Ancient liturgy for scruffy hipsters with smartphones: 

A profile of Nadia Bolz-Weber and House for All Sinners and Saints

by Jason Byassee
October 18, 2011


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.

Most 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.”

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, 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.

Bolz-Weber’s 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?”

This essay 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.

Some historical 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.

Hers 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.

House 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.

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 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 reach.

They do 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?

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

I ask 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.

In the 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 will.

She 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.”

Are 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.

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 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.

While 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.

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. 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.

Bolz-Weber 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.

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.”

As I 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 poor. Commenters 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.

Sometimes 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.

In 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.”

Either 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.”

The 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 less.

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 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.

Another 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 “Traditioned 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.

But 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 example: House’s 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.

But 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.

Social 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 newmediaproject@cts.edu.

Nav