Last night, Rob Bell came to UCLA on his fifth stop on the Sex God Tour which is visiting six college campuses. Overall, let me just say that it was a great, great night.
Let me begin with Rob Bell first. I have had the opportunity to work with and bring in some speakers, writers, pastors, musicians, etc. during my time as the college pastor of The Quest, and Rob has been one of the easiest, most laid back and fun to work with. Our college ministry were the campus hosts for this event as we helped partner with Zondervan, Nooma and Flannel last night. So it was a great opportunity to meet and hang out with Rob. Rob showed up at about 5:30 and spent the next couple of hours eating dinner with my student leaders who were helping with the event. He also spent a good portion of that time just going outside and sitting with everyone in line and talking with them. I have never seen any speaker do this before….actually go outside and hang out in line with everyone. I’m sure the 4 guys at the front who flew in from Texas that morning just for the event were excited about that.
As time began to get closer to the doors opening at 7pm there was alread a line of a couple of hundred people waiting, and by the time we began at 8pm the house was about full of 500 plus college students, young adults, seminary students, middle aged parents, pastors, etc., etc. It was a pretty mixed crowd and CNN was there to interview and ask questions of those arriving and to film part of the event.
Being at a Rob Bell event is quite different than other events. There is an excitement and anticipation in the air that is hard to find other places. It was a kick back environment at the UCLA theater and as the music was playing Rob quickly rushed onto stage to cheers, camera flashes and clapping. He quickly took his seat in a relaxed posture on the stool and basically began by asking the question, “So what do you want to talk about tonight?” With the crowd responding “Sex.”
The audience was caught off guard as Rob stated that he didn’t really want to talk about his book, but would rather just do a Q and A about the book, sex or any other topic under the sun. And so it began, and after an hour and ten minutes of some of the most engaging conversation and Q and A that I have been a part of the night was over. At 9:10pm NOOMA came out and showed us the yet to be released video “You” and then Rob stuck around till about 11pm to sign books, take photos, answer questions, until the theater finally kicked us all out.
Questions ranged from the topic of homosexuality, to questions about the relationship between God and sex, to questions on different parts of the Old and New Testament text, etc. The students were prepared with great questions and Rob was superb in his handling of them.
Let me say a few things about why I think this event worked so well:
1) Rob is authentic and funny and it is obvious and real to the audience. This type of event doesn’t work with the other 95% of the people who would try something like this. There is something intangible there that the audience eats up.
2) Rob is super relaxed and warm to talk to and on many occassions last night students gave feedback about how much they loved the form of the night, i.e. Rob on a stool answering questions.
3) Rob has the amazing ability to take people’s questions, mutterings, scattered thoughts, etc., and to reframe them in a much larger context that gets at the heart of the matter. Most times the initial question by the student was reframed by Rob in a much more powerful way.
4) Rob is vulnerable. How many pastors get up there and talk about their struggles with depression and that they see a therapist every week. I can’t name any. That resonated with many students as a lot of college kids struggle with their own depression and stress in life.
5) Rob is not above it. Meaning, he’s not the speaker who comes in, does his spiel and then bolts. He took time for everyone and it was clear that by the end of the night he was someone speaking as part of the group, rather than someone speaking up and over and against the group without the context of the community in mind. This event was communal and it was shared.
Obviously it seems like I’m gushing over Rob and the event. Well, the event went way better than I could have imagined and my time with Rob was great. He was thoughtful and warm and as I walked him and his crew out to the car he said goodbye, and in so doing, he quoted back to me some details of an earlier conversation that night between he, myself and my wife that showed me that he was a good listener….really listening and caring.
As for the questions and answers. There were some answers that I wish I had more time to sit down with Rob and discuss. And others I felt like he hit out of the park and I was just one of 500 in unison saying “hmmmm” and “ahhhh” as the answers left his mouth. Rob would often come at a question from every possible angle and then drop it in your lap without giving the black and white answer that we often want spoonfed to us. Rather, it forced all of us to wrestle with the questions ourselves, rather than just regurgitating what some pastor or leader says without giving it much thought. Rob required that we do the hard work, and this in time when many churches and laity don’t want to do the work, and when many pastors possibly prefer that they don’t do the hardwork, but rather just listen to what they (the pastor) has to say without much thought.
It was a different night, and whatever you make of Bell he is a great communicator and a revolutionary force in Christianity that many are attracted to.