Cutting-Edge Orthodoxy

MOST MEDIA ACCOUNTS of Nadia Bolz-Weber focus on her tattoos. She has the liturgical year tattooed on one arm, from creation to Pentecost; another features Lazarus still wrapped, but very much alive. She got that one while struggling to write a sermon on Jesus’ raised friend.

The tattoos on a 6’1” woman with a taste for punk, a bad-girl past, and a gay-inclusive church—House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver—make for easy picking for secular media. You may have caught Bolz-Weber’s book Pastrix on the New York Times bestseller list. Wise, self-aware, hipster Christian celebrities have a market for books, and she’s tapped it.

In contrast to much of the superficial media coverage, what’s most interesting about Bolz-Weber is her deep traditionalism. “Secular media doesn’t understand the difference between orthodox and conservative,” she tells me through a toothy smile, blue-green eyes blazing over thick-rimmed ’50s-era glasses.

“House,” as the community calls itself, is almost medieval in its liturgy. There are no instruments, just a cappella chant and pillows for kneelers at a prayer station. The Eucharist is served weekly. Eastern Orthodox iconography drapes the church’s interior, stoles, website, and literature. Latin hymns fill the communion liturgy on the Sunday evening I attend. Bolz-Weber is proud to be using Franz Schubert’s setting for the Mass.

This is not high church fussiness; it is liturgical and churchly orthodoxy for scruffy hipsters. Bolz-Weber explains that many of her fellow social progressives want to jettison the Bible and Jesus in order to be more inclusive. “But why should we jettison the only things we have going for us?” she asks.

House is a church plant of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) that began in 2008. Bolz-Weber figured that if there was ever going to be a church to her taste, she’d have to start it. She has the ear of her denomination’s presiding bishop, travels for speaking engagements sometimes twice a week, and is inundated with requests, from seminarians to synods, to study her church. All a bit odd for a church of some 180 regulars.

Hers was not always a star on the rise in the ecclesial world. She describes her former self as an angry, self-endangering teenager who would have been happy dying before age 30 and treating her body accordingly. She was a hipster before it was cool, getting tattoos as a teen and a nose ring before anyone had ever seen them.

But then something happened. “God picked me up off that path, said ‘How cute!’ and put me on another.” She got off alcohol and drugs and met her future husband, Matthew, who was studying to be an ELCA pastor. She had been attending a Unitarian Universalist church but felt they think too highly of human nature. “It makes me wonder if they read the newspaper,” she notes. She often taps her chest and says, “It’s dark in there.” She found the Lutheran tradition was the only one that gave language to what she’d experienced. “When I learned about simul justus et peccator I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we are all sinners and saints at the same time.’” The name for her future church was born.

Part of House’s  mission is gay inclusion. One parishioner, Stuart, has the playful title of “Minister of Fabulous.” When I ask why he worships at House, he quickly answers, “They accept me here. An evangelical church told me that parents would pull their kids out if I worked with the children’s programs.” When Stuart entered a drag beauty contest—and won!—half of House was there cheering him on. “People asked how we knew him, and we said, ‘We go to church with him!’” Part of House’s gift is that it reaches people whom much of the rest of the church, even those trying to be gay-inclusive, never could reach.

They do it by making gay inclusion not their focus. Their focus is on Jesus, how screwed up his people are, and how spacious and proactive his grace is. Bolz–Weber admits in church the Sunday I’m there that she is recycling a sermon from the year before. She first shows the humor of the former stand-up comedian she is, “Isn’t that green of me?” and then confesses, “I’ve been traveling; it’s been really tough lately.” Then she uncorks a gorgeous meditation on Psalm 23, asking if we can get underneath the hackneyed familiarity. As a child in the Church of Christ, she thought the King James formulation meant that the Lord is a shepherd whom I do not want! And why would she? God is portrayed as an angry guy “with a really great surveillance system.” But, she says, she eventually came to realize, “This is a shepherd worth wanting.”

This is Bolz–Weber’s preaching at its purest—confessional, funny, aimed at conversion. She’s out for your soul.

ONE ELEMENT OF House’s life that looks unique to most church observers is its use of technology. They are hardly intentional about it. “It’s not like we have a social media strategy,” one jokes. House’s people just live their lives differently than their less-connected elders.

Bolz-Weber concludes worship with another innovative idea from church members based on the first lection from Acts 2 about the disciples sharing possessions: “You know, that idyllic hippie stage in the church that lasted for like 20 minutes?” Members have brought possessions from their homes to sell on eBay. They’re going to take the money earned and start a deacon’s fund for members who need help with groceries or bills. “That way there’s no difference between giver and receiver,” she explains later. “Everyone has stuff they can sell.”

“We’re like a laboratory,” she says. “No one here can say, ‘We’ve never done it that way before,’ or ‘that’ll cost us money,’ since we don’t have any. We get to play and put what we learn out there on the web.”

No community ministries at House could exist entirely online. But almost nothing they do could exist without the internet either. Members told me about a hymn sing that took place in the pub. Participants wept to be singing “old time religion” songs over cold suds. Yet only some small portion of those singing came from the church. Others saw the planned meeting on Meetup.com and came too. Still others happened to be at the (largely gay) bar that day, heard the singing, and wanted to join in. Online and embodied communities depend upon one another. “We live our life online, and lots of outsiders consume and comment on what we do,” one tells me.

Bolz-Weber describes herself as conducting much of her pastoral care online, or via text. While one can’t go into intense depth in 140 characters, one can say something, and such connection can lead to further in-depth interaction. Bolz-Weber couldn’t send a physical piece of mail to her parishioners if she wanted to. She knows none of their addresses. When I ask how often she’s online, she says simply, “All the time. I’m never not on it.”

As some of Bolz-Weber’s comments have suggested already, she and her community are not unaware of the dangers of social networking. Parishioners tease her that they have seen her instant messaging her husband while in the same room with him. She agrees: “Social media are more dangerous to families than they are to churches.” Churches’ biggest danger is using it wrong. The right way to do it is to find out who in church is a Millennial native and let them create the future. The wrong way? “Don’t market a product to them like you would to their boomer parents, because they will [freaking] resent you,” she said. (She doesn’t say “freaking.”)

House has several mottos for itself, all of which are imminently Tweetable. “We are anti-excellence, pro-participation,” one says. Bulletins passed out often have jobs scrawled across their top. The recipient of a job then gets to lead in the call to worship, or the passing of the peace, or the prayer after communion. They don’t have to be good at it. They just have to lead their friends for a minute. Several voices catch as they mouth the ancient and beautiful words.

Bolz-Weber sees this drive toward participation, flattening, and democratization as a similarity between House and the effects of social media on the rest of us. Yet it is still she who chants the Eucharistic liturgy, who wears the clergy collar. “It’s not that I’m special, I’m just set apart not to have the same freedom as everyone else,” she says. “I’m not free to flirt with people here, to have my emotional needs be met by people here. I’m not free to preach anything else but Christ and him crucified.” Flattening has its limits.

Another slogan on House T-shirts is “Radical Protestants: Nailing sh*t to the church door since 1517.” Put less colorfully, “You have to be rooted in tradition in order to innovate with integrity.” She notes that evangelicalism in the United States is often, “Twenty minutes old and two inches deep. We rarely see anything more than 50 years old.” Yet we have an almost innate need to belong to something bigger, older, more mysterious than ourselves, she says. “Sort of in a Joseph Campbell sort of way, you know?” As a pastor she needs a bishop looking over her shoulder, not to tell her what to do, but to make sure her hurricane of a personality isn’t the source of her authority. The church’s tradition is that. “The last thing I need is to get to make [it] up as I go,” she says.

But innovate she does. An icon of mother and child sits at the front of the entrance. It’s made of pieces of Christmas advertising, forming a mosaic of remarkable beauty and power. Using eBay to enact Acts 2 is a beautiful stroke of genius. Her own efforts to meet Millennials where they are include giving them power to create. “They are producers, not simply consumers,” Bolz-Weber says. In one example, Bolz-Weber invited church members to create something new for Ash Wednesday. Several spent half the day Saturday doing just that. “If I asked them to join a liturgy guild that meets half of Saturday, they never would have,” she says. But she gave them freedom and space and they created something beautiful. Authority is given away, and those who try to squeeze it lose it.

It’s a lesson the church knows in its bones, often forgets, and needs to relearn. Perhaps God is using a hipster pastor with a medieval soul to remind us of just that.

The wrong way to imitate House would be to copy it exactly. Most church communities are not six years old and filled with gays and lesbians who love Eucharistic chant.

The way to learn from this church is to learn what they worry about and what they don’t. They worry about including others. They want to chew on scripture and gaze on its delights. They want to enjoy one another’s presence, not in programming but in friendship. They are increasingly seeing that they want their celebrity pastor to be a blessing to the wider world.

The right way to imitate it is to learn from its specificity how to enter into one’s own specificity with integrity. How to do so with humor. How to do so with a theology big enough to allow one to talk about the depths of sin and the heights of glory.

And for many of the Millennials, how to all but ignore the smartphones. They’re there, sure. You pay that bill before you pay the student loan bill. Many don’t have access, and justice matters to us. Nevertheless we live our lives on these things. Now tell us about a God big and rich enough to make me willing to turn the things off for a little while. 

Jason Byassee is pastor of Boone (N.C.) United Methodist Church and coeditor (with L. Roger Owens) of Pastoral Work: Engagements with the Vision of Eugene Peterson (Cascade Books). This article draws from his work as a research fellow for the New Media Project at Christian Theological Seminary.

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