AUSTIN — Nadia Bolz-Weber bounds into the University United Methodist Church sanctuary like a superhero from Planet Alternative Christian. Her 6-foot-1 frame is plastered with tattoos, her arms are sculpted by competitive weightlifting and, to show it all off, this pastor is wearing a tight tank top and jeans.
Looking out at the hundreds of people crowded into the pews to hear her present the gospel of Jesus Christ, she sees: Dockers and blazers. Sensible shoes. Grandmothers and soccer moms. Nary a facial piercing.
To Bolz-Weber’s bafflement, this is now her congregation: mainstream America.
These are the people who put her memoir near the top of the New York Times bestseller list the week it came out in September. They are the ones who follow her every tweet and Facebook post by the thousands, and who have made the Lutheran minister a budding star for the liberal Christian set.
And who, as Bolz-Weber has described it in her frequently profane dialect, “are [mess]ing up my weird.”
A quick tour through her 44 years doesn’t seem likely to wind up here. It includes teen rebellion against her family’s fundamentalist Christianity, a nose dive into drug and alcohol addiction, a lifestyle of sleeping around and a stint doing stand-up in a grungy Denver comedy club. She is part of society’s outsiders, she writes in her memoir, its “underside dwellers . . . cynics, alcoholics and queers.”
Which is where — strangely enough — the match with her fans makes sense. The type of social liberals who typically fill the pews of mainline churches sometimes feel like outsiders among fellow liberals in their lives if they are truly believing Christians; if they are people who really experience Jesus and his resurrection, even if they can’t explain it scientifically; if they are people who want to hear words from the Apostles in church, not Thich Nhat Hanh or Barack Obama.
In her body and her theology, Bolz-Weber represents a new, muscular form of liberal Christianity, one that merges the passion and life-changing fervor of evangelicalism with the commitment to inclusiveness and social justice of mainline Protestantism. 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.
“You show us all your dirty laundry! It’s all out there!” the Rev. John Elford of the University United Methodist Church booms, as if he is introducing a rock star, leading the cheering crowd into an impassioned round of hymn-singing.
Bolz-Weber springs onstage to do a reading from her book, but first she addresses the language that’s about to be unleashed on the pulpit: “I don’t think church leaders should pretend to be something they’re not.”
The crowd erupts into applause.
Bolz-Weber pulls out a few kitschy items that she raffles off to raise money for a local charity. She waves a gift certificate for a free tattoo. Then she speaks to her new reality:
“You ladies over 70 dig deep, because you know you want it!”
Bolz-Weber’s appeal is unquestionably part packaging: dramatic back story, cool appearance, super-entertaining delivery. She launched a successful church for disaffected young people and has headlined youth gatherings tens of thousands strong. For a part of American religion that’s been in a long, slow institutional decline, this gives her major credibility.
She’s on a plane nearly every week to headline church leadership gatherings because of the way she articulates the place of the religious liberal in America. Next up is Calvary Baptist Church in Washington’s Chinatown, where she will speak to an overflow crowd of more than 600 people Tuesday evening.
Her message: Forget what you’ve been told about the golden rule — God doesn’t love you more if you do good things, or if you believe certain things. God, she argues, offers you grace regardless of who you are or what you do.
Christianity, Bolz-Weber preaches, has nothing to do with rules; it is the process of things constantly dying and then being made new. Those things, she says, might be the alcoholic who emerges into sobriety, some false narrative we have about ourselves, religious institutions that no longer inspire.
“I think God is wanting to be known. And my experience of God wanting to be known is much more in the person who is annoying me at the moment rather than in the sunset,” she says. God is present in these challenging interactions, she says.
“I never experience God in camping or trees or nature. I hate nature,” she told the Austin crowd as she paced the stage. “God invented takeout and duvets for a reason.”
This emphasis on experience over rules challenges conservatives, but it also bothers progressives who have turned church into what she views as essentially a nonprofit organization.
“This isn’t supposed to be the Elks Club with the Eucharist,” Bolz-Weber said in a taxi ride before her Austin talk. 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.’ ”
Bolz-Weber says she abhors “spirituality,” which she sees as a limp kind of self-improvement plan. She prefers a cranky, troublemaking and real God who at times of loss and pain doesn’t have the answers either.
“God isn’t feeling smug about the whole thing,” she writes about Jesus’s resurrection and the idea that the story is used as fodder for judgment. “God is not distant at the cross. . . . God is there in the messy mascara-streaked middle of it, feeling as [bad] as the rest of us.”
This very physical way of talking about God is thrilling to a lot of people who grew up in liberal Christianity.
“Here’s Nadia — boom!” said Jeff Krehbiel, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) pastor in the District who leads a national group on revitalizing U.S. congregations. “For her, this isn’t some metaphor, this is something real that changed the world and changed my life. How do we talk about this as people who want to use their heads? . . . I think people like her are resonating with a growing group of Christians who are asking the same kinds of questions.”
To Carmen Retzlaff, a newly ordained Lutheran pastor who came with her husband to the Austin talk, Bolz-Weber is liberating — partly because she’s “unapologetic” about her faith. “She talks a lot about JEE-sus” — Retzlaff giggles here — “which hasn’t always been a place of comfort in an increasingly secular world. I really love that.”
Some people, of course, really hate that. Her memoir’s title, in fact, comes from the nickname given to her by one of her critics who opposes female clergy. The book is called “Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint.”
At the core of Bolz-Weber’s five-year-old Denver church, the House for All Sinners and Saints, are people who felt hurt by religion — as she did.
Early on, she says, she was aware of hypocrisy, homophobia and sexism in her fundamentalist upbringing. As a teenager, she had a thyroid disorder that caused her eyes to bug far out of her head, and she always had the feeling that she didn’t belong. She marinated her anger in drugs and alcohol for about a decade.
Yet she never stopped believing in God. She dabbled for years with Wicca and experimented with every liberal faith group, from Unitarians to Quakers. She performed stand-up as a type of no-cost therapy.
It was going through anti-addiction recovery that finally soothed her anger. Her encounter with a tall, cute, Lutheran seminary student named Matthew Weber brought her back to church. They married in 1996 and have two children.
She first heard the call to pastor in a downtown Denver comedy club at which she and a bunch of her old runaround pals gathered in 2004 to eulogize a friend who had hanged himself. As the only religious member, she was asked to lead the service. Her vocation to her fellow outsiders was born.
Four years and a seminary degree later, Bolz-Weber founded what today is casually called House. It’s a start-up of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, with an “anti-excellence, pro-participation” policy. It meets in the parish hall of an Episcopal church.
Seating is arranged around an unelevated circle, lay people can pick up a card and help run the service, and sermons by Bolz-Weber are usually 12 minutes tops. Singing is all a capella and every service has a creative, congregant-run, interactive program.
“Sometimes I ask myself, why aren’t we at 1,000 people? This church is unbelievable,” said Aram Harotunian, a former evangelical megachurch pastor who goes to House. “For 21 years, I felt I had to keep people in line, and it felt like bondage to me. House has a lot of people burned by religion, and this still holds for me. It’s the only church I can stomach.”
But House has had its own unconventional crisis in recent years, after the suburbanites started showing up.
“It was awful,” Bolz-Weber writes. It seemed as if her “precious little indie boutique of a church” might be overrun by bankers and doctors. She called her pastor friends to ask, “Have you ever had normal people take over your church?”
The church had to call a meeting that is now basic House lore. The newcomers described how they felt inspired by the liturgy, and the younger outsider-types who had been there from the beginning wound up saying it was kind of nice to see someone who looked like their moms or dads but was accepting.
Bolz-Weber characterizes herself as having had “a heart transplant.” This is typical for someone who presents herself as the “anti-pastor”: cranky, intolerant, egotistical, but always open to Jesus making her better.
These days, about 180 people show up each Sunday, an eclectic mix of homeless and corporate types, punk teens and suburban baby boomers sitting on stacking chairs in the rented hall. Bolz-Weber’s growing popularity has forced the questions: How deeply into convention can she stand going? Can she stomach the idea of hiring staff? Of being mega?
The congregation is “becoming big and it’s freaking her out, because that’s not her gift,” said Harotunian. “It gets to her identity — what kind of pastor does she want to be? A lot of people think she’s going to climb the ladder. But I don’t think she can do that. It’s very precarious.”
For her part, Bolz-Weber is open about wondering how long she can be a nonstop tweeting-and-traveling machine.
“Christianity is supposed to give me a mild sense of discomfort. I don’t get to be in control,” she said. “It’s always putting me into something new.”