of why the culture is “rapidly leaving Christian orthodoxy behind”.

  45. Mike says:

    After being a Pastor for 15 years and having a small but growing church plant disintegrate due to nothing other than a lot of key leaders making life and job relocation choices, I went into a tail spin. For almost 10 years I struggled along in my faith, wrestling with orthodoxy, church, scriptural authority, suffering, global realities, etc…. I did not find an easy answer and have always struggled with those who do? There isn’t one and those who choose to believe otherwise often fail to understand that they are simply choosing to believe otherwise. That is what faith is… beliefs trusted in (trust being a choice) to the point of action. That is my interpretation of Heb. 11. The scripture talks about the witness of the Holy Spirit and sometimes I have that and other times I have questioned whether I have that. Now that I have been through that time, and am still walking in faith, after 35 years, I have come to see my faith like a tent with four stakes holding down each corner. The weather beats against the side, the wind blows, life happens, I trip over a stake and knock it loose, what ever it is, I have to go around and pound down the stakes again and again.

    The first stake is the existence of a God — I cannot look at anything in the universe and believe it all starting spontaneously from nothing. NOTHING became EVERYTHING. I would be committing intellectual suicide to believe that.

    The second stake is who is this God — I have studied many versions but only one version, the New Testament, gives a intellectually reasonable answer for the darkness in man, that creates what we call evil and see every day in the news.

    The third stake, Is Jesus God – if the New Testament is the only reasonable explanation of evil, then is Jesus the only reasonable explanation for evil. Is Jesus really who the Bible says he is. Not based on the churches strengths or weakness, not based on the darkness God allows in life and has allowed, but based on the reality of the first two stakes.

    The fourth Stake – is salvation for all. I believe it is. God so loved the World, he gave. Jesus, “takes away the sin of the world” etc…. This is not universalism, just universal availability. Some choose to believe in a God that damns some and saves others, but I do not. All have a choice. I believe love requires that.

    I have tested and pounded these stakes many times in the last 35 years, and during that 10 year period, I referred to previously, they were all very loose, but in the end the same basic questions, kept coming back to me. Is there a God? What is God’s answer for all this darkness? Is Jesus who the Bible says He is? Does God love all of His creation?

    Pastor Dobson is not unique, that is for sure, I think Solomon and David struggled a little bit too. People will wrestle in the western world because it is too easy to believe and we are seduced and pounded by the constant undermining of our media driven culture. What is troubling is we still don’t have good dialogue for those who struggle. When I was struggling, all I could find was cliche answers or negative diatribes or condemnation. Struggle is normal, and those who struggle can do so with genuine and earnest hearts, wanting to understand. I hope we can someday learn to walk with them, whether they are Pastors or parishioners, or those on the edge.

  46. […] This article has been getting some internet buzz.  […]

  47. GB Arnold says:

    “Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere! Go tell it on the mountain,that Jesus Christ is born!”

  48. […] kind of fatal equivocations.  Just last week, another preacher resigned from a prominent pulpit, citing his own journey and the need to self discover as his first priority. If you don’t believe hell is a real threat and you don’t believe the atoning death of […]

  49. How can this fellow “make the tree good” when he cannot discern the difference between wood and plastic. His fruit will reveal his heart.

  50. […] Following Rob Bell: The Edges of Faith and the Center of the Zeitgeist […]

  51. Mike Sweeting says:

    I can see that I have come to this thread a bit late. I thought that Dustin Messer wrote an item that manages to be thought-provoking, measured and quite funny all at the same time.

    I rarely post something but over the years have noticed that responses to anything remotely Biblical fall into 3 groupings of response.
    1. “You nasty person. How can you be so unloving as to have an opinion at all?” OR
    2. You clearly endorse every prejudice i already have. Well done!” OR
    3. “You have raised some important matters that I really need to get to grips with because they matter.”
    I am pleased that this thread has a lot more of type 3 than usual!

    I have worked in India with men and women who regard anyone who has not been stoned or beaten for the faith to be not yet in leadership! I have worked in the UK with men (in specific) who I never saw do a single favour for another person – ever. By their fruits you shall indeed know them.

    I could easily like Kent Dobson – he sounds engaging and intelligent. I would not trust him though, because he has (like many British Bishops) taken money for years on the basis of promoting something he is not committed to.Would any sane soldier follow an officer who believed he should be with the enemy? Would a sales manager hire a salesman who though the products were crap? The ‘world’ has a lot more sense than many Christians.

    • Ken Miller says:

      Mike…let me attempt a “type 3” response to your critique of Kent Dobson and the assertion that he “took money for years on the basis of promoting something he is not committed to”. I’m not sure how easy it is to make a judgment about someones integrity in a case like Mars Hill and Dobson, without having some intimate details of the culture of the church and the ongoing dialogue that certainly occurred between the elders and Dobson as his views evolved. I have been thorough this process on two occasions, and I can assure that it is not as simple as waking up one day and suddenly finding your theology grossly out of step with the organization you represent. Most people of integrity will thoughtfully engage their peers from the perspective of a reformer, seeking dialogue and hoping their colleagues will eventually be persuaded. This process can play out over an extended period of time, and it is not always easy to discern if it is best to stay and help transform your current subculture, or leave. It is possible to maintain a high degree of integrity in this process, but it is also nearly impossible to completely avoid compromise. There in no magic formula. It seems obvious to me that what we observe in the video is the result of a long and thoughtful process where Dobson enjoyed the benefits of a spiritual community that tolerated people in leadership entertaining risky questions openly and honestly. Most evangelical communities have a high tolerance for such questions form “seekers”, but once you are in leadership, you learn to keep your most significant questions to yourself if you want to preserve your position of power and authority.

  52. […] we’re reading stories of pastors resigning from their churches in order to explore “the edges of religion and faith and… or coming up with new ways to do church as we grow ourselves, we can become healthier on our […]

  53. […] which we seek abundant acceptance and adoration from the culture at large.  What Dustin Messer writes specifically about Kent Dobson could be a pitfall for just about […]

  54. Shaun Groves says:

    Deeply encouraged and challenged by the main point of this post. I appreciate the tremendous gift you have for language. Beautifully written.

    You have great thoughts here about things that really truly matter. Sadly, they were clouded and weakened by assumption and mocking stereotypes.

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