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My Pastor Ryan Bell becomes an Atheist

melody

Ryan Bell was my pastor from 2007 to 2010. When I first heard about his one-year experiment with atheism, I stayed largely absent from the conversation. I didn’t read his blog or the articles in the Times. I didn’t listen to the stories on NPR. It was too emotional, too painful. I tried to ignore it. Perhaps now that the experiment is over and the outcome known to all, it’s time to confront those feelings.

During my time in Hollywood, I spent over two years filming a documentary about Ryan’s team and their radical work at the Hollywood Adventist Church. I also became a member and an active participant in the congregation. My time at Hollywood was, without doubt, the most fulfilling church experience of my life thus far. I’ll never forget how Ryan immediately invited us into a conversation about what the church was to become. I’ll never forget how he sought me out as a new attendee and set up a lunch meeting just to get to know me better. I’d never had a pastor take personal interest in me before. Ryan saw community as the key to real spiritual growth and impact, and he pursued it with genuine warmth and friendship.

What followed was certainly the highlight of my Christian experience. Over the next three years, I had a front row seat as God began to do something exquisite in this tiny church community. Ryan tasked us with a question: “How can we be a people among whom God dwells?” and let us young adults take ownership in shaping the church. We had desired this ownership, this place at the table, our entire Adventist lives.

We invited God to dwell at our small purple-colored church in Hollywood, and he came. We asked him how we could make room for him to work, and he answered. It was almost as if a beacon had been lit. There was an uncanny convergence of young, talented, creative, passionate Christians showing up at the church. If I remember correctly, the size of the congregation doubled in about a year. But it wasn’t just the numbers that changed. There was a very deep sense of family that emerged. I knew most of the people in the congregation, and I loved them, and they loved me. We worshipped together. We hung out together. We ministered in Hollywood together. They became my family. And I had the chance to catch it all on camera, in what became the North American Division web series, “Stained Glass: Hollywood Blvd.”

My whole life I had wanted to believe that an early-church type of experience was possible. God gave the church power to heal the sick, cast out demons, and spread the good news. This was the first group I’d encountered that took that charge seriously, and humbly asked questions about how to realize the dream. And in Hollywood of all places. The potential for a life of thrilling ministry and transformative church community boggled my mind. I felt more alive than I ever had.

But no church is perfect. I left the Hollywood Church in 2010, well before Ryan announced his experiment with Atheism. But I believe I saw the seeds of that journey planted. And in watching the Hollywood Church’s story unfold, and Ryan’s, I have learned a lot that I feel compelled to share. I won’t address the question of God’s existence in this article; my thoughts are for those who embrace a Christian worldview.

In my last year at Hollywood, I watched the slow dimming of the light that had been lit on Hollywood Blvd. The culture that had emerged in the church was “we’re non-judgmental; everyone’s welcome here.” But I watched as Ryan and the leadership took this beautiful principle to an extreme that, I believe, barred God from continuing to work there. When the subject of sexual purity within the congregation became an issue, I watched as elders were too afraid of appearing judgmental to lovingly challenge people to be their best. So they implicitly and explicitly supported immoral behavior instead. When hot-button issues of the day came up, I saw a knee-jerk allegiance to political correctness that overshadowed our previous humble stance of, “Lord, what would you have us do?” I watched as any incidence of demonic influence was labeled “mental illness,” and as the charge to “heal the sick,” got relegated to fixing healthcare at a systemic level. We began taking political action to address homelessness, but walked past the homeless man standing outside the church. In Bible studies we would commiserate about the impossibility of really knowing God’s will or overcoming sin.

I will always remember the day an atheist friend visited the church. His reaction was, “I don’t have any respect for this church because you try to appeal to everyone; you don’t stand for anything.”

Psalm 89 proclaims, “Righteousness and justice are the foundation” of his throne. At the Hollywood Church, justice reigned, and people got a little uncomfortable when someone said the word righteousness.

But there’s a reason those two words are paired together. I believe there’s a place for political action as Christian individuals, and a place for fighting systemic social problems as well. But when Jesus said we would do the same things he did, and greater things, he meant it, and he meant it in a spiritual, supernatural way. And his power can only descend on us to the degree that we embrace righteousness and truth in our lifestyles.

Ironically enough, the very things we were afraid to stand for—sexual purity, as an example—were quite possibly the truths that could have blessed our neighbors in Hollywood the most.

In short, within the Hollywood Adventist Church community during the Ryan Bell years, there grew a fear of appearing intolerant that superseded our desire for truth. There was a fear of appearing judgmental that turned righteousness into a bad word. There was a desire to be politically correct that made us forget Christianity was never intended to be cool to the world; a desire to fit in with the culture that kept us from getting too spiritually radical. And there was an “open-mindedness” that precluded the possibility of traditional thought being right.

Political correctness is a wonderful thing when it reminds us to be fair and unbiased, to be sensitive to people’s differences and treat others with respect at all times. But it can also lead us to obscure truth for fear of offending. And there are times when offensive things need to be said. Jesus was certainly one of the most offensive public figures of his day, yet he was never obnoxious just for the heck of it. He had a close enough connection with the Father to know truth, and he spoke it unflinchingly. Sometimes that truth turned people away, as in John 6: “On hearing it, many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’ Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus asked them, ‘Does this offend you?’. . . From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”

On a day that is burned into my memory, the church office got a phone call from a woman pleading for help. She said she was being attacked by demons every night, and in desperation had called the first church she could find in the phone book. Our response to the call? We’ll pray for her.

That day, I knew my time at the Hollywood Adventist Church was coming to an end. How could we confront such a thing when our thinking had become so secular that we didn’t take spiritual warfare seriously? Even if we did take it seriously, how could we enter that situation with any spiritual authority when we as a body had allowed sin directly and intentionally into our midst? Had we tried to help her, would our outcome not have been the same as the seven sons of Sceva? “The evil spirit answered them, ‘Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?’ Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding.”

A church located in the heart of Hollywood, one mile from the Kodak/Dolby Theater and the Walk of Fame. A building seen by hundreds of thousands from the 101 Freeway every day. Such potential. But we fell short of our impact because we were too afraid to call sin “sin,” to challenge each other in love to rise above it, and to believe God’s miraculous power is still available to the church today.

I’m not suggesting we run up and down the aisles of our churches shouting, “Sinner, sinner!” But there is wisdom in James’ words, “confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” There is a place in the modern church for holding each other accountable in love and working together to pull each other higher. Indeed, I would call this true church. And at Hollywood, we were close enough friends to be able to respectfully confront each other. But we rarely did.

Many terrible acts of intolerance have been perpetrated by religious people and institutions in the past, and those acts are never condoned by God. But now, classically, the pendulum swings too far in the opposite direction. In a culture of moral relativism—one which celebrates open-mindedness, claims all paths are equal, praises those who “don’t have answers,” and even lauds those with courage to doubt — have we forgotten the exclusive nature of Jesus’ claim: “There is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved”? Have we forgotten the Gospel record that demons trembled in his presence, knowing exactly who he was: “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”

They still react to his name in the same way today.

When the Samaritan woman questioned Jesus on where to worship, he didn’t say, “All paths are equally valid,” but responded with a firm, “Salvation is from the Jews.” Where is the good old-fashioned common sense that tells us we can say boldly “I believe this is true,” and still be loving and respectful to all who believe differently? Where is the wisdom that instructs us on how to walk that fine line, case-by-case? Where is the deep love that accepts people exactly as they are and yet inspires them to be all they can be? Where are the holy, spirit-filled people who will not compromise their integrity, but will love and serve with the tenderness of Christ himself? “I don’t condemn you. Go and sin no more.”

If a church member struggles with drug addiction, is the appropriate response, “We won’t judge you here”? Or is it to rally around him and bolster his sense of self-worth, give him back a picture of his future, drive him to his court dates and sit beside him while his body screams through the pain of withdrawal? What is the true picture of a Christ-follower? It is neither the person who shouts, “You sinner!” nor the one who turns a blind eye so as not to offend, but the one who holds back a brother’s hair as he vomits into a bucket on the way to recovery.

Ryan Bell was and is a brilliant speaker, a radical thinker, a voracious learner, a truly compassionate person and a good friend. I have seldom seen someone work for justice as tirelessly as he. How does this person, seemingly so connected to the James 1:27 definition of “true religion,” go down the road toward Atheism?

I don’t know. There are many sides to the story which I’m sure we’ll never hear. But I have great fear for a generation of Christians that thinks truth is relative and morality is self-defined. It leads toward a dangerous line of thinking that says, “I will be like the Most High.” There is, and always will be, great disagreement on what constitutes truth and morality. But I trust to Jesus’ promise that “anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.”

What can we learn from Ryan Bell? We would do well to adopt his willingness to think critically about how we do religion, his searching mind, his great compassion for the oppressed and his desire to work for justice. We’d also be wise to remember the cautionary tale of the Hollywood Church, so afraid of appearing judgmental that it actually deprived the city of some of the greatest gifts it had to offer.

Many criticize the conference for asking Ryan to step down from his position as pastor. But Ryan wasn’t teaching Adventism. Even he wouldn’t deny that. So how can one fault the Adventist Church for simply upholding what it believes to be true?

It is possible for a group of spirit-filled believers to know with authority what is right and wrong. It is possible to know in your heart of hearts that God exists, and to say with authority that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life—and at the same time, to love, respect, and learn from others who see the world differently. I will always love and respect Ryan Bell. I’m so grateful for the opportunity he gave me to take ownership in my church, and to think critically about what it means to be a church. I will never forget the wonderful years I spent there . . . and will always experience an acute sadness over his loss of faith. I know God is alive, and slowly I’m learning I don’t have to be ashamed to say I know it.

“How can we be a people among whom God dwells?”

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The Stained Glass Documentary: Part OnePart TwoPart Three.

See two responses to this article:

From Leslie Foster, “Intersectional Righteousness and the Hollywood Church.”
From Scott Arany, “
The Hollywood Church and The Righteousness of a Broken Body.”

 

Melody George is a filmmaker whose membership is still at the Hollywood Adventist Church.

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