By Jud Wilhite
Afew years ago I had a transformative experience on Las Vegas Boulevard. I was standing in front of a multibillion dollar hotel, knowing what Las Vegas is built on, where its roots are, and thinking of the waves of people walking past me. It was like a light came on and I realized the culture war is over—we lost.
Let me repeat. WE LOST!
The culture war dominated much of the 1980s and 1990s as an argumentative and aggressive political posture, mainly myopic about homosexuality and abortion. That posture led to a perception of moral and religious superiority for Christians. The posture bullied through certain initiatives, but also alienated countless people from the faith.
The culture war is over, and not just in Las Vegas. It’s over in New York, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, and most other major cities in America.
Sure I’m a little skewed living in Sin City, but the realization that Christians lost the culture war has actually liberated and empowered us here. It has forced us to reevaluate how and when we engage culture. Now our calling is to love and accept people one on one, caring for them where they are.
Our role is subversive, as we carry the light and love of Jesus into the streets of our city. We’re trying to flip the perception of superiority and hypocrisy by being honest and straightforward about our faults and our hope for transformation in Jesus. And we’re joining our community in a different culture war—one that attacks poverty, crime, addiction, and pain.
Rather than position ourselves against or above our culture, we are seeing a stronger impact from adopting several important postures.
GRACE OVER JUDGMENT
When I met Donte he was working in the adult entertainment industry as a dancer and singer. We quickly became friends, and my wife and I invited him and his wife into a small-group Bible study in our home.
Donte was on a spiritual journey; he was growing and changing. We talked about the conflict between Donte’s work and faith. We talked about the transformation God wants to do in our lives.
I asked him, “What are your dreams? What do you want to accomplish? What is your vision for life?” He lit up and described that he would love to leave dancing and become an entertainment host. I realized my role as a friend was not to beat him up over where he was, but to help him envision where he could be. I became a dream champion for him. I prayed for, encouraged, and believed in him.
Eventually, Donte was selected by Fox to be an entertainment host. It didn’t happen overnight, and it took a lot of work and effort. I’ll never forget the first time I saw him on TV on the red carpet interviewing all the big names of the entertainment world. I sat there with a dumb smile on my face. I was so excited about the journey God led him on. Now he is influencing culture in a personal and professional way every day. He’s having an awesome impact.
Would it have happened if he was first confronted with judgment rather than grace?
Or take my friend Sonny. When Sonny first came to our church he had been living on the street as a crack addict for nine months. He was a mess. But our people didn’t judge him; they cared for him.
Sonny accepted Christ, was baptized, and began a spiritual journey. Eventually people in the church helped him get a job and gave him a car. He went on to grow and mature and even start his own business and get married.
Fast forward four years from the time Sonny walked in off the street. The mayor of Las Vegas tries to pass a law that says you can no longer feed the homeless in any public place in the city. Vegas does not have the social services many cities have; in fact, it has been voted the meanest city in America to the homeless.
Sonny is outraged and decides he cannot sit by and watch this happen. He legally challenges the law by contending it is unconstitutional. The first hearing finally comes. Picture the courtroom. All the attorneys for the mayor are on one side in their power suits; on the other side is an average guy standing alone in his street clothes.
The judge looked over the case and looked to the mayor’s attorneys. He said it is unconstitutional to single out one group of people and discriminate against them in this way and he threw the case out! The reason you can legally give a homeless guy a sandwich on the streets of Vegas today is because one former homeless guy named Sonny used his influence.
But would that have ever happened if he’d encountered judgment rather than grace when he first walked into a church?
All of it starts with God’s grace that transforms our life and culture over time. The questions are: Am I living in that grace? Am I quick to share it or am I quick to judge? Am I seeing only who people are or who they could become? Am I a champion for their dreams for God?
LOVE OVER INACTION
Love is not simply the opposite of hate. Love is also the opposite of inaction. If we say we love our culture, but we don’t act with love toward it, we’re only kidding ourselves.
A couple years ago a business leader in our church named Scott told me there were 4,000 registered homeless kids in the Las Vegas valley. The children are fed through the elementary school system on weekdays, but many of them don’t eat anything on the weekends.
Eventually, Scott started a company called Corps of Compassion and began to have strategic conversations with the school system in our valley. We as a church came alongside them, and now we are feeding more than 700 kids every week. Hundreds of our church members are volunteering, and casinos are busing their employees down to help prepare the food bags.
When casino workers and church members come together to stuff backpacks of food for local elementary schoolkids, conversations begin to happen—about God, about who Jesus claimed to be, about what the church is really about. Perceptions and ultimately lives are changed. But it goes back to Scott and a group of people who chose to do something about a need in the community.
Rather than picket the moral failure of our community, what would happen if we served them instead? Won’t our actions of love and mercy make a greater impact than our picket sign? Won’t what we do speak so much louder than what we say?
TRUTH OVER INAUTHENTICITY
Recently, I had lunch with a friend named Jim Gilmore, a brilliant guy who wrote an amazing book entitled The Experience Economy. Jim said, “Authenticity is a big buzzword in the church, but the Bible does not use the term. It doesn’t talk about authenticity as we do today. The Bible talks about truth–living in the truth and sharing the truth.”
That statement rattled me because I’m always talking about being authentic. The Bible focuses more on truth that makes absolute claims on my life. I should be more concerned about knowing this truth and living in it than I am about being authentic. By living in the truth, I will be authentic. By sharing the truth of God’s Word, I will see culture impacted for good.
I’m learning that people won’t really listen to you until they trust you. Trust comes from grace and love. When they trust you, and you tell them the truth, they will trust you more, even if the truth is hard. Truth must be at the center of our lives.
Jim signed his new book Authenticity for me this way: “To Jud, Be real; preach truth.” It’s an awesome challenge. I pray that by taking a posture of grace, love, and truth we can continue to see cultural change in significant ways.
Jud Wilhite lives in the Las Vegas area with his family where he serves as senior pastor of Central Christian Church. He’s the author of several books including Deadly Viper Character Assassins, That Crazy Little Thing Called Love, and Stripped: Uncensored Grace on the Streets of Vegas.