When Liberals Want to Burn the Forest Down and Conservatives Become Tree-Huggers

It’s been interesting to see the various reactions to the news that Rob Bell is leaving Mars Hill. The disclaimer here is that Rob is a friend and I’m very excited for him but this post isn’t about him but about the response his departure has generated. One of the more notorious responses was from Rick Warren who tweeted this:

Speaking tours feed the ego=All applause&no responsibility.It’s an unreal world. A church gives accountability& validity

Warren also tweeted that pastors leaving their church will “always” have “less impact” after leaving.

In addition to Warren there have been plenty of other responses but Mark Driscoll’s letter to his church, obviously written in the shadow of Bell’s departure, is most interesting, to put it kindly. In the letter he assures his church that he loves his wife and kids, that he and his wife are “good friends” and that the Driscoll home is a “great place to be.” He also assures the church that Grace, Mark’s wife, doesn’t worship him (despite the obvious temptation). He ends the letter by assuring the church he’s not going anywhere:

“Pencil me in for at least a few more decades. I do a lot of things, but the one thing I love the most after being a Christian, husband, and father is being a pastor at Mars Hill.”

In a nutshell, more conservative folks seem to be more skeptical when a successful, well-known pastor decided to leave their churches behind. To Driscoll’s credit, while he hasn’t to my knowledge directly commented on Bell’s departure, he was critical Francis Chan’s decision to leave his church. Just by browsing the Twitter timeline on Rob Bell, you see a pretty consistent stream of conservative skeptics while more moderate to liberal commenters have been intrigued, supportive or neutral.
Nowhere have I seen any prominent liberal voice object to Bell moving on. (If so please point me to it)

The news about Bell has brought to the surface some underlying tendencies of both liberals and conservatives when it comes to relating to the American Christian Church. As I get into this, I’ll be generalizing quite a bit. The differences between liberals and conservatives are quite nuanced and complex and I don’t mean to oversimplify the reality. All I mean to do is highlight tendencies so I think generalizing here can be helpful.

Conservatives main tendency is to protect the current state of the Church. Despite its many imperfections, Conservatives generally see the Church as it is worth protecting and preserving while ushering in incremental changes along the way. Conservatives, for the most part, want to conserve the traditions and structures of the church. Liberals, on the other hand, generally don’t share that same tendency to protect the current state of the Church. Liberals yearn for a kind of resetting of the church, from the ground up without the obstacles that the tradition brings. The default mode of liberals is to operate with a healthy skepticism of the Church as well as the conventional wisdom that directs the current trends of American Christianity. To use a forestry metaphor, conservatives prefer to use controlled burns and firebreaks to tend to the health of the forest. For them the forest isn’t in perfect shape so just a little maintenance is needed. On the other hand, liberals wouldn’t mind the prospect of an all out forest fire to clear the way for new trees to eventually come back even stronger, which is often the case. For them, the forest is beyond mere maintenance. The major difference is between how both groups evaluate the health of the Church and that greatly impacts their involvement in the church now and their vision for the future. The conservative response to the departure of a well-known Christian leader is generally summed up by saying, “if you leave the church, you are minimizing your influence to communicate the love of God to the world.” But the liberal response would be summed up by saying, “the church in its current state is doing such a poor job of communicating the love of God to the world that we must venture outside the church walls, free from the obstacles the church has constructed.”

In the case of Warren critiquing Bell’s departure, this also highlights a significant difference in audience. Warren assumes Bell’s audience and his audience are made up of generally the same group of people; church-going Christians. While Bell doesn’t exclude church-going christians from his audience, significant elements of his audience are found beyond the walls of the Christian world. That’s largely because Bell’s message resonates with folks outside the church. On the other hand, very few folks outside the Christian culture have much interest at all in what Warren or other more insular, conservative Christian voices are saying. For Warren the Church is the primary base of operation and without the Church a pastor loses his influence and in his case he’s absolutely right. If Warren were to leave the Church to broaden his audience into the secular world, he’d have no takers. The message he offers would sink like a boulder in the ocean. But what Warren and other conservative critics don’t see is that that’s not the case with every Christian voice.


9 thoughts on “When Liberals Want to Burn the Forest Down and Conservatives Become Tree-Huggers

  1. Good thinking here Z. I could not agree more. Warren sees the world through very small lens. I applaud RB for following the pull to grow and be more influential. GO ROB GO!!!

    The comment that Warren would have no takers upon leaving his church may not be totally true. Unfortunately even if he left he is looked at by other Pastors as a major church leader. 30mill in book sales of Purpose Driven Life has kind of locked him in like it or not.

    Side note:
    I went to the summit conference a number of years ago put on by Willow Creek. Bill Hybels (not a Conservative) literally was talking about this very thing. In fact he compared his influence to a fly-wheel. If I remember correctly he said that once he was free from the Senior Pastor role at Willow his influence doubled and will continue to grow. Now he might be the most influential non-staff church leader in the country and maybe the world. Reminds me of Bono’s work world-wide. He is the biggest rock star in the world. If he left U2 he could influence even more people because he wouldn’t be locked into rehearsals once a week. đŸ™‚

  2. Well said. I would add that the response to a pastor leaving for some reason not controversial (like an affair or financial lies or something) is built a lot on the individual-and the knowledge that comes with actual human relationship, not just opinions or even con/lib divides. I don’t know Rob well (we met once when the artist I play for played at MH), but he seemed legitimately kind and humble (and a fellow tall-person). My nerd sense could sense his nerdness too, which implies some trust. In the same amount of time recently spent with Rick Warren (playing music at a Saddleback retreat with the same artist) he seemed an odd combo of name-dropper and “papa” figure to the college group in attendance. I would trust a departure from him much less than Rob Bell, simply because of the (hopefully somewhat humbly intuited) signifiers they had in personality and pastoral attitude. I know Francis a little better, and while we don’t jive theologically all that much, I do trust his sense of freedom, and in all honesty-he seems to have untethered from his church for the same reason Zach describes: who he is trying to reach aren’t really tied to the traditional modes of church, and in many cases are spread around geographically.

    All in all, I love the thoughts in this post-I just wanted to add that there can be a relational element that also shows what is often a lot of insufficiency in the Church’s ability to speak to several kinds of folks. Or rather local church’s abilities to do so. I remember being in Seattle and reading a PI article on Mars Hill (Driscoll) and it seemed like (for the PI crowd anyways-whom I like) the church had so much baggage to overcome just for the Gospel to be seen thru the cultural cellulite the church had on it, in that community anyways.

    sorry for the long comment. carry on.

  3. Good post, good analysis. I would tweak it in one way: Liberals might “yearn for a kind of resetting of the church” in terms of theology, but not praxis. Conservatives on the other hand are often willing to negotiate nearly anything in the look & feel of a church gathering as long as the theology stays the same. The reason why emergents cause hand-wringing in every corner is because they/we have everything on the table for potential renegotiation – which is contrary, I think, to the basic impulse of religion, which is conservationist at its core. We’re more eschatological, though – forward pull rather than backward-push.

  4. While I enjoyed reading the article and have payed close attention to Francis Chan and his situation I would disagree with your assertion about Warren. “On the other hand, very few folks outside the Christian culture have much interest at all in what Warren…” I think that people do have interest in what Warren says, if that were not the case I don’t think he would have been invited to speak to TED and have been on the cover of TIME.

  5. Not to mention Warrens PDL books sales prove his audience goes way beyond Christendom. I would trust Warren over Bell anyday not because of his book sales but for his rooted biblical theology.

    People like Bell are like grass in the wind, blowing any which way the culture blows.

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