I think a lot of congregations have a situation where people are – 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.
GROSS: The basements where the 12-step meetings are.
BOLZ-WEBER: That’s right, yeah, because I – I mean, you know what organization’s not really having a problem? – is AA. Like, that’s…
BOLZ-WEBER: It’s doing fine. That – they’re not in a crisis. So there aren’t meetings about how – in AA – where they’re like, how can we get people to start showing up more? And 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’s fine. And I think less and less people have time for that.
.. Yeah, it was – you know, some churches might have a hard time welcoming, you know, junkies and drag queens. We’re fine with that. But, like, when bankers in Dockers started showing up (laughter), we’re like, wait a minute. Like, I – it threw me into a crisis ’cause I felt like, wait, you could go to any mainline Protestant church in this city and see a room full of people who look just like you. Like, why are you coming and, like, messing up our weird?
And one of the values my community has always held is this idea of welcoming the stranger. Like, a lot of times, we’ll start the liturgy by saying, blessed be God, the Word who came to his own. And his own received him not. For in this way, God glorifies the stranger.
.. So I preached to, like, 10,000 people. And when The Denver Post found out about this, they ran this big front-page story about me with this, like, terrifying picture of me. And then…
BOLZ-WEBER: And so the next Sunday, like, tons of people showed up. But the thing is is that – you know who takes the paper are, like, 60-year-olds in the suburbs. And that’s who showed up. And so we’re looking around going, what’s happened? Like, our church – our weirdness is being diluted. And I called a friend of mine, who has a church with a similar demographic in St. Paul, Minn. And I was like, dude, have you ever had normal people, like, mess up your church? And he goes, yeah, you know, 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.
.. And he said, look, as the young transgender kid who was welcomed into this community, I want to go on record as saying, like, I’m glad there are people who look like my parents here because they love me in a way that my parents are finding difficult right now. And I was like, oh, man, meeting over.
BOLZ-WEBER: I mean, like, meeting over. Like, that was it. Like, that’s what is challenging to me about Christianity – is that exact thing – is, like, being forced to look at your own stuff and being pushed into a space of grace that’s really, really uncomfortable. And I should say that same person, Asher, was ordained. The ordination was at our church. And Asher was the first openly transgender person to be ordained by the ELCA, by my denomination. So we, like…
GROSS: That’s great.
BOLZ-WEBER: Yeah, he’s an extraordinary person. And that day was a huge celebration.
.. Well, that’s the thing – is that I just don’t think belief should be the basis of belonging to a community like this. And so I – everyone – we don’t sort of make that the central reason that somebody belongs. So we don’t even talk about belief that often in my church, strangely. It’s not that I don’t care. It’s that I don’t feel responsible for what people believe. I feel very responsible for what they hear as their preacher, as their pastor. So in the liturgy and in the preaching, I feel responsible for what they hear.
Now, how that’s going to work upon them in their lives is – there’s so many things that contribute to that that I have nothing to do with. So I just don’t feel a sense of responsibility.
.. I mean, I’m actually a very orthodox Lutheran theologian. And it’s a very sort of Christo-centric community. But it’s one in which, really, everyone’s welcome to come and participate.
GROSS: Are you more concerned about people’s actions than their beliefs?
BOLZ-WEBER: I’m not even really concerned about their actions, no.
GROSS: That wasn’t the answer I was expecting.
GROSS: What are you concerned about?
BOLZ-WEBER: No, that’s not true. I mean, I’m not concerned about – I don’t monitor people’s behavior. Let’s put it that way. So much of Christianity has become about, like, sort of monitoring behavior. And so far, it’s just failed to work as a strategy (laughter) – right? – for making people better. So on some level, the – Christianity became about monitoring people’s behavior, a sort of behavior – or, like, a sin-management program. And that almost always fails and often backfires.
Like, I would actually argue that conservative Christianity’s obsession with controlling sexuality – I mean, absolute obsession with it – has, in fact, created more unhealthy sexual behavior than it’s ever prevented. I really believe that. I mean, you actually don’t even see that particular level of obsession with, like, the power of sex and how dangerous – it’s like the moral bogeyman that’s hiding behind every corner and every zipper to these people, right? I mean, it’s just like they’re obsessed with it in a way you seldom see outside of say, like, 16-year-old boys.
BOLZ-WEBER: So it feels like there’s an entire culture (laughter) that has not developed past this. And we found that it doesn’t actually make people behave better.
GROSS: To sum up, your issue isn’t what people believe or whether they believe. And it’s not their actions, either. So your goal is – your job is…
BOLZ-WEBER: Is to preach the Gospel. I mean – so my job is to – is to point to Christ and to preach the Gospel and to remind people that they’re absolutely loved and that their identity is based in something other than the categories of late-stage capitalism, for instance, that they are sort of named and claimed by God and that this is an identity that is more foundational than any of the others. And all of these sort of – and that they’re, like, completely forgiven and their – all of their mess-ups are not more powerful than God’s mercy and God’s ability to sort of redeem us and to bring good out of bad.
Like, all of that – like, that message is what I just keep preaching over and over and over. And I think that there’s a particular effect. I think when people hear this over and over, they become free. And I think they actually do start making good choices for themselves and healthy choices, self-respecting choices without the church telling them what that has to look like.
.. Frank Schaeffer once said in an interview that, like, if what he wanted more than anything in the world was to be an atheist, the very first thing he’d do is pray to God to make him one.
.. And then the third thing is, really, this thing called theology of the cross, this idea that God is so present in suffering. Like, in our suffering, we feel like God’s absent. But God’s actually especially present in human suffering. And I feel like I had experienced that, as well.
Save the Mainline
A large share of well-educated liberal America is post-Protestant — former Methodists, ex-Lutherans, lapsed Presbyterians, the secularized kids of Congregationalists.
.. with the oldest churchgoing population and one of the lowest retention rates of any Christian tradition in the United States.
.. what those congregations offer is already embodied in liberal politics and culture.
.. enjoy a sort of cultural triumph, losing members even as their most distinctive commitments — ecumenical spirituality and a progressive social Gospel — permeate academia, the media, pop culture, the Democratic Party.
.. liberal Protestantism without the Protestantism tends to gradually shed the liberalism as well, transforming into an illiberal cult of victimologies that burns heretics with vigor.
.. as liberalism de-churches it struggles to find a nontransactional organizing principle, a persuasive language of the common good.
.. religious impulses without institutions aren’t enough to bind communities and families, to hold atomization and despair at bay.
.. Mormonism, the most demandingly communitarian of contemporary faiths
.. If pressed, most of you aren’t hard-core atheists: You pursue religious experiences, you have affinities for Unitarianism or Quakerism
.. you associate “religion” with hierarchies and dogmas and strict rules about sex
.. aren’t you being a little ungrateful, a little slothful, a little selfish by leaving these churches empty when they’re trying to be exactly the change you say you wish Christianity would make?
.. Sure, consciousness and free will are illusions, but human rights and gender identities are totally real.