A Religious Experience

We wanted to know: What do Coloradans believe?

April 2012

Doctrine Deconstructed

Nadia Bolz-WeberLutheran pastor. House for All Sinners and Saints, houseforall.org

Nadia Bolz-Weber is not your typical pastor: In an hour-long interview recently, she unloaded at least three F-bombs and explained that “the Jesus business pays for shit.” She sports a dramatic A-line bob of salt-and-pepper hair and enough ink to rival a Hells Angel. (Her tattoos, however, are debatably more pious—she has Mary Magdalene on her right forearm and the Christian calendar on her left.) But it’s not only the profanity and her striking look that makes her different among most leaders of church: It’s the fact that a little more than three years ago, Bolz-Weber opened House for All Sinners and Saints, an alternative Lutheran church that she simply calls “House.”

Bolz-Weber counts about 160 people as House-affiliated, but says about 90 show up each Sunday evening to hear the traditional Lutheran liturgy. From there, the similarities to more typical Lutheran churches end. The uncharacteristically late services (“because no one likes to get up at 7 a.m. on Sundays,” Bolz-Weber says) are just the beginning of her unusual routine. Her flock is mostly comprised of young, overeducated, and, as she puts it, often voluntarily poor parishioners, who might be homeless, gay, married with young kids, or the owners of a local business. They meet in the round in the parish hall at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, since House doesn’t have its own home. The liturgy* is often led by “whoever feels like it,” Bolz-Weber says. The pastor displays art—sometimes ancient Christian paintings, sometimes modern abstracts—as inspiration. There is chanting. Hymns are sung a cappella by everyone. The mood swings from joyful to reverent to, at times, irreverent. • Bolz-Weber’s innovative way of presenting Lutheranism is not only gaining favor with potential new members, but also with higher-ups in her own denomination and international groups. Indeed, the pastor gave the 2011 Easter sunrise sermon at Red Rocks Amphitheatre for nearly 10,000 people. “The way church has traditionally been done is uncomfortable,” she says. “We’ve deconstructed all of that.”

*An earlier version of this story said that the "sermon" is often led by "whoever feels like it."