Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith

May 29, 2006 by

Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith by Rob Bell

“The thought of the word church and the word marketing in the same sentence makes me sick.”

That’s from page 99 of Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. So you can see why I had to finally read the book. Of course the last time we talked about Rob Bell and Velvet Elvis we got 26 heated comments, mostly either attacking or defending Rob Bell and his church. Let’s be a little more civil this time around, eh?

Rob Bell founded Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Mich. while in his 20s and the church exploded, bringing in over 1,000 people the first day. All of that without any “marketing” as Bell would say, because it makes him sick. But we’ll get to the marketing. Bell also teaches in the Nooma series of short films that can be used in church services or small groups. You could also describe Bell with that hard to define, catch-all emergent label—so you can take that however you like.

Velvet Elvis is all about re-thinking. Re-thinking everything. Bell wants us to think about Christianity in a new way, to re-discover it. He’s big on questions. The main point of his book is that Christianity is constantly changing. It’s always growing, stretching and transforming. God doesn’t change, but how we explore and approach our faith does.

Bell makes the comparison to art (hence the book’s title) and how an artist doesn’t paint the same thing over and over again. Nor do artists stop and decide that all the great art has been created so they’re done. Instead art is always growing and expanding. There are new ways to do art. Understandably, not everybody wants or needs modern art. A lot of people don’t get it. And that’s OK. But some people do need new ways of doing art. That’s how Rob Bell sees Christianity.

That’s also where lots of folks like to tear Bell apart. He’s willing to ask questions about basic assumptions of Christianity. Like having a “personal relationship” with Jesus or “inviting him into your heart.” Those phrases aren’t biblical. But some people act like they are. He also points out that people have used the Bible to support all sorts of terrible things (slavery, racism, sexism, etc.) and now most people have decided those were poor interpretations of the Bible. Everything in the Bible has to be interpreted, and sometimes we screw it up. So it makes sense to question those interpretations from time to time, to test them and see if they still stand up.

What I really like about Velvet Elvis is that Bell takes those questions and dives into the Bible. He brings a level of cultural context to the Bible I’ve rarely heard before, helping us understand how certain passages were written or how the readers at the time might have understood them.

He also has some great nuggets, and I couldn’t help but pull out a few:

“Christian is a great noun and a poor adjective.” (84)

“Jesus’ desire for his followers is that they live in such a way that they bring heaven to earth. What’s disturbing then is when people talk more about hell after this life than they do about hell here and now. As a Christian, I want to do what I can to resist hell coming to earth. Poverty, injustice, suffering—they are all hells on earth, and as Christians we oppose them with all our energies. Jesus told us to.” (148)

[It’s about relationships and experiences—actions—more than it’s about arguments or proof:] “This is why so many passages about the early church deal with possessions and meals and generosity. They understood that people are rarely persuaded by arguments, but more often by experiences.” (164)

“The church doesn’t exist for itself; it exists to serve the world. It is not ultimately about the church; it’s about all the people God wants to bless through the church. When the church loses sight of this, it loses its heart.” (165)

“Most of the messages we receive are about how to make life easier. The call of Jesus goes the other direction: It’s about making our lives more difficult.” (169)

On to the Marketing
And now we can talk about Bell’s take on marketing. I wanted to go through everything above because I don’t dislike Rob Bell or Velvet Elvis. I liked the book and I’d hate for my criticism of one single sentence to turn anybody off.

But rather than take a single sentence, let’s give it a little context:

Please realize that to this day I have never read a book on church planting or church growth. I remember being told that a sign had been rented with the church name on it to go in front of the building where we were meeting. I was mortified and had them get rid of it. You can’t put a sign out front, I argued; people have to want to find us. And so there were no advertisements, no promotions, and no signs.

The thought of the word church and the word marketing in the same sentence makes me sick.

We had these ideas and these dreams, and we went with them.

I think Bell is falling into the typical argument against church marketing—that we see so much deceptive, awful marketing out there that we assume marketing can only be deceptive. But the problem is that’s just bad marketing. You don’t discount the idea of preaching based on one bad preacher.

I think Bell also embraces a much more relational and journey-centric idea of Christianity. With relationship at the core of his church’s DNA, a sign out front might not make sense. That’s fine, don’t use a sign.

I think what Bell is missing is that marketing—especially church marketing—comes in more forms than signs and advertising and demographics. It comes through in every choice you make, from the decision to have a web site (Mars Hill does), to not have a sign, to cancel a Christmas service, to how a bulletin should look, etc. That’s marketing. Whether or not you choose to actively think through the look of that bulletin, it’s still marketing. Opting not to think about the look of the bulletin is just bad marketing (or opens the door for bad marketing, I suppose it’s possible—though not likely—to nail a great bulletin without thinking about it).

Marketing happens. So you better put some thought into it. But don’t tell me that church marketing makes you sick. You can say bad church marketing makes you sick—dishonest, manipulative, fake church marketing. And I’d agree. It sucks.

Lighting doesn’t make you sick. Bad lighting does.
Preaching doesn’t make you sick. Bad preaching does.
Coffee doesn’t make you sick. Bad coffee does.

OK, so that last one is a little off, but you get the point. Church marketing sucks because so often it’s bad, not because it’s inherently bad.

And I keep saying ‘I think’ because Bell doesn’t spend much time on church marketing. He quickly moves on and doesn’t really explain his position. So I could be wrong and he has other issues with church marketing. At any rate, we’re all trying to see this broken vessel that is the church actually reach the least, the last and the lost. And that doesn’t suck, no matter what you think of marketing.

Let me end with a powerful passage near the end of Velvet Elvis:

One of the central metaphors for God and his people throughout the Bible is that of a groom and his bride. God is the groom; his people are the bride. I like this because it makes the church a “she”. We need to reclaim this image.

The church is a she.

She’s a mystery, isn’t she? Still going after all this time. After the Crusades and the Inquisition and Christian cable television. Still going. And there continue to be people like me who believe she is one of the best ideas ever. In spite of all the ways she has veered off track. In spite of all the people who have actually turned away from God because of what they experienced in church. I am starting to realize why: The church is a double-edged sword. When it’s good, when it’s on, when it’s right, it’s like nothing on earth. A group of people committed to selflessly serving and loving the world around them? Great. But when it’s bad, all that potential gets turned the other way. From the highest of the highs to the lowest of the lows. Sometimes in the same week. Sometimes in the same day.

But she will live on. She’s indestructible. When she dies in one part of the world, she explodes in another. She’s global. She’s universal. She’s everywhere. And while she’s fragile, she’s going to endure. In every generation there will be those who see her beauty and give their lives to see her shine. Jesus said the gates of hell will not prevail against her. That’s strong language. And it’s true. She will continue to roll across the ages, serving and giving and connecting people with God and each other. And people will abuse
her and manipulate her and try to control her, but they’ll pass on. And she will keep going.

Post By:

Kevin D. Hendricks

When Kevin isn't busy as the editor of Church Marketing Sucks, he runs his own writing and editing company, Monkey Outta Nowhere. Kevin has been blogging since 1998, runs the hyperlocal site West St. Paul Reader, and has published several books, including 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading, The Stephanies and all of our church communication books.
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15 Responses to “Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith”

  • j truitt
    May 29, 2006

    all i want to know is how the dude got 1,000 people on day one with zero “marketing.”
    ps: i have read the book and been to the church and i like them both.

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  • Justin
    May 29, 2006

    Viral Marketing. That’s how they got 1,000+ people on day #1. Someone told someone who told someone who… Their marketing may not have been traditional, and it may not have been intentional either, but it still happened.
    I’m glad it happened too! I like going to that church when I’m over in Grand Rapids!
    Rob Bell challenges me to look at my own walk with Jesus, and also how I view the world around me. That’s a good thing!

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  • Holy Cow!
    May 29, 2006

    Maybe. Just maybe, what he meant to say was that he doesn’t like church marketing that sucks.
    A rented sign in front of the church. Sounds like it has all the makings of bad marketing. It’s not a flea market afterall.
    From what I know about his ministry, Nooma, etc. I can’t imagine him putting off great marketing. He has it all around him. You could use both the church and his Nooma work as good studies for effective church marketing.
    And for the record, having no sign at all is marketing and is done often in your high end shops. It speaks to being so great that you don’t need a sign.

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  • Doug Paul
    May 29, 2006

    You have to know all of Rob Bell’s story to know why 1,000 people showed up on his first Sunday. I’m sure there were some key elements of “viral” marketing, which at its’ most basic, is the enthusiasm of one person talking another.
    But the main reason that his church exploded on the first day was because he had been an associate pastor of Ed Dobson’s church…he ran their “alternative” Saturday night service. It should be noted that Ed Dobson’s church was running over 5,000 people. The “mother church” (as Rob calls it) gave Rob and the other people starting it their blessing and self-promoted it within the church.
    It’s pretty easy to see that he already had a pretty rabid following from that church…and that at least for that very first inaugural Sunday at Mars Hill, there was simply a large migration from the old church to the new one.
    I personally don’t find this impressive.
    What IS impressive is that within 18 months they grew from the original 1,000 people to 10,000…making it the fastest growing church in United States history. From my understanding of talking to some of the members, there was simply all of this energy that God was bringing a group of people together to go out and change their world (this is very evident in pretty much all of his teachings).
    Simply put…this was viral marketing (the word of mouth kind) at its finest. People were seeing transformation in their own lives, seeing Christ and the gospel in a way that they had never seen it before (he has a way of making it seem SO NEW), and they couldn’t wait to tell everyone they knew.
    On a personal note…I saw Rob speak when I was attending Wheaton 3 years ago and have been listening to him online every week since then.

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  • Scott
    May 30, 2006

    I find it interesting that church marketing makes Rob Bell sick, but he is still concerned about how people are best persuaded (experiences over arguments). I think that lends support to Kevin’s argument that Bell really means bad church marketing makes him sick.

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  • Tiffany Nevil
    May 30, 2006

    I read Velvet Elvis a few months ago and found it radically changed my perspective of my own faith, the way I live my life and the way I read the Bible.
    And as a person who is in charge of church promotions and publicity, it challenged me to rethink the way that we expose our church to people in our community and our city. It challenged me to rethink the way we expose our church to the people in our church as well.
    I agree – I don’t think Bell meant he hates the word marketing and church used in the same sentence. I think what he hates is how we have twisted it and the many ways it has been poorly executed in thought and in action. I think he’s talking about all those churches with their “fire and brimstone” signs out front who really believe people would be interested in coming to church as a result of their sign!
    Given the entire context of the book, I think the reason he didn’t further delve into that statment about marketing is because that wasn’t the point. His goal was just to challenge our pre-conceived notions and our bad Christian habits.
    Sounds a lot like a website on rethinking church marketing…..

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  • bob
    June 15, 2006

    whoa, forget marketing. The Lord will build his church. we unfortunately have gotten all screwed up with #s and popularity. Rob Bell conveys a message about Christ in a language that many have covered their ears about. current religious dogma has lost the central point. ‘While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.’

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  • Andy Rowell
    July 12, 2006

    Flannel is the (gasp) marketing company for Rob Bell. At least I think it is a marketing company. They designed the cover of Velvet Elvis and the interior design and I think they’re involved with the Nooma videos. (Or perhaps Flannel is Nooma?) Not much on the internet about them that I can see except:

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  • sgallo2
    October 13, 2006

    I think what Rob bell is trying to say about marketing is that the idea of the church as a “building” makes him sick, because just like I and others believe that the church is truly God’s people not the actual building. In other words, it is based on relationships rather than on bricks. I really like this idea a lot. He hated the fact that they were putting a sign up that ways saying to the people around them “this is the church” rather than the people (church) going out and gathering people. This is the way it was done for thousands of years. Remember also we used to meet in homes due to persecution. I really want to read his book.

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  • Nicole
    November 20, 2006

    We can’t dog Marketing in general because the root of marketing is getting the word out. Sure, the motive behind getting the word out is typically to increase brand image, thus increasing sales and revenue. However, in a church scene, assuming motives are pure, what is a church to do to increase their attendance and consequently, increase the receptivity of the gospel, but to market the church and get more people to come. There can’t be anything wrong with that. Again – bad marketing is the deceptive crap that many of the mega churches have been pulling lately, but the core concept of marketing a church is not innately evil.

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  • Kevin
    December 1, 2006

    Don’t let Bell fool you. He loves marketing. Everything about him is marketing. The way he looks, the clothes he wheres, the way he talks, the music he uses in his videos, etc. He’s as marketing savvy as they come.
    And the best marketing of all that Bell has done is talking about the miraculous first sunday, which wasn’t so miraculous…as “Holy Cow!” pointed out….1,000 people showed up the first day because they came over from Bells “mother church”… i find it very disingenuious of Bell to leave this out of the history of Mars Hill….what authentic man of God would allow people to believe it was all Gods doing, when it wasn’t….
    Don’t be fooled…Bell loves marketing…

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  • Geoff
    October 29, 2007

    It seems to me that this idea of church marketing and how it relates to Rob Bell and Mars Hill is really just missing the point. I’ve read Velvet Elvis around 5 times now, and I’ve read his next book Sex God twice, and I can say that while there are some things that I do not like in both books, I think from really trying to soak in what Bell is trying to say in Velvet Elvis would help a lot of people. Like others have stated above, Rob’s goal for Velvet Elvis was to try to shake Christians…to rock their beliefs, not just about the Bible or Jesus, but about Christianity…to do that, he has to get us talking, get us asking questions. Questions like, “I wonder if Rob Bell really believes in Marketing?” NOOOOOOO! We are totally missing the beauty of what he has written! We are doing exactly what has been done in the past history in the church. We are being so leagalistic! Why can’t we just say, “Man that Bell! He must be doing something right, 1,000 people to 10,000 in less than 2 years! Way to go Rob!” We can’t do that because, we are jealous! We are the type of people that would rather sit at home, read his books, criticize his motives, while he is empowering thousands to lead lives worthy of their callings. I say that we are the ones with the wrong marketing strategy…we are marketing a faith that is belittling someone’s calling. God has blessed him, and we are petty enough to say, “Man, he has to have a great marketing strategy!” Hey! Wake Up! He has God! Don’t you think that is enough!?!? Man, no matter what I may agree with or disagree with what Rob says or doesn’t say in his books or his sermons, he is seeking God. I’m off to do the same…anyone else wanna come…or do you want to just sit at home and talk more about his marketing?

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  • Sara
    December 15, 2007

    Rob Bell has been an amazing influence in my life. I was a very burned out Christian after years of growing up in an ultra-conservative, Bible thumping denomination. Bell helped me to do away with all this “extra baggage” and simply begin to realize the simple truth that I was saved by God – and I was worth it.
    Velvet Elvis is a great book. :)

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  • Charles Chance
    February 18, 2008

    Rob Bells point made by the statement was that the gospel shouldn’t have to be sold. God’s Word is good enough by itself. Ecc. 3:11 says “He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end”. Romans 1:20 says “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”
    Clearly mankind has a natural hunger for the truth. If we supply it and do it in a way that is not sooo “christian-ese” and cheesy, people might listen.

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  • Llora Kranich
    September 9, 2011

    A changed life is the “ONLY” marketing the church needs!!! I know I am very late with this reply, however, I just heard about this book. So here it goes…..Christianity doesn’t evolve…doesn’t need repainting!!! If the message isn’t that of Jesus Christ and him Crucified….it’s a false gospel!!! Paul warned of this….guess what Jesus said “Go and SIN no more” the message is that man is depraved, lost and undone without Jesus Christ….it’s not about social justice, service or any of that….it’s about accepting by faith that Christ’s shed blood washes the sinner clean!! That his finished work on the cross is also our means of sanctification. The CHURCH grows when a person is drawn by Holy Spirit conviction….when the pure gospel is preached with boldness… repentance….the method doesn’t need to change….no watering down….Grace is not cheap!!! Churches like his and Osteens and any like them….preach feel good psychology….motivation speeches….there’s no real gospel messsge….yes God is love and loves mankind, however, He has put forth his plan of redemption and that hasn’t changed. The sinner must accept Jesus as Lord and savior….turn from Sin …..and live in God’s Will…not his own.. it’s also conditional on remaining under the blood……it’d all by faith alone….not good works or service….those acts are fruits of ones salvation. Churches that preach the true message of the Cross do not grow like these mega churches because it’s the pure Gospel, no frills or thrills…and it requires a person to leave his old life and turn from sin……the “champion in you” cannot be there unless you have been saved!!! Are you saved?!! Get right and don’t be misled by a false message and cheap grace.

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