1:42am

Tue December 24, 2013
Religion

Pastor Leads A New Brand Of Church For 'Sinners And Saints'

Originally published on Wed December 25, 2013 5:24 am

It's Sunday evening, and services are just getting underway at the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver. Nearly 200 worshipers sit in circles of plastic chairs around a simple altar table. Together they follow traditional Christian rites. They sit. They stand. They sing.

The congregation here resembles the crowd at a downtown bookshop — hipsters and college professors, gay couples and Democratic grandmas. But even in this crowd, the congregation's pastor, with her short, moussed hair and armloads of religious tattoos, stands out as she launches into a sermon about Jesus on the cross.

"In our win-lose way of understanding things, it would have made a lot more sense for Jesus to have come and been a superhero — kicking ass and taking names, showing everyone how strong God is by winning at our game," she tells the congregation.

Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber is a bit of a Lutheran rock star at the moment, although the term makes her cringe. Her new book, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, recently hit the New York Times best-seller list.

What she and her church are trying to do, she says, is simple and radical: create an authentic Christian experience without the pretension that can come with church.

"I think people's tolerance for bullshit is at an all-time low," she says.

What people want, she says, is a spiritual community that's beautiful and transformative and maybe even transgressive — and that's not what you find in most churches, conservative or liberal.

"We've been given social conventions, we've been given basically the Elks Club with Eucharist, or we've been given a place to gather on Sundays where basically what we hear is the same as the platform of the Democratic Party," she says. "I don't think the early Christians martyred themselves for either of these things."

Bolz-Weber's path to becoming an increasingly public theologian was rocky, to say the least. Early in adulthood she drifted away from her parents' conservative Church of Christ and into a lost period of drugs and alcohol, only to find God again as she was struggling to get sober. That checkered history is something she talks about openly, trying to help others feel comfortable with their own failings.

"There was a young woman, I took her confession — and it was for real, it was something really heavy — and she was super tense at the beginning, and then she relaxed," Bolz-Weber says. "Then we were kind of laughing, and she goes, 'Oh, my gosh, I'm so glad you're my pastor, because I know you've done much worse than that.' So that's also a service I offer."

The faith that the congregation practices is, for lack of a better word, orthodox Lutheran. Even the congregation's name — House for All Sinners and Saints — comes from Martin Luther's belief that everyone is simultaneously all sinner and all saint.

But "House," as it's often called, does practice its faith differently from most congregations. It offers communion to everyone, regardless of whether they've been baptized, and it opens the liturgy to all who want to participate. That really struck parishioner Stephen Ludwig when he first attended a service after a decade away from the church.

"Everyone that shows up has the opportunity to read scripture, serve communion, participate in the service," he says. "Liturgy is supposed to be 'of the people,' and this really brings it back to that."

Welcoming all is the animating idea behind House, but it can be a challenging one. As Bolz-Weber's popularity has grown, so many people have started visiting that there often aren't enough chairs for the regulars.

Longtime worshiper Stuart Sanks admits that having so many new people stopping in can be difficult.

"Sometimes it feels like House is losing that idea of what made it different. But that's just something we're trying to figure out and work through and make the best of stewarding the responsibility, I guess, that we've been given."

For Bolz-Weber, that responsibility is exciting — rethinking the way the church exists in the world today. She says she's more interested in her congregation having a dynamic, faithful relationship with God than getting hung up on the specifics of what they believe.

And while no single common belief holds the congregation together, Bolz-Weber says certain values are universal: to welcome everyone and take that message out into the world.

Copyright 2014 Colorado Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.cpr.org.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A tattooed, foul-mouthed pastor in Denver has been getting a lot of attention.

REVEREND NADIA BOLZ-WEBER: I fell in love with Lutheran liturgy and Lutheran theology. But I'd go to Lutheran churches and I'd look around, and no one looked like me.

GREENE: That's Nadia Bolz-Weber talking to a crowd full of youth last year. Her new book is called "Pastrix: the Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint." It recently hit The New York Times best-seller list. Bolz-Weber has struck a nerve with a lot of mainline Protestants, whose churches are getting older and smaller.

Colorado Public Radio's Megan Verlee reports.

CONGREGATION: Forgive us for passing by the ones in need...

MEGAN VERLEE, BYLINE: It's Sunday evening and services are just getting underway at the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver.

BOLZ-WEBER: By the grace of God in Christ Jesus, your sins are forgiven and you are made free.

VERLEE: Close to 200 worshippers sit in circles of plastic chairs, ringing the simple altar table.

CONGREGATION: (Singing) The first is the one who comes in the name of the Lord...

VERLEE: The congregation here resembles the crowd at a downtown bookshop - hipsters and college professors, gay couples and democratic grandmas. But even in such a diverse crowd, the congregation's pastor, with her short moussed-hair and armloads of religious tattoos, stands out as she launches into a sermon about Jesus on the cross.

BOLZ-WEBER: In our win-lose way of understanding things, it would have made a lot more sense for Jesus to have come and been a superhero - kicking (bleep) and taking names, showing everyone how strong God is by winning at our game.

VERLEE: Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber is a bit of a Lutheran rock star at the moment, although the term makes her cringe. What she and her church are trying to do is simple and radical - create an authentic Christian experience without all the pretension that often comes with church.

BOLZ-WEBER: I think people's tolerance for (bleep) is at an all-time low.

VERLEE: I met up with Bolz-Weber at the Denver coffee shop where she meets with parishioners. What people want, she says, is a spiritual community that's beautiful and transformative, and maybe even transgressive. And that's not what you find in most churches, conservative or liberal.

BOLZ-WEBER: We've been given social conventions. We've been given basically the Elks Club with Eucharist. Or we've been given a place to gather on Sundays where basically what we hear is same as the platform of the Democratic Party. I don't think the early Christians martyred themselves for either of these things.

(LAUGHTER)

VERLEE: Bolz-Weber's path to becoming an increasingly public theologian was rocky, to say the least. Early in adulthood she drifted away from her parents' conservative Church of Christ and into a lost period of drugs and alcohol, only to for God to find her again as she struggled to get sober. That checkered history is something she talks about openly, trying to help others feel comfortable with their own failings.

BOLZ-WEBER: There was a young woman, I took her confession and it was real. I mean it was something really heavy and she was super tense at the beginning. And then she relaxed and we just went through the process and we did the absolution and prayer. And then we were kind of laughing and she goes: Oh, my gosh, I'm so glad you're my pastor 'cause I know you've done much worse than that.

(LAUGHTER)

BOLZ-WEBER: So like that's also a service I offer.

CONGREGATION: (Singing) (unintelligible) I am grateful. (unintelligible) I am grateful.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) In (unintelligible) of rainbow, Lord...

VERLEE: The one word you hear over and over again when members of House for All Sinners and Saints talk about their congregation is intentional. Every innovation they've made serves one big purpose: to welcome everyone. They offer communion to anyone regardless of whether they've been baptized. And they open the liturgy to all who want to participate. That really struck Stephen Ludwig when he first attended a service, after a decade away from the church.

STEPHEN LUDWIG: Everybody that shows up has an opportunity to read scripture, serve communion, participate in the service. Because what liturgy is supposed to be of the people and this really brings it back to that.

VERLEE: At House, the work of the people goes far beyond the church walls. The congregation is deeply active in the community - from serving monthly meals at a shelter for homeless youth to an annual bake sale they call the Selling of Indulgences. Events like that draw attention. But the faith the congregation practices is, for lack of a better word, completely orthodox Lutheran.

BISHOP JIM GONIA: When I look at Nadia, I think, Martin Luther would just be having his heyday. He'd be saying that's what I'm talking about.

(LAUGHTER)

VERLEE: That's Bishop Jim Gonia of the Rocky Mountain Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He says Lutherans hold to three core principles: That God's love is unconditional, that God is most revealed in times of suffering, and that church itself is a place of paradox. That tension shows up in the congregation's name: House for All Sinners and Saints. It comes Martin Luther's belief that everyone is simultaneously all-sinner and all-saint.

Gonia says this congregation is revitalizing a church where worshippers too often seem moved more by habit and nostalgia than spirit.

GONIA: We're not just a cultural church of potlucks and Jell-O and whatever the Midwestern Lutherans kind of - the Garrison Keillor Lutherans.

VERLEE: House for All Sinners and Saints has piqued the curiosity of other congregations. Becky Runchler directs youth ministry at a church in Columbia, Missouri. On a recent vacation in Denver, she included a service at House on her itinerary. Afterward, she tried to explain Bolz-Weber's appeal.

BECKY RUNCHLER: I think her return to that open concept of grace, that God really loves everyone and we should be loving everyone as God loves us, kind of shows that God is here for everyone, not just for the people who wear white on the Sundays to go to church.

(LAUGHTER)

VERLEE: As Bolz-Weber's popularity has grown, so many people have started visiting that there often aren't enough chairs for the regulars. Longtime worshipper Stuart Sanks admits that having so many new people stopping in can be difficult.

STUART SANKS: Sometimes it feels like House is losing that idea of what made it different. But that is just something we're trying to figure out and work through. And, you know, make the best of stewarding the responsibility I guess that, you know, we've been given.

VERLEE: For Bolz-Weber, that responsibility is exciting - rethinking the way the church exists in the world today. She's more interested in her congregation having a dynamic, faithful relationship with God, than getting hung up on the specifics of what they believe.

BOLZ-WEBER: For a long time in Christianity, belief was the basis of belonging. And that's not the case for us. People in my church believe all kinds of things. You're going to have to trust me on that.

(LAUGHTER)

VERLEE: While no single common belief holds the congregation together, Bolz-Weber says certain values are universal: To welcome all and to take that message of grace out into the world.

For NPR News, I'm Megan Verlee in Denver.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.