A Church of Oddballs

Like a lucky cocker spaniel, interviewer Terry Gross of NPR's Fresh Air manages to come up with a tasty scrap every once in a while -- but, puppylike, she tends not to know what to do with it. This was the case this afternoon, when she interviewed Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, a heavily tattooed recovering alcoholic who was once a stand up comedian. 

Bolz-Weber says she loved Lutheran liturgy and tradition, but never felt that she fit in with the typical congregation; so, rather than make herself and everyone around her feel uncomfortable, she went to a Lutheran seminary and founded her own church, which she calls "The House for All Sinners and Saints." 

Bolz-Weber's congregation includes LGBT people, people with addictions, compulsions and depression, and even nonbelievers. "Some churches might have a hard time welcoming junkies and drag queens; we're fine with that," she says.

Later in the interview, she mentions that atheists and agnostics also feel comfortable at her church. She says, "[W]e don't sort of make [belief in God] the central reason why somebody belongs.  So we don't even talk about belief that often in my church, strangely. "

Strangely, indeed. I had to change the station at this point, because it's hard to drive when your eyes are rolling that hard. It's one thing to be welcoming and inclusive; it's another to be so boundlessly, endlessly, relentlessly inclusive that there's no longer anything in which to include people. Inclusivity is not a good in itself. A church is for worshiping God, and the main reason to be inclusive is so that anyone who wants to worship God feels like they're free to worship God there. 

What Bolz-Weber seems to have founded is a social club, not a church; and her commentary sounds much like yet another verse of a tedious old song: Christians are uptight; Christians should be ashamed of their boring obsessions with monogamy, sobriety, and heterosexuality; Christians have hair-colored hair and skin-colored skin, which means they have nothing to say, etc.  And much of her complaint against mainstream christianity seems to be a complaint against being required to change your life. Snore. 

But I went back and found the transcript, and the woman had more to say than I expected.  (Please note that my response is based only on this interview; I haven't read Bolz-Weber's book, Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People.)

She says:

I think a lot of congregations have a situation where there are more people talking about God in the basement during the week; the basement of their church is more full of people talking honestly about their lives and connecting that with some kind of trust in God. I think that happens more frequently in their basements than it does in their sanctuaries. ... You know what organization is not really having a problem is AA; it's doing fine. They're not in a crisis. There aren't meetings in AA where they're like, "How can we get people to start showing up more?" So I think that there's something about people speaking honestly about their lives, and sometimes, I think, church is more about pretending your life is fine, and, I think, less and less people have time for that.

Boy, she is onto something there. I wish I had a shiny nickel for every time someone's written to me or cried on my shoulder because they don't feel like they're good enough to call themselves Catholic. They feel like they have to pretend to be fine, or else they don't belong at Mass. Is that not the most backward thing you've ever heard? I'm not talking about being in a state of grace when you receive the Eucharist. I'm talking about people who feel like they can't even take space in the pew, because they're not good enough. Not good enough to be a Catholic. What does that even mean

I'm a Catholic for two reasons: (a) I love Jesus Christ in the most holy sacrament of the altar and (b) I'm a forking mess. I've finally realized that just about everyone else is, too, in one way or another; so when I get to Mass, I worry less about what they will think of me and more about what He will think of me. That's enough to worry about, believe me.

So, the woman is wrong if she thinks that a great church means a place where atheists and agnostics and Christians should be able to just hang out and be awesome together. (We already have that: it's called Starbucks.) But she is painfully right when she reminds us that, in too many places, Christian churches are places where you have the choice of being fake or leaving. 

Also, kudos to Bolz-Weber for admitting that she had to give herself a stern talking-to when she realized that she didn't really want mainstream people in Dockers "diluting the weird." She confided in another pastor, who has a similiarly transgressive congregation, and he admonished her:

"Yeah, you guys are really good at welcoming the stranger if it's a young transgender kid, but sometimes the stranger looks like your mom and dad." ...

That's what is challenging to me about Christianity is that exact thing — being forced to look at your own stuff and being pushed into a space of grace that's really, really uncomfortable.

Again: she's onto something. If the Christianity you're practicing never makes you feel uncomfortable, it's probably not actually Christianity. 

What's your church like? Do people feel like they have to put up some kind of facade to belong? Or is it very obvious -- by the sermons you hear, by the way the congregation responds to newcomers and oddballs, by the way the parish life is run -- that the Church is a "hospital for sinners?"