This article was written as part of a case study on House for All Sinners and Saints for the New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary. The full report of this case study and more information about all the case study research are available on our website.
media accounts of Nadia
Bolz-Weber and the House
for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado, 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 make
for easy picking for secular media. She’s been featured on the front page of
the Denver Post, on the
evening news in that city, and was tapped to do the city’s
Easter Sunrise service, preaching to 10,000 people in Denver’s gorgeous Red Rock
Amphitheater. Trying to muster up an angle on this impossible-to-ignore form of
self-expression, I ask whether the tattoos are like social media—putting on the
outside what’s inside. “Maybe,” she says, pensive. “Except for the
impermanence. With social media you’re out of the loop in a second if you don’t
catch the meme right when it’s out.”
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, fifties-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, and Eastern
church icons drape the interior, the stoles, the church’s website and
literature. Latin hymns fill the communion liturgy the Sunday evening I attend,
and 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. “I’m a liberal with a low anthropology,” she explains. “There
are about two dozen of us on earth.” One member tells me that he comes for the church’s
“profound Christocentric passion that’s not exclusionary.” One theme in the
church’s preaching and liturgy is the depth of human sin. “I come here every
week to get thrown on my ass,” another parishioner says. Bolz–Weber uses some
of the heaviest clerical language I’ve ever heard in a Protestant church for
the absolution: “As an ordained minister of the church of Jesus Christ and by
his authority, I declare that your sins are forgiven,” she says. 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.
and House’s use of social media, by contrast, is hardly thought about at all.
It’s as commonplace as wallpaper. Every time I ask Bolz-Weber or a church
member a question about social media, they have to stop and think about it.
They usually come up with something, but it takes a while. “It’s not like we
have a strategy,” one member tells me. “There’s no social media committee,”
another says, laughing. Another updates her Facebook status during our group
interview to make fun of my questions. “I’m doing Facebook for the Lord,” she
says, drawing clicks of her friends’ “like” buttons. Bolz-Weber tells of being
on the stage at the city-wide Easter sunrise service wallowing through seven
suburban women’s off-key special music. She’d asked church members to text her
while she was waiting to preach. They didn’t. “Why … weren’t you entertaining
me up there?” she asks. “I was dying!” The Millennials who make up the church
use social media the way they use oxygen. If asked, they can discuss it. If
deprived of it, they would suffer. Otherwise
they don’t think about it. “It’s 2011,” one says to me. “You can get a whole
degree online. Why wouldn’t we use this stuff?”
is a based on a case study about the House for All Sinners and Saints and its increasingly
high-profile pastor, Bolz-Weber, for the New Media Project at Union
Theological Seminary. Its conclusion is that if we think alongside a
congregation like House, we will not wring our hands about social media, nor
will we worship it as the church’s salvation. Instead, we’ll use it, attentive
to the ways tools always shape and occasionally misshape us, but without
anxiety or undue adulation. Let me also say how grateful I am to Nadia
Bolz-Weber and the dozen or so parishioners of House with whom I spent two days
in May 2011.
context on House may be helpful. House for All Sinners and Saints is a church
plant of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in
America (ELCA) that began in 2008. Bolz–Weber planted it while a
student at Iliff School of Theology, figuring that if there were 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 (“At synod no one could find Bishop Hanson, so I said I’d just
texted him, and all the bishops’ heads went ‘woosh!’ right toward me”), 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 50 regulars. Yet Bolz-Weber did preach at Red Rock to 10,000 and did preach
at the Greenbelt Festival in the UK this summer to 20,000. And with close
friends and collaborators like Sara Miles and Phyllis Tickle, one senses she
could write her own ticket on the book publishing market.
was not always a star on the rise in the ecclesial world. She describes herself
as an angry, self-endangering teenager who was 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. She says, “People asked how I blew my nose. I
never thought the mainstream would catch up with me.” 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 found 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 simil 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.
does receive benefits that other church plants in the ELCA do not. Though they
are three years in, they are not being weaned from synod support, as church plants
in, say, suburban communities would be. Two-thirds of her salary package comes
from the denomination. Bolz–Weber describes the church as having recognized the
importance of House’s ministry to the whole denomination and beyond. Her being
tapped to speak at ELCA synod meetings is just one example of the way the
denomination not only supports her work but also lifts her up as a model.
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 parents
would pull their kids out if I worked with the children’s programs.” Stuart
entered a drag beauty contest and won. Half of the church was there cheering
him on. “People asked how we knew him, and we said, ‘We go to church with
him!’” Another man named Asher recently transitioned from female to male. “We
had a naming rite for him at Baptism of the Lord Sunday,” Bolz–Weber tells me.
“It was beautiful.” 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
it by making gay inclusion not their
focus. Their focus is on Jesus, how screwed up his people are, and so 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 standup comedian she is, “Isn’t that green of me?” and then
confesses, “I’ve been traveling, it’s been really tough lately, so I spent the
last three days playing with my kids, which I’m also called to.” Then she
unleashes 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 wouldn’t 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.” One reason, she says, is
that he teaches us how to rest. For example, House recently learned it would
have to move from its home of three years. Bolz–Weber panicked. “I raged,
screamed, ate chocolate, yelled at my husband, yelled at a few more friends,
cried, prayed, ate some more chocolate,” and then did the “American elbow
grease thing” and got to work. They had new digs a short time later (they
shared the need on Facebook and within days, an Episcopal church offered
space). “It was like a … slap from the Holy Spirit,” she says. “Did all that
anxiety actually turn out to be effective?” Can’t we learn to rest in God in
the moment, and not just to look back retrospectively and realize the anxiety
was unnecessary, she asks?
Bolz–Weber’s preaching at its purest—confessional, funny, aimed at conversion.
She’s out for your soul.
Bolz–Weber whom she draws upon as a theologian. “The dirty little secret is
that I don’t read.” She is accused of being a Barthian and of drawing on
Tillich. I heard lots of Luther with a Willimon-like snark. She says she draws
on those who read original texts, especially in a weekly lectionary group where
she cherry picks from what others say. She loves Luther’s insistence that we
never outgrow our need for grace—that the movement of faith is always from God
toward us rather than the reverse. Her conversion involved a slow, passionate
immersion into the liturgy, followed by a subsequent one into the scriptures.
She also draws on lay people for her preaching, often posting teasers on Facebook the
week before a sermon, or questions she wants to address. One recent Facebook status
update asking what people thought of John 3:16 brought a chorus of stories about
how the verse has been used to condemn people. She was not at all happy: “I was
like, “sh*t, I wanted to preach on Nicodemus!” (House’s language, including its
pastor, tends to the profane. This is not Stanley Hauerwas’ profanity,
calculated to shock. It’s just how
Bolz-Weber and her peeps talk.) So Bolz–Weber borrowed ideas from a pastor
friend to preach
a message about how most religious groups tell a gospel in which
there is an in group and an out group, and those listening are in. The good
news is that for Jesus, there is no more in or out.
sermon I hear, she turns from gospel to technology. “We all know how to change
our Netflix queues on our phones,” she says. “But how many of us know how to rest? How to languish in the Lord’s
presence? We could all check our email right now (in fact, I won’t ask how many of us are checking our email
right now!), but we all need to learn how to rest. The Dow Jones won’t set a
table for us in the presence of our enemies.” The implication is clear—Jesus
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.” They will take pictures to
post to Flickr and
talk about what they’ve learned on Facebook, and
they fully expect to hear from other churches who have been inspired by their
ideas. “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.”
they ever on the web. Their website looks
expensive, but it’s not. “A friend did it for me for $1000,” she says.
Bolz–Weber has more than 2,500 Facebook friends and her Facebook
profile is a major way new people find their way to visiting House.
When the group holds its Theology Pub, it announces meetings on Meetup.com, a public forum. Anyone
can see the invitation, even those not involved in the church.
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
meeting planned 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 are not here playing a zero-sum game. They supplement and
depend upon one another. “We’ve only had like three Sundays since our founding
without visitors,” Bolz–Weber said. “When it’s just us, it’s such a letdown. It’s
like kissing your best friend.” In other words, House is used to having porous
borders, and technology helps those borders to stay porous. “We live our life
online, and lots of outsiders consume and comment on what we do,” one member tells
me. The message that there is no in or out is not just promulgated, but
demonstrated, via social media.
several members tell me they embrace House for its inclusivity, more say they
do so because of its sense of community. “This place is by and for and within
and into community,” one says, piling up prepositions. Their way of doing
community is online. Members go to events, post photos, and all are vicariously
present. “My parents say we seem to have a lot of fun,” one member says. They
post where they are on CheckIn.com and others come and hang out with them.
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. Social media
furthers the church’s effort at prayer. Bolz-Weber tells a story of the church
starting a Google prayer group, so that members can log on and tell their ill
companion she’s being prayed for. That way one can watch as a prayer chain
forms visibly before her eyes. Bolz-Weber blogged
about this experience, showing that pastoral care is communal, not
simply individual, and can come in short increments—in precisely the sort of
attention-span-deprived bursts in which newer generations specialize.
says she couldn’t send a physical piece of mail to her parishioners if she
wanted to do so because 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.” There is an
exception to that—during worship I catch no one checking their phones. The
contemplative ten minutes after the sermon known as “open space” (ten minutes!
Among Gen Xers and Millennials!) is a space in which the quiet is holy and
thick. Before service, everyone is on his or her phone, but during open space
none are. Bolz-Weber agrees, but then points out she checked her phone three
times during a meeting earlier that very day. House’s way of doing community is
virtual, leading to embodiment and back, because that is how their age cohort
does community. Bolz-Weber recommends Pew Research Center’s poll to
determine how Millennial one is (she scored a 96, “which means I’m a 42-year
old teenager,” she says). Find out who in your church is a Millennial native
and also loves God, and let them create the future for you. “Don’t market a
product to them like you would to their boomer parents, because they will … resent
you,” she said.
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.”
arrive, Bolz-Weber is embroiled in the controversy over Sojourners refusal
to sell ad space to a gay advocacy group. Bolz-Weber’s name is on Sojourners’ list of contributors, but
she will not join a boycott against them citing their advocacy on behalf of the
on her blog accuse her of being no better than someone who
compromises over race or gender. “That’s just bullying,” she says. When
bullying happens internal to House, it can also come online, as with one member
caring for a homeless man who regularly bemoans over email that the church
doesn’t do enough for them. “I’m actually proud of how we’ve helped them,”
Bolz-Weber says. “And I’m not going to let someone toxic become a black hole of
need and manipulate others.” So she played the bad cop and asked the woman to
desist. Social media also create new ways for people to feel left out—for
example, seeing those Flickr pictures of an event one wanted to be invited to
but wasn’t. Before social media, one might not have ever known.
social media use is more mixed in its fruit. Bolz-Weber posted a
sermon after Bin Ladin’s killing about Jesus’ command to love your
enemies. Her father, still a Church of Christ member, printed it off her blog
and read it to his men’s prayer breakfast. You could hear a pin drop, he said.
“Of course, I didn’t say who wrote it,” he added, which caused Bolz-Weber to
feel betrayed. Her father said he’d fight the battle over women’s ordination
another time, and Bolz-Weber was glad that a group of wealthy conservative
white men heard Jesus’ message at that time. But she still felt the hurt.
fact, Bolz-Weber blogged
about the incident with her father in response to the criticism of
her for refusing to boycott Sojourners.
The lesson—sometimes we work for change from within the system and that’s
okay. Bolz-Weber’s father was, in turn,
upset by her discussing their disagreement online. Such is the challenge of a
sharing and open digital culture. But for Bolz-Weber the relationships always
win out: “He is so unbelievably supportive of me and this ministry. I'm not
sure he's ever failed to tell me how proud he is of me every time I see him.”
of these events could have happened before the advent of social media. But they
would have taken much longer to develop.
Anger could not have crested into snarky rage at her or others. She
wouldn’t have felt so hurt so quickly, and others (including one transgender
member of her community) wouldn’t have had to leap into the fray in her
defense. Bolz-Weber ruefully points out that if someone wanted to attack her
for something, they should do it for “failing to [care] about the poor.” Later
in our interview, someone mentions the church’s practice of taking a home-cooked
meal once a month to Rainbow Alley, a drop-in center for LGBTQ youth. The kids
are psyched when House comes, because most providers don’t cook over their own
stoves, they just bring store-bought food. Someone teases Bolz-Weber, “And you
don’t do enough for gay people.”
thing is, Bolz-Weber has a theology big enough to encompass all these events.
She believes in the darkness of the human heart. She believes in the depths to
which Christ plunged to save us, even to hell itself. And even after our union
with him in baptism and Eucharist, she believes we remain ever in need of
grace. Social media can project House’s laboratory findings around the world
and increase its impact on others of like mind or goal, no doubt. It can
amplify Bolz-Weber’s humor. It can create new space in which to belittle and
abuse. Someone who believes in the foulness of human hearts would expect no
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 pronounces absolution, who chants the Eucharistic
liturgy, who wears the clergy shirt. “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.
slogan on House T-shirts is this “Radical Protestants: Nailing sh*t to the
church door since 1517.” House is a model example for what Leadership Education at Duke Divinity calls
Innovation,” a concept in which innovation is never a matter of
creation ex nihilo—it is a matter of
finding in the tradition neglected resources to meet new challenges.
In Bolz-Weber’s words, “You have to be rooted
in tradition in order to innovate with integrity.” She notes that
evangelicalism in this country 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.
innovate she does. LGBTQ inclusion is not the half of it. 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. So it is with social media.
This is a flattened world, as Thomas Friedman taught us all to well (The World is Flat, Farrar, Straus and
Giroux, 2005). Authority is given away and
those who try to squeeze it lose it. Another
Easter Vigil was “off the hook,” she brags, because she asked members to enact
the scripture. Some did drama, others filmed movies, the choir sang original
music for the Zephaniah piece, others performed skits so funny that members
laughed until they cried. She gave them space to innovate, and they did.
notice how little of this innovation has to do solely with the Internet. It’s
embodied, as House’s glorious liturgy makes unmistakable. “Social media can
lead to Gnostic problems,” Bolz-Weber grants, “but not here.” House is too
grounded in community to allow that to happen. They would never worship online.
She’s not in favor of seminaries teaching online either. “I want a PhD who
knows more than me giving a lecture, not some … group project foisting people’s
ignorance on one another,” she said. She does admit that when she was more of a
blogger she regularly had online friendships become friendships in real life.
Even then her enthusiasm is tepid.
media is just part of the ether now. It’s the air that Millennial culture
breathes. It’s not a means to market anything to them, to get them to come back
to church. But if you want to communicate with them you’d better use those tools.
And if you want them to embrace church, turn power over to them and give them
the space “and some theological education,” she adds, to do something both
ancient and new. They might even use social media to do it.
Jason Byassee, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is Senior Pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, NC and a Fellow in Theology and Leadership at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School.
The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.