When Rob Bell stepped down as pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, all eyes were on Shane Hipps, the man who, for more than two years, was a teaching pastor at Mars Hill alongside Rob. Last January, after Rob's big send-off, Shane became Mars Hill's interim head pastor, a position that many assumed would eventually become a full-time gig. But five months later, much to the surprise of many in the Mars Hill community, Shane offered the elder board his resignation. Three months later, on August 19, Shane delivered his final sermon. (He writes about that experience here.)
Much has been speculated about Shane over the last several months. Why did he leave Mars Hill? Does he hold the same beliefs as Rob Bell? Does he believe in hell? What will he do next?
In December, I got the chance to interview Shane. I asked him questions regarding everything from hell to Rob Bell to Mars Hill to universalism to his new (and fantastic) book Selling Water By the River.
But I started the conversation with a question about his former career in advertising.
(I hope you enjoy the interview. And be sure to see my note at the end of this interview.)
Shane, you started your professional career in advertising, working with major brands like Porsche-what did you like most about helping companies sell/promote their products/ideas?
I loved the creative demands, there was always room to play and explore. I have always been an architect of ideas and got a huge kick out of helping frame and imagine new ways of expressing the interior meaning of a brand. Having said that, I also found that the most effective techniques were also the most manipulative. That made for a real moral dilemma which I was never able to reconcile. I know others who made peace with it and it works for them. It just never worked for me. Hence my departure from that world.
Did you own a Porsche?
I never did, I got to drive them which was fun.
How does one go about telling/selling the "Porsche story" without having experienced that story?
Like most brands, their story is not about the experience of the product. It's about the philosophy or history of their company. It's about the relationship of consumers to the product. We were always looking for the "leveragable insight" or the "gleaming detail" that could tell the story. Something simple like the fact that the ignition is on the left in a Porsche. This points to the racing heritage. In the old days drivers started the race outside the car. So when the gun went off, Porsche decided it would be faster to put the ignition on the left. Turns out they were right. This became one of the operating metaphors for the brand. That's just one of many examples.
At some point, you left the ad world to attend seminary. (What the heck were you thinking?!)
Apparently I like to commit career suicide every once in a while and start over. I had a stiff-arm-heisman aversion to ever becoming a pastor but I loved theology and wanted to study it. Seminary seemed like the place to be.
Did you go to seminary knowing you wanted to become a pastor? Was it a calling?
I figured I'd become a teacher or something. It took about four years of painful and liberating inner work to help me accept my calling as a pastor.
Are there any similarities between promoting God's story and Porsche's? Does Porsche's story have a hell narrative?
The most powerful brands always borrow the language and stories of religion. There is always some kind of sin and suffering, usually of technological ignorance (i.e. you didn't know that our product could change your life and now you suffer for it). And then there is always the promise of redemption, freedom, connection, bliss, forgiveness, etc. (i.e. buy our product and you belong with us, we will protect you and keep you from...). The only problem is the solution is always temporary. Once the newness wears off or a new model comes out, you are once again stuck in sin.
As an ad guy, you got paid by major brands to create sexy and compelling collateral/commercials. Chances are, the messaging you created probably attempted to share a concise story/experience in a very short amount of time. After you became a pastor, how did you avoid making God just another one of your ad clients? Once you started writing/preaching sermons, was your advertising experience somewhat of a detriment in the beginning? Because lots of pastors (without advertising backgrounds) talk about God like a product/brand they're selling. Was that difficult to avoid at first?
I was pretty fundamentalist about keeping advertising techniques out of church, that's one of the reasons I became a Mennonite. They are the furthest thing from self-promoting. It was like a purification I felt I needed to go through. But in time I realized they had a story they simply couldn't tell and it needed to be told. I slowly reintegrated some of my skills, but in a completely new way. There is one ingredient that makes the difference between influence and manipulation. Love. Love has no strings attached, it is just a gift. In advertising there is always a hook, something that is designed to get you. If it doesn't work, we just keep fishing. In Love there is only the offering without metrics or attachment to outcomes. That was liberating and allowed me to tell the story free from fear.
Speaking of that Mennonite church--how did that first community of people shape you/change you as a pastor?
Trinity Mennonite Church was such a joy to pastor. I love them and they are simply amazing people. They raised me as a pastor, I learned many things, too many to count.
What was your greatest challenge?
My greatest challenge was learning that I wasn't Jesus, nor was I one of his relatives. I had a bit of a messiah complex that needed dismantling.
As you were pastoring that first church, did you have moments when you regretted your decision to leave the ad world?
I never once regretted my decision to leave advertising. This was a calling in the deepest sense. When you taste that, it doesn't matter how difficult things get, you just accept them as your reality.
In the opening pages of your new book, "Selling Water By the River," you write "we must be careful not to confuse Christ with Christianity". While I agree with you, I do wonder if the bigger issue is how subjective our confusion seems to be. Some Christians might look at America's Christian culture and think that our confusion between Jesus and Christianity is semantics or "liberal drama" while others think this confusion is an epidemic. With such a wide array of opinions and thoughts about who Christ is, is a remedy to the "confusion" possible?
A rolling pin is very good for rolling dough, but terrible for cutting vegetables. A knife is very good at cutting vegetables, but terrible at rolling dough. If you apply the wrong instrument to the wrong thing, it won't go well. This is the difference between the mind and the heart. The mind is excellent for creating doctrine, dogma, organization, and words (i.e. institutional Christianity) it is terrible for experiencing love. The heart is made for giving and receiving love, but you should never use it to prepare your tax return. Until we have known the Love and Life Jesus promised in our heart, we will forever debate meanings and get nowhere. But once we experience it the debate ends, the words disappear, and we are left with gratitude.
In your mind, what are the most important ways in which Jesus is different from Christianity?
If Christ is the wind, then Christianity is the sail. Some sails are better than others at catching the wind, some sailors are better at using the sail, but there is always and only one wind. The relationship between these two things is one way. The sail without the wind is a limp flag, wind without a sail is still the wind. Christ is the pre-existant creative power of the universe with no birthday or death date, Christianity is an institution designed to harness that power. If the institution goes, the power remains. (Shane talks more about this analogy in the book trailer for Selling Water By the River. See that here.)
Shane, this past August, I met a 26-year-old Islamic iman in Sri Lanka. He was a kind man, a leader in his city, a father and husband, and one known throughout his community as a spiritual leader willing to work with other faith leaders to help people… is Jesus relevant to his life? If yes, how so? From your perspective, is "salvation" possible for him?
I make a distinction between the historical person of Jesus and Christ, the power that animated him. These two became one for a period of time. But Christ existed before the person of Jesus walked the earth and Christ exists now that Jesus no longer walks the earth. That power is bigger than any religion. That power didn't need a name to operate in the world. Jesus gave his gifts to people without requiring conversion or membership in a religion (woman at the well) or without people knowing his name (blind man with mud on his eyes). So yes I believe Jesus is relevant and salvation is possible for your friend even if he doesn't know the name of Jesus. That is how big Christ is!
In 2009 you became a teaching pastor alongside Rob Bell at Mars Hill Bible Church. How did you adjust to the transition from a "small church" to mega-sized church? What was the best part about working with Rob? What was the most difficult parts? What did you learn about being a pastor from Rob?
I loved working with Rob, we had been friends for a number of years before working together. It was a delight to have a creative partner and peer in preparing sermons. Neither of us had ever really had that before. The shift to a big church wasn't as big a deal as the shift from serving Mennonites to serving West Michigan. This region has a ferocious history of Reformed theology, and they are taught to be afraid and protective. It took me quite a while to adjust my language patterns so that they could understand that I wasn't a threat. I had to reinvent myself as a communicator in front of thousands of people. But I welcomed the challenge. I learned a lot from Rob as a friend more than as a pastor.
How were you affected by the release of Love Wins?
Well, I was immediately branded with the "presumed" beliefs in the book even though I didn't write it. I lost a number of speaking engagements. The ones I didn't lose warned me not to mention Mars Hill, Rob Bell, or the book. That lasted for about a year. As for my preaching, I knew I had a pastoral responsibility to shepherd a traumatized and frightened community. Instead of exploring fresh ideas, I spent a lot of time grounding us in simple teachings intended to offer healing and reassurance. There was a tremendous amount of misunderstanding and misinformation we had to work against. It shifted our agenda dramatically.
Theologically, are you and Rob on the same page when it comes to the concept of hell?
This is one of the biggest misunderstandings. Rob doesn't have a position or a concept of hell, he is an artist exploring possibilities and making unexpected connections, not a theologian plotting out a system. In other words there is nothing to agree or disagree with. It's like saying I disagree with that song or that painting. We are on the same page about one thing though. When it comes to matters of the afterlife we are firmly in the realm of speculation. In these matters, I don't think anyone should have a theological position. I recommend theological possibilities with a heavy does of humility instead. We also agree that hell on earth is real, but so is heaven on earth.
Not in the least. I was pretty clear when I accepted the call there was a good chance Rob would be moving on in the next few years. No one ever said that, it was just my intuition. Everyone points to the book as the cause of the departure. I disagree. I believe his departure began long before that. In my humble opinion, I think the book opened doors which provided just enough light for the next step which he needed to take.YOU CAN READ HERE WHY SHANE DECIDED TO LEAVE MARS HILL.
From what you wrote in your departure letter to your church, it sounds like the new position caused you to feel stifled? Is this true?
Mars Hill has excellent Elders. I trust they know what is best for that church, they needed a full-time teacher and that did not line up with my sense of calling. They chose a great teacher who fits much better than I did in that role. I was truly honored to serve as I did and love that community very much.
Was leaving the right choice?
I'm really enjoying my new life. I'm speaking, writing, and have started doing leadership development and executive coaching in corporate america. It's a thrilling new area of exploration. However, the mantle of pastoral leadership remains. Once you become someone's pastor, in a way they always relate to you that way.
Do you see yourself fitting into another pastoral role in the future?
Not formally. Once you leave Mars Hill, there aren't a lot of places you fit after that. But more than this, that's not where my energy is right now.
There's far more to Shane Hipps than the questions and controversies that surround him. I got to realize this firsthand a week or two after this interview. At a Christian leaders' retreat in Maryland, Shane and I met and conversed (sometimes at length) about God, politics, and culture. And during one of those conversations, when the topic happened upon my past, the baggage I carry, and my desire to heal and hope, Shane offered me words (words that came in the form of wisdom and a personal challenge) that changed my life. Okay, maybe that's an overstatement. But seriously, the words he shared with me that day have been echoing inside my head and heart ever since. So in a way, I'm not exaggerating, they have changed me to some degree.
more I've gotten to know Shane, the more I've wanted everybody else to
get to know Shane. Despite only being in his early forties, Shane seems
to possess a great deal of wisdom and insight about life and humanity
and God, physical and spiritual understandings that I believe most
people (believers and otherwise) might find helpful to living.