I love my job! Every day is an adventure of faith and an opportunity to choose between tears of despair, a hearty laugh, or an “Oh, well.” When I arrived last week for the annual church conference of a 2 point charge, nobody was there except the pastor and spouse. Admittedly, the churches are small, but I always look forward to hopeful conversation and gracious hospitality. As we waited in the parking lot, we speculated about what else might have been going on that night. I joked, “Oh, well, the most active place in the area seems to be the nearby casino.”
After 20 minutes an elderly woman arrived, driven by her son. She has always been special to me, so we all chatted in the rain for a bit. Deciding that no one else was going to come, we then left. What do you do when nobody shows up? Why, head to the casino, of course!
For me to walk into a casino is about as uncomfortable as a guest walking into your church for the first time. Like all first time visitors to a church, I was checking things out. And like all casino regulars I was “betting” that I’d have an interesting experience. My theory is that every person who is serious about finding a church home has a series of first impressions but is primarily seeking relevance, connection, and challenge.
- The splashy neon sign along the highway was an invitation to stop, enjoy some entertainment, and gamble a bit. The casino website says, “It’s a fun new gathering place, a favorite hangout, built just for you. With cookin’ local bands and acts, cool bars and lounges, fantastic food, over 1,400 slots, plenty of table games, and real hospitality. Drop by. Stick around. You’re always welcome.”
- How do people know that your church is not just a building but is, in fact, a cookin’ community that is on fire with the Holy Spirit? How do you market yourself?
- The big burly guy at the front entrance opened the door, smiled pleasantly, and said, “Good evening.” I smiled back and said, “Hey!”
- Do you have designated greeters whose only job is to open the door and say enthusiastically, “Good morning! We’re so glad you are here.”
- I immediately felt self-conscious because most people were dressed casually for the hard work of playing the slot machines or rolling the dice. Casino logowear seemed especially popular. On the other hand, I was wearing a suit. The fanciful thought that others might view me as an undercover security agent was rather intriguing.
- How does your church embrace people who don’t look, dress, or talk like you?
- I’ve never seen so many TV’s in one place and gravitated toward a humongous screen to watch Justin Verlander pitch the 7th inning of the Tigers-Rangers with the Tigers up 7-2.
- I guarantee that people will notice how large your sanctuary screen is, especially if it permanently obscures the cross, priceless stained glass window, and organ pipes.
- People gravitate in large numbers to casinos because they think it will make them feel better. For some, gambling is a leisure activity, a harmless form of entertainment. For others, it’s an unreasonable form of risk-taking that can lead to addictive behavior.
- People today no longer attend church out of loyalty, habit, or guilt. Young adults, especially, are seeking a transformative encounter with God that is relevant to their everyday life, will offer tools to become people of commitment, generosity, and integrity, and will enhance their spiritual formation.
- At the casino I walked by a woman who screamed after hitting the jackpot. She won exactly $424.41. After she pulled out her cell phone to share the good news with a loved one, the woman next to her said, “I hope I can do as well as you!”
- Does the flow of worship, including liturgy, music, testimonies, scripture, preaching, opportunity to give, and invitation to discipleship, touch hearts and minds in a way that is every bit as exciting as hitting the jackpot?
- There were no kids or teenagers in the casino because gambling is an adult activity.
- Are there children and youth in your church? Believe me, people notice immediately. Do you give the impression that your church is not relevant to families?
- I suspect that many people go to casinos because they are lonely and crave human contact. However, I did not observe many folks connecting with others in a meaningful way unless you call sitting side by side at individual gaming machines or at the baccarat table connecting.
- A prime reason that people go to church is to connect with others as well as with God. Human beings have an innate need to be in community, to have a safe place to share their hopes and dreams with others who care. Are guests welcomed warmly and invited to participate in fellowship and small group opportunities when they visit?
- I observed a lot more glazed eyes and mind-numbing stares among the gamers than bright eyes and cheerful smiles. Many people seemed bored and even depressed, yet the allure of hitting the jackpot keeps them coming back.
- When worship is so dull, the preaching so rambling, or the energy level so listless that eyes not only glaze over but gently shut, is there any alluring reason for guests to return?
- Casino employees are trained to be attentive to their customers and will go out of their way to show hospitality.
- Don’t be like the woman in one of our churches who recently approached a first time guest and snarled, “Why are you here? What do you want?”
- The casino issued a challenge and incentive for customers to keep playing by giving away a free T-shirt with the words “Big Winner: Gun Lake Casino” to anyone who won $1,200 or more. Of course, very few people win big without first losing much more than they gain.
- Are we in the church compelled to issue a similar challenge to lose our lives in order to gain them and give up all that we have to become a servant? (Warning: no t-shirt included in this challenge)
- People part with their money at the casino because they either see it as a great place to hang out or they become hooked on the possibility of winning.
- Make no mistake: Guests who are serious about seeking a church home do not give because you entertain or entice them. Rather, they love to part with their money cheerfully and willingly because they see lives being changed and the world transformed through the ministries of your local church.
- People hang out at casinos so that, even if for only a brief time, they can leave their cares behind and live in an artificial world.
- The mission of the church is to challenge people to claim real faith so that they can offer real hope to a real world.
When nobody shows up at your church, head to the casino. Find out how casinos market their products in such a way that people would rather lose their money on a slot machine than use it to feed a hungry child. Then create a marketing and ministry plan for your church.
When nobody shows up at youth group, gather a group of teenagers together just to talk about their hopes and dreams. Find out what makes them tick, then engage them in ministry that really matters.
When nobody shows up at your Church Council meeting, find out why members think it’s meaningless and a waste of their time, then rethink the purpose of the Church Council and reinvent the agenda.
When nobody shows up at worship, evaluate how you are doing with first impressions, relevance, connection, and challenge and then reinvent yourself.
When nobody shows up to help at yet another chicken BBQ, ask yourself, “Are we in the business of cooking dinners, or do we need to focus our efforts on grace, redemption, reconciliation, evangelism, outreach, and spiritual growth?”
Even though I don’t gamble myself, I give the casino high marks for fulfilling its stated mission. My hope is that I can say the same for our local churches as we seek to be faithful to Jesus’ call to make disciples and transform the world.