With silvering hair, dark makeup and liturgically inspired tattoos, Nadia Bolz-Weber stood late on a Sunday afternoon in early July to celebrate her final service as pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints, the Denver church she founded a decade ago as a 39-year-old divinity student.
The service was like any other at HFASS (pronounced “half-ass”): children played freely in the aisles, the a capella choir finished its opening hymn and Bolz-Weber invoked God using both feminine and masculine imagery. Only the regular members might have noticed the presence of so many first-timers packing the church, taking a final opportunity to hear its celebrity pastor preach.
In mid-June, Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran and now one of the best-known mainline Protestant preachers in the country, announced she would be leaving to explore life as a full-time “public theologian.”Indeed, Bolz-Weber is a former standup comedian, along with being a recovering alcoholic. She has woven her brand of dark humor into her message of welcome and her version of rather traditional Lutheran theology mixed with a very progressive view of things that are the subject of culture wars in most churches. Everyone knew the day was coming. Bolz-Weber has maintained a very busy schedule of speaking engagements since she first hit the pages of a Denver paper in 2011. What will happen to the HFASS waits to be seen though the day to day work of pastoral care and parish leadership was long ago shared and then ceded to others.
One of the concerns in all of this is that her model has lifted up a God who is met in community as much as anywhere else, perhaps more than anywhere else. Though Bolz-Weber's congregation had Holy Communion and Bible study, the real attraction for many who came and still come has been the community -- open doors, open minds, no judgment, and no fear of the baggage that people bring. This as much as anything else has been her key to filling the room with people. At times she sounds thoroughly Lutheran and at other times she sounds like she has never met Luther. Many Lutherans are not sure what to do with her but in her home in the ELCA she has become a pivotal figure for youth gatherings and church groups seeking some good news for a church that in its 25+ years has lost more members than some denominations ever had. She insists that she is leaving to reach those who have not yet approached a church door or tried and been rebuffed. Maybe she will prove successful but the jury is still out on whether or not she fairly or adequately represents what it means to be Christian or Lutheran. I expect we have not heard the last of Nadia Bolz-Weber though I also expect there are other stars waiting to be noticed who will probably make her seem rather tame. While that excites some, it gives me great concern.
BTW her current associate, Reagan Humber, is an Episcopal priest (no problem since the ELCA and ECUSA are besties) has a drag queen as a partner. You can tune in here for more on him/her/ahhhh well, you know what I mean.