Update: Nadia Bolz-Weber stepped down from House for All Sinners and Saints in July 2018; in August 2021 she was installed as the first pastor of public witness for the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States.
Nadia Bolz-Weber likes to have both tradition and innovation happening at the same time in House for All Sinners and Saints, a mission church she founded in Denver, Colo., that’s part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Her church follows the ancient liturgy of the church, yet during Easter Vigil, for example, members are asked to tell the resurrection story in teams. People have made films, written original pieces of choral music and acted out scenes with Barbie dolls.
“We’ll call that ancient/future church and different stuff like that, but I find that’s what people are drawn to,” said Bolz-Weber, who earned a master of divinity degree from Iliff School of Theology.
She has become a leading voice of the emerging church after a hard-drinking life as a stand-up comedian and restaurant worker, and has been described as a “6-foot-1 Christian billboard” for her tattoo-covered arms.
Bolz-Weber spoke with Jesse James DeConto for Faith & Leadership about communicating a historic doctrine in today’s culture and holding on to something old in an identifiably Christian way. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: For those clergy who want to be doing what you’re doing, what do they need to know?
That they should figure out who their people are and try to be their pastor.
Older folks from the church will say, “What do young adults want? What do they want so that we can do it?” I’m like, “I’ve never had to ask myself that question.”
I get to be in ministry in a context I’m native to, so I’ve never had to second-guess, “Will they like this?” or, “Will they get this joke?” or, “Would they enjoy doing X, Y or Z?”
There’s something about doing ministry as the person you are that ends up making a big difference, and who you are is going to be different than who I am.
I know a lot of pastors, if you ask them, “Do you feel like you can really be here in your work?” they’d say no. I think that ends up being really key.
Q: How do you see your ministry as part of a new Reformation -- the Great Emergence or the Fourth Great Awakening that Phyllis Tickle and Diana Butler Bass have talked about?
The Holy Spirit is subversive, and one of the things the Spirit does is blur lines that we’re comfortable maintaining. My experience has been that we like to have these lines of liberal and conservative -- theologically and socially. I think that people, especially the younger generation, have experienced those lines becoming real blurry and are fine with that. I know that’s true for myself.
I’m at the point in my life where I don’t want to be a part of fundamentalism of the left or the right, mostly because it lacks two things that I can’t do without in my life anymore -- which is joy and humility.
I don’t see a lot of joy and humility in these extreme stances that people take on either side. So I feel like the Spirit moves in the blurring of those distinctions that we all like to have. Every time you meet somebody who’s in a category of conservative or hateful or narrow-minded or fill-in-the-blank, there’s some sort of connection that’s made, and then you have to rethink the category. That’s the work of the Spirit.
I think it’s interesting people dismiss the being “spiritual but not religious” thing. My business card for the church says, “We’re religious but not spiritual.” That yearning that people have is for something that’s more than 20 minutes old. I think people want to be connected to something that’s more than a whim.
There’s very little in our visual field, generally in our lives, that’s more than 50 years old. And so to be connected to something that’s ancient speaks something to us, because everything around us is new. Since the age of progress, new is better, right?
Now we go, “Wait a minute -- that’s not always true.” When new is always better, we’re not tethered to anything. I think I see a longing in people to be tethered to something, and I like to say that you have to be really deeply rooted in tradition in order to innovate with integrity.
I really like to have those two things going on at the same time all the time -- tradition and innovation. We’ll call that ancient/future church and different stuff like that, but I find that’s what people are drawn to.
Q: How do you hold on to something old in an identifiably Christian way?
I reject the premise I often hear in progressive Christianity that in order to be down with multiculturalism or with peace and social justice you have to jettison the Bible and Jesus. I think those are the only two things we have going for us.
Having said that, I feel there’s something about the Bible and orthodox Christian teachings -- the creeds, the Bible, the liturgy and, most certainly and importantly, the gospel -- that even the church can’t [mess] up. We’ve tried, and we’ve done a lot of damage, but there’s a resiliency to it.
So I think some of the questions we ask end up not being necessary, because the thing that we’ve been given to caretake is so much more resilient than our errors are. The Bible will still be here long after every book on Oprah’s list has faded into memory. It’s not going to die; it will not return empty.
I find comfort in that. That’s something that’s rooted in reality. It’s not about me coming up with the next clever thing or me trying to be as relevant as I can possibly be or any of those things, because it has its own integrity. You can’t deconstruct the truth.
The reason the Bible is important is because it bears Christ into the world; it’s the cradle that holds Christ. As a confessing Christian, the central message of the Bible for me is the revelation of how God chose to reveal God’s self.
Therefore, since we know what the central message is, the gospel itself is at the center. It’s not one thing; it’s like concentric circles.
David J. Lose has this great book, “Making Sense of Scripture.” He writes there is one view where everything in Scripture is a link -- one of them can’t be weak, so they all have to be together and they’re all equal and they’re all equally strong, and if you doubt that, everything will pull apart.
The view I’m talking about is where the gospel is in the middle, and the farther away something in the Bible gets from that, it has less and less authority.
Q: How do you communicate a historic doctrine in today’s culture?
First of all, people should read Martin Luther’s “On the Bondage of the Will” and “The Freedom of a Christian.”
I also think, if given the opportunity, people can actually see [that] the way in which they live can’t live up to even their own values.
At the end of the day, whether you’re a conservative or a liberal, there is something you didn’t recycle that day. There is something you bought that was not fair trade. There’s some thought you had that was lustful. There is no way to escape the fact that no matter what your values are, you cannot live up to them. It is impossible. That’s what we call being convicted by the law. The law is anything that convicts the conscious.
When Adam and Eve were in the garden and they heard the rustling of the leaves, they freaked out. Do you know what the rustling of the leaves was? The law. They’re convicted by the fact that there’s always something within them that is sin.
In that way, a newborn baby is full of sin. It has no thought for God or neighbor. I still don’t have a thought for God or neighbor. It’s so completely clear to me that that is who I am, but then when I hear about and experience who God is for me, when I return again to my identity that I have in my baptism, it’s corrective to that sclerotic posture that I end up always having.
Q: How does this affect you and your work?
It’s something I need. I need to receive the Eucharist. I need to hear the gospel again and again and again, because I forget all of that. I think that’s what we do in Christian communities. We gather. We remind each other of who we are. We remind each other of God’s promises, and that’s what we proclaim.
I think people, especially liberals, conflate sin with low self-esteem. They’re like, “I don’t want to talk about sin anymore,” because [they’ve been told] sin is immorality. They’re like, “I’m tired of having someone tell me I’m immoral when I’m not.”
There’s very little to do with morality. Sometimes it intersects with morality -- absolutely, no question. Being curved in on self can cause some really immoral things.
If you could actually manage to be a completely ethical and moral person, you would still be sinful. It doesn’t mean you’re bad. It just means that God is God and you are not, and that’s actually good news.
I once visited this woman who had a 6-month-old baby die. I spent the day with her. She had a pack of cigarettes next to her bed, and she didn’t have custody of her other four kids, and she was a drug addict. She spent the whole time going, “You know, this all happened because of this cop or this social worker who had it out for me.”
She had this totally external locus of control. I was so sad after I left, and it wasn’t because of the situation, which was sad; I was sad because I felt like she was never going to experience the exquisiteness of God’s grace, because she can’t confess. She needs it, but she can’t get to that place. She’s not going to have the freedom that comes from that, because she keeps going, “No, it’s this, it’s that.” Total denial.
My church always has a confession and absolution at the beginning of our liturgy. A lot of church planters want to jettison the confession, because they don’t want people to feel bad. I’m like, “Oh my God, that’s central to who we are.”
Q: How do you conceive of what you’re doing as a laboratory working for the wider church?
That’s a good question, because we’re taking the essential parts of the liturgy and the theology in the history of the church and enculturating them in our context and then saying, “Oh, look at what we did” -- and then get quoted like, “That’s identifiably Lutheran, but it looks totally different.”
I wasn’t raised Lutheran, and in the end, I feel like part of my work is to re-catechize cradle Lutherans. I’m like an evangelist saying to the Lutherans, “You have no idea what you’re sitting on. You can’t even see it.” To have a theological system based on paradox -- that’s what the Lutheran theological system is based on, a paradox, and it couldn’t be more perfect for postmodern people.
The way we view Scripture, law and gospel -- the tension of living between law and gospel simultaneously sinner and saint, living in the now and the not yet, all of that -- Lutherans aren’t afraid to play the mystery card.
We don’t have to explain everything. We don’t claim to have the answers. We have some great descriptions. I took those essentials and I said, “Well, look at what it looks like.”
I think the church in general has to be open to the way in which they need to be reintroduced to their own stuff by people who have chosen it as adults.
Q: What was your process of choosing it?
Of course, it doesn’t feel like I chose it. I didn’t go to church for 10 years. I was violently de-churched. I hated Christianity and Christians for 10 years, and then I met my husband.
He introduced me to it. I’d been clean for four years at that time. [The Lutheran church] was the only place that didn’t feel like a self-improvement program. The Lutherans said, “Nobody’s climbing the spiritual ladder. There’s no spiritual self-improvement program here, and God’s continuously rescuing us, continually coming to us, always interrupting our lives. This is the direction.”
I went, “That is what I’ve experienced.” I fell in love with the liturgy, too, which I’d never experienced. It felt like a beautiful gift that we have that we’ve been given by our ancestors to caretake for the next generation. It’s this gorgeous thing, like entering the stream of the faithful.
It’s been flowing for a while, and you get to enter it and carry it, and then the next generation comes and carries it along.