Two years ago, in December 2011, yet another immigrant arrived in Orange County. Rob Bell migrated not from abroad but from Michigan, where he was a megachurch pastor and author who’d recently made the cover of Time and was about to be profiled in The New Yorker. Bell’s arrival, with his wife and three children, in the oceanfront city of Laguna Beach was tantamount to an escape. His spring 2011 book, Love Wins, the catalyst for the magazine stories, had ignited a firestorm in the world of evangelical Christianity. The book questioned the existence of hell and raised the possibility that all people, not just Christians, will be redeemed by God. Nothing in the book was theologically new; indeed, Bell never denied outright the reality of hell. But his book became a flashpoint in the ongoing debate over evangelicalism’s future. Younger, liberal evangelicals were for the book. Older, conservative evangelicals rejected it. In the midst of the debate, Bell, who had already tired of the institutional responsibilities of running his 10,000-member Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan, stepped down from leadership and lit out in semi-anonymity for the beach.
When I spoke to Bell earlier this year, he was still in the first flush of California love, waxing lyrical about the spirituality of surfing (he owns seven surfboards and arranges his schedule around the daily surf report). He was also at work on plans for a television talk show. Bell represents the new breed of young evangelicals who are, with gathering speed, reshaping and in some respects dissolving their movement. A decade ago, Bell was lionized in the evangelical world for blending the movement’s age-old formula (conservative theology; rapid, corporate-style growth) with hip new brains and style (sermons larded with quantum physics; a YouTube video series). Yet, like so many younger evangelicals, Bell grew disenchanted with church. By the time he wrote Love Wins, he was already fantasizing about Southern California, where he had attended graduate school. Bell doesn’t go to church in Laguna Beach. He and some friends from college have formed a quasi-intentional spiritual community, gathering in one anothers’ homes to worship and talk about faith.
“Evangelicals are good at whipping people up into a frenzy, and then you’re like, ‘What was that?’ ” Bell told me. “I was the pastor of a megachurch, and lots of people came, and I did book tours and interviews and films. That’s fine. But I’ll take seeing God every day, which is washing dishes with my kids and walking my dog and interacting with someone I just met.”