November 8, 2005
Expletive Undeleted: Dropping the F-bomb in Church
Leadership associate editor Skye Jethani tells the story Mike Sares shared with him at a conference earlier this year. Tell us what you would do if you were Mike.
A few days before Christmas, pastor Mike Sares got a call from his associate. "Mike," he said, "Mary Kate Makkai has agreed to read one of her poems at the Christmas Eve service. It's really, really good, but it's got the F-bomb in it several times, and I just thought I should check with you about that."
Sares first told me his unexpected "F-bomb story" last March at the FutureGen conference in Orlando. We've all heard the tales of pastors accidentally detonating a vulgar ordnance from the pulpit (everyone's recent favorite being Blake Bergstrom's infamous "pitch your tents" faux pas). But the dropping of multiple F-bombs during a Christmas Eve service with laser guided premeditation? That is nothing to laugh about.
Mike Sares pastors a congregation called "Scum of the Earth" in Denver, Colorado. No, Scum of the Earth is not your typical congregation. Scum calls itself "a church for the right brained and the left out." They embrace authenticity, creativity, and those who are on the margins of society. That explains why Sares didn't immediately take the nuclear option off the table. But he wasn't quite ready to push the button either.
"My inclination on the phone was to say ?go ahead and do it,'" says Sares. "I like to give artists a lot of freedom, but on this one I just wasn't sure. I told my associate that I couldn't give him an answer yet."
Mary Kate Makkai, the poet under consideration, was a young woman Sares had known for years. She was on a long prodigal journey with her faith, and was just re-entering the church after years of living in the "far country." Along with sensing the fragile state of her faith, Sares also recognized Makkai was an incredibly gifted poet.
Before coming to Scum, Makkai had been doing poetry therapy with juvenile delinquents. It was while working with those broken and angry young men that she recognized her own need for God. The poem she composed for Christmas Eve chronicled her own journey back to God. In it she quoted some of the raw language of the boys from her therapy group. Although sympathetic to Makkai, Sares sought advice before making a final decision.
"I called two pastor friends of mine, I called a seminary professor, and I called some of my supporters (pastors at Scum raise their own support). The two supporters were dead set against allowing the F-word. These were good people whose combined time in the faith had been seventy years. They simply thought it was inappropriate for that kind of word to ever be used in the context of a worship service. I got a big fat ?no' from them.
"However, the pastors were a bit more gray about it. They saw that Mary Kate was at a critical stage in her journey back to God, and they advised me to be careful not to squelch her. I felt that asking Mary Kate to clean this poem up before presenting it in church would be like asking the widow to wipe off her coins before dropping them in the offering plate."
Beyond the pastoral implications of his decision, Sares also explored the theological and biblical issues with Dr. Craig Blomberg from Denver Seminary. "Dr. Blomberg said that the Bible is obviously a wonderful book, but if you take some parts out of the broader context you're going to find some fairly dark things: incest, sodomy, murder - all sorts of terrible things. Mary Kate's poem was about someone coming back to the Lord, which is a wonderful context. In the middle of that context, she quotes someone else who is very angry at life. Context became central to our discussion.
"The other consideration was the Ephesians 5 passage about foolish talk and coarse joking. Dr. Blomberg and I went over different ways to understand this passage, using the Greek, and we didn't feel the poem fell under any of them. The poem was not a crude attempt at humor, and it was not immoral. In terms of obscenity, you've got to think of what might be considered obscene in your own congregation. In our setting, the F-bomb is just another noun/adjective/verb that expresses frustration for many people. It's not cursing in terms of taking God's name in vain, or asking God to damn someone to hell. This poem was being spoken as an honest hymn of redemption."
Satisfied that there existed no scriptural prohibition against reading the poem, Sares finally considered the inevitable fallout the F-bomb would produce. "I knew it was going to offend people, and could really hurt my relationships with some of my supporters. Allowing Mary Kate to read that poem would probably hurt me in the pocketbook, too."
What was he to do?
What would you do? Post your comments and come back soon for part two.