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Viva las repentance? Sin city's religious makeover

What happens in Vegas... gets forgiven in Vegas? In "Stripped: Uncensored Grace on the Streets of Vegas," a pastor shares his experiences guiding one of Vegas' largest churches.
/ Source: TODAY

Most people associate sin city with sex, drugs, strippers, gambling and Celine Dion. But in "Stripped: Uncensored Grace on the Streets of Vegas," Pastor Jud Wilhite shares his experiences working and helping his congregants at Central Christian—a church that he's grown to a staggering 12,000 members, right in the heart of Vegas.  Wilhite links his congregation's explosive growth to the city's alarming rates of addiction and people's general despair and offers real stories about how his Church and religion changed lives.

Here is an excerpt from the book:

Viva Las Vegas
“Welcome to lost wages,” the flight attendant announced to laughter. “I mean…Las Vegas.” As the plane landed, I was met with the sight of an Egyptian pyramid, the New York skyline, and the Eiffel Tower, all on the famous four-mile “Strip” of casinos and resorts. What could be expected, I wondered, in a place that would bring together replicas of the world’s greatest wonders into one tourist circus?

Getting off the plane, I was assaulted by the nonstop clanging of airport slot machines and visual come-ons from posters of entertainers, dancers, showgirls, and comedians. We stayed in an old hotel on the Strip with popcorn-textured ceilings so low I slightly ducked while walking the halls. Everything in our hotel was dated, giving me the unique sensation of starring in a 1960’s movie set in Vegas. Decades of nicotine stains seemed to ooze from the walls, but the energy was undeniable and the people dropping coins in the slots didn’t seem to mind the decor one bit.

As the sun set, I headed out of the hotel to check out the Strip. A guy on the sidewalk held out what I thought was an invitation to a concert. Instead, it was an ad for a call girl—one of several I’d be offered with each block I walked. There I stood, a pastor holding a printed sexual proposition. Well, Dorothy, we’re not in Kansas anymore. The amazing indoor spaces at Caesars, the fountains of the Bellagio, the canals at the Venetian, the Fremont Street experience, the Stratosphere, the lights of the Strip, the mind-boggling flow of money, and the endless sea of people—it was decadent, surreal, and overwhelming…

That trip, with three co-workers, actually brought me to Vegas not to play, but for a planning retreat. Vegas was just a quick, cheap flight, and several of us had never been. Not even in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that within five years I’d actually move to Vegas to live, that I’d get used to the sound of slot machines, that entertainers pictured on posters at McCarran Airport would become my friends, and that I’d find there is so much more to Las Vegas than the Strip.

I lived in Southern California when the phone call came from a church in the Vegas valley searching for a pastor. That afternoon I asked my wife, Lori, “How would you feel about moving to Henderson? It’s this great town in Nevada, sort of near Las Vegas.”

“How near Las Vegas?”

“Well…uh…okay, so it is near enough to see the Strip from your backyard, but please don’t close your mind yet!”

To my surprise, she agreed to consider it.

After an extensive interview process, Lori and I, along with the people of Central Christian Church in Las Vegas, sensed it was the right move. Most of our friends were excited for us; some of them were in shock. “Jud,” they’d say, “you’re a pastor, and you want to move to Las Vegas? Are you nuts??”

Our church in California sent us off with applause and “Viva Las Vegas” blaring through the sound system. We loaded up our two-year-old daughter and all of our possessions for the drive across the desert. My wife was almost eight months pregnant with our second child. I still admire her courage to move to an unknown city where we didn’t even have a doctor. Driving across the desert, a record heat wave with oppressive 120-degree temperatures greeted us. Let’s just say that placing your wife in a situation where she is weeks from giving birth and it is 120 degrees, is not the best way to win marital favor.

As we drove the freeway, I was filled with excitement at the possibilities. I’d be serving at Central Christian, following an awesome leader and friend, Gene Appel, who had led the church for many years. My mind raced with questions. Am I crazy for relocating our family just before my wife gives birth? What are the people of the Vegas valley really like? What is the city really about behind all the glitz? What is the perception of God and Christianity in Vegas? Man, will it always be this hot?

I found a Starbucks in Primm, just across the Nevada state line. (There’s nothing like a grande dry cappuccino when it is hot enough to cook an egg on the sidewalk.) With a mix of excitement and fear we covered the last stretch of freeway, came through the pass, and suddenly there was the entire city. It amazes me that it is just there in the middle of nowhere, a desert island unto itself with its own culture and rules. It sits there like a massive frontier town that pops up out of the nothingness, one of the last cities in America with some semblance of the Wild West. Seeing the town appear from nowhere caused me to veer slightly out of my lane. The emotion of the move hit me like a wall. I whispered a prayer, “God, please protect my family.”

The last thing I ever thought I’d become was a pastor—and now, somehow, I was staring one of the world’s toughest (and strangest) ministry opportunities in the face. Growing up I wanted to be a rock star (a life with a lot less stress and a lot more fun than that of a pastor). But all those years of playing air guitar to the Rolling Stones in front of my bedroom mirror didn’t pay off. After a stint playing in a rock band in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I traded in my band equipment for college and later graduate school, where I majored in philosophy and biblical studies. Along the way came a calling to serve as a pastor. I never would have scripted the path. I mean, come on, which would you choose—being a pastor or a rock star? But I absolutely loved being a pastor. I loved meeting people and hearing their stories, seeing them come to faith, watching the difference God made in their lives as they followed Him. I enjoyed playing a small part in helping people find healing and forgiveness—and now I was headed to a place in dire need of both.

What intrigued me most about Vegas was not the nonstop gaming and entertainment. It was the sense that our family belonged in America’s most notorious city, and that God belonged there too. Though I am a conservative Christian, I will do anything that does not violate the Bible to help people experience God’s grace. I knew there would be plenty of desperate, hurting people in the Vegas area. And desperate measures would be needed to show them there is hope for everyone, no matter how broken he or she might be. I had experienced that hope in my life, and I wanted to share it with others.

The brilliant social critic Neil Postman argued that in every era there is one city that captures the American spirit and becomes its symbolic center. In the Revolutionary era, that city was Boston, with its cry for freedom. In the mid-nineteenth century, New York, a melting pot of diverse cultures, became the symbolic center. In the early twentieth century, Chicago embodied the spirit of entrepreneurial adventure with its railroads, steel mills, and cattle. “Today,” Postman says, “we must look to the city of Las Vegas, Nevada, as a metaphor for our national spirit and aspiration, its symbol a thirty-foot-high cardboard picture of a slot machine and a chorus girl. For Las Vegas is a city entirely devoted to the idea of entertainment, and as such proclaims the spirit of a culture in which all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment.”1

Whether you agree or disagree with Postman, Vegas is key to understanding not only where we are as a culture, but also where the rest of America is headed. Like it or not, America is looking more like Vegas every day.

Vegas is a town where anything goes, where people are accepted for who they are, where strange is normal. I mean, after a while it doesn’t seem odd that your neighbor is washing his car in his driveway at 5:30 a.m. because he just got home from work. Yet it is also a town of great optimism, great faith, and a contagious openness to God. In short order, I fell in love with the town and its people, with its quirkiness, with its brokenness and pain.

In fact, I no longer see Vegas as Sin City, but as a remarkable place where God is doing remarkable things, with stories of new beginnings at almost every turn.

Grace is God’s greatest gift to us, His faltering, failing followers. And in Vegas, the experience of God’s grace is what can only be described as “uncensored.” But what, exactly, is uncensored grace? I have learned from living in this city and interacting with its people that God’s grace is always uncensored. It is His followers who try to limit it, who withhold it from some who are not “good enough” for God. But in this place where I have known of the most egregious sins, I have also seen the most heartfelt, life-changing conversions. God’s grace is as big and as powerful as we allow it to be, and my idea of how far it can reach gets bigger, wider, and higher every time I see someone who is beyond saving being saved by Christ.

A gambler once claimed that Vegas is the only city in America where, when people pray, they really mean it. I’ve found that people here do mean it when they pray, but for much better reasons than a bet. Maybe you have reasons to pray as well. Perhaps the doubting and struggling of your own life will be mirrored in these pages. If so, the people you meet will show you there is something more. Their lives speak of the purpose faith can bring into your life.

The pressure of relationships, kids, and work is overwhelming. You long for something real in your faith, not pretense and clichés. Nothing frustrates you more than judgmental and self-righteous religious types. I believe the true stories in Stripped will bring you encouragement and inspiration by sharing with you the humility and honesty you’ve been searching for.

Perhaps you feel disqualified from life by your past. It could be drug addiction, an affair, a betrayal, or a dream that was never fulfilled. The sense of guilt hangs over you like a cloud. But there is good news. The people you’re about to meet want you to know that there is forgiveness and hope no matter what you have done or experienced.

It has been said that “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” But we couldn’t keep these stories to ourselves—because what happens in Vegas could change your life. When I first visited this city, I didn’t know what to expect, except the unexpected. I was not disappointed. And as we explore a fresh vision of the Christian faith and a different side of Vegas together, I guarantee you won’t be disappointed either.

Excerpted from "Stripped—Uncensored Grace on the Streets of Vegas.”  All rights reserved.  Published by Multnomah Books, a division of Random House, Inc. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.