Nadia Bolz Weber is the Lutheran Pastor at a new congregation in Denver, Colorado, called House for All Sinners and Saints. Her life story has been chronicled in her latest book Pastrix. She and her congregation have received quite a bit of publicity of late, and with that has come the usual cheap shots of shallow criticism.
Nadia at House for all Sinners and Saints NPR photo
Her critics often pick on her truck driver language or her physical appearance which includes tattoos, or even her less than perfect background and life story. Having been on the receiving end of criticism similar to these myself, I have little patience for this kind of tattle tale third grade approach, often leveled by online blogs and chat rooms of people hiding behind a veil of jealousy, self-righteousness and just plain mean spiritedness. (Yes, I know you read this blog as well and I’ve intentionally given you some content here to keep you busy for a while)
What Nadia's critics don't get, and what they are ultimately critiquing, is that she is not interested in engaging the culture of nice churchiness. She is engaging with the culture of broken people. Now I'll admit that dualistic distinction is unfair, because we all know that brokenness is everywhere. But, I'm going to use that split to make a point.
In the United States there is a culture of church life. It is a culture that has some core values including: the value of being nice, the value of a language of orthodoxy (which is not orthodoxy but adherence to one way of articulating the faith) and the value of defensiveness. The last one kicks in when either of the first two are challenged. Nadia is not interested in that culture. Her ministry is with people for whom that culture is as foreign as breathing on the moon.
Her way of engaging people who are hungry and hurting for authentic community is reminiscent of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was attempting to create an alternative authentic Christian community in Finkenwalde, Germany during the Nazi occupation. Nadia is exploring what the gospel of Jesus might look like outside of that church culture. This is a profoundly significant experiment on her part and I applaud her efforts. We have historically wrapped gospel, church and culture together into one package, and then said to people you've got to accept the whole thing.
No. I think that is at the heart of our problem. We have made gospel subservient to church and culture. As I read the New Testament what I find is Jesus articulating gospel as having a unique message that speaks to culture and church often as a counter weight or critique. Lesley Newbigin and Alan Roxburgh have shown us in their writings. When Jesus sends his disciples out in Luke 11, and they are to greet the towns people with ‘Shalom’, that greeting is a direct subversive move against the occupying army of Rome, who would announce a different kind of Peace. The Romans held up the sign that said PAX, which meant there will be peace as long as you embrace the Roman culture and ideology. The disciples greeted people with Shalom, a radically different kind of peace. The Peace that passes all understanding. The peace of the kingdom of God.
Not knowing Nadia personally, I am simply watching and learning like everyone else. What I'm seeing is someone who I believe is genuinely attempting to be a disciple of Christ. She's doing it with all the shortcomings that any of us would embark on such a quest. God's grace is sufficient.
In Nadia, I'm seeing someone get out of the nice church box and engage people, many of whom have little interest in that box, but a whole hell of a lot of interest in an authentic community where Jesus is present, whether they like it or not.
We would all do well to learn from God’s experiment at House for all Sinners and Saints.
Below is a link to an NPR Morning Edition profile of her congregation, along with wonderful commentary by Bishop Jim Gonia of the Rocky Mountain Synod.