There are two great lies that I have heard:
“The day you eat of the fruit of that tree, you will not surely die”
and that Jesus Christ was a white, middle-class Republican
and if you wanna be saved, you have to learn to be like Him…
It would be easy to dismiss these lines from Derek Webb’s A King and a Kingdom as hyperbolic oversensitivity, but it would be disingenuous to do so. No matter how much we pretend otherwise, American evangelical Christianity tends to define virtue according to the superficial values of the WASP upper middle class. The exact words Webb sings might not be cited from the pulpit, but everything in the life of most churches, from small groups to men’s and women’s activities to expected attire to recreation to political and social activism promotes one personality type (clearly defined along gender lines, of course). It alienates people who don’t fit that tidy definition, and rather than examine the church’s activities and teaching to see if cultural values are being upheld as biblical ones, most church leaders ignore that question and perpetuate the alienation.
Mike Sares knows better. He found himself the unlikely, and nearly unwilling, pastor of Scum of the Earth church in Denver, Colorado, a home to “the left-out and the right-brained.” When faced with a congregation of people rejected and turned off by the typical, Focus on the Family style evangelical church, Sares had a choice: listen to God’s direction to dive into the wilderness of unconventional church planting, or stay comfortably in the sanitized world of nice (a far safer “virtue” than the Good, the True, or the Beautiful) that has come to define most Protestant Christianity in this country. Fortunately, he chose the former.
Pure Scum chronicles the journey of Denver’s Scum of the Earth church, a congregation founded on the principles of individuality, authenticity, and humility in the pure love of God. Sares briefly explains the process of founding the church before revealing how that careful planning turned out. Each chapter focuses on a biblical principle he learned through his ministry at Scum of the Earth, which takes the story beyond an attempt to sell a book to hip, disaffected churchgoers and makes it a valuable tool for helping the church recognize and overcome that alienation. In a chapter titled Brokenness, for instance, Sares tells the stories of a few members of Scum who struggled with addiction and never quite overcame it, but nevertheless found Christ and knew Him in the midst of their brokenness. The accounts remind the reader that we are all broken, and only the grace of God, no virtue of our own, can make something Beautiful in us, whether we are recovering addicts or white collar family men.
What’s most compelling about Pure Scum is the story it tells of the life of a group sometimes ignored by the rest of the Body of Christ. Like any church, Scum of the Earth suffers its potential schisms, its divisions, its differences of opinion and struggles. Subtract ska band Five Iron Frenzy, the homeless, and a few hundred pounds of piercings and hair dye, and this could be the story of any local church. What makes Scum’s history unique, however, is the way the church decided to embrace the broken.
Brokenness is something we preach from the pulpit, and nod knowingly about when it comes up in discussion, however, we rarely embrace broken people or admit to our own brokenness. Our Christ, after all, is the suffering Christ, but we like to focus on the happier, inspirational Christ triumphant.. If we want to know Christ in His essence, though, we must understand His suffering. We’re bad at that. It’s uncomfortable, and inconsistent with the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” western image of strength of character. So we hide our own brokenness. If anyone down on his luck shows up to most churches, having not showered for days, we sidestep him. We sing “Just As I Am”, but we turn around and look sternly at him if he sings it too loudly. We want church to be nice and happy. Scum, to its credit, was determined from day one not to fall for that trap.
When did the Church become selective? Question the origin of the universe, ask about the nature of sexuality, or wear clothes you found in the dumpster in the alley next door, and you’re not invited these days. Scum of the Earth was founded to try and reverse this trajectory for the church of the Risen Christ who invited the tax collector, the prostitute, and the leper to join us.
Did Scum succeed? Sadly, like any human institution, it has deep flaws. There’s an odd lack of self-awareness in Sares’ apology for Scum’s ‘radical’ approach to church. The list of “rules” made by its founders really created a different kind of artificial community, not a revolutionary one as its founders intended. At most Denver churches, the price of admission was Dockers and a polo; at Scum, it was skinny jeans and green hair. All humans crave community, and community comes easiest when we’re with others who think, look, and act like we do. Scum of the Earth isn’t immune to these tendencies, no matter how determined its founders were to free it from convention.
Despite its flaws, anyone considering ministry at any level should read this book. As Billy Graham taught us, Jesus wants us to come to Him as we are, but we’ve lost that (if we ever had it) in the modern church. Different congregations have distinct personalities, and sometimes it’s easier to make friends with the local baristas than a clique of techies or homeschool moms. In Pure Scum, Sares exposes the weakness and pain this trend causes the church, especially in a population most open to spiritual truths. The church has been losing artists for centuries. We should, as Sares models, invite them in to ask hard questions. Instead of handing a dollar to a homeless man and walking on, we should invite him to sit with us in the pew. Only then will we begin to reflect Christ’s Body. Only then will we find the courage to confront our own brokenness and take it to Him for healing. ‘