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.”
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]
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: