Church Name: Mars Hill Bible Church
Location: Grandville, MI
Head Pastor: Rob Bell
Summary: Rob Bell’s church is the lesser-known Mars Hill, and yet it is equally hip. Founded in 1999, the church now attracts upwards of 10,000 visitors on any given Sunday. I visited on Palm Sunday in April and one of the first things I noticed about the church is that there is absolutely no signage indicating that this was indeed a church. As I drove around trying to find it, the thing that finally tipped me off was the large parking lot and parking attendants with neon batons. Only when I got to the door of the building did I see any indication that this was indeed Mars Hill Bible Church. No signs on the road, no signs on the building. It felt like a secret, unassuming, slightly underground gathering—which I’m pretty sure is exactly what they were going for. It reminded me of the new speakeasy bar trend among hipsters: bars that have secret, unadvertised entrances in alleyways and on assuming wall facades. If you don’t know where you’re looking, you won’t find it. Very hip.
Building: This is one of the most interesting things about Mars Hill. The church meets in an abandoned mall (Grand Village Mall). The main worship space, called “The Shed,” is the former anchor store, and classrooms occupy the space of what used to be the food court or other stores. It all adds to the camouflaged, “no one would guess that a church meets here” vibe. The sanctuary hall is a vast square room with the stage in the middle and chairs surrounding in all directions. The lighting and color scheme is very plain and there are very little adornments and no art or decoration to be found. It’s all very Puritan.
Congregation: More diverse (age wise) than I expected. At the 11:00am service I visited, the place was packed with a mix of J.Crew yuppies, North Face outdoorsy-types, and a formidable smattering of Dan Deacon hipsters with Civil War beards. Overwhelmingly white. Lots of people had coffee in hand. Most everyone seemed really excited to be there and the congregation was certainly lively, as evidenced by the occasional whooping and the impromptu standing ovation at the conclusion of the sermon.
Music: The music at Mars Hill, like most of the rest of the church, is refreshingly nondescript. The band—your typical 7-piece church rock band—plays from the stage in the center of the church. The songs were typical fare: David Crowder and Hillsong. Band members are dressed in appropriately gratuitous scarves. A few songs played at the beginning of the service and that was that. Following the benediction, Explosions in the Sky played over the house speakers.
Arts: Not a lot of art. None on display from what I could see. But the fact that they play Explosions in the Sky probably means they aren’t opposed to art.
Technology: Very minimal. A four-sided screen above the stage displays the lyrics to songs—white font on a black background. Other than that, there were no bells and whistles. The church’s website, however, is very extensive and well-designed.
Neighborhood: Grandville, Michigan, a suburb of Grand Rapids. Grand Rapids is a hotbed of Christian hipsterdom, what with Calvin College and a bevy of Christian book publishers nearby.
Preaching: Rob Bell did not preach on the Sunday I attended, and apparently he’s only contracted to preach for a certain number of Sundays a year. When he’s not there, speakers like Brennan Manning, Phyllis Tickle, and John Ortberg are on stage delivering the message. On the Sunday I attended, Dr. Don Davis preached on Lamentations 5. The theology at Mars Hill is narrative-oriented and heavily influenced by people like N.T. Wright. Covenant language is used a lot (you can become a “Covenant Member” of the church if you adopt the church’s shared set of values, called “The Directions”), with emphasis on social justice and “bringing heaven to earth.”
Quote from pulpit: “He will establish a new heaven and a new earth where peace and justice will rule forever.”
Quote from website: “What we believe about God is at the heart of what we believe also about each other, ourselves, and creation: that ultimately everything is part of the one great story.”