Washington got a taste of the closest thing liberal Christianity has to a star when weightlifter-comic-pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber came to town Tuesday night.
Some 800 people filled the historic, ornate sanctuary at Calvary Baptist Church and a second overflow chapel to see the Denver Lutheran create a scene almost unheard-of in most city churches: capacity. Even the sight of a half-full church is unusual at many American houses of worship in an era when religious institutions have lost stature and are now hoping to settle for relevance.
But not Bolz-Weber – at least for the moment. The former drug and alcohol addict has been packing churches around the country by combining evangelicals’ emotional connection to Jesus with a totally inclusive, liberal Christianity more typical of places like Calvary (or Bolz-Weber’s House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver).
People waited for a half hour after the two-hour talk at Calvary to meet Bolz-Weber, who fans say is bringing character and humor to a segment of religion that can sometimes seem politically correct and dry. They told her:
“Your story is mine in more ways than you know.”
“I want to be a pastor like you.”
“Can I get a selfie?”
“She’s bringing some flavor to the gospel. She’s bringing an edge,” said Krista Sickert, 40, one of a group of about 20 people who came from Luther Place Memorial Church downtown and spoke before the talk. “It’s so nice to hear a voice that is rooted in the gospel but isn’t about who’s in and who’s out. And part of the excitement is seeing her speak!”
When Bolz-Weber swore, the crowd heard authenticity. When she mocked everything from religious songs to door-to-door evangelizing, they heard truth.
“For me it’s a freeing expression of Christianity,” said Genevieve, 36, who came with two friends and declined to give her last name. Like Bolz-Weber, the non-profit worker has religious tattoos and a nose-ring, and she loved seeing them on stage as ways to express love of God.
“I love this desire to be who she is – and it’s not contrary to Christian doctrine,” Genevieve said.
Bolz-Weber’s stature has been rocketing up this fall since the release of her memoir. Sitting on the edge of her hotel room bed before her appearance Tuesday night, she seemed nervous. She’d been checking the news on her cellphone, amazed to see herself featured on major conservative sites – like Glenn Beck’s The Blaze and The Drudge Report. A self-described liberal, Bolz-Weber was slightly freaked out.
“I’m having an identity crisis,” she said.
Yet as her popularity grows, the debates are mushrooming. A piece about her in the Post was shared tens of thousands of times this week on Facebook, setting off discussions about whether her cracks against “spirituality” could divide progressive Christians.
For her part, Bolz-Weber said in her hotel room that she’s starting to get worried about letting down her growing legions of fans. In her memoir and her talks, a constant theme is her un-pastorly nature. She doesn’t like needy people, she’s selfish. Yet right now her fans are in the full-on adoration phase.
On Tuesday, someone called from Oprah’s office. Oprah wants a book.
“What if she loves my book?” Bolz-Weber glows with excitement – but then her face falls. “If only she knew how much Netflix I watch.”