October 7, 2011
There's a renewed passion for justice and mercy--with an exciting new twist.
One of the things I appreciate about this conference is the beautiful blend of worship and compassion, evangelism and justice, love for the church and love for a broken world. The Catalyst culture promotes so much talk and action around huge issues like solving global poverty, protecting and adopting orphans, walking with the poor, feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked. This isn’t supposed to minimize the call to preach salvation in Christ alone (although I’ll let readers decide if that has happened or not). And most of this passion and energy is coming from a new wave of younger leaders.
But there’s also an interesting (and I think deeply biblical) twist to one aspect to this emphasis. It’s a better way to do justice and avoid “toxic mercy.” Here’s an example of toxic mercy: Bob Lupton told a story about a fairly typical suburban church program that brought gifts to a poor inner-city family at Christmas time. Of course the children in these inner-city families were always happy to get presents. The kids’ mothers were also at least semi-excited, especially for their kids’ sakes. But the fathers would usually disappear. It dawned on Lupton that these fathers couldn’t handle the shame. When the nice, well-meaning suburban church members swooped in to “help” the “needy” poor families, they emasculated the men and fathers. It provided one more concrete and public reminder of the fathers’ inability to care for their families.
That kind of mercy is toxic to humans made in the image of God. Rich, usually white, nice suburban churches wanted to help, but the help usually focused on their need to feel good about providing gifts to those poor children. In the process, we put ourselves into the center of the story. We became the hero of the story, not Jesus. It’s paternalistic and it’s degrading to the poor, but we never questioned it because it makes us feel so good. This kind of pity demoralizes the poor.
So Lupton’s community discovered a different model for Christmas gifts. They established a store were parents could purchase the gifts for the children. Then they set up a process for fathers and mothers to also earn extra cash to purchase the gifts. So just like most American families, fathers and mothers could give Christmas presents to their children. By actually getting to know these inner-city families, the partner churches started to treat the poor like human beings, not projects. This kind of mercy restores rather than denigrates dignity.
It's a good thing. I wonder why it took us so long to figure this out.
March 22, 2010
It may cost us a bit more, but our nation has taken a compassionate step in the right direction.
This morning—the day after the U.S. House of Representatives passed the health-care measure—I feel a sense of gladness. I am glad that millions of Americans, many of them children, will have access to health insurance. I am glad that people with pre-existing medical conditions can no longer be denied coverage by insurance companies. And I am also glad that some effort is being made to curtail rising medical expenses, and that certain special interest and business groups will be held to a greater accountability, and that the growing gap between the rich and the poor might be slowed.
I am glad not because I am a Democrat or a Republican but because I think that Jesus, who seemed to take great interest in health issues, is glad. Looking back on his life among people like us, he often acted as a healer. He seemed to delight in curing diseases, restoring disabled people to wholeness, and rewiring damaged minds. You cannot divorce these encounters from the rest of his public ministry. Health-care was in his frame of reference.
My favorite of the Jesus-healing stories is the one where a group of men rip open a roof and lower a friend into the presence of Jesus. I love how the Lord flexed with the moment and used the healing to offer people a vision of holistic health: physical and spiritual. I try to imagine the freshly healed man rolling up his mat and heading out the front door, walking unassisted for the first time in who knows how long.
Then, too, I wonder about all the people (apparently including religious leaders) who had crowded into that house and who’d made it impossible for the man in his original condition of paralysis to get to Jesus in a more conventional way—through the front door. How does it happen that people rationalized, that since they got there first, the suffering guy outside should be left to his own devices?
All of my life I have felt torn between those Christian friends of mine who believe whole-heartedly in healing as a centerpoint of their gospel and those who pray (sometimes benignly) for the health of friends but end up signaling their uncertainty by stating the conditional “if it be thy will.” Is there a third position that mediates between “it’s-always-his-will” and “it’s-probably-not-his-will”? Both extremes seem a tad foolish to me.
In my role as a pastor, there were many occasions when I laid my hands upon a sick person and prayed for healing. I confess that there were some times when I did it simply because it was my job. But in my heart I harbored doubt. Then there were other occasions when I felt a firm conviction about God’s desire and ability to heal, and my prayers were filled with fervor and a faith that affirmed that God could do anything.
Sometimes there seemed to be answers to those prayers of mine. People I prayed for (not necessarily in great numbers) did experience healing: not often of the instant type that Benny Hinn seems to highlight. But I have known people who found their way back from sickness and attributed it to my prayers and the prayers of others. This has not turned me into a so-called faith healer, but it has caused me, as I’ve grown older, to pray more boldly and expectantly when the opportunity has presented itself.
My readings of the life of Jesus convince me that our Lord wants people to be well. As described by the Gospel writers, he often seems disgusted by disease, offended by death. I love to read about those moments when even his better friends wanted to avoid sick people and when they paid more attention to the demands of a schedule than the needs of human beings. On such occasions Jesus would usually cut through the resistance and respond to the cries of someone who was blind or who had a child that was sick, even dying.
I love the moment in Acts 3, when Peter and John approach the Temple and spot a disabled man (from birth) begging. Earlier they wouldn’t have given him the time of day as they hurried on their way. But Jesus had rubbed off on them. Now they noticed the victim. And in this case they tried what they would have resisted trying in the past. They healed the man in the name of Jesus.
I imagine the dilemma of Peter and John as they stand there. I hear them asking how you call Jesus Lord and not ultimately inherit some of his compassion for those who are sick and diseased?
Frankly, that’s the question which has colored my own perspective on the current health-care debate in our country. Like so many others I have often been utterly confused by the arguments and the counter-arguments. I have shrunk from the ugliness of words used by extremists on both sides of the political and ideological divides. I have searched for those who reasoned out the issues with dignity and wisdom. Here and there, I have found them and appreciated them.
In the middle of it, I have come to some conclusions, these being some of them:
1. Any effort that is made to bring health benefits to more people (especially the weak, the poor, the children) is an effort with which I want to identify.
2. Anyone whose argument is based simply on the notion that we cannot afford making medical benefits available to more people does not get my ear. The fact is that our country—we the people—can afford it, even if it means that each of us surrenders a few more bucks that we would have spent on things for ourselves. We just have to conclude that compassion in the face of human need is a greater value than accumulating more stuff.
3. Any initiative that makes it possible for the common person to have the same access to medical science as the rich appear to have is one I want to hear about.
4. And any group that stands up on behalf of our physicians so that they do not have to fear frivolous lawsuits every time they make a diagnosis and propose a treatment is one I want to support.
Beyond the fellow who was lowered through the roof, there are three other people who experienced healing at the hand of Jesus who particularly interest me:
The woman, who for more than a dozen years, exhausted all of her resources trying to find someone to help her with her disease.
The man at the pool of Bethesda who had spent 38 years hoping for a medical miracle but had no one to assist him.
The demoniac of Gadera who epitomizes for me the worst depths to which a human being can sink. In the presence of Jesus he changes from this repulsive condition to one of dignity in which it is said, “he was sitting, clothed, and in his right mind.”
Tell me if this Jesus who sends a chronically ill woman home healed and at peace, who brings a man who has suffered for more than half of his life to wholeness, and who makes it possible for a man to return to his home and family would not be at least reasonably glad that our nation has taken a compassionate step in the right direction this week. I grant you: it may (I’m not sure of this) cost you and me a buck or two extra, but some other people are going to sleep a bit better in coming days, and for that I am glad.
A video summary of yesterday's events in the House of Representatives that captures the rhetoric and tension surrounding health care reform:
April 9, 2008
Shane Claiborne on grace, Baghdad, and the imagination.
Here at Out of Ur we've been hosting a conversation about the themes found in Shane Claiborne's latest book, Jesus for President (part one and part two). As is evident from this conversation, Shane is a guy who provokes a response in those he encounters. Certainly those at the Shift conference who just heard Shane speak about The Scandal of Grace got a taste of this.
Before proceeding, let me tell you how hard it is to summarize Shane Claiborne. The guy is a non-stop storyteller! Stories about growing up in Tennessee attending youth group. Stories about his home in the rough neighborhoods of Philadelphia. Stories about going to Iraq on the eve of the bombing of Baghdad. On top of his stories, Shane quotes incessantly: Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King JR, and Dostoevsky among others. Consider this a plea to check this post in a couple hours when we can post some video of this session.
Update. Here are some video highlights from this session.
In addition to writing and speaking, Shane is a member of the Simple Way, a Christian community in Philadelphia. It is obvious his experience with this community (identified by some as New Monasticism) has deeply impacted how he understands the role of the church in America. Citing the research found in Unchristian, Shane told this room of youth leaders that those outside the church see them primarily as anti-gay, judgmental, and hypocritical. Against this discouraging research, Shane summarized Jesus' reply to John the Baptist's question in Luke 7. "Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor."
And what might it look like to be people who are defined not by the research in Unchristian but by the type of grace seen in Luke 7? While for Shane this involves living in a dangerous neighborhood and traveling to Baghdad on the eve of war, he makes it clear that there are many ways to answer this question. What could it look like in your ministry? How do the un-churched students that you interact with describe Christianity? How does your ministry reflect Jesus' words of hope and grace?
One of the conversations Shane had while he was in Iraq was with a Christian bishop. After Shane expressed surprise about how many Christians he was meeting in Baghdad, the bishop replied, "You Christians in America didn't invent Christianity, you just domesticated it." Perhaps one of the antidotes to this domestication is to rekindle our Christian imagination. Looking around the auditorium as Shane spoke, it was apparent that people's imaginations had been captured. In the last session, Mark Yaconelli spoke about how busy and distracted most of us are. This observation was coupled with a challenge to reclaim the Sabbath so that we might have room to hear from God. I wonder if another benefit of Mark's challenge is that we may begin to imagine ways of living within our world that align with Jesus' teaching.
I have heard Shane speak a few times and though his words can often be challenging (and disagreeable to some), it is always clear that people walk away with a sense of what is possible. Despite the magnitude of the global crises Brian McLaren spoke about this morning, the Shift attendees are walking out of the room with their heads full of ideas. As best I can tell, this is a result of our Christian imaginations being stirred.
I wonder if this type of imaginative storytelling happens on a regular basis in our churches and student ministries. Should it?
December 20, 2007
Challenge your congregation and share the real meaning of giving this Christmas.
Earlier this month Skye Jethani posted about the obstacles we face during the Advent season, and his church’s attempts to overcome the busyness and materialism of the season. Last week, David Swanson reported on the new film What Would Jesus Buy and Reverend Billy’s crusade to rescue Christmas from consumerism.
In keeping the Out of Ur’s theme this December we’re happy to share with you that our friends at Faith Visuals are offering a series of free Christmas/Advent videos. These vids all focus on consumerism, priorities, and giving. You might find them useful and inspiring personally and for your congregation.
Check out the videos at FaithVisuals.com.
Posted by UrL Scaramanga at December 20, 2007
September 18, 2007
Results from Christianity Today International’s latest nationwide research.
Our annual compilation of ministry salaries is out, and this year's tally produced a few surprises:
? If you want to make more money, switch denominations.
? Female solo pastors make more.
? The extra degree is worth the money.
Kevin Miller has a report below.
Our research team here at Christianity Today International just finished surveying more than 2,000 churches, and next month, we'll be releasing the most comprehensive, up-to-date church salary survey we've ever done. While The 2008 Compensation Handbook for Church Staff is at the printer, here is a sneak peek at some results:
1. If you want to earn more, change denominations.
Briefly, if you want to earn more as a senior pastor, become a Presbyterian. If you want to earn more as a youth pastor, become a Baptist.
Presbyterian senior pastors earned the most in our survey - their average salary plus housing/parsonage was $78,000, while Baptist senior pastors earned next to last--$67,000. But virtually the opposite was true for youth pastors. Baptist youth pastors earned near the top--$44,000 in salary plus housing, while Presbyterian youth pastors earned near the bottom--$36,000. Why?
The answer comes from two factors: church income and denominational values.
Our research consistently shows that the biggest single factor in determining any pastor's pay is the church's income. And among churches with senior pastors, Presbyterian churches have the highest-reported church income, so some of that gets passed along to their senior pastors.
But among churches with youth pastors, Baptist churches and Presbyterian churches have virtually identical church income. So they could pay their youth pastors equally, if they wished. Apparently, though, Baptist churches value youth ministry more, because they pay their youth pastors 20 percent more.
2. Female solo pastors earn more than male solo pastors.
Okay, so there aren't many female solo pastors; in American churches responding to our survey, only six percent of solo pastors are women. Still, it's intriguing that female solo pastors reported 10.4 percent higher total compensation. Their average salary was 8.6 percent higher than men's ($49,219 compared to $45,259); and better housing and retirement benefits made up the rest. Why the difference? Why do female solo pastors earn, for total compensation (includes health insurance, retirement, and continuing education), $62,472, when their male counterparts earn $56,558?
My first hypothesis went like this: "Since there are precious few women hired as senior pastors - only 2.5 percent, in our research - women stay in solo pastorates longer, and their longevity leads to higher pay." But that hypothesis doesn't hold up: for solo pastors, the number of years served makes next to no difference in pay.
The more-likely explanation is regional. We know that solo pastors receive the highest pay in the New England and Pacific states (not surprisingly, given the higher cost of living in these regions). And these regions probably have the greatest cultural acceptance of women serving as solo pastors. Thus, women solo pastors tend to find work in regions with a high cost of living, and consequently, get a higher salary.
And before we assume that the church runs counter to the still-prevalent cultural practice of paying women less than men for comparable work, women were paid less than men in every other church position surveyed (except for secretary). On average, females earned approximately 80 percent of the compensation of males. Or, in other words, males earned about 30 percent more than females.
3. That additional degree is probably worth it.
Wondering whether to finish your master's or doctorate? Even in pastoral ministry, from a financial standpoint, the answer is yes.
Roughly stated, moving from a bachelor's degree to a master's degree boosts your income from 10 to 20 percent, and getting your doctorate gets you 15 percent more on top of that. Or here's another way of looking at it: that additional degree will earn you from $7,000 to $15,000 more per year. So if you're going to serve with that degree for five or more years, you'll probably end up ahead.
How to find out more
All data above is taken from The 2008 Compensation Handbook for Church Staff, which presents data on 13 church positions, based on research among nearly 2,100 American churches, who were surveyed between January 2007 and May 2007. To pre-order for October shipment, go to Compensation Handbook or call 1-800-222-1840.
Kevin Miller is executive vice-president and publisher of Christianity Today International.
May 23, 2007
Research shows pastors are the most satisfied professionals, but not everyone agrees.
Last month the Chicago Tribune reported that pastors are the happiest people on earth - really. Research done by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center found that clergy ranked highest in job satisfaction and "general happiness." They even out ranked highly paid professionals such as doctors and lawyers.
The article reports:
Eighty-seven percent of clergy said they were "very satisfied" with their work, compared with an average 47 percent for all workers. Sixty-seven percent reported being "very happy," compared with an average 33 percent for all workers.
"They look at their occupation as a calling," Carroll said. "A pastor does get called on to enter into some of the deepest moments of a person's life, celebrating a birth and sitting with people at times of illness or death. There's a lot of fulfillment."
Can this possibly be true?
Since I entered seminary I've been bombarded with the horror stories of pastoral ministry. Like the enlisted men trembling as General Patton pontificated about the brutality of war, new seminarians are told the sobering statistic about ministry burn-out, moral failure, divorce, and depression. Ministry, we are told, isn't for the weak. Only a clear calling from God will keep us in the game, because apart from that there is little for church leaders to rejoice about. Shepherding sheep, they say, is a dirty job with few earthly rewards.
To illustrate the popular rhetoric Pastor Darrin Patrick from The Journey in St. Louis compiled this list of statistics from organizations like Focus on the Family and Barna Research:
? Fifteen hundred pastors leave the ministry each month due to moral failure, spiritual burnout, or contention in their churches.
? Fifty percent of pastors' marriages will end in divorce.
? Eighty percent of pastors and eighty-four percent of their spouses feel unqualified and discouraged in their role as pastors.
? Fifty percent of pastors are so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could, but have no other way of making a living.
? Eighty percent of seminary and Bible school graduates who enter the ministry will leave the ministry within the first five years.
? Seventy percent of pastors constantly fight depression.
So, what is the truth? Are pastors the happiest and most satisfied people in the world, or the least? Are the statistics about pastoral burn-out and depression inflated? Do we overstate the hardships of ministry as a perverse way to make us feel more noble and courageous for continuing? Or, are most of us actually experiencing deep contentment, pleasure, and spiritual satisfaction in our labors?
Perhaps there is another explanation for the disparity in the statistics. Maybe the University of Chicago polled pastors on Saturday, and Barna polled them on Monday?
May 5, 2007
A rant from the pastor of a small, organic, missional community.
Crack your knuckles and prepare to type your comments. Pastor/professor David Fitch is back with his take on why leading a small church is more difficult, and more rewarding, than being a mega-church pastor.
My recent conversation with Bill Kinnon over the big church superstar mentality spurred me on to think of my own experience as a church planter. I have often pondered the church planter's task versus the mega church pastor's. To me, what the smaller, organic, missional community leaders do is much more difficult. Here's why.
It is more difficult to take 10 people and grow a body of Christ to 150 than it is to transplant 200 or 300 people and then grow that congregation to 5,000. A crowd draws a crowd. From day one if you have all the bells and whistles, 5 full time pastors, a youth program, and a charismatic speaker with spiked hair (a shot not aimed at anyone in particular) and you don't mind putting the smaller community churches out of business, it will be harder to stop attracting a big crowd.
(BTW, did you know that statistics say that small church growth (from 10-150) is where the conversion growth, as opposed to transfer growth, occurs? Why then do evangelicals exalt the mega congregations as the answer to reaching those outside of Christ?)
It is more difficult to preach a sermon to 100 people than to 8,000 people. Of course, there are some of my emerging co-laborers who don't believe in preaching per se. I believe in proclamation of the new reality, the calling of truth into being, and my thoughts on expository preaching are already out there. My point here is that preaching to 100 people you actually know and live with is a lot harder than preaching to 8000 people, 99% of whom you don't know. It is not that it is harder to be vulnerable in a larger crowd. It is that in a space of 100 people you are more vulnerable when so many know you. You are naked.
And I might add, I've preached for our own congregation of 100+ and I've preached for 1000+, and my experience is that a joke is 10 times easier to pull off in a large audience than in a small one. (Not that I should be trying to tell jokes in my sermon but you all know what I'm talking about.)
It is more difficult to deal with conflict and leadership in a small church where our conflicts, our vision, our weaknesses must all be talked about and worked through. In small, organic, church leadership we must do the hard work of owning our weaknesses and speaking truth in love to other leaders. It's hard but we grow. In mega-sized corporate churches leadership and organization is much easier because you can just fire people/employees.
It is more difficult to build a live body of Christ where his powers are made manifest and his mission is sent forth, and poor people are actually recognized and loved, and where a politic takes shape which subverts the consumerist depersonalizing forces of our day than it is to build large mega churches that play on the consumerist forces that rule our culture and play right into church marketing programs.
It is more difficult to organically engage people's lives than it is to become a media figure for Christians looking for the next hip thing. They can simply buy your book and drive to your church. Then you do not have to deal with everyday details of people's lives. You take the show on the road to promote the idea that you started this church and overnight it turned into 4,000 people and you couldn't stop it. The mythology grows and young church planters with visions dancing in their heads become depressed and defeated when the same things do not happen to them.
It is more difficult to build a gathering that is a mission in the world, than it is to build a gathering that comes to see the show. It is more difficult to build a gathering into being the Body of Christ than it is to build a crowd around a personality. Yes it is more difficult, but in the end so much more satisfying. And when you're gone this community will keep reproducing the love of Christ, the fruits of the Spirit, and the leader(s) to carry on the transformation of the world until Christ returns.
For these reasons, to me the real heroes are the missional pastors who raise up the organic communities that take different shapes and manifest the presence of Christ in their neighborhoods. Yet status quo evangelicalism knows no other way but to extol the virtues of the mega-sized personalities at mega-sized conferences. In the process those who would be missional church pastors are demoralized, leave the pastorate, or just give up.
Have I overstated my rant? If so I apologize ahead of time. May the Holy Spirit burn away any chaff that I have written and use the rest to encourage any discouraged missional community leaders for the glory of His Kingdom.
Please keep your response succinct as comments exceeding 250 words will likely not be published.
April 12, 2007
Can a church embrace those on the margins without excluding its core?
This week the New York Times ran a story about a controversy dividing a church in Carlsbad, California. Outside Pilgrim United Church of Christ hangs a banner that reads "All are welcome." Now that claim is being tested.
In January, a 53 year old attender at the church, Mark Pliska, informed the congregation that he had been convicted in the past for molesting children. The leaders and members of Pilgrim United Church of Christ now face a dilemma. Can the church be inclusive, even to convicted child molesters, and still be a safe environment for children and adults healing from past sexual abuse?
The pastor of Pilgrim United Church of Christ, Rev. Madison Shockley, finds himself caught between two factions in the congregation. The Times reports:
Before introducing Mr. Pliska to the congregation, Mr. Shockley spoke to a few congregants who had been abused as children and to parents, and none objected to Mr. Pliska's inclusion.
But Mr. Pliska's introduction unlocked a flood of emotions among the 300 members.
"The scariest moment," Mr. Shockley said, "was when I got the feeling in the congregation about whether Mark could attend or not, and we needed more time, yet people were saying ?If he stays, I leave,' or ?If he leaves, I leave.' "
One member of the congregation, David Irvine, who was sexually abused as a child, recognizes that welcoming Mr. Pliska will mean excluding others.
"There are people who feel that if we don't welcome Mark, we lose who we are. But what do you say to one member who was abused for 10 years, several times a week? By welcoming one person, are we rescinding our welcome to some of the survivors among us, people in pain and healing, members of our family?"
Can a church welcome former child molesters, and others on the margins of society, and still maintain its core? Or, must a church clearly define who is welcome and who is not? We encourage you to read the article on the New York Times website and share your insights. We look forward to reading your stories and opinions.
July 23, 2006
Recently friends from a major publisher of Sunday school curriculum called me. They were researching trends in spiritual formation, they said, and they thought I might help them.
After a few warm-up questions, they got to the heart of the matter: "What would you recommend for spiritual formation in our time?"
"The monastery," I said.
There was a long pause.
"I'm serious," I said.
Another long pause. "You're going to have to unpack that for us," they finally said.
"It's a proven model," I pointed out, "a model that includes everything we know brings about transformation. What would happen to your life" (I was now turning the question on them) "if you lived in close geographical community and relationship with other people; if you lived in submission to authority; if you practiced silence and simplicity and discipline; if you regularly read the Bible and prayed and meditated on what you read; if you made study part of your life; and if you worked hard in some daily occupation, seeing your labor as full of dignity and offering it to God?"
(I thought, but didn't say, that this is the same general approach followed by YWAM, which started in 1960 and now has 1,000 locations in 149 countries.)
"But not everyone can move into a monastery," they said. True, but we already have the solution: they're called oblates or tertiaries, people who live outside the monastery but who in their daily lives follow the same ideals of sacrifice, simplicity, and service. Or consider the parallel model of Opus Dei, the Catholic organization founded less than a hundred years ago: of its 87,000 members, both men and women, 98 percent are laypeople, and most of those are married.
In fact, to the extent that our local churches are changing people's lives, they're usually approximating this monastic ideal, recreating it on a smaller scale and adapting it for, say, married people who live in subdivisions.
"Okay, but what about the children?" they asked. "What do you do with the children?"
"Actually, monasteries were full of children," I said, "though usually starting at the age of elementary school. From the years 600 to 1000, a period that's been called ?the Benedictine centuries,' the monasteries provided much of the education in Western Europe. And any other questions about what to do with children have already been worked on by the cell-church and house-church movements."
My friendly questioners had a third and final concern: "But you're making it seem as if the culture is something Christians should retreat from, while the emerging church is interested in engaging that culture."
This took some explanation. I do think that as evangelicals we consistently underestimate the power of culture, and our attempts to "be relevant" usually end up as our weakness rather than our strength. But I believe in a certain type of counterculture - in Tim Keller's immortal phrase, "A counterculture for the common good." We create alternate communities that not only pray for the wider world, but also serve that wider world in acts of mercy and justice. Take The Salvation Army--an evangelical approximation of monastic counterculture and discipline, complete with distinctive clothing. In the mid-1880s the Salvation Army took on the audacious goal to end unemployment in Britain. They didn't succeed, but their experiment led to thousands of urban ministries today.
So I return to my original question: What would happen to your life if you lived in close geographical community and relationship with other people; if you lived in submission to authority; if you practiced silence and simplicity and discipline; if you regularly read the Bible and prayed and meditated on what you read; if you made study part of your life; and if you worked hard in some daily occupation, seeing your labor as full of dignity and offering it to God?
At least Saint Benedict thinks you'd become a healthier human being and godlier Christian. And 1,500 years of history would prove him right.
November 8, 2005
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.