Connecting with Lutherans: An Interview with Aaron Nielsen of LutheranBnB

A Good Wilderness seeks to help Lutherans and others cultivate community and learn how to live in lonely places. One of the ways we can do this is by hearing from faithful Lutherans, and other Christians, who own businesses, write and publish, or share life experiences that can give us insights and encouragement. You can find interviews with some of these people here at “Over My Neighbor’s Fence.”   

“I haven’t stayed in a hotel in three years. And I travel a lot.”

Aaron Nielsen is the CEO of LutheranBnB, a peer-to-peer hosting website for Lutherans seeking places to stay with other Lutherans. We spoke recently about cultivating community, how Lutherans can build each other up, and—of course!—his brilliant start-up.

Aaron, tell me a little about yourself.

I’m 27 years old and married to my wife Kezia, just shy of six years—our anniversary is in July. She’s a self-described oikologist. That’s from the Greek word [that refers to the family and the family’s house or property]. We’re expecting our fifth child in August. We have four living sons—Clarence, 5; Anders, 3; Louis, 20 months, and then our soon-to-be-born baby boy. We attend Hope Lutheran Church in St. Louis, Missouri.

I have a degree in culinary arts and business management, and I managed restaurants for a few years after college. But when the kids came around, I had the realization that the restaurant industry is not only not really an industry I enjoy being in, but the hours didn’t allow me to spend much time with my family. So I now work nine-to-five as an administrative assistant for LCMS disaster response, organizing grant requests and the logistical end of taking care of hurting people.

In the midst of all that, I’ve started amassing a bunch of Lutherans around me. So my biggest hobby, which I really enjoy, is connecting people.

How did LutheranBnB get started?

Two years ago, my family went on vacation in and around Milwaukee to spend time at the synodical convention but also to get some time away. We stayed at four or five different places through the [peer-to-peer hosting website] AirBnB. The first one of our hosts was Lutheran, and that was the one that really stuck with us. We stayed up until almost midnight every night talking and having a great time.

After that trip happened, we were talking about that first place we stayed, and how great it was to share a common Lutheran culture with hosts. We were talking to my in-laws, and I made the comment, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could have that every time we traveled?”  So my mother-in-law suggested that someone should start a Lutheran BnB, and my wife immediately jumped onboard—“Yes, Aaron, let’s do this!”

So I started a Facebook group for LutheranBnB, just to see if there was interest, and by the end of first day, we had something like three hundred people posting, and I think we even had someone arrange a place to stay with another Lutheran.

Wow! So whether you wanted it or not, you really found out there was a huge amount of interest.

Yes—it was mine to move forward. So a friend from childhood at church, Nathan Maichel—the church I still attend, actually—saw this activity online, and he messaged me about having some funds and interest in supporting a startup. He told me he could give me a loan and buy some stake in the company; he could get involved in LutheranBnB itself; or he could do a combination of the two. I went with third option, and we’re essentially equal partners. He does the technology end and making the logistics work, and I do the people end.

So how are things going with the business?

Things are going really well. LutheranBnB has about 1,600 members now, and of those, about 150 have actually listed on the site. A majority of what I’ll call bookings have normally happened through Facebook, so through less formal means. For instance, last summer (in 2017), my family took a 4,000 mile road trip from Idaho through Minnesota and stayed with Lutherans all the way. Some places were on the website and some we had to kind of drum up and go on Facebook and ask. Somebody always knows someone! The one place we didn’t have a direct connection was for a night in North Dakota, but one of our hosts knew an LWML (Lutheran Women’s Missionary League) lady there, so she gave her a call for us, and that’s where we stayed. It was fantastic.

So though the informal means work, the business is at a transitional point now. We just updated our website to start charging a modest booking fee, and this way we can actually make a little money. We’ve just turned on some hosting features on where hosts can have more leeway and control over their listings. Before this, we’d heard from people and gotten some donations—“We saved a ton of money through LutheranBnB, so here’s a check”—but now, for the first time, we’ve got trackable income and some momentum.

These are positive changes to improve your reach! I’ll just apologize right now; I’m a member, but I haven’t actually listed our house yet. I feel like a scoundrel, honestly. But here’s my suspicion, with us and others. I think people sometimes don’t want to participate in LutheranBnB because they lack that personal connection that you mentioned. Have you encountered this before?

Your reaction is common! And I totally get that. Basically, you fit right into one of two groups of people we see. The first includes people like you—you dirty scoundrel!—who like the idea, but they want assurances that they’re getting something predictable, that’s we’ll have their back if something goes wrong. They want clarity and professionalism. So part of the transitional period we’re in right now is also switching people from, “This is really neat, it’s cool this is happening,” to “This is something I can trust.” And that takes a lot of work.

So some things we’ve been doing to garner that trust is we’ve invested in the guidance of a lawyer who’s helped us craft our terms and conditions. As the owners, we want some ground rules and be able to monitor to members, like if someone’s really being a jerk and causing problems, we can kick them off. We’ll have more flexibility that way. We’ve also got new booking software that’s coming, too, which will provide more uniformity for the site and make it less social-networky, so to speak.

That makes sense. So here’s another angle. My family has stayed at AirBnB and VRBO (Vacation Rental By Owner) properties before, and our experiences with those were good. Some were better than others, but overall they worked out well. I think we were okay with those because there’s a big apparatus, contracts and the like, and standard protocol we knew we’d get. It sounds like you’re working on making LutheranBnB more predictable and streamlined in those ways. What about people who are leery of peer-to-peer sites generally but like the idea of supporting specifically Lutheran businesses?

So these are the people in the second group I mentioned. They don’t really like peer-to-peer leasing sites. In fact, they might not ever use them, but they’re willing to give this a shot precisely because they know they’re going to have something in common with someone they’re going to meet [either a host or  guests]. And I’ve had comments from people with these hesitations who’ve said, “I was never willing to try AirBnB, but I tried LutheranBnB, and it worked out great.” So I see LutheranBnB as really opening up a particular market, which I think is really cool.

Also, I know you have a large family, and travel can be very expensive when you have to stay at hotels…

Yes! And you would get this, too. One place we stayed at through AirBnB was great, in part because it was big enough for our family of—at the time—seven people, but it was also expensive. I’m thinking that staying with Lutherans would mean the price would come down a bit.

I should qualify this. Sometimes I feel like I give the impression that LutheranBnB is a discount site. For instance, we’ve gotten meals for free along with very reasonable nightly rates. You know that big road trip last year I mentioned before? It ended up being cheaper for us to be on the road than to stay at home, just because our hosts fed us and were really generous that way.

But I don’t think that that’s going to be the typical experience. We have a listing for a house on Hilton Head Island (North Carolina) that you can rent for $150 per night for the entire house.

That’s cheap! Particularly for a destination site where people like to travel.

Okay, so maybe we are a discount site! Places will charge a lower rate for pastors or church workers and their families, so I do think for a lot of people, LutheranBnB will still be a cheaper option. That’s been the case for me for sure. Honestly, I haven’t stayed in a hotel for about three years.

That’s awesome—and it segues into my last questions about cultivating community. In recent years, writers like Anthony Esolen and Rod Dreher have advocated for the good—and, indeed, the need—for Christians to be deliberate and conscientious about edifying each other through shared catechesis, confession, worship, and community to help weather social and familial fragmentation, cultural pressures to weaken our Christian confessions, and even anti-Christian persecution.  Why do you think Lutherans should be invested in cultivating strong Lutheran communities? And how does LutheranBnB do this or contribute to this?

Full disclosure here: I’m a big fan of Rod Dreher and the Benedict Option. Even though I don’t share his theology, a lot of what he says about Christians in this day and age is true. He’s saying, “Look—we need to recognize that persecution is coming, and we don’t need to be afraid of it.” There are things we can do to circle the wagons, so to speak. We’ve always known this happens and will happen. You mentioned catechesis and worship and teaching, which is vital. Catechesis, of course, takes place in my house. So along with that, Kezia and I consider what we want our children exposed to. In terms of other peer-to-peer sites, especially where there might be people in the house who are hosting you, you don’t always know what you’ll get in terms of alternative lifestyles. While LutheranBnB is pan-Lutheran [people of different Lutheran denominations are involved], you’ll have significantly less of that challenge. You’ll also be able to see who you’re staying with, and you can make the decision about who and what you want to expose you and your children to. We feel that that’s important.

Also, my wife and I—even when it doesn’t really make sense, distance-wise—always want to find a good Lutheran church to attend when we’re on vacation.

Yes! This has always one of my favorite parts of traveling—being able to go to different churches. When I was growing up and my family traveled, what at a joy it was to go somewhere we’d never been before, sometimes hundreds or thousands of miles away from home…

And they speak the same language.

Exactly! They speak the same language! I love that phrase. It ended up being so edifying. The point of traveling wasn’t to go to that other church, but by going to those other churches and meeting more people who spoke the same language, it ended up encouraging us in our day-to-day vocations. Like, “Hey! We’re not on an island. There’s other people out there thanking Christ for all of His good gifts in the same way that we do.” So I’m hearing you say that it’s good to be discerning, and it’s also good to talk to normal Lutherans in other places.

Yes, exactly. Two weeks ago, we went to Fort Wayne, Indiana, and stayed at a LutheranBnB just south of town. I grew up there and know a lot of the churches, so we were trying to figure out which great one to attend on Sunday. Our hosts actually mentioned their church that I’d not heard much about, and we ended up going there. And it was fantastic. What was really great—and you’ve probably run into this—is that in our synod (the LCMS—Lutheran Church Missouri-Synod), unless you’re told specifically about a church, you might not visit there. There are very visible, more public churches, but there’s also hidden gems of churches out there. So it was great to attend another one.

What other ways would you like to see Lutherans (and/or yourself and your family) build physical and spiritual places to help and encourage each other? I’m thinking of a property for sale in Iowa you’d commented on awhile back and your thoughts on this as a starting place or point of conversation.

Absolutely. First, I want to pay lip service to vocation – I’m not a pastor, and I have no plans to go to seminary. I want to point that out because a lot of these communities require a vocational dedication.

Right, like monasticism. My husband was just saying to me, “Lutherans don’t do monasticism.” Luther strongly spoke out against it. So I appreciate that you’re making that distinction.

Exactly. I want people to realize that we’re not calling for these sort of medieval cloistered communities, in which you’re saying goodbye to friends and the like. I was just talking to Kezia, and a friend of hers just went to a service for another Roman Catholic friend who was joining a convent, and she and the other novices were sitting behind a wall where they weren’t visible to the rest of the congregation. The family and friends were crying in the pews—“We’re so sad that we’re never going to see her again, but we can’t be sad, because she’s doing a holy thing and serving God.” That’s not what anybody’s talking about, even though it obviously still happens.

Wow. So what you’re saying is that Lutherans aren’t building a wall (yes, that’s a little tongue-in-cheek—heh!).

Right! We’re not building a wall! After reading The Benedict Option and thinking about these things, I think it comes down to this. There’s a lot of wonderful stuff in our culture. There’s also a lot of fluff. And there’s a bunch that no one really needs at all, specifically our children.

So I’ve always half-joked about buying some property in Iowa, or Nebraska, or somewhere centrally located in the country, where land is still affordable, and start some kind of intentional community, one that focuses on the canonical hours of the church. I’ve realized that we don’t need to set our schedules around nine-to-five jobs. Most of human history didn’t follow that. So what better schedule than to follow the days and weeks and months of the liturgical calendar? Such a community can look at other Christians and say, “What you have is good, but we want to provide value in another way. We probably won’t be as materially successful as you, but we want to focus on the real treasure.”

I mentioned this in a Facebook post, and three people actually sent me a listing for a beautiful church with a parish house—it was a closed Catholic church—in Iowa, about thirty miles from Des Moines. One of the people said, “Hey, I’m a retired pastor, I could sell my house, buy that, and be the pastor there.” I thought, “Wow, this could actually happen.”

That’s incredible! So people, at the least, are talking about the possibilities of establishing intentional communities.

Oh, yes. I think there’s a lot of interest. Of course, there’s the practicality of it all. I’m not in a position to make that kind of move, financial or otherwise, right now. Plans like that obviously have to be fleshed out a little bit more. There’s a lot of pastors interested in this, but if they’re making their living by the gospel, it can’t be a bunch of pastors starting something like this. You’re not going to have any money or ways to sustain a livelihood.

So five to ten lay families could move, and they could farm or create products or work online in some way to support themselves. That number of people could start a community and support a pastor. I think it would have to be a relatively close distance from a bigger town, like the place near Des Moines, because one of the biggest problems with monasticism is how inwardly focused it can be. What a Christian community needs is to remember Christ’s mercy. “We love because Christ first loved us.” So perhaps a community like that, while it may not have tons and tons of money—maybe the Lord would bless it that way, and maybe He wouldn’t—there are plenty of other things that the community could offer. It could, perhaps, partner with another church in a bigger town. It could do works of mercy, attend farmer’s markets, host events to witness and evangelize, things like that. But also, as times get darker, the community would have its own property and place. People don’t have to come if they don’t want to, and there’d be some buffer.

Along with this, I was contacted by another pastor that mentioned pastors who are hurting and suffering and stressed, and establishing some kind of place where pastors could receive Christ’s gifts. Before Lutheran BnB, when I’d come to Fort Wayne, I’d stay in the dorms at Concordia Theological Seminary. And one of the best things about it was going to Chapel in the morning! My kids grew to really love that—“Aren’t we going to the triangle chapel?”

Nice! What a great idea. So you’re talking about a kind of multipurpose intentional community—which, to be fair, is what many monastic communities are like, in terms of welcoming guests and short-term people, and also having people who live and work there.

Right. But you can’t start with the retreat idea; a community like that can’t be self-sustaining or economically viable. Along with that, there’s a lot of churches in our synod where if they had three or so more families in their congregations, it would make the difference between them being on the verge of closing and them staying open. So if people are willing to move to a brand new church and community, and basically uproot their entire life, then maybe they’d be willing to move to an existing church and community that wants to cultivate Lutheran teaching, gather around the Divine Service, and the like that the Lord has already blessed.

I think that’s something to keep in mind. Critics of Dreher and the idea behind the Benedict Option sometimes say it sounds too removed, or too far away from life as it is. One of the categories in this blog is called Cultivating Community, and there’ll be a section on intentional communities, but truthfully, there aren’t many of those. They’ll be another section called “Bloom Where You’re Planted,” where people can figure out how to make it in, say, a small congregation, or in a place where they don’t have a lot of dedicated Lutheran friends nearby. There’ll be another one, though, called “In the Middle,” which will hopefully have resources and networking for people who are actively seeking to find congregations and communities like you’re mentioning and they’re willing to relocate—to small-o orthodox congregations, maybe schools, and groups of people who are trying to live faithfully. People need to find jobs, of course, but they also want solid congregations and places where their children can learn.

So we’re tracking the same way, for sure.

It’s another reason I wanted to talk to you!

Another idea that I’ve had, and that’s started a little, is a group called the Brothers of Augsburg. It’s twelve guys on Facebook, and kind of a Lutheran version of the Knights of Columbus, but not that formal. One of the things we wanted to do is to keep all eight canonical hours, and for awhile we were able to keep about five of the eight. But we all have other vocations, so that was a stretch. But we provide each other brotherly support, and even some financial support, like for a family with new baby to go out to eat and get some things.

One of the biggest benefits is that we can say, “I’m having this really specific tentatio; could you all pray for me?” So that’s a huge help. So maybe eventually we can get local chapters going in, say, Chicago, St. Louis, Cheyenne, etcetera. The groups could provide spiritual care, maybe some theological guidance, and even small financial support, like for those hurting pastors I mentioned before. It would be great if all thirty-five districts of the LCMS could have one of these.

I think I hear another idea you need to pursue, Aaron!

I think so! I’m working on what’s in front of me right now, because a man needs to eat. I’m trying to prioritize my vocations.

And I think the world tends to fragment our professional vocations.

Actually, the world tends to fragment out our family vocations. But we have chosen not to fragment out our vocations, and what suffers is precisely our professional vocations.

But people are craving community and knowing who they are in Christ, and from there, in the world. We are brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, sons and daughters. We can stop pretending that we’re all Horatio Algier and can do it all.

We’re not alone. And that’s what’s so comforting about traveling and visiting other Lutherans and other congregations. We have a common language and liturgy. It’s such a good reminder that you’re not alone. There’s someone praying literally the same prayer as you—perhaps at the same time as you, between 8:00 and 10:00 on Sunday mornings.

Right! Or even the same hymns—like I was talking to a friend once whose church also follows the one-year lectionary, like ours, and we shared several of the same hymns during our services, at the same time—one church in Illinois, another in Minnesota. It reminds me of the altar as the never-ending circle, where we commune with all the saints when we’re kneeling and receiving Jesus’ body and blood in the sacrament. And so we share with the saints in heaven, but also at the same time with others across the country and the world.

The great thing about this is that even churches that don’t use a liturgy in our synod still know it exists. We still can talk about that and connect on that. We can and should avoid syncretism and unionism, but we can still connect in the left-hand kingdom.

Dave Ramsey isn’t a Lutheran, but there’s something to what he says when he points out the world will always have money, and it will use it to do bad things and to hurt they church. So we can take money through honest means for the good of the church, and encourage service to others. We can seek to provide places for people to stay where they will be fed and encouraged, and to do what we can. There’s a lot we can share.

This is really exciting—and bringing our conversation full circle. Negativity gets attention and drives web traffic, and yes, things can be bad. But what you are trying to do with LutheranBnb, and perhaps some day some of your other ideas, is to take what you have, and to make it better. To help pastors, church workers, and lay people who are lonely or in need of community to find it and cultivate it. Thanks for your time and insights, Aaron.

Absolutely. This was fun! Christ’s blessings.

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