“When Christians really critique me for using salty language, I literally don’t give a shit.”
This is what it’s like to talk to Nadia Bolz-Weber, the tattooed Lutheran pastor, former addict, and head of a Denver church that’s 250 members strong. She’s frank and charming, and yes, she tends to cuss—colorful words pepper her new book, Accidental Saints. But she also doesn’t put a lot of stock in her own schtick.
“Oh, here’s this tattooed pastor who is a recovering alcoholic who used to be a stand-up comic—that’s interesting for like five minutes,” she said. “The fact that people want to hear from me—that, I really feel, has less to do with me and more to do with a Zeitgeist issue.”
America’s church-y “Zeitgeist issues” are many, including the alleged decline of religion; the seeming lacklusterness of mainline Protestantism; and the backlash against religious institutions that have themselves sinned, against children or LGBT folks or those who gave their money to support ministry. But Bolz-Weber was referring to something simpler, and more pervasive—to use her word, “bullshit.”
“I have this hunch that people really find Jesus compelling, and they see what Christianity really could be. But what they see instead, so often, is an institution that tries to protect itself and promote itself,” she said. “I think they want to have a place where they can speak the actual truth about themselves in the world and they don’t have to pretend.”
As a performative pastor, Bolz-Weber might seem New Age, but her ministry is actually focused on something old school: sin. It’s a somewhat surprising bent for a mainline pastor—and a thought-provoking model for churches that have been bleeding young people for more than a decade.
“Sometimes I can be an asshole, but it’s almost as though I can hear Jesus saying”—here, Bolz-Weber cleared her throat a little and moved her voice one half-step lower, perhaps trying to imitate bro-Jesus—“‘uh, that’s okay, it’s not that I, like, love you and claim you despite that. I love you and claim you because of that.’”
Perfectionism is deeply embedded in American Christianity. The Puritans performed piety in hopes of being part of God’s chosen elect, and their efforts were followed by three centuries of purity balls and pushes for temperance and church culture that revels in polish. At the church she planted in 2008, The House for All Sinners and Saints, Bolz-Weber has upended many stereotypes about Christianity; the church is open to gays and lesbians and atheists alike. But she’s especially committed to defying the assumption that church is for people who have it together.
“We have this socially progressive church, all these queer people, everyone’s welcome,” she said. “And you know what we have in our liturgy every Sunday? Confession and absolution. Let us confess that God is God and we are not.”
The cast of real-life sinners she describes in her book are diverse: the Sandy Hook shooter, kids who committed suicide, a grieving pastor who drank a little too much and accidentally killed a woman with his car. These are the sins of life and death; it’s easy to look at people like this and feel judgmental. But Bolz-Weber counts herself among them; her sins are of a different scale, but she names them with equal parts relish and remorse. In her theology, just as Adam Lanza needs forgiveness, so does she.
“I don’t want to be in bondage to the fact that I can be an asshole,” she said. “So for me, the best path toward some sort of freedom from being absolutely bound to it is to admit that I need grace.”
In no sense has Bolz-Weber claimed to reinvent Christianity, magically discovering the secret of sin and forgiveness that’s preached endlessly in the Bible. For her, it’s more that this idea is often obscured in delivery.
“There’s a cultural wrapping around a lot of mainline Protestantism where the church has confused the gifts and the wrapping,” she said. “The sort of slight formality and nicey-nice chit-chat and dressing up a little and not going too deep, but just being nice, good people who do some volunteer hours.”
Even though she’s part of a progressive, mainline Lutheran denomination, with this particular jab, Bolz-Weber sounds a lot like many American conservatives and evangelicals. Mainline Protestantism is dying, it’s sometimes said, for exactly this reason: It’s Christian identity, not Christian theology. But both mainline and evangelical traditions have reason to worry about losing Millennials, she said. Young people are “either passively consuming a mediocre rock concert”—as in the amphitheater environs of most American megachurches—“or passively consuming a formal liturgy, instead of being a community of creators.”
Her solution is a combination of new and old. She encourages active member participation in church services and the creation of new rituals, like baking cookies in honor of saints. She’s also deeply invested in tradition, using a liturgy she says is orthodox. It’s an unusual mix: a stated commitment to socially progressive values, and a stated commitment to tradition. But perhaps this misconception—that progressive values and traditional worship can’t mix—is one reason why some Americans have felt like they don’t have a place at church.
“For the population I serve, I sense that there’s a lot of chaos in people’s lives,” Bolz-Weber said. “The liturgy runs so deep, and is so unchanging ... that it’s a comfort to have that one thing that’s regular and predictable every Sunday in their lives. It’s language that generations of the faithful have worn smooth through their own prayer.”
It may also be that this act of church reinvention is necessary because of the sins of churches past. Bolz-Weber says most of the people she serves are people who have fallen away from Christianity for one reason or another; for example, roughly a third of her congregation is gay, lesbian, or transgender. But there are joys to be found in recovering lost souls.
“If you don’t have a drag queen in your congregation, you should get one,” Bolz-Weber said. One such man in her congregation was working with her on soliciting donations, she said, “And he goes, ‘Well we should make a T-shirt.’ And he goes, ‘On the front, it’ll say: This shit ain’t free. And on the back, it’ll say: You better tithe, bitches.’ Oh my God, it just makes church better.”
Ultimately, that’s what Bolz-Weber is trying to do: make church better, with the caveat that church is a place for humans, and humans are sinful. As the drag queen from Bolz-Weber’s church might say: You better repent, bitches.