Emerging: The House for All Saints and Sinners

Do you know about the “Emerging Church?”

Lutheran pastorNadia Bolz-Weber is a most interesting player in this movement.

She grew up in a conservative Protestant church but migrated to ELCA Lutheranism. She’s the founding pastrix of the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver. They say they are

…a group of folks figuring out how to be a liturgical, Christo-centric, social justice-oriented, queer-inclusive, incarnational, contemplative, irreverent, ancient / future church with a progressive but deeply rooted theological imagination.Pastrix cover

Pastrix? That’s the term of derision used by opponents of female pastors. It’s also the title of the book Bolz-Weber wrote, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint

Here’s what the House for All Sinners and Saints says about its worship:

What are your Sunday services like?

Pretty much just like a Rolling Stones concert… ugh, we mean, nothing at all like a Rolling Stones concert. We follow the ancient liturgy of the church (chanting the Kyrie, readings from scripture, chanting the Psalm, sermon, prayers of the people, Eucharist, benediction, etc.) We also sing the old hymns of the church. So there’s lots of ancient tradition at HFASS, but there’s also some innovation. We always include poetry and a time called “Open Space” in which we slow down for prayer and other opportunities to actively engage the Gospel; writing in the community’s Book of Thanks, writing prayers, making art or assembling bleach kits for the needle exchange in Denver.

We like to say that we are “anti-excellence/pro-participation”, meaning that the liturgy is led by the people who show up. The pastor offers the Eucharistic prayer and (most times) the sermon; all the other parts of the liturgy are led by people from where they are sitting. As a matter of fact, even the music is made by the community — with the exception of the 4 or 5 times a year that we have a bluegrass service, the liturgy is a capella. So, all the music you hear in liturgy comes from the bodies of those who showed up.

In a recent episode of “On Being” on public radio, she said this to Krista Tippett about the Easter Vigil at her place:

We celebrate the Easter Vigil, where you start with the new fire and you light it and you have this Paschal candle and you parade in chanting and we have these baptisms and we have a Eucharist and it’s, like, amazing. And then we end it, when it’s done, we have a huge dance party. And we feel like nothing says “He is risen!” like a chocolate fountain in the baptismal font.

And this:

I really feel strongly that you have to be deeply rooted in tradition in order to innovate with integrity.

Bolz-Weber spent years an an addict … and a standup comic. Both aspects of her life journey are on full display in her conversation with Tippett. Do give a listen to “Seeing the Underside and Seeing God: Tattoos, Tradition, and Grace.” (Click “Play Episode” on the top right.) Bolz-Weber is unpredictable, and really funny. She says one wise thing after another, and she’s inspiring.

What do you think of all this? Is this movement something to watch for those interested in liturgical renewal and inculturation?

And what are your favorite Nadia-Quotes from the episode?




  1. Thanks so much for linking to this interview. I caught her interview on the radio, and I was intrigued by her open and hospitable spirit. I often feel that the Cathoic church does great with a certain personality type, including introverts like myself. Now that I’m a mother to a very active boy, and now that I meet a variety of personalities as a pediatrician, one could say I have a chip on my shoulder or I’m enlightened. It just pleases me so much to hear about churches who truly welcome all comers.

  2. There’s a mission church of the ELCA near the campus of Saint Louis University. They took a small turn-of-the-century church and turned it into roughly 7 parts coffee house and 3 parts sanctuary. The coffee house is open 6am-6pm every day, and you might mistake it for just another coffee house in an old church building if not for the religious discussion groups that meet there, lending library of spiritual works, and religious decor. They have a worship service at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, which is very casual. Come in, get a latte and a scone, find a table or a couch and settle in for worship.

    It’s not a replacement for the traditional Sunday morning service, which is still offered by an ELCA church not far away. But these Lutherans are doing campus ministry adjacent to a Catholic college campus and beating us at our own game. We have so much to learn about reaching the unchurched and seekers, yet that is rarely a priority in the Catholic church.

  3. I enjoy reading Pastor Nadia’s sermons on Facebook. She is a gifted homilist, end stop.

    Pastor Nadia shatters fundamentalism in her sermons. Her Christianity is not a brimstone Christianity, or a Christianity which measures the distance between a priest’s palms in the orans position. Pastor Nadia’s sermons are for people who have been broken by Christianity, a category which includes all Christians.

  4. I found her approach of “anti-excellence/pro-participation” to be very interesting, particularly in light of my time in England.

    In the Church of England at least, excellence is held in very high esteem, both in terms of music and liturgy. On the other hand, (active) participation isn’t deemed all that important. One sees this especially in the case of the musically/liturgically excellent celebration of Evensong, which leaves very little space for (active) congregational participation.

    At any rate, this seems like something worth watching. I believe that young people desire ritual worship and its sense-engaging elements, but perhaps presented in a different way than what we as Roman Catholics are used to.

  5. “. . . a progressive but deeply rooted theological imagination . . . ”

    These well-chosen words speak volumes about the parish, and about Nadia’s approach to leadership there.

    Imagination . . . a place of curiosity, of questioning, of grappling, of openness to new ways of seeing and being

    And this imagination? It is . . .

    Progressive . . . a moving forward, not sitting still somewhere

    Deeply-rooted . . . not a “flash in the pan” or “what’s hot now” mindset

    Theological . . . engaged in reflection on God and what God is doing.

  6. This is a good example of her style, which deeply resonates with me:

    “I love to talk about sin, which makes little sense to people who want to label me as a liberal. . . . when sin is boiled down to low self esteem and immorality then it becomes something we can control or limit in some way rather than something we are bondage to. The reality is that I cannot free myself from the bondage of self. I cannot keep from being turned in on self. I cannot by my own understanding or effort disentangle myself from my self interest and when I think that I can …I am trying to do what is only God’s to do. To me, there is actually great hope in admitting my mortality and brokenness because then I finally lay aside my sin management program and allow God to be God for me. Which is all any of us really need when it comes down to it.”


  7. We ought to be careful to understand that while she says good stuff like the above quote, (although it implies that we can replace spirituality with psychology,) we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that the Church’s approach to evangelization is flawed or not working. Rather, the message (what we’re spreading) is sometimes uncomfortable and hard to accept; but once accepted, easy to follow.

    1. @Andrew Kenney – comment #7:

      Andrew: we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that the Church’s approach to evangelization is flawed or not working. Rather, the message (what we’re spreading) is sometimes uncomfortable and hard to accept; but once accepted, easy to follow.

      I have not sensed from Pastor Nadia’s preaching that she is a doctrinaire libertine bent on forcing more “conservative” Christians to accept whomever is their outcast du jour. Rather, she is frontline doctor on Pope Francis’s “field hospital of sinners”. She gathers together those who hunger for grace without precondition. Moral instruction follows the gathering-in.

      The message contained in evangelization requires a lifelong immersion in conversion. I do not agree with you at all that the Christian life is “easy to follow”. Quite the opposite. Those who believe that the moral and doctrinal universe has stood still, and that all of the Christian life can be discerned infallibly, are fundamentalists. I have lived that life for twenty years. This fig grove is perpetually fruitless, because the singular and scrupulously followed means of cultivation always fails. I look for the figs of internal renovation every year, and all I find is the hollow external trappings of theater.

      I must confess that I have long been attracted to certain tenets of confessional Lutheranism. I remain Catholic mostly because of the theology of the Mass and the Catholic doctrine of baptism. Still, evangelization does not change according to confession. Evangelization begins with the field hospital, and not the semipelagianism of pride of being in attendance at Mass or service.

      1. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #8:
        I agree with your first point, although “grace with a precondition” has never been part of the Church’s evangelization so I’m curious why you mention it.

        Perhaps “easy to follow” was not the right phrase, but there is a simplicity in the Christian life that perhaps that I was equating to being easy.

        I’m not quite sure what you are getting at in your last sentence. I agree with the statement, but if that refers to the Church’s approach to evangelization, I contest that there is a misunderstanding somewhere.

  8. I talk about the emerging Church in my classes all the time. Bryan Spinks writes about emerging worship just a bit in his book, The Worship Mall. I believe Tony Jones is one of the pioneers of this movement (if one could call it such). One of my favorite slogans from the Emerging Church is, ‘we’re a church for people who don’t do church.” An AAR panel on space and place included an excellent paper by a scholar on the way emerging communities use movie theaters for worship. One of the flagship communities for the emerging church is Solomon’s Porch, in St. Paul, MN.

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