HOUSE FOR ALL SINNERS AND SAINTS
HOUSE FOR ALL SINNERS AND SAINTS TIMELINE
1969: Nadia Bolz was born.
1986: Bolz got the first of her many tattoos.
1996: Nadia Bolz married Matthew Weber, a Lutheran seminary student.
2004: Bolz-Weber lead the funeral of a friend who had recently committed suicide at her local comedy club. This is the moment in which she felt called to do work in the church and lead people similar to herself to God.
2007: Bolz-Weber began having meetings in the living room of her home that led to the formation of the House for All Sinners and Saints.
2008: The House for All Sinners and Saints was founded.
2008: Nadia Bolz-Weber was ordained as an Evangelical Lutheran Pastor by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) after attending seminary at the Illif School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.
2008: Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber’s book Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television was published .
2013: Bolz-Weber ‘ s book Pastrix: the Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint was published and became a New York Times bestselling theological memoir.
2015 (September 8): Bolz-Weber’s book Accidental Saints was released.
By her own account, Nadia Bolz grew up in a loving, conservative (Church of Christ) religious family, the daughter of a military officer. She describes her religious upbringing as “harsh” and “fundamentalist” (Little 2015). During her childhood she experienced a thyroid disorder that “ caused her eyes to bug far out of her head,” a condition that resulted in constant teasing by her peers and a personal sense that she did not belong (Boorstein 2013). When she was seventeen years-old, she experienced a rapid growth spurt that resulted in her reaching her current height of just over six feet. She reports being extremely self-conscious of her ungainly physical appearance. It wasn’t until she attended a military banquet where someone referred to her as “ a long-stemmed rose ” that she begin to view her height in a positive way. Shortly after the banquet Bolz chose her first tattoo: a long-stemmed rose. After getting the tattoo, she reports having felt “ like a little outlaw ” (Tippett 2013). Bolz briefly attended Church of Christ affiliated Pepperdine University after graduating from high school, but soon dropped out and moved to Denver.
After moving to Denver, Bolz went through a ten-year period during which she was a heavy drug and alcohol user. During this period, she openly states that she was “an angry, self-endangering teenager who was happy dying before age 30” (Byassee 2013). In addition to using alcohol and drugs, Bolz-Weber worked as a stand-up comedienne in Denver and experimented with a variety of religious traditions, such as Wicca, Quakerism, and Unitarianism. In 1996, she met a young Lutheran seminary student named Matthew Weber. They fell in love, married, and later had two children. Bolz-Weber’s husband currently pastors his own Lutheran Church (Tippett 2013). Bolz-Weber was drawn to Lutheranism because it resonated with her personal experience. As she put it, “When I learned about simil justus et peccator I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we are all sinners and saints at the same time’” (Byassee 2011).
It wasn’t until 2004 that Bolz-Weber felt the drive to become a leader of her own church community. A friend had committedsuicide and Bolz-Weber was asked to lead his funeral. She performed the funeral at the Denver comedy club that she had frequented throughout her early adult life. It was at that moment she felt that these were her people and that God was calling her to lead them (Boorstein 2013). She recalls that “I looked out and I thought: ‘These are my people and they don’t have a pastor – and maybe I’m actually called to be a pastor to my people'” (Little 2015). Although her parents are very conservative religiously, when she announced her decision to go into the ministry, her father immediately supported her:
“My father did not read the 1st Timothy passage about women being silent in church. He read from Esther. From my father I heard only these words: ‘But you were born for such a day as this.’ He closed the book and my mother joined him in embracing me. They prayed over me and gave me a blessing…” (Falsani 2013).
She later reported that “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” (Byassee 2011). In 2008, Bolz-Weber, who was still a student at Iliff Seminary, and five friends planned the start of what is now the House for All Sinners and Saints in her living room. Her bishop was also supportive of her innovative initiative. She recalls that “I actually told my bishop at some point during the process, ‘Look, you could put me in a parish in the suburbs of some small town, but you and I both know that would be ugly for everyone involved, so how about I just start one?’ He goes: ‘Yeah, that sounds like a better idea'” (Little 2015).
One of Bolz-Weber’s most important theological touchstones is that individuals are simultaneously saints and sinners, the struggle out of which the name of the church was born. As she has put it, “It’s dark in there,” she said tapping her chest over her heart. “We’re all simultaneously sinners and saints. We live in response to God’s grace. Nobody’s climbing the spiritual ladder” (Draper 2011). She elaborated that “I have this enormous capacity for destruction of myself and other people, and I have an enormous capacity for kindness as well. So I felt like someone was finally able to say, yeah, you’re simultaneously both of these at all times” (Tippett 2013). Because we are both sinners and saints, we continually need God’s grace. We unify with Christ through the rituals of baptism and Eucharist, but must struggle to maintain a connection; life is “continual death and resurrection” (Tippett 2013). The struggle is therefore ongoing but never complete. As Bolz-Weber has summarized the matter, “It’s not like ‘I once was blind, and now can see’: it’s more like, ‘I once was blind and now I have really bad vision’” (Brown 2014).
While Bolz-Weber, as part of the emerging church movement, is willing to innovate, she also seeks to remain faithful and connected to the Lutheran tradition by insisting that “You have to be rooted in tradition in order to innovate with integrity” (Byassee 2011; Draper 20110). One foundation is the assertion that it is faith not works that is the source of salvation. Another foundation is her commitment to the Bible and to Jesus. In this regard, she charts her own course as she rejects both the progressive left and conservative right alternatives. To the progressives she says that “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” (Vicari 2013). To the conservatives she asserts that the Bible should not only be honored but also “questioned and struggled with;” and she has referred to the Bible as a “cradle for Christ” but not ultimate gospel (Vicari 2013).
Weekly church services are held on Sunday evenings, with some innovative features. The sanctuary is organized in the round so that the altar, Bolz-Weber states, is “quite literally and metaphorically at the center of our lives together as a community” (Tippett 2013). The service itself is highly participatory as members may elect to lead specific sections of the service. On most Sundays Bolz-Weber delivers a ten to fifteen minute sermon from the unelevated center of the congregational circle. Congregational singing, sometimes of hymns in Latin, is entirely acapella. The Eucharist is shared every week. When the service concludes, there is a ten minute “open space,” a time when members of the congregation can silently contemplate their experience of the service (Tippett 2013). In addition to the Sunday services, church members meet for “office hours” at local coffee houses, and the church sponsors annual “beers and hymns” and “blessings of the bicycles” events (Verlee 2013).
“House,” as participants often refer to it, was informally launched in the Fall 2007. Bolz-Weber initially founded House for disaffected young adults, and she refers to House as a “freak show” church. The church reaches out to and has a core membership (about one third) of gays, transgenders, and a variety of social marginals (Brown 2014). Indeed, a mural featured by House depicts Jesus at the Last Supper surrounded by a collection of these social outcasts (Bolz-Weber 2012). As one journalist noted, “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” (Byassee 2011). As another describes her appeal to outsiders, “ She’s a tatted-up, foul-mouthed champion to people sick of being belittled as not Christian enough for the right or too Jesus-y for the left” (Boorstein 20013). Bolz-Weber is well aware of House’s Millennial generation base and advises others “Don’t market a product to them like you would to their boomer parents, because they will … resent you…” (Byassee 2011). Gay inclusiveness is particularly emphasized; Bolz-Weber performed a civil union as soon as civil unions became legal in Colorado, and House has “naming rites” for transitioning transgender members (Byassee 2013; Tippett 2013).
The first meeting of what would become the House for All Sinners and Saints took place in Bolz-Weber’s living room with only eight persons in attendance. Five years later, services were drawing over 100 attendees, and weekly attendance has continued to grow to around 200. House’s influence extends well beyond the relatively modest worship services, however. Resonating with Millennial generation culture, House reaches out through its website, Facebook, Meetup, a blog, sermons posted on the Sojourner and Patheos websites, and Bolz-Weber’s string of books (2015, 2014, 2013, 2018). As one member put it, “We live our life online, and lots of outsiders consume and comment on what we do” (Byassee 2011).
House for All Sinners and Saints has received preferential treatment from the ELCA, which elevates the church as a model.. The standard requirement of serving in a traditional parish for three years before leading one’s own church was waived by the denomination. Rather than reduce financial support for newly planted churches, the denomination has continued to support two-thirds of her modest salary. In this regard, Bolz-Weber has commented that “They just recognized it was a calling….They trust me as a theologian and recognize I’m reaching a culture not typically reached” (Draper 2011).
Bolz-Weber herself is an arresting figure and is most readily distinguished by her myriad of tattoos. As Brown (2014) describes her distinctive appearance:
It’s not just the four-inch oval belt buckle she wears, with an enamelled icon in the middle of it, and the words: “Jesus loves you” etched around the top. Her left arm is almost like a cathedral window, covered in scenes from the Bible. There’s a creation, surprisingly small; a nativity; Jesus in the desert; the raising of Lazarus; the angel at the empty tomb; and Mary and the disciples at Pentecost. She is having the Annunciation tattooed all over her back.
Bolz-Weber herself focuses on the religious significance of the tattoos: “In a way, my arms are like the stained glass in a medieval cathedral. They are pedagogical” ( Brady 2013) .
Since Bolz-Weber seeks to flatten the church structure and create a participatory, interactive atmosphere, she downplay s her own authority, describing it as a constraint on herself rather than a source of power over others. “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” (Byassee 2011).
While Bolz-Weber is often described as a Lutheran “rock star,” she has her share of detractors. She is accused of self-promotion (Graham 2013):
So, to borrow from Reverend Nadia’s vernacular, this is bull excrement.This woman is all about the marketing and the calculated coolness, from the pop-culture and NPR references down to the tattoos and the cursing. You don’t get to boast you have “no outreach strategy” when you have a book, an Amazon video, a church tour, and interviews with several Washington Post writers you had at “Hello, you little s–t.”
And she is accused of theological and moral deficiency:
… there are problems with Rev. Bolz-Weber, big problems. The problems I’m referring to rest in two areas, her teaching/theology, which is non-Biblical in many important areas, and moral issues that she seems to take pride in and actively flaunts (“Exposing Nadia Bolz-Weber 2013).
Bolz-Weber has created a challenge for House by taking positions that have raised concerns with both progressive Christians on the left and evangelical Christians on the right. For example, she experimented with Unitarianism but rejected the church, stating that they have “a high opinion of humans” while in reality “People are flawed” (Tippett 2013). She accuses progressives of turning church into simply a nonprofit organization (Boorstein 2013). To conservatives she admonishes that church isn’t supposed to be “’the Elks Club with the Eucharist’…. Religion should be “something that’s so devastatingly beautiful it can break your heart. Instead it’s been: ‘Recycle.’ And ‘Don’t sleep with your girlfriend’” (Boorstein 20013). And she refers to reading the Bible literally as “reading idolatry.”
In the end, the greatest challenge facing House may be its growing popularity. As the church and Bolz-Weber have received national publicity, church services have drawn growing numbers of mainstream individuals. The combination of larger gatherings and a more conventional congregation challenges active individual participation and congregational cohesion. Bolz-Weber is acutely aware of this challenge and has addressed it directly ( Bolz-Weber 2012) :
I know that there are some who have been part of this church for awhile who are feeling a sense of loss around the growth. There was a greater sense of intimacy and community before we grew. Also…there was never a line at the prayer station. But there was also far less diversity. I want to honor the real feeling of loss they are experiencing, but at the same time I want to be clear about something: this is not our church. This is a gift God has given us. This church is here as a gift from God for us and for us to share so that others can also receive what we have been enriched by. Two years ago someone asked me what was the biggest issue facing my congregation. The fact that everyone involved likes it just the way it is was my answer.
Clearly, House is a work in progress and the ultimate outcome of its innovation and experimentation remains to be determined.
Bolz-Weber, Nadia. 2015. Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People. New York: Convergent Books.
Bolz-Weber, Nadia. 2013. Cranky, Beautiful Faith: For Irregular (and Regular) People. Norwich, United Kingdom: Canterbury Press.
Bolz-Weber. 2012. Whose Church Is This? Mine, Yours, Theirs, or God’s? Accessed from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2012/01/goldilocks-church-what-size-is-just-right/ on 3 July 2015.
Bolz-Weber. 2012. “Mural of the Last Supper by House for All Sinners and Saints.” Accessed from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber on 3 July 2015.
Bolz-Weber. Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television. New York: Seabury Books.
Boorstein, Michelle. 2013. “Bolz-Weber’s liberal, Foulmouthed Articulation of Christianity Speak to Fed-up Believers.” The Washington Post, November 3. Accessed from http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/bolz-webers-liberal-foulmouthed-articulation-of-christianity-speaks-to-fed-up-believers/2013/11/03/7139dc24-3cd3-11e3-a94f-b58017bfee6c_story.html on 29 June 2015.
Brady, Tara. 2013. “’I Swear Like a Truck Driver’: Tattooed Female Weightlifter Who Boozed and Took Drugs Becomes Rising Star of the Lutheran Church.” Daily Mail, November 5. Accessed from
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2487631/Tattooed-female-weightlifter-Nadia-Bolz-Weber-hit-Lutheran-minister.html#ixzz3eYC58QPh on 30 June 2015.
Brown, Andrew. 2014. “Tall, Tattooed and Forthright, Can Nadia Bolz-Weber Save Evangelicism?” The Guardian, September 6. Accessed from http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/06/tattooed-nadia-bolz-weber-save-evangelism-christianity on 30 June 2015.
Byassee, Jason. 2011. “ Ancient Liturgy for Scruffy Hipsters with Smartphones: A profile of Nadia Bolz-Weber and House for All Sinners and Saints. ” New Media Project at Christian Theological Seminary, October 18. Accessed from http://www.cpx.cts.edu/docs/default-source/nmp-documents/ancient-liturgy-for-scruffy-hipsters-with-smartphones-a-profile-of-nadia-bolz-weber-and-house-for-all-sinners-and-saints.pdf?sfvrsn=0 on 29 June 2015.
Draper, Electa. 2011. “ Pastor Turns Heads by Blending Tradition and Irreverence. ” The Denver Post, April 23. Accessed from http://www.denverpost.com/ci_17912633 on 29 June 2015
“Exposing Nadia Bolz-Weber.” 2013. Accessed from http://www.exposingtheelca.com/exposed-blog/exposing-nadia-bolz-weber on 3 July 2015.
Gingerich, Barton. 2013. “Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber Cuts Through Some of the Ways in which We’ve Made Christianity Too Comfortable.” Pray, November 21. Accessed from http://humanepursuits.com/a-cranky-god/ on 3 July 2015.
Graham, Tim. 2013. “WashPost Rinses and Repeats Praise for Tattooed Pastor And Her ‘Bull Excrement’ Gospel.” Newsbusters, November 17. Accessed from http://newsbusters.org/blogs/tim-graham/2013/11/17/washpost-rinses-and-repeats-praise-tattooed-pastor-and-her-bull-excremen on 3 July 2015.
House for All Sinners and Saints Website. n.d. Accessed from http://www.houseforall.org on 29 June 2015.
Nadia Bolz-Weber Website. n.d. Accessed from http://www.nadiabolzweber.com on 29 June 2015.
Tippett, Krista. 2013. “Transcript for Nadia Bolz-Weber – Seeing the Underside and Seeing God: Tattoos, Tradition, and Grace.” On Being, September 5. Accessed from http://www.onbeing.org/program/transcript/nadia-bolz-weber-seeing-the-underside-and-seeing-god-tattoos-tradition-and-grace on 29 June 2015.
Verlee, Megan. 2013. “Pastor Leads A New Brand of Church for ‘Sinners and Saints’.” NPR, December 24. Accessed from http://www.npr.org/2013/12/20/255281434/pastor-leads-a-new-brand-of-church-for-sinners-and-saints on 29 June 2015 .
Vicari, Chelsen. 2013. “ Meet the New “Punk” Powerhouse of the Emergent Movement.” Juicy Ecumenism, November 7. Accessed from http://juicyecumenism.com/2013/11/07/meet-liberal-evangelicals-rising-star/ on 3 July 2015.
10 July 2015