The day I almost went surfing with Rob Bell

By Steve Horswill-Johnston, Special Contributor…

“Want to go surfing?”

The question was posed to 50 of us stuffed in a small bungalow in Laguna Beach on the last afternoon of a two-day unadvertised event with Rob Bell.

“If you don’t know how, I’ll teach you,” he reassured.

“Sure!” the 49 said. Being the eldest of the group, I cautiously kept quiet.

Steve Horswill-Johnston

Despite the lesson, the truth is . . . I can’t surf. So instead, I grabbed my video camera and captured the famous preacher, author of more than 10 books and recently named to Time magazine’s 2011 top 100 most influential people list, balancing on his long board, riding the waves.

Six months ago, Mr. Bell left his decade-long career as lead pastor of Mars Hill, the megachurch he started in Granville, Mich., and moved his wife and three children to this surfer town in Southern California. He moved to see what God has planned for this next phase of life and to co-produce a TV show with Carlton Cuse, former producer of the popular show Lost.

Three months ago I accepted the invitation to attend the event. Not only did I look forward to Mr. Bell’s talks, but (perhaps most importantly) I craved a respite.

Privately, I was looking forward to not seeing a single United Methodist after attending the 2012 General Conference. I especially didn’t want to hear the recently heard (and often) General Conference preface, “Bishop, I move. . . .” I needed a break!

“Two Days with Rob Bell” is the first event Mr. Bell has hosted since leaving the 7,000-member megachurch. The invited came from a variety of backgrounds and denominations. A commonality was age: Most were under 35. Many were pastors but also present were a physician, a security agent and an executive who recently returned from climbing to the top of an unnamed Himalayan mountain. Two openly doubted their Christian beliefs and questioned their pull to attend, including the Amazon executive. Their only explanation was an attraction to Mr. Bell’s message in his recent controversial book, Love Wins.

On the first session, I sat and took in the room. Near me, a large window was open to the sounds of the surf, just yards away. The participants seemed hip, smart, relaxed and focused Christian leaders. Not a tie or dress shirt in the room! And rarely did I see lots of paper. Instead, iPads and other tablets were being used to take notes and exchange ideas with those around. And lots of tweeting was occurring concurrently with the event. Most of the group wore shorts or khakis with untucked shirts and sandals.

My first impression was, “The United Methodist Church could probably use a few more of these leaders.”

I turned and introduced myself to the 30-something who sat down next to me. He introduced himself as Jeff Campbell, a United Methodist pastor serving in New Jersey.

Wait, really? My God, we Methodists are like magnets, irresistibly drawn together! I wanted to get away from United Methodists, and here I had sat down next to one!

Turns out Jeff is just how I perceived the room: likeable, quick-witted, intelligent, committed to his church, and ready to take it to new heights of vitality. And, it also turns out we were not the only United Methodist clergy present. Of the 50, six were United Methodist clergy and one a lay person.

The two days were filled with Mr. Bell leading discussions on topics such as handling criticism, inviting your church to take risks, maintaining creativity and avoiding burnout. Virtually every topic began with Mr. Bell inviting us “turn in your Bible to. . . .” Rob Bell knows his Bible. He was able to swiftly move from text to text, linking each in context. He also knows his Greek. His translations were being looked up by everyone around me.

Occasionally, serious discussion halted with a shout from Mr. Bell, “Oh, look! There’s a dolphin!” We stopped the conversation for a moment and enjoyed the view.

We also had a surprise guest. The first evening session included Mr. Cuse. He was a humble speaker who led the group in a discussion of how a TV show is written.

“Writing a TV episode is a team effort,” Mr. Cuse said. “A single writer brings an idea into the room and all the rest of the writers ask NLQs.” Mr. Bell stepped into interpret, “that means ‘non-leading-questions.’”

Mr. Bell made the connection for the pastors in the room. “By asking non-leading-questions, the team is not criticizing or bringing judgment to the writing process, but leading the group toward a completed idea, a completed script.” The idea was not lost on the pastors, who write sermons each week. After the evening session, many of the young pastors in the room spoke of trying such an approach when they returned to their churches.

Mr. Bell and Mr. Cuse are working a TV project together. They met at the 2011 Time 100 gala—Mr. Bell was a 2011 honoree and Mr. Cuse had been on the magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2010. Together they came up with the show idea. There was not a lot shared about the TV show. However, according to several sources, it’s a dramatic show with spiritual overtones, which has been sold to ABC. Stronger, which the two are co-writing and executive producing, revolves around Tom Stronger, a musician and teacher, and his spiritual journey as he becomes a benefactor and guide to others.

Mr. Bell and I had a brief conversation about the show after one of the sessions. He knew that I had recently won an Emmy award and asked what I thought of the idea. He also warned that TV shows often change direction and it’s possible this idea might as well. I look forward to seeing how the show may turn out in the future.

Of all the topics covered in the two-day event, the one that perhaps garnered the most attention was Mr. Bell’s idea of “surrendering outcomes.”

“Pastors and lay leaders have little or no power over the reaction to their work,” Mr. Bell pointed out. “We cannot control how people accept or reject us. Instead, our job is to extend a vision of the church’s ministry to the whole congregation that is provocative and based on the life of Jesus. And then we give it over.

“In the end, we must surrender outcomes,” Mr. Bell continued. “By giving up outcomes you are free, and you free your congregation. This freedom allows you not to be tied to an outcome but instead tied to the congregation.”

His words resonated with the group, including General Conference-shocked United Methodists. There seemed to be a message in there for us.

I left Laguna Beach a non-surfer bound for home in landlocked Nashville. But I left with much hope for our church.

If these gifted and hope-filled young clergy and lay people are in charge now, leading us into the future, we can all relax. We are in good hands. We can surrender outcomes.

Surfing anyone?


The Rev. Horswill-Johnston is executive director of communications at the General Board of Discipleship. He won an Emmy Award in 2011 as producer-director of the short film, Digital Diary: Christine.

Leave a Reply

The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
2 Comment threads
0 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
2 Comment authors
churchjesterrevdrtaylor Recent comment authors
newest oldest most voted
Notify of

Author of more than 10 books??? Which ones have I missed??? I have read, Velvet Elvis, Jesus Wants To Save Christians, Sex God, Drops Like Stars, and Love Wins. I don't think Rob Bell has written anything else.

Anyway, I wish I could have been there. I love Rob Bell!!


Enjoyed this article. I have a lot of respect for Rob Bell as I heard him speak and take questions at North Avenue Presbyterian Church in Atlannta last year during the height of the controversy of his book, "Love Wins." he seemed at home in his skin and authentic. Your article leads me to confirm my opinion.

%d bloggers like this: