Captain AhabCall me Ishmael… Well, OK, don’t.

As I’ve been working through my study guide for Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis, I’ve tried to be fairly thorough in my reading not just of VE, but of referential background material, as it’s been availble. So, it’s an odd coincidence that the same day I started working on the Tassels chapter, that Bell’s chief misguided critic, Mr. Ken Silva, decided to take a portion of the same chapter out of context for his next in what seem to be an endless poisoned well of attacks against Pastor Bell.

Now, as regular readers have likely noticed, I’ve not blogged on Mr. Silva or tamoxifen, order Zoloft. Slice for some time, deciding they didn’t need the press, and I didn’t need the headache of the emails that are bound to ensue. Additionally, I’ve tried to take a cue from Brendt at Musing from Two-Sheds Gomer, but Ken’s post is just so petty and stupid, I can’t resist the temptation to call it to light. Despite this, it is still my intention to rarely write on the dark side of the internet that is Slice .

Apparently, having run out of direct material to misquote, Ken has now sunk to digging through comments in Amazon’s book reviews to try and dig up trash on Rob Bell. One of the commenters apparently took issue with Bell’s description of the start of the Mars Hill church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. And so, Ken was off to the smearing races again.

The Background
In Velvet Elvis, Chapter 4 – Tassels, Rob Bell talks about how to deal with self-expectations and anxieties, using his own anxiety with being senior pastor at a church that went from 1,000+ on its first Sunday to 10,000 people eighteen months later and led to a nervous breakdown of sorts on Bell’s part. So, in this chapter, Bell devotes about 3 and a half pages outlining the beginning of Mars Hill from the perspective of its leadership.

Mars Hill was a church plant from Calvary Church, whose first years are well described by Willow Creek Association News here . About 800 people from CC (pop. 5,000) initially went to Mars Hill’s first service, though only 600 of them are estimated to have stayed. On its first Sunday, Mars Hill had 1,000+ people and by the end of its first year, it was running 6,000 each Sunday, larger than its parent church. It was running 10,000 people each Sunday by the end of its second year. If anyone can identify a church that has grown faster in its first years, please email me, because I’m not familiar with any.

And so it is that Bell talks about unexpected growth, where beginning with the first week there was not enough seating, and within the first month scores of people were turned away each week due to seating/fire code capacity. For someone trying to lead an organization, numbers are a huge issue to deal with – especially when they’re not predictable. This was Bell’s point.

The Conflict

Because Velvet Elvis is not a book on church growth and the chapter his story is in is not one for the purpose of ’spiritual back-patting’, one wouldn’t reasonable expect Bell to give a fully detailed account, but apparently Mr. Silva does. So, he pulls one paragraph from the beginning of the section on growth and then proceeds to (attempt to) paint Bell as a liar.

Now I am going to give you some numbers. And I hesitate to do this because few things are more difficult to take than spiritual leaders who are always talking about how big their thing is. But it happened and itA?a??a??s true and itA?a??a??s part of my story. There were well over 1,000 people there the first Sunday. (VE 099-100)

Now safely sealed in Mr. Silva’s literalist vacuum, Silva tries to make it seem that Bell is purposely lying and ignores the overall context of the chapter and the smaller context of the section in question. The overall context of the chapter, as noted above, is about dealing with anxiety (not church growth). The micro-context of the section is on how quickly the church grew. In fact, the next paragraph after the one quoted by Mr. Silva is thus:

People in the aisles. People on the floor. Packed. No more room, not enough chairs. (ibid. 100)

Well, if Bell was actually expecting 1000+ people the first Sunday, he certainly planned poorly for it! To continue from this section of Velvet Elvis:

It was during the first week that the practical people stepped forward to be helpful and remind me that people were there out of curiosity the first week and to help me feel encouraged with my new little project. They made sure I understood that I wasn’t to get my hopes up, that all these people wouldn’t return, and that we’d be able to see in the next few weeks who was really going to be committed to this new church.

You can guess what happened. More people came the next week. And even more the following week. I remember telling people we had no more chairs and if they wanted to bring their friends, they would need to buy chairs for them. In the next month or two, over two thousand people were showing up on Sundays. And by September of the first year, we had to hold three services, pushing things to over 4,000 people in the first six months.

That’s it. That’s about it for the section on the numbers growth of Mars Hill. Silva insinuates that Calvary Church coerced those who went to Mars Hill to do so, and that (in sinister fashion) perhaps they were blocking his emails (posting the message he received showing that the mail router had timed out) when he wrote to them for clarification. While it is implied that Mars Hill meteoric growth came from Calvary Church’s attendance, the 2000 Willow Creek article (taken from interviewing CC’s leadership) notes that attendance at CC had already absorbed the 600 who went to MHBC within the year. There is no way to account for the numbers from CC or from the young adult services Rob was leading there. The Willow Creek article notes:

From the very beginning, Calvary offered to give the new church any support they needed, but did not seek to control what would happen. Calvary offered financial help for the first year. They offered funds for hard goods such as chairs, sound equipment, lights, and other essentials. They also encouraged as many people as felt called to go with this new group. Dobson stood before the congregation and challenged many of them to go help plant this new work. Although no one knows exactly how many people left Calvary to be part of this plant, Phil Brower estimates that about 800 people went with the original group and about 600 of them stayed. The others came back to Calvary after Mars Hill was established.

That certainly doesn’t sound like coersion to me.

In Conclusion

I think it’s safe to say, from the context of the brief section in Velvet Elvis and all the material available that 1) Church Growth was not the point of the VE section; 2) The first week’s attendance was not the sole source of surprise in the growth – it was the bigger picture of the first 12-18 months that was the big surprise; 3) Bell’s “several friends” who helped him start MHBC were not inclusive of all who attended the first week, but those who organized it; 4) Ken’s offense at Bell’s description of the Mars Hill’s growth is unfounded.

So, once again, Slice of Laodicea claims its prize in the Christian blogosphere’s hell on earth. I’d call it the National Enquirer of the Christian tin-foil hat crowd, but I’d be afraid of the tamoxifen, order Zoloft. Enquirer suing me for defamation.


This entry was posted on Saturday, November 25th, 2006 at 12:20 am and is filed under Responses to Slice. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

7 Comments so far

  1. Ken Silva on November 25, 2006 1:09 am

    *shaking my head*

    Absolutely amazing. You seriously need to consider becoming a spin doctor. Brilliant a-logic.

  2. Chris L. on November 25, 2006 1:19 am

    Nice to see such a content-filled reply.

  3. The Hungarian Luddite » Blog Archive » Slice of Laodicea, Sliced and Diced and thrown in the compost bucket on November 25, 2006 2:03 am

    [...] There is a post on the Fishing the Abyss blog dealing with Slice of Laodicea’s Junior partner Ken Silva and his expose of Rob Bell’s book Velvet Elvis. Please take the time to visit this excellent blog. [...]

  4. John on November 25, 2006 6:08 am


    No doubt Ken plays this minor story for all it’s worth. Still, you have to appreciate how much better this post is than stuff he was writing just 3 months ago. This post is coherent, written in colloquial English and if I’m not mistaken, free of terms like “the Emergent Church of Deceit”, etc. And in my opinion, Ken made a real attempt to be fair. He noted that his sources were unconfirmed, etc. I honestly didn’t get the sense that he was suggesting there was some sort of cover up going on with the unreturned e-mails, only that he couldn’t get a confirmation prior to publishing his post.

    Seriously, this is the most responsible thing I’ve read by Ken. I still think he’s wrong to be attacking Bell, but if he would write sensibly like this more often, without all the wild accusations, it would be a big improvement.

    For the record, I don’t think Rob was trying to hide anything the way Ken suggests. As someone who does event promotion at my church, I know that no matter how much you promote or other people promote, you can’t tell until the butts hit the seats. So sure, Rob knew that his old church was encouraging people to leave if they felt like it, he’d still be crazy to expect 1000 people (20% of his old church) to show up. I think his description in VE was just emphasizing the roller coaster ride he was on, not knowing if his little dream would work and then being shocked that so many people came. Either way, it says a lot for his talents as a teacher that so many people went with him.

  5. brendt on November 25, 2006 8:48 am

    I got to Ken’s post is just so petty in your post, and went and read his. I got no further than Teaching Pastor in quotes and realized that you are right. Now I’ll go read the rest of both.

  6. Henry Frueh on November 25, 2006 1:18 pm

    To say that dealing with the numbers at Mars Hill is ridiculous is an understatement. If a person has an issue with Bell it should be exclusively about his teaching, not the number of people that attend and how they may have or may not have stretched the numbers. But this is an example of how difficult it is to get consumed with being a watchdog, and maintaining a strict firewall between doctine and personal attacks.

    EVERY person has at some point been disingenuous and less than accurate in some ways, sometimes unknowingly and once in a while knowingly. All of us. Me, Chris, Scott, John, Bell, MacArthur, and yes Ken and Ingrid (that must hurt). And these attacks about church numbers, music styles, and the long list of cultural and non-essentials only serve to obscure real and substantive debate on eternal issues.

    And although I have been guilty in the past of some unfortunate hyperbole, I have come to realize that nothing edible comes from overheating Spiritual dialogue. In the end everything gets burned beyond recognition and ultimately poisons us all. And if I do see the truth in some issues as the Spirit intended, it is by His grace and I can boast in nothing but Christ. I have personally refrained from filling my eyes and ears with electronic blogbeams, and much on the blogasphere has ceased to edify. And I hope to continue to speak the TRUTH…oh yeah, in love.

  7. Sliced Laodicea » Mountains from Molehills: Ken Silva Plays Ahab to Rob Bell’s Moby Dick on December 22, 2006 2:31 am

    [...] Source: Fishing the Abyss Comments: Ken Silva tries to get maximum mileage out of distorting Rob Bell’s description of the growth of Mars Hill Church. Chris demonstrates that not only is Ken far from the truth, but also as obsessive as the literary Ahab, with Rob Bell as his Moby Dick… Memorable Quotes: Apparently, having run out of direct material to misquote, Ken has now sunk to digging through comments in Amazon’s book reviews to try and dig up trash on Rob Bell. [...]

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