Bolz-Weber asks, “What does it mean to be a public church?”

IMG_4493BLOOMINGTON, IND. – On Fat Tuesday, folks from the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver go to the bars to hand out doughnuts to the drinkers. They also provide stamped postcards, addressed to the man who runs the Post Secret website – a place where people write in anonymously to share their secrets – so those who wish can confess their transgressions before the start of Lent.

Most of the time, people don’t have a place to lay down their sins and failings unless they’re in church or Alcoholics Anonymous, said Nadia Bolz-Weber, the congregation’s tall, tattooed, feisty pastor. And sometimes, religious or not, their hearts burdened, they’d welcome that chance.

On a recent Friday night, people dressed mostly in jeans and parkas crowded into the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church near the campus of Indiana University to listen to Bolz-Weber. Author of “Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint,” she spoke about innovative practices in Christianity and also about what’s broken – riffing on what churches typically do versus what people really need.

Participants that night ranged from the gray-haired to Indiana University students involved with UKirk, the Presbyterian campus ministry. These ordinary-seeming but perhaps restless people – Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Quakers, those from other traditions and some not religious at all ­– turned out this chilly night in the heartland of America for an event organized by Fringe Christianity, a new ecumenical group in Bloomington exploring exactly the kinds of questions that Bolz-Weber raises.

What does it mean to be a “public church” – a church that doesn’t exist just to serve its members, but to be in relationship with a community, with the hurt and the struggle and the joy people experience?

Mihee Kim-Kort, a Presbyterian minister who leads the U Kirk program at Indiana University, lights a candle during a Taize worship service at First Presbyterian Church in Bloomington, Ind. The service preceeded a panel discussion March 1 featuring Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber.
Mihee Kim-Kort, a Presbyterian minister who leads the U Kirk program at Indiana University, lights a candle during a Taize worship service at First Presbyterian Church in Bloomington, Ind. The service preceeded a panel discussion March 1 featuring Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber.

“I have a group of ragtag students who are trying to figure out their faith, trying to make it be a part of their lives every day in terms of how they are in class, at work, in their friendships and communities, and then wanting to push and ask questions,” said Mihee Kim-Kort, a Presbyterian minister who leads the Indiana University UKirk. “They want to be in church. They want to help lead the church . . . They want something more and different.”

What can churches offer to those yearning for something different from the church of the past?

“There’s a big hole in the world for mystery,” said Charles Dupree, rector at Trinity Episcopal Church, speaking during a panel discussion with Bolz-Weber (the discussion was held March 1; her speech the night before, on Feb. 28.) “I want people to continue to hold up their doubts and to live in that space.”

Andy Kort, pastor of First Presbyterian church in Bloomington, told of his appreciation for “our spirit of discernment,” and the experience of churches “using our loud voice” to speak out on public issues.

What might churches give up?

During a Taize worship service, participants left candles on a cross to represent their prayers.

“The protective nature of our worship services” – including questions of “who’s welcome at the table” and who is not, Dupree responded.  “I would let that go” and be “radically hospitable and not try to control God’s grace and love and mercy. I would put that in the sale and give it away.”

There are practical answers too for why churches matter. At the end of the gathering, a man involved with the Interfaith Winter Shelter stood in front and asked for volunteers. The Winter Shelter is a low-barrier shelter which provides a warm place to sleep for people who may not meet the admission requirements for other shelters – and that is hosted November through March by a rotating group of congregations. The goal is simple: keep those without homes from freezing on the streets.

While Bolz-Weber pushes for changes in the church, she’s also in some ways quite orthodox – describing herself as a “liturgy nerd” who loves sacraments and classic hymns and ancient church traditions, such as chanting the Psalms. Most of the music in her church is a capella. “I am deeply rooted in tradition,” she said. “I’m never one to say ‘Oh, let’s just chuck everything and come up with something more clever.’ There’s this collective wisdom of the generations.”

Her own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation is anything but typical – a mix of “everyone from agnostics to evangelicals,” she said. With close to 200 people regularly involved, about 20 consider themselves to be Lutheran; more than half are young adults; many went years with no formal attachment to church.

Leadership is shared – when people walk in, even for the very first time, they can choose to read the Gospel text or otherwise lead the liturgy. The communion table is open: everyone is welcome. After the sermon comes 10 minutes of quiet, when things slow down, when people write down prayers to be read later in the service, honest, devastating, beautiful prayers that break people’s hearts open. “When you listen to them,” Bolz-Weber said, “you think, ‘I’m not the only one.’ ”

Bolz-Weber understands the predictions some make of the demise of organized religion. In denominational magazines, “every other month, the cover story is: We’re almost dead,” she said.

She does not, however, buy the presumption that young people don’t care about church. While polls have found the fastest-growing religious group in the United States is those claiming no religious affiliation, researchers also have found that young adults “pray with the same regularity their grandparents did.”

Bolz-Weber drew an analogy between current church practices and the now-disappeared Blockbuster video stores. At one time, Blockbuster was one of the most successful business models in the country – “they nailed it,” she said. Now the stores have vanished, but that doesn’t mean people don’t want to watch movies at home – they’re using Netflix, on-demand services or some other means of providing content.

“I think the hunger is still there to hear the gospel, to receive the sacraments, to be part of a Christian community,” Bolz-Weber said. “The delivery method will be different.”

For her congregation, part of what that means is to intentionally be a public church – one which interacts with the community.

They hold an annual Blessing of the Bicycles for area cyclists, because outdoor sports are huge in Denver, and “urban cycling is not without its perils,” she said.

At Thanksgiving, they offer Operation Turkey Sandwich, last year organizing 1,200 volunteers to cook, wrap up and deliver turkey sandwiches, stuffing muffins and pumpkin cookies to hand out to those who work on Thanksgiving – bus drivers, police officers, hospital  aides, the clerk at the adult bookstore, who asked skeptically: “Your church brought me Thanksgiving lunch here?”

On Maundy Thursday, people at Saints and Sinners wash one another’s feet, and provide bleach kits to be used in the Denver needle exchange program for IV drug abusers. People coming to worship are asked to each bring 30 pieces of silver. At the end of the liturgy, as people leave in silence, “the only sound you hear is the sound of 30 pieces of silver being dropped in the basin.” The money is then given away.

On Good Friday, the entire passion narrative is chanted.  The opening procession includes a cross, a gift from a Spanish-speaking church in Chicago that is laid on the altar and covered with purple tulips. “Some people kiss the cross and kneel,” Bolz-Weber said. “Some people prostrate themselves and pray.”

One year, at the close of the service, the congregants processed with the cross to the site of a recent shooting, a few blocks away, and laid the tulips in that place.

Last year, they went to a neighborhood where, a few weeks earlier, a woman had killed her children and then herself. There were “no sidewalks, no street lights, just chain link fences and angry dogs,” Bolz-Weber said. “It felt very dark there. We gathered and those dogs wouldn’t stop barking.”

They processed in with the crucifix and began to sing prayers, laying down the tulips. “I swear to God, I could not make this up,” Bolz-Weber said. “As soon as we started singing, the dogs stopped barking. As soon as the prayers were done, they started again.”

Later, she got a message from a neighborhood worker connected to people who live on that block. The congregants had seen no lights in the houses, spoken to no one.  But the worker reported the residents’ response: “This random group of Christians showed up on Friday. You have no idea what that did to help move us into healing. We know we’re not doing this alone.  We’re not the only ones carrying this.”

Being there, “we realized Good Friday on some level happens every day,” Bolz-Weber said. “That is what it means to be a public church.”