Why I’m Starting to Doubt My Decision to do a “Love Wins” Book Discussion at Church

There’s an amazing thing about speaking to big crowds: when you are in front of them, they become this huge organism. There’s an energy there, a pulsating sort of emotion that you can read just like you can read individual people.

So when I made the announcement at church last Sunday, that I was going to lead a 6-week book discussion on Rob Bell’s controversial “Love Wins” in a Sunday-School-type environment, I was surprised at how conflicted the organism (ie congregation) seemed to be.

A few people looked at me with eyebrows straining to leave their forehead and hit the ceiling fan (along with everything else that might “hit the fan,” so to speak). A few looked excited, as if I had just validated their questioning personality. Others looked intrigued. After we played the trailer for the book (you know, where Rob Bell asks how we know whether or not Gandhi is in hell?), I made an off-the-cuff joke asking people to stop looking for rocks with which to stone me.

Chirp, chirp.

So here they are: three reasons I’m not sure it’s such a good idea to do a “Love Wins” book discussion at my church:

1) My dad’s the pastor, and I don’t want him taking the heat. Look, I get to show up on Sunday mornings and do whatever I want. I can blog about whatever I want. At the end of the day, I’m not a pastor, and I’m not in charge of fielding all the concerns/complaints from a congregation full of very varied theological opinions. If this book discussion ends up causing problems, you know who’s going to hear about it? My dad. (Sorry pops).

2) The whole topic seems to have flown right over the heads of most people in our church. A huge portion of our church is made up of people who didn’t grow up in the church. Their newbies. They don’t know Rob Bell from John Piper. Should I really be introducing them to controversial topics when they might never have even seen this book otherwise?

3) Franklin Graham has called Rob Bell a heretic.

But after all of that, am I still going to have this book discussion? Yes.

Why? Because I feel so strongly that this stuff has got to be talked about! Because too many people in the church have based their theology on movies and classical literature! Because if you open a book, and you open the Bible beside it, I think you might just learn something you’ve never known before!

I’m not a Rob Bell disciple, but I do believe that the way he packs his books full of questions presents an effective way to get people to use their Bibles for something during the week other than paperweights in their minivans.

May 15th. 9:00am. Gap Community Church.

Love Wins.

Be there.

Farewell. (Sorry, couldn’t resist).

23 Replies to “Why I’m Starting to Doubt My Decision to do a “Love Wins” Book Discussion at Church”

  1. People’s beliefs are often delicate flowers, which is OK, but you’re still brave to go forward with this project. If the “in-person you” is anything like the “blogging you”, then I think you’ll pull it off. Good luck.

  2. Shawn, you will do awesome. While our church is one of a lot of spiritual n00bs (sorry, I couldn’t resist, it was the nerd in me…) because try are new to this, I would be so many of them have this question. They may not know this book exists, or the controversy around it, but I’d bet they struggle with the topic Rob Bell talks about. I know I do.

  3. If I were in your neck of the woods, I WOULD be there. Alas. Good luck. I wouldn’t even be allowed to do this in our church.

  4. I bagged my idea of having a discussion on the book, so I admire your willingness to do so.

    I was having a wide variety of people interested – inside and outside the Church. Left wing thinkers, Right wing thinkers. And in my MINI conversations with each person, things got super heated. I figure if I add more fuel/thoughts/hearts to the fire, it’s only going to get worse.

    Each time I have brought the idea up to church leaders, it’s been met with some serious anger and accusations.

    To me, it’s too volatile a situation to have and was only doing more damage than healing for now. I admire your willingness to move forward with it, Shawn. And maybe having it within the Church will lead to less volatility. (Maybe) :)

    1. I was wondering what happened to that discussion group…

      I am baffled by the amount of anger expressed by church leaders over this book (the level of anger seems to be the greatest among people who haven’t read the book). I am thinking about the ground rules that need to be in place for this to be a constructive event, and I’m realizing that my role will fluctuate between encourager and referee.

      I’d still love to chat about the book with you some time. Let me know. I promise not to hit you over the head.

    2. Jeremy, I’m a little sad that you had to axe the get-together. But I fully understand. I have no problem discussing it with friends who are curious. But I’m not interested in arguing about it. I don’t even really want to express my opinions.

      I was just hoping to redirect the focus where it needs to be: on addressing this topic to the concerns of the ‘outsider’ and those that we want to see Jesus clearly.

      1. Yeah…. maybe I’ll resurrect the idea at some point (phrase chosen intentionally) but for now, I just can’t imagine it going smoothly.

        I did work on some ground rules that you can feel free to steal/adapt, Shawn:

        1. Everyone present has to have actually read the book
        2. Bible’s are strongly encouraged to be brought
        3. No one can interrupt anyone else’s thought before they are finished
        4. I as the referee/facilitator have the right to throw anybody out at any point
        5. No personal attacks

  5. It’s WAY better to be a “newbie” in this day and age than ever before because it will be easier to find one’s way through the destruction of modern Christianity. I also don’t like the term newbie. It’s so us and them. But I also understand the simplicity in the use of the term.

    I think you will do wonderful Shawn. Don’t be afraid of conflict. If you are not afraid of it, you will manage it well. Help people realize that God is bigger than all this discussion and there is no need to get upset and angry because God is control. God is bigger than “right belief”.

    Wish I could be there. Have fun. I think what people miss about what Bell is doing is that he is mainly asking questions. Yes, there are some assumptions in his questions but still, he is asking them. This can only make a modern Christian fearful because they would believe that Christian belief can be known in certainty based on well reasoned belief and argument. Anyway, I’m done and good luck!

    1. Good point on the word “newbie.” Bad word choice.

      Wish you could be here, too, J. I’ll fill you in.

  6. Here’s some of the devices theologians use to sound objective and avoid conflict:

    1. When talking about a controversial topic, quote other people … other authorities who promote the controversial topic. You can quote me if you wish. For instance, “Caleb Wilde says …. He’s a heretic and he’ll burn in hell, but what he says is interesting … let’s talk about it”

    2. Never show your theological cards. Do everything you can to speak objectively. If somebody gets upset, you can always say, “I don’t necessarily agree with what Rob Bell is saying, but this is a counterpoint he would offer to you.”

    3. Here are some terms that theology profs. use to allow for disagreement: “Push back”, “counterpoint”, “conversation points”, which are all nice ways of saying to those you’re conversing with, “Okay, if you want to burn me, now’s the time you can do it.”

    4. Finally, most profs have a good life insurance with an added “heretic clause” that pays double indemnity if in fact the prof is indeed burned.

  7. Hey Shawn, Personally, the best thing about Rob’s book might be that it gets otherwise bored people to start studying their Bible again. They might end up knowing what they believe!

    That is to say, controversy is not all bad. We probably need a little controversy- otherwise we become the next worst thing; invisible.

    If people have a problem just allowing the discussion to exist, they have a problem, and maybe need to be a little offended so that they don’t die of atrophy.

    Your Pops is a big boy. He’s certainly not afraid of a little healthy controversy.

  8. Shawn,
    I haven’t read Rob Bell’s book, but have seen numerous clips/DVDs by him. To me, he is an intellectual in a good way and gets people thinking. Whether one agrees with him or not, he urges people to explore their beliefs and possibly open their eyes to a new truth.

    Maybe other people don’t think this, but I think your dad is similar to Rob Bell. He certainly doesn’t seem afraid to stir up controversy, presents things in a way different than normal, and stirs people to think, even re-think their beliefs and values. It seems to me that your dad ponders many things and then presents them in a way that is not condemning, but offers a possible new perspective.

    All that to say, by having this book discussion, you are following in your father’s footsteps, only in a different way. I can’t see that he would be anything but proud of you, no matter what the outcome.

    PS. I’m a pastor’s kid, too, so am very well aware of the pressures. Praying for you :-)

  9. Sadly, most Christians aren’t interesting in talking about anything that is outside their theological boundaries and this is one of the points that Rob Bell makes in his book. What he brings up is what does need to be addressed and talked about.

    Also, tolerance has gotten a bad name in our culture because it is used to try and get Christians to “tolerate” a lot of ungodly behavior and ideas, but we should have Christian tolerance within the body of Christ. I always like to remind people that no where in the Bible are we promised Unity of Doctrine, but what we need to look for in people is their fruits. I see nothing but the spirit of God in Rob Bell’s honesty about his search on these matters and he took on this subject KNOWING he would get a lot of “screaming like children,” but he thought the subject was worth that to get people thinking. I did find one thread that I thought was really interesting. It is on the Urbana Theological Seminary http://blog.urbanaseminary.org/2011/05/05/a-conversation-about-the-afterlife/comment-page-1/#comment-9103
    Perhaps it would be interesting to others as well.

    Also, many people in their reviews of Bell’s book stated that Bell’s book was not the theological textbook on this subject and they recommended Hope Beyond Hell, The Righteous Purpose of God’s Judgment which is free on the internet at hopebeyondhell.net.

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