Case Study Report on House for All Sinners and Saints

New Media Project

by Jason Byassee
October 18, 2011

Introduction

I am grateful to Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado, for agreeing to let her church be the subject of this case study for the New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary. For all the media attention the church has received, it is not a large community, so visitors are conspicuous and are often asked not only to participate in worship but also to lead portions of it! I’m thankful Nadia and friends folded me into the life of their community for a weekend in May 2011. For all the disembodied communication that new digital media makes possible, “House,” as the community calls itself, extended to me the hospitality of quite old media: beer, Mexican food, liturgy, communion, lingering over a cleared table for one last question that barely makes sense. New media serves us well insofar as it furthers these older forms of more embodied communication. It was due to House’s hospitality that it did.

Research questions

This case study is a contribution to the New Media Project’s larger research around this problem: How might faith leaders understand and navigate the vast and rapid changes in digital communication occurring within and outside our churches? How do we make theological sense of the seismic shift in a world so different from that before the new media revolution? (Daniel Walker Howe puts this unforgettably in What Hath God Wrought: before the founding of the telegraph, no one from Alexander the Great to Benjamin Franklin knew any more expedient form of communication than a faster horse (Oxford University Press, 2009).) How we communicate is changing with a pace that leaves the greatest experts baffled. How do we, who communicate the Word of the loquacious God, make theological sense of these changes? As our grant proposal narrative makes clear, “Faithfully communicating the gospel is at stake”: how do we tell our old story in new ways that draw in new generations without abandoning our tradition?

The research questions I posed to the pastor and lay leaders of House include these:

  1. How do pastors, congregations, and religious leaders experience the massive changes in communication patterns and tools, especially regarding social media?
  2. Why do pastors, congregations, and religious leaders use new media and social media? For what purpose? Does the purpose further their mission? If so, how? What are they doing?
  3. How do pastors and religious leaders think theologically about new media? How do they help their communities do so?
  4. Has the social media revolution changed what lay people or constituents expect of religious communities and their leaders? What they expect of Christian thought and practice?
  5. How has this massive shift in communication patterns and tools impacted the way in which communities gather and are formed?
  6. How can pastors and religious leaders using new media be resourced well from the deep veins of wisdom in Christian thought and practice in this new context?

Method

I conducted this case study by traveling to Denver and spending time with the members and friends of House for All Sinners and Saints and Bolz-Weber. I had dinner with half a dozen lay leaders, attended worship, and again ate dinner with two dozen or more attenders. I also spent three to four hours interviewing Bolz-Weber over the course of two days. I have conducted dozens of these sorts of intensive interviews and site visits over the years for a variety of publications and find, like an anthropologist, I am naturally affecting the answers of those hearing my questions. That is, I myself am not absent, studying this community with a God’s-eye view. I am present among them, taking up my own space, making waves perhaps especially when I think I am not. The strength of being present personally is in getting to know people, asking follow up questions, noticing what they don’t even notice and bringing it to light, having them ask me things I wouldn’t have prepared for. Worship must be embodied—at least if it’s going to be Eucharistic, as it is at House. There are undoubtedly draw-backs to such an approach, but lack of intensive, embodied presence is not one of them.

It is important to note this is one among several case studies to be conducted by the Research Fellows of the New Media Project. My colleagues Verity A. Jones, Jim Rice, Monica A. Coleman, Lerone A. Martin, and Kathryn Reklis will undoubtedly cover very different places in very different ways.

Data

In addition to interviews, I explored House’s website and Facebook presence. Interview notes are attached as a confidential appendix with the New Media Project staff.

Summary of findings

My primary finding at House for All Sinners and Saints is that new media is hardly thought about at all. The congregation is a church plant of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), aimed at ministry to and with un-churched and de-churched people. These are mostly 20- and 30-something hipsters in Denver for whom punk rock, gay inclusion, excessive education and indebtedness, and under-employment are hallmarks. These folks might never own a house, especially after the Great Recession, but they’ll never not own a smartphone. To be incarnate in this community is to be a new media adopter. Not necessarily an early adopter, but one who doesn’t use Facebook, Meetup, Flickr, or their peers or competitors is going to have trouble getting along in this community. Bolz-Weber says she couldn’t send a physical piece of mail to her parishioners if she wanted to because she knows none of their addresses. When I ask how often she’s online, she says simply, “All the time. I’m never not on it.” This can make for problems theologically, existentially, and ecclesially, and the church is not unaware of these. One parishioner fusses at Bolz-Weber for texting to her husband when he’s in the same room. The point is how unremarkable the use of new media is among church members. The church is remarkable for all sorts of reasons. Enthusiasm of adoption of new media is not among them. They are just being normal Gen X, Gen Y, and Millennials. The phones are like wallpaper. You can notice it and make something of it, especially if it’s horribly out of date, but otherwise it’s just there in the background.

House is a bit anarchistic in its use of new media. Members aggressively mocked any notion of being intentional in their social media strategy as a congregation. “It’s not like we have a strategy,” one member tells me. “There’s no social media committee,” another says, laughing. Another updates her Facebook status during our group interview to make fun of my questions: “I’m doing Facebook for the Lord,” she says, drawing clicks of her friends’ “like” buttons. This is the perfect social media funhouse mirror: taking to Facebook to say why having a strategy on Facebook is so afoul of Facebook protocol as to draw mockery on Facebook. It’s not exactly unchristian, though we might be tempted to say so, to respond with the desert mothers and fathers and take to the hills, leaving our phones behind.

It is not exactly making us more Christian, as though eastern icons once bore the Christian message, then the bound volumes of the printing press, then TV and radio, now the Internet. It’s just sort of there. It is a created good, which like any other created good could be used for good or for ill. Christians have tools for disciplining our inclinations to use created goods for ill: fasting, confession, and mutual discipline in small groups high among them.

House illustrates this without planning to do so. In a contemplative worship setting, members and visitors alike pray before icons. They kneel. They light incense. After the sermon they reflect, in quiet, for ten minutes. They chant ancient hymns, and they sit in the round and gaze on one another’s faces. This is all intentional. Everyone here is a sinner, everyone on the way to being a saint, none are excommunicated, none have arrived. And here’s the point: no one checked their phone that I saw in any of these moments. They did before and after, yet during it would have violated the holiness somehow. None dared do it. And so a community has disciplined itself to use the best of these machines, avoid their worst, and to try to remember the adage, “technology is a wonderful servant and a terrible master.”

Another hallmark of the church is its attitude toward authority. Generation X and younger do not respond to being marketed to, in the way their parents did. They respond to an invitation to create. They are producers, not simply consumers. In one example, Bolz-Weber invited church members to create something new for Ash Wednesday. Several spent half the day Saturday doing just that. “If I asked them to join a liturgy guild that meets half of Saturday, they never would have,” she says. But she gave them freedom and space, and they created something beautiful. So it is with social media. This is a flattened world, as Thomas Friedman taught us all (The World is Flat, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005). Authority is given away, and those who try to squeeze it, lose it.

Yet the church also rubs against this description a bit. Bolz-Weber herself guards a view of churchly authority fairly tenaciously. “It’s not that I’m special, I’m just set apart not to have the same freedom as everyone else,” she says. “I’m not free to flirt with people here, to have my emotional needs be met by people here, I’m not free to preach anything else but Christ and him crucified.” Flattening has its limits.

Narrative Responses to Research Questions

1) How do pastors, congregations, and religious leaders experience the massive changes in communication patterns and tools, especially regarding social media?

Bolz-Weber is a believer in new media the same way she is in civil rights and public transportation—sure there are people who aren’t believers in such things, but they don’t live in Denver or go to House. She does note the problems with such technologies. It is easier to bully others now. Bolz-Weber herself felt the wrath of this when blog commenters baited her for failing to stand up for gay people when she wouldn’t boycott Sojourners magazine in the Spring. These are not people who know her face to face, who share silence and communion with her, and so they feel free to pillory her online.

House also conducts much of its social life online, and this brings new risks. People who see others celebrating on Facebook or Flickr and then realize they weren’t invited to the party are hurt in a way they wouldn’t have been when gossip was slower.

Bolz-Weber herself suggests Gnostic escapism is not a problem at the church, but it is more of a problem in families, where we can text instead of speak to the person in the room with us. Bolz-Weber tells one hilarious story of announcing a pub group on Meetup.com, a public forum. She posted that one of the rules was that the group would be Christian, not generic, not faux-Buddhist, but Christian. One stranger to House joined their group on Meetup.com in order to then de-join it in anger—how dare House refuse to allow someone to do theology any way they liked? These are the joys and pitfalls of new media. Anyone can join, and anyone can foist any sort of ignorance on others that they like.

Bolz-Weber has no strategy for keeping up or coping. She’s not a particularly early adopter, although taking Pew Research Center’s survey that measures how Millennial one is reveals she’s something of a “42-year old teenager.” “I’m never not on,” she says, in one among many comments that might worry a spiritual director.

2) Why do pastors, congregations, and religious leaders use new media and social media? For what purpose? Does the purpose further their mission? If so, how? What are they doing?

Bolz-Weber describes herself as conducting much of her pastoral care online, or via text. While one can’t go into intense depth in 140-characters, one can say something, and such connection can lead to further in-depth interaction. Social media furthers the church’s effort at prayer. Bolz-Weber tells a story of the church starting a Google prayer group, so that members can log on and tell their ill companion she’s being prayed for. That way one can watch as a prayer chain forms visibly before her eyes. Bolz-Weber blogged about this experience, showing that pastoral care is communal, not simply individual, and can come in short increments—in precisely the sort of attention-span-deprived bursts in which newer generations specialize. She will use Facebook as part of her process of sermon preparation, in which she spends a week “obsessing” over a text. Asking members what they thought of John 3:16 yielded a flood of angry responses. She had to abandon plans to preach on Nicodemus in order to take up the theme of being born again. In short, House uses these tools as a means to further their open-armed and porous community out into the world.

3) How do pastors and religious leaders think theologically about new media? How do they help their communities do so?

Bolz-Weber regards new media technology in similar terms to those she uses for people. She’s a liberal with a low anthropology. She believes the human heart is a dark place. She was drawn to the Lutherans rather than to the Unitarian Universalist church because she believes we need a savior who comes to us from elsewhere to do what we could not do for ourselves. The Lutheran tradition’s simul Justus et peccator language appealed to her. No one ever escapes being a sinner. No one ever escapes God’s summons to leave their self-regarding, other-excluding ways and become a saint. We’re all both saint and sinner at the same time.

So Bolz-Weber accepts these era-defining technologies, but they don’t get a blank check. I asked whether her famous tattooing is a metaphor for social media. Both a tattoo and the celebrity-imitating versions of ourselves we post online are matters of putting on the exterior what’s normally locked up inside. She agreed. Then quickly disagreed. The difference is the impermanence. If you don’t catch that first meme online, you’re lost, and no one will retweet you. The web is good for connecting with and furthering church community. It’s not a good substitute for church community. She wants no part of online teaching and learning, and don’t even ask about online church. This is sacramental worship with chant, Eucharist, incense, icon, and a flesh and blood neighbor. The bodies of those who have been wounded, who House attends and rehabilitates back to health, are too important to be left to their loneliness-inducing screens.

In one sermon comment while I was there, Bolz-Weber summed up her position: “We all know how to change our Netflix queues on our phones,” she says. “But how many of us know how to rest?” She’s assuming, participating in, even celebrating use of new media. She’s also noting its dangers. And inviting her community into a form of life that can’t be mediated online, but only in embodied ways—there is indeed no app for Sabbath.

4-5) Has the social media revolution changed what lay people or constituents expect of religious communities and their leaders? What they expect of Christian thought and practice? Has it changed the way communities gather and are formed?

Because House reaches out to those who have been wounded or offended by the church, their expectations are tricky to chart. They might expect the church to be simply oppressive and be surprised to find it a liberating place. But those expectations are not likely filtered through new media. The beneficiary of the Google thread laying out the community’s prayer commented this way: “Thanks for all your prayers and support. It’s my first experience with the support of a Christian community (well, any community for that matter) and its pretty … amazing.” The surprise was not with the use of social media. There is no one around at House who can tell anyone else they’re not allowed to use this or that technology. The surprise was in the support of a loving community. That such support was extended online is almost incidental.

No community ministries at House could exist entirely online. But almost nothing they do could exist without the Internet either. Members told me about a hymn sing that took place in a pub. Participants wept to be singing “old time religion” songs over cold suds. Yet only some small portion of those singing came from the church. Others saw the meeting planned on Meetup.com and came too. Still others happened to be at the (largely gay) bar that day, heard the singing and wanted to join in. Online and embodied communities are not here playing a zero-sum game. They supplement and depend upon one another.

House for All Sinners and Saints recently moved its building across town. No one could find it if it were dependent just on brick and mortar or snail mail. Social media tools are the means by which these folks communicate. A church couldn’t go online to try and “reach” them. It could pursue friendships with them in an authentic way—one prerequisite of which is new media fluency—and perhaps they would then include the church in those networks in which they make their life.

6) How can pastors and religious leaders using new media be resourced well from the deep veins of wisdom in Christian thought and practice in this new context?

House uses Facebook, Meetup, Flickr, Twitter, blogs, an interactive website, Google Groups, eBay, and others. They also use an older technology (T-shirt making) to parade a slogan from an older media revolution in a new way. The shirts read, “Radical Protestants: Nailing s*it to church doors since 1517.” (House’s language, including its pastor’s, tends to the profane. This is not Stanley Hauerwas’ profanity, calculated to shock. It’s just how Bolz-Weber and her peeps talk.) One thing they could use is better press agents. The church is often depicted as simply an advanced guard for blowing up everything and starting over, but what strikes me about House is its deep traditionalism. “You have to be rooted in tradition in order to innovate with integrity,” Bolz-Weber insists. The church innovates, indeed. They get to “play,” as Bolz-Weber says, and then report what they learn online for the world to see. Yet that play is rooted in traditions far older than Christianity, and this may be House’s greatest innovation. “We rarely see any building more than 50 years old,” Bolz-Weber notes, in a comment more apropos to Denver than Boston. But the real innovation is in how it is steeped in tradition, and what success it has to report to the rest of us comes from this practice of what Leadership Education at Duke Divinity calls “Traditioned Innovation,” a concept in which innovation is never a matter of creation ex nihilo—it is a matter of finding in the tradition neglected resources to meet new challenges.

One example is the response to the Word that church encouraged after a sermon on Acts 2. Members brought possessions from their homes to sell on eBay. They’re going to take the money earned and start a deacon’s fund, largely for members who need help with groceries or bills. “That way there’s no difference between giver and receiver,” she explains later. “Everyone has stuff they can sell.” They’ll take pictures to post on Flickr and talk about what they’ve learned on Facebook, and they fully expect to hear from other churches that have been inspired by their ideas to try something similar. “We’re like a laboratory,” she says. They show the rest of us what works, what doesn’t, and what’s beautiful.

And this is beautiful—an experiment in entering more deeply into the sort of community envisaged in Acts 2, obliterating an “us/them” dichotomy so endemic to church mission, all made possible by eBay.

Conclusion

The wrong way to imitate House for All Sinners and Saints would be to copy it exactly. Most church communities are not three years old and filled with gays and lesbians who love Eucharistic chant. The way to learn from this church is to learn what they worry about and what they don’t. They worry about including others. They want to chew on scripture and gaze on its delights. They want to enjoy one another’s presence, not in programming but in friendship. They are increasingly seeing that they want their celebrity pastor to be a blessing to the wider world.

The right way to imitate it is to learn from its specificity how to enter into one’s own specificity with integrity. How to do so with humor. How to do so with a theology big enough to allow one to talk about the depths of sin and the heights of glory. And how to all but ignore the phones. They’re there, sure. You pay that bill before you pay the student loan bill. Many don’t have access, and justice matters to us. Nevertheless we live our lives on these things. Now tell us about a God big and rich enough to make me willing to turn the things off for a little while.

One grid with which to think through such innovation comes from Sam Wells’s work in ethics (Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics, Brazos, 2004). Wells works on an analogy to improvisational acting. In the popular imagination, improv is a matter of a comic genius making stuff up (think Robin Williams or Jim Carey). But even in those cases, innovation requires years of disciplined practice. More properly, innovation in acting or Jazz or leadership involves learning to trust fellow performers to do the obvious. An actor makes an “offer” on stage, and other actors know they can either 1) accept the offer or 2) block the offer. Acceptance of an actor who fires a gun at you would mean falling over. Blocking would mean denying the premise of the offer: “Gun? What gun?” Wells adds a third possibility—overaccepting. This would mean to accept the other’s offer into a far wider story than she could have imagined. Here the gun discharges, the other dies but thankfully is raised to new life. Christians using this analogy for ethics will, Wells argues, question givens. We will ask why death is the worst thing that can happen. For us, the worst thing that can happen has already happened in Jesus. Over-accepting involves imagination. We have to think past normal conundrums, but it does not involve genius. It involves practicing in the school of scripture enough that we can trust one another to do the obvious. Lady Diana overaccepted an interviewer’s question when asked if she would ever be queen of England. She could have accepted (sure!), she could have blocked (no way!), instead she professed hope that she would be queen of people’s hearts. St. Laurence in the ancient church overaccepted a Roman soldier’s order to gather the church’s treasure. He could have accepted (here’s the gold) he could have blocked (sorry), but instead he gathered the church’s poor. He was roasted alive on a grill.

How does the church overaccept new media? Not simply accept it, consuming it like so many millions of others, clicking away with our thumbs while the person beside us starves or hurts or takes a hint and doesn’t share her story with us. Not simply block it, pretending we can hold back the tide. But overaccept it?

Jason Byassee, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is Senior Pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, NC and a Fellow in Theology and Leadership at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

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