Church welcomes the ‘Scum of the Earth’

Posted: 11/02/07

Church welcomes the ‘Scum of the Earth’

By Susie Oh

Religion News Service

DENVER (RNS)—The people who worship with Pastor Mike Sares are mostly young, many of them students, some clean-cut, some a little raggedy. More than a few of the 300 worshippers have grappled with depression, abortion, drugs and homelessness. Some still wrestle with their demons—and at this church, they talk openly about it. They call themselves Scum of the Earth.

Scum and similar churches around the country draw in young adults disenchanted with suburban megachurches and the denominational churches of their parents. But Sares, for seven years, has tapped into a group at the outermost edges. He fosters relationships with God and peers, makes church as accessible as possible and doesn’t expect worshippers to change as soon as they come through the doors.

A free meal precedes services at Scum of the Earth in Denver, which attracts an eclectic crowd of artists, musicians, homeless people and others. (RNS photos/Ernie Leyba)

“I want everyone to attend,” said Sares, a 52-year-old former steel mill worker with four kids the same age as many in his flock. “It’s ridiculous to say you can’t talk to Jesus until you get your life cleaned up.”

Observers say his is a fresh approach to meeting the spiritual needs of young Christians.

“I think the reaction (in Denver) is, ‘That’s great that someone is doing that,’” said Craig Blomberg, a New Testament professor at Denver Seminary who mentors several Scum leaders. “The unspoken implication is, ‘Boy, we wouldn’t know how to do it, or want to do it, or be good at doing it.’”

The seed for Scum of the Earth was planted when members of Sares’ young-adult Bible study at a downtown Presbyterian church envisioned a new church where they would feel more at home. They came up with a list of 150 ideas:

“Stay away from words like ‘fellowship.’ Use ‘hang-out-time’ instead.”

“Don’t build upon a foundation of rebellion, but upon God.”

“No cliques.”

The first services were held in a coffee house with several members of the popular Christian ska band Five Iron Frenzy. Sares initially wasn’t crazy about the name Scum of the Earth—“I am not that cool,” he said. He even stalled by asking his young advisers to pray about the name for another week. In the end, he went with it. It was, he says now, the wisest thing he did.

“To reach people, use like people,” he said. “They know their culture, their peers, better than me.”

That sentiment reflects Scum’s avante-gard approach to ministry. Too many churches, Sares said, seem to ask people to change just to get in the door—hide your tattoos, remove your piercings, get up early on a Sunday morning.

Scum takes a domestic-missionary approach. Sares submerses himself in his flock’s culture rather than wishing they would be more like him.

Services—held at 7 p.m. on Sundays—give way to im-promptu gatherings at coffee shops. Bible studies feature poker and the irreverent newspaper “The Onion.”

Scum is influenced by the large number of artists, musicians and other creative types who prefer the unconventional. Scum, Sares said, is a church for “the left-out and right-brained.”

Pastor Mike Sares leads the Scum of the Earth congregation at a rented facility in downtown Denver. “It’s ridiculous to say you can’t talk to Jesus until you get your life cleaned up,” Sares said.

And while Scum may be unique in its attract-the-fringes approach, it’s not alone among groups with their own ideas about how to do church.

Simmering disaffection with the mainstream evangelical movement has spurred the growth of the “emerging church movement,” a loose affiliation of churches that seek to practice Christianity within contemporary culture, said Scot McKnight, a religious studies professor at North Park University in Chicago.

Some churches, like Scum, try to tap into inner-city life and the marginalized. Others emphasize the liturgical elements of Christianity with crosses, candles and icons. Still more embrace a new kind of monasticism by living among the poor, McKnight said.

That desire to be intimately connected with the community resonates with young people who shun fast-food chains and megamarts for local mom-and-pops, McKnight said. Scum’s free meal every Sunday attracts neighbors and homeless people. Some stay for the service.

Part of Scum’s appeal, worshippers say, is its come-as-you-are style. Some members see themselves in the Gospel story of the Prodigal Son.

Kate Makkai, 30, grew up in a church-going family but later turned rebellious.

“I wandered away from the church in my early 20s,” she said, recalling the drugs and casual sexual encounters. “I spent the first few years of my 20s in the waiting room of Planned Parenthood. I’m not proud of that.”

Friends introduced Makkai to Scum. Sares never approved of her lifestyle, she said, but he did offer support, calling weekly to check on her.

That’s part of what makes Scum unique, said McKnight.

“There’s a genuineness about providing for people and not condemning them right up front but saying, ‘Come join us, participate with us, and we welcome you,’” McKnight said. “That’s a kind of church I think is fresh and innovative around the United States and Canada.”

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