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Misfit minister says pastors should ‘pray their church loses numbers’

Pastor of "Scum of the Earth"--a punk-rock-goth-artist congregation in Denver--has some harsh words and poignant advice for evangelical Christians.
Pastor of "Scum of the Earth"--a punk-rock-goth-artist congregation in Denver--has some harsh words and poignant advice for evangelical Christians.

Pastor of “Scum of the Earth”–a punk-rock-goth-artist congregation in Denver–has some harsh words and poignant advice for evangelical Christians.

Michael Sares is an evangelical pastor who has made a ministry kicking against the current. He pastors Denver’s Scum of the Earth Church, an evangelical congregation famous for welcoming those other churches might turn away, and author of “Pure Scum: The Left-Out, Right-Brained and the Grace of God.” Their monthly newsletter is called “Rubbish” and among the “rejected slogans” on Scum’s website homepage is “Our congregation can kick your congregation’s ass.” It’s safe to assume that Michael Sares’ isn’t your run of the mill evangelical pastor (if you don’t believe me, see the video tour of his church’s bathrooms below).

But Sares’ uncommon approach has been successful. Each week, hundreds flock to his church, which has now thrived for more than a decade. Here, he shares a glimpse into what drives his thinking and why he advises pastors to “burn the fake plants” and “pray their church loses members.”

Image courtesy of Intervarsity Press

Image courtesy of Intervarsity Press

RNS: Scum of The Earth received some media attention in the early days for being a punk-rock-goth-artist church. How has your congregation changed and is it still a place for spiritual and cultural misfits? 

MS: We used to be the church which got that kind of attention, but we’re not getting it as much any more. As a result, we are not getting as many weird-looking people flocking to Scum. A lot of the goths and punks have aged and their roles have changed. They are parents and employees. They may not sport mohawks or wear black polyvinyl anymore. By the way, punks and goths normally don’t get along really well. It’s a mark of the Holy Spirit’s work in us that they can coexist at Scum.

[tweetable]It’s hip right now to have weird and artsy people at church.[/tweetable] There are many churches who welcome these people as a way of being culturally relevant. I even heard about one mega-church in town putting photos of all the congregants’ tattoos on a wall inside the church building. So we are still a place for misfits but we are not as hung up on that. Being a club for weirdos is not as important as being the church.

RNS: The evangelical church doesn’t typically reach the people Scum is famous for reaching. Most evangelical churches I know are repositories of well-to-do, mostly white folks who work hard to look respectable on Sunday mornings. Where do you think the evangelical church has missed the boat? 

MS: The idea seems to be that you’re successful if you’ve grown a large congregation that enables you to provide programs for families that keeps them occupied in do-gooder kinds of activities. The people in the evangelical churches you refer to are desperate for deep meaning—but they’re taking what’s offered because they think it is their only option—and once their children are engaged in programs, these parents have no choice but to keep going to a church that doesn’t call them to lay down their lives for Jesus.

Also, any church that does not value transparency is also missing the boat. Evangelical churches can value emotional, physical and spiritual health so much that if you’re unhealthy, you need to keep it quiet. I love that our staff admits their own needs and failures, even from the pulpit. [tweetable]We, as a church, know that we are sinful and we’re not quiet about it.[/tweetable]

A toilet seat art exhibit at "Scum of the Earth" church. Image taken by Naomi Haverland (http://bit.ly/1zIwY86)

A toilet seat art exhibit at “Scum of the Earth” church. Image taken by Naomi Haverland (http://bit.ly/1zIwY86)

RNS: If I gathered a crowd of mega-church pastors in your church this Sunday, what would be your message to them? 

MS: Get over yourselves. You’re going to die and leave these large-box buildings to a generation that doesn’t want them. Sell them now to a junior college or to retailers who need the space and fund the young church planters and congregations who need to reform the evangelical church in a post-Christian America. And burn the fake plants while you are at it. Then go play with your grandchildren.

And to those pastors who feel the need to broadcast their sermons to several off-site locations, I would say: Do you really think you’re the only preacher/teacher those folks should be listening to week after week? Has God not given that gift to others as well? And what are you doing to train those so gifted? They are caring for congregants in various locations and know the people’s struggles and needs better than you know them. Take a lesson from Jesus in Philippians 2 and limit yourself. [tweetable]Pastors should pray their church loses numbers so that you could become more of a family. [/tweetable]

RNS: Scum is famous for reaching into the margins of society. What about gays and lesbians? They are on the margins. How would you describe the way Christians have historically reached this community? Any advice?

MS: I don’t doubt that there are gays and lesbians that have been very badly treated by the church—and even by society until fairly recently. There are a number of gays and lesbians who are definitely not on the margins of society now. They have wonderful educations, highly paid and influential jobs, lots of friends both gay and straight, and acceptance in almost all walks of life – except for maybe the church. Historically, I don’t know much about how the church has reached this community.

[tweetable]There is no Biblical defense for not accepting gays and lesbians just as they are.[/tweetable] Without one plea but that the Savior bled for them. This is true whether your church calls homosexuality a sin or not. All sin separates us from God, period. Whether homosexual activity is a sin or not is a matter of biblical interpretation. There are, obviously, whole denominations divided over this. Regardless, love must be the rule.

RNS: You’re 60 but pastoring a congregation of people in their 20s and 30s. There’s some encouragement in that for older pastors who wonder if they’re still relevant. What has this taught you? 

MS: They certainly are concerned more about the environment and social justice than my generation—the basis for which I find all over the Old Testament. I recycle a lot more than I would if I pastored another church. I’m constantly challenged by how kindly they treat the homeless people in our congregation. Young people have led us in a direction of sharing a meal with all who show up every Sunday. I know many of our “friends who sleep outside” by name. In spite of all their problems in life, their dependence upon Jesus astounds me.

Of course it has its downsides. I often feel out of place at young person events or concerts. If I go to a bar to hear a band, I may be the only guy there over 45 years of age. Then there is the issue of being a lightning rod for people’s daddy-issues. I get a lot of “go away, come closer.” People want a relationship with an older man desperately, but they are also terrified about how I may hurt them if they open up to me.

I lead a church of rebels. It’s punk-rock, railing against “the man” and the institutions of power. Like it or not, after a while I become the authority figure against which to rebel. I have to walk in humility more than I am capable of on my own. Jesus is the model here. I’ve encouraged honesty, so I endure what other leaders would call subtle and outright disrespect. But that’s okay, because I want relationship with my people.

WATCH A TOUR OF SCUM OF THE EARTH’S UNCONVENTIONAL BATHROOMS:

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

36 Comments

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  • What other religious entrepreneur con-artist is going to get the Merritt puppy-dog treatment ? (Hint, not the ones who do not come up with howler’s like “There is no Biblical defense for not accepting gays and lesbians just as they are.”)

  • Another day, another dull interview with a predictably nonconforming evangelical conformist.

    For Merritt, all that matters is he passed the gay marriage test — ie either not taking a position or taking the politically correct one.

    The best part is always when Millennials or those who pander them act as though they invented social justice and talk about “the man.”

    Of course the late 1960s and 1970s were nothing like that……of course not.

    Hippies and yippies and Woodstock and pot and all the rest were just figments of the imagination.

  • “Hippies and yippies and Woodstock and pot and all the rest were just figments of the imagination.”

    Might as well be for all they accomplished.

    They were a bunch of self-interested whiners for the most part. Plus they had horrific fashion/interior design sense which was made evident when they became the establishment in the 70’s and 80’s. So much burnt orange, puke green, and browns.

  • So you think Christianity is TO BE accepting of all sins including homosexuality murder and child molesting and any other kind of sinful behavior in thought word or deed..
    your wrong..

    Christianity is about telling every one about their only savior from their sins ..
    Jesus Christ SO THEY CAN BELIEVE IN HIM AND HAVE TRUE REPENTANCE for THEIR SINS..

    Luther said. The best FRUIT OF REPENTANCE IS NEVER DOING THE SIN AGAIN..

  • Obviously we agree, but my point is that Millennials or their interpreters seem not to know that nothing that they are saying is new, revolutionary, or original. In their own way, they are as rigidly conformist as any kid from the 1950s.

    They’re just conforming to the tired old radicalism of Grandma Woodstock or Grandpa Deadhead.

    And that’s supposed to be cool and daring….

  • “The idea seems to be that you’re successful if you’ve grown a large congregation that enables you to provide programs for families that keeps them occupied in do-gooder kinds of activities. The people in the evangelical churches you refer to are desperate for deep meaning—but they’re taking what’s offered because they think it is their only option—and once their children are engaged in programs, these parents have no choice but to keep going to a church that doesn’t call them to lay down their lives for Jesus.”

    AMEN!

  • Re:
    “Also, any church that does not value transparency is also missing the boat. Evangelical churches can value emotional, physical and spiritual health so much that if you’re unhealthy, you need to keep it quiet. I love that our staff admits their own needs and failures, even from the pulpit. We, as a church, know that we are sinful and we’re not quiet about it.”

    This quote speaks well to the issue most people I know have with the Church. Whether out of intention or ignorance, churches are lead by people who rarely live a lifestyle centered on transparency, reconciliation and grace. That doesn’t mean ignoring theological concepts of sin. Actually, transparency in church means having an honest conversation about those themes of sin in scripture through open hermeneutical dialogue–specifically how sins are understood through contextualization.

    I’m burnt out on (and have been burned by) the religious narcissism of pastors, church leaders, and Christians who are trying to sell the world on their own infallible/inerrant version of a faith journey but have absolutely no idea how to live transparently, reconcile with others, or simply gift grace. To be transparent myself here, I’m finding more and more that those things seem to resonate more often in my atheist friends’ lives.

    I am encouraged by what this pastor is trying to do. I might be willing to try attending a place like that.

  • Thank you for giving platform to the thoughts and ideas of Rev. Mike Sares, who not only speaks but does the Gospel. That God uses old men to remind young men of the importance of life is most refreshing.

  • I understood it all too well. I just didn’t take it seriously. You are so arrogant and self-assured in your own piety, you mistake derision for ignorance. Its not a matter of being unteachable, its that you have little to offer which is worth the effort.

  • Lol, scientific studies have shown that 80% of people have a bias against old people. As an old person I can attest to this. but I’m inordinately independent and self-sufficient so i can laugh it off. Meanwhile I often have good conversations with creative or intellectual young people. I know they have overcome what prejudice they might – or might not – have toward old people when they ask for my name, number, and email. I get them to talk about themselves in ways they have not previously done (we do not talk about sex).

    When people from churches talk with me I sometimes feel some empathy with them (the struggles of ex-addicts, for instance, even though I have never used drugs).

    But in most cases I feel creeped out. Why? Because their approach is trans-actual and instrumental, that is, they have a preconceived agenda and a “plan” for me. The conversations I have with other people are interactive and sometimes transformational, that is, we learn from each other gain some insight about ourselves, life experience, or the world live in. There’s no pre-set agenda or “plan,” so we can interact as human beings, not potential conversions or even friends.. I also cannot listen to anyone who denies the realities of science, or denies the realities of Biblical scholarship and the historically contingent nature of much of the Bible.

    That’s why no amount of religion can attract certain people like. Occasionally when I have interacted with a young “missionary” the conversation turns from “mission” to two people simply learning from each other in unexpected ways. that is, there’s a conversation . no need for follow up or friendship. Just a nice human moment in time. religious people just don’t get that.

  • Jonn, I think you’ll probably find plenty of fault with this pastor, too, because to be human is to be fallen.

    People are expecting too much from modern church. They think it’s a community when it’s just a place you go to on Sunday to get your spiritual batteries recharged.

    Yes, church in the Bible does mean community. It means the ultimate community, the Body of Christ.

    But when people today say they want more of a sense of community in church, they don’t understand what they’re asking for. A real community in the New Testament sense cuts totally against the modern grain of radical individualism. In order to live that way, modern Americans would have to change their views on personal autonomy and opportunity completely. They’d also have to change their views on economic advancement….their willingness to move anywhere in the country for greater economic opportunity. Why? Because geographic mobility and community don’t mix. If people are moving every few years, you can’t have a real community. It’s that simple.

  • John, aren’t you stereotyping “religious people?”

    You portray yourself as an open-minded person, but it sounds like when it comes to religion, your mind is pretty shut tight. Yes, I understand your criticism of some Christians. Yes, some are too obsessed about getting you to believe the Gospel to have a normal conversation with you (or others). Agreed.

    But it sounds like that’s an excuse for shutting down on religion. Your remarks about biblical scholarship sound like you’ve read one and only one side, because modern biblical scholarship has actually refuted a lot of silly speculations about the Bible, including major claims against its accuracy, historical reliability, etc.

  • My mind is shut to people who deny science. My mind is friendly but shut to people who want to evangelize me. Otherwise reasonable religious people are mong the finest people I know or have observed, so too for many secular people.

  • People are expecting too much from modern church.

    Which people? Offer an exposition on the day’s readings which draws on the Church fathers, say Mass ad orientem, have plain chant by a choir and schola and do not assault the congregation with leftovers from last year’s Hallmark special (sung by the parish diva with her hand in the air), have a conventional confessional and offer confessions at least weekly, have well stocked racks of votive candles, teach RCA and CCD out of the Catechism, and remember that eulogies belong at wakes. Also, do not ordain liars, heretics, headcases, sexual transgressors and femmes.

    I’m expecting too much.

  • Your expectations are modest. Don’t mind me…..I just had to say something about the loss of community and what it would take to get it back.

  • I love Michael’s recommendation that pastor’s should “limit” themselves. He’s absolutely right that pastors are too concerned about growing their numbers and not concerned enough about the spiritual growth of the members they have. Michael seems so wise and well grounded. It’s not about where he’s going, it’s about the journey he’s on. Excellent article!

  • I think the most controversial comments made by Mike were about the mega churches. While they do lots of good stuff, I, like Mike, wonder what they will leave behind. I am an older dude, a pastor, who has worked with the sort of outsider kind of kids for a number of years. Whether outsiders, non conformists, church bunnies or straight arrows. Kids don’t care for all that stuff. It’s nice to have but kids today don’t really care about big buildings, fancy stuff, big bands with smoke and lights and all those accoutrements. They care about relationship, authenticity, knowing and being known, truth and what does God really think about them. If you stripped it all away and just had a group of people that really cared for people like that, the long lasting effect would be tremendous. Sure it would be difficult practically, maybe. But it would work. I don’t advocate not having stuff, buildings, sound equipment and all that. It’s just what is really working, long term? I know, I have seen it, been a part of it, watch it work. You are not going to be known for the stuff you left behind but the legacy of family in Jesus built within heart to heart relationships. Kudos to Mike for being out there and straight forward in busting a few chops in love of course. 🙂

  • It makes sense, Jesus was a ‘misfit’ not accepted by ‘His’ own people in the work He created. He was raw and authentic and a revolutionist that was against the corrupt/abusive religion that used God for self profit… As an evangelical female pastor/military chaplain who went to seminary with 99% men including Mike, I can tell you he and his heart are the real deal. He is no Jr Messiah but loves Jesus the Messiah and wants others to know and have an authentic intimate relationship with a God who loves them through being the church/community, studying and living out holy scripture … That’s the point – get rid of ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ of modern worship and do as the Spirit leads to the glory of God and this Son Jesus. Holla!

  • Well, if those people in the 70s and 80s had accomplished much in the way of social justice, maybe us younger generations wouldn’t still be fighting the same damn battles 40 years later…

  • I’m part of Scum of the Earth Church.

    I’ll take the liberty of speaking for us as a group and saying some things that we are about:

    Genuine, reliable friendship
    Feeling comfortable asking all kinds of questions
    Leaving a positive mark on the world
    Having faith and values that you could explain to people who weren’t born into it

    Part of what is being discussed is a generation clash and having different values from many people around us. We’re far from the first people to have these issues but that doesn’t mean they are any less important. Reacting against things you don’t care for is part of what shapes every person and helps you realize what you do value.

    Here are some things that Scum of the Earth is reacting against that we feel are too common in churches across America. We feel qualified to say this because we have experienced these things:

    Faith that is minimally thought out and appeals just to people who were born into it
    Flimsy friendships and flakiness. inability to relate well
    Disrespecting the opinions of others. (everyone is entitled to their feelings, even if you think they should “come around”)
    Endless criticizing of the theology of other Christians rather than a can-do attitude toward finding agreement in the main elements of our beliefs (God, Christ, Holy Spirit, forgiveness, reverence…)

  • In many non-Evangelical traditions the mark of living God’s love are teh seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Anger, contempt, condemnation and sarcasm, favorites of “Christian” commentator, are not among the seven.

  • Overdrawn. Jesus was generally well received. Crowds followed him. That’s why the Romans wanted him gone.

  • I have been at Scum for over 5 years now.

    And I am always amazed at visitors who are looking for something that they imagined Scum would be and it is not there. Most think it is a much bigger place than it is. They are surprised at how small we are in number.

    The crazy name seems to inspire people to thoughts of a congregation that shows up drunk, flips off the pastor and allows any sort of behavior. Or that we are a bunch of square glasses wearing hipsters who over intellectualize things like whether or not a vegan can have cream in their coffee.

    We are none of these…

    What people do notice that is what they call real. I think what they are describing is, that we don;t change the way we dress or speak when we meet to worship God. Our behavior is the same inside and outside church. There is an honesty and openness about it. So it leads honest conversations exploring God and who he is and what our response should be to him.

    The practice has a way of deepening our relationships with each other and with God. We enjoy being together. We enjoy being with God. And we are often amazed when we hear the crazy talk about what others think Scum is and isn’t. Some of it is comical, some rather humbling. If you think we are that cool… don’t get your hopes up!

    But an amazing thing does happen at Scum. Some people who have had problems finding a way to relate to God other places find ways there. And they begin to work things out with God. It doesn’t always happen but when it does its is pretty awesome. But I guess that happens in other churches too.

  • I grew up in a 1920’s version on a modern Mega Church. Great facilities that even today impress when listed. It also had great preachers and was very socially accepted place to worship. I only know this by my parents memory not mine. By 1980 the mission of the church was reduced to heating and repairing the building and could not even do that. Mike states “You’re going to die and leave these large-box buildings to a generation that doesn’t want them.” This is nothing new.

    What I hear Mike saying is that we should invest in Christ’s Church not Mike’s Church. The two may not be the same thing! We hope there is a great overlap but the one may not even be a subset of the other.

    We have a relational God. No pastor can have a personal relationship with 20,000 people even with a great sound system and smoke generators.

    Invest in the body and build it up. The Passover and the Tabernacle are great models even today.

  • Preventing this article from being widely available, through required subscription/membership, appears to fly in the face of subject matter of the article, or at least the spirit of the congregation and pastor that is the subject of the article. Cheers.

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