“Winners wanted!” I can see the billboard right outside my sixth floor window. I’m in the Chicago area for a denominational meeting. Arriving late Sunday afternoon and wanting to stretch my legs before getting to work, I also can’t fail to see the huge rotating electronic signs for Rivers Casino. They’re calling to me.
“Are you a player?”
“Jackpot Capital at Chicagoland”
“Win up to $1,000,000”
“Hottest tables in Chicagoland”
I admit that everything about casinos is distasteful to me, yet I am compelled by a holy curiosity to check it. I am fascinated by the culture of gambling yet saddened by the tremendous toll that compulsive gambling takes on millions of Americans and others around the world. “Losers Welcome” might be a more accurate billboard.
Car after car pulls into the huge, multi-level parking garage. The casino opens at 9:00 a.m. and closes at 7:00 a.m. Two hours are allotted for cleaning. Can’t get more convenient than that.
Rivers Casino may be the most multicultural place in metro Chicago on this cold winter night. Thousands of people of all shapes, sizes, ages, ethnicities, and religions are jammed together on padded chairs in front of rows of slot machines. Others are crowded around blackjack, craps, poker, roulette, or baccarat tables. There are no windows, nor are there chairs unless you’re sitting at a slot machine or gaming table. It’s easy to become spatially disoriented because normal checks and balances are gone. I am completely removed from my known world.
I am bombarded by sights and sounds, all carefully orchestrated to encourage me to become a winner. Hypnotic rotating wheels, incredible video displays, and flashing images are intended to keep me focused on the video displays and gaming equipment.
Winners wanted! The slots machine are programmed to deliver small, frequent “prizes” at irregular intervals, psychologically manipulating me to keep coming back in the hope of finally hitting the jackpot. Naturally, the big jackpots only come when huge bets are placed, which encourages gamblers to risk more money. A sign lists the biggest jackpots of the previous day. Out of $471,124 paid out, some lucky soul went home with $20,000. Well, maybe. History is strewn with gamblers who won the big one, only to lose it all within hours.
I wonder. Why is it that most of our churches hold worship in half-empty sanctuaries when the casinos are packed to the gills? As I gaze around the casino, I see people of all ages, many in wheelchairs and even hauling oxygen tanks, most mindlessly pulling on slot machine handles, eyes glazed over. Although there are the occasional whoops and hollers of a winner, few people look happy. The words to the choir anthem this morning keep running through my mind, “God Has Work for Us to Do.”
Late Monday morning I talk with an esteemed retired clergy colleague in his nineties who is so invested in the future of The United Methodist Church that he even volunteered to pastor a church if it would help. When I ask him how “the church” is going to survive, he says, “The church has to change or it will die. We have to change our image by putting a moratorium on judging and welcoming all into the church, no exceptions. We also need to be continually offering spiritual growth opportunities to people and sending them out in ministry to the world wherever there is hurt and pain.”
Bob’s words linger in my heart as I go back to the casino and buy a six dollar turkey and cheese sandwich for lunch. I eat, wander, watch, and pray. As different as the church and the casino seem to be, they are also very much alike. Many people go to the casino to find community and acceptance. Senior citizen groups take bus trips to the casino and enjoy each other’s company. Strangers also get to know each other when they sit side by side. There is a strange camaraderie around winning and losing.
In the same way, the church is the body of Christ in our world. It’s where we connect with God and others as we pursue a common mission to bring in the kingdom of heaven. Human beings yearn to be in relationship with one another and be accepted for who they are. Healthy churches provide multiple opportunities for people to form deep and lasting commitments.
People also flock to casinos because they crave excitement. A large portion of the casino clientele is elderly, and casinos provide a way to pass the time in a warm, safe, stimulating place. In the same way, people are attracted to churches where Holy Spirit energy abounds and where outreach and mission inspire hearts and minds to change the world. I remember a hospital visit a few days before where an elderly woman new to the church said, “I just love our church. It’s alive! There is always some way to serve, and I have made good friends. I am learning, growing, and being challenged.”
As I wander, watch, and pray, I finally realize the truth about both casinos and the church. The Rivers Casino advertises “Winners Wanted,” when reality screams otherwise: “Losers Welcome.” Casinos carefully invest time and money in marketing and creating a false sense of hope as clients are cleverly enticed to lose their money and have fun doing it. The dirty little secret of the gaming industry is that the vast majority of casino goers leave as losers every time. Of course, this truth is no secret except to those who are persuaded that the jackpot is always just within their grasp.
The problem with the church in America is that we, too, hang out our billboard, “Winners Wanted.” “Come to our church and God will transform you into rich, successful, and well-respected members of your community. Hand over your tithe, and God will bless you beyond measure. Support us, and you will be healed of all your infirmities, addictions, and obsessions.”
Wouldn’t it just be better to tell the truth before people walk through the door? “Enter at your own risk. Even if you’re fortunate enough to come in a winner, you’ll leave a loser. Only when you recognize your weakness and vulnerability will you see your need for a savior. You can’t save yourself.
“Join the rest of us losers, for when Jesus gets a hold of you, you’re going to die to everything you hold dear. God may ask you to give up your career, your home, your salary, your health, or your long cherished misconceptions about life and other people. You may even end up at the bottom of the rung rather than the top: dead last.
“You see, we have a different way of looking at the world here in the church. It’s not attractive to most people, and it may be a shock to you, too. We don’t invest in stocks, power, or shady business dealings. No, we stake our life on loving our enemies, going the second mile, turning the other cheek, forgiving the unforgiveable, and reconciliation. The casino may exploit your weakness for profit, but the church will transform your weakness into the power of Christ. What we offer is fullness of a life lost in wonder, love, and praise.”
I walk out of the casino and take one more look at the billboard. “Winners wanted.” I dream of a billboard in front of my church, “Losers welcome. And if you’re not one yet, Jesus will make you one soon.” The casino always wins. The church always loses. Thanks be to God.