By Vince Antonucci
Travis moved from New York City to Las Vegas to make money. He was a photographer and started showing up at nightclubs and strip clubs asking, “How about you make me your photographer?” Travis became the photographer for many of Vegas’s nightclubs and strip clubs, and then strippers. Before long, Travis was sleeping with the strippers. Travis’s wife found out, and she moved out with their kids. Travis began convincing strippers that they could make more money, and soon he became their pimp.
Travis is the kind of person I moved to Las Vegas to reach.
We launched our church, Verve, three years ago in the heart of Sin City. We were warned that Las Vegas is a challenging place to have a church. In fact, only about 5 percent of Las Vegas’s 2 million residents go to church. And not only did we start a church in Las Vegas, we decided to plant not in the suburbs, where there are some growing churches, but close to the Strip, where there are virtually no churches.
About 270,000 people live within 5 miles of our building. That is the same population as Lexington, Kentucky and St. Paul, Minnesota. While there are about 450 churches in Lexington and 650 in St. Paul, there are only 11 churches in our 5-mile radius.
Vegas is a challenging place, but God has been overcoming those challenges and doing amazing things. More than 250 people attend Verve every week, and we have seen more than 170 people give their lives to Christ and be baptized. Most of these people were unchurched nonbelievers who were very far from God when they first came to our church. We’ve reached atheists and strippers and gang members and Cirque du Soleil performers and lesbians and drug addicts and . . . you name it.
So how are we reaching those people? However we can. We will do anything and everything outside of sin to connect people to Jesus.
Most of our people came because they were invited. A person who has experienced life change invites a friend because that friend needs to have his or her life changed. We make sure every worship service is one to which our people will be comfortable inviting their friends.
We also advertise (on billboards, door hangers, and the radio), serve the community (we’ve adopted a school in a dangerous, low-income area), and have allowed groups to use our building for their events. We’ve also had several people come after seeing positive reviews of our church on Yelp.
The “Magic Sauce”
We reach people in all kinds of ways, but the first ingredient in every approach—the “magic sauce”—is love. Everyone needs truth, and everyone needs love. We are convinced we must lead with love, as Jesus did. Love must come first. Love is what opens people up to truth.
We lead with love in everything we do: our worship services, advertising, community service, everything. We know people need truth, but they aren’t willing to listen to it unless they believe it’s coming from someone who genuinely cares about them. When people know they’re loved, they’re open to whatever you have to say.
Alexis was a lesbian who came to our church. Instead of addressing that immediately (i.e., leading with truth) we simply loved Alexis.
Finally she came up to me and said, “All right, I have to ask. Does the Bible really say homosexuality is wrong?”
I answered, “Yeah, I’m sorry, but it does.”
She said, “You know what I love about you? You’ve never yet told me what I want to hear.”
Why did she feel that way? Why was she able to hear and accept the hard truth from me? Because we led with love. If we led with truth, we never would have gotten to that conversation. But we led with love, and it built a relationship, opened her ears to hear what I had to say, and opened her heart to the message of Jesus.
“It Doesn’t Matter”
The same thing happened with Travis. Travis was a pimp, and he was the first person I baptized in Las Vegas.
Travis was doing well in his new career as a pimp, but deep inside, Travis knew his lifestyle choice wasn’t going to take him where he really wanted to be. Travis also wanted his wife back. He asked her to come back, but she refused. He asked how they could make their marriage work. She said she didn’t know but, in desperation, wondered aloud if maybe the answer was God. Travis didn’t think so, but he was willing to go to church on a Sunday morning if that’s what she wanted.
My message that morning was “It Doesn’t Matter.” It doesn’t matter who you are; God still loves you. It doesn’t matter why you left; God is still pursuing you, just like the shepherd who pursued the one lost sheep. It doesn’t matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done; God will still take you back, just like the father who took back the prodigal son.
After I spoke, this guy strode up to me. He looked cool, hip, and kind of tough. He told me his name was Travis—and then he fell apart. He started crying uncontrollably. He was trying to talk, but the only thing I could make out was, “I didn’t know I could be loved like that. I didn’t know I could be loved like that.”
A couple of days later we met in a coffee shop. A couple of months later we walked into a hot tub behind a pretty seedy casino hotel just off the Strip, and I baptized Travis. It was the first baptism in our new church. Travis’s wife then walked down into the hot tub. She was our second baptism. Then, right by that hot tub, in front of the little group of people who made up our church, we did a rededication service for their marriage.
Travis completely gave his life to God that day. His heart was attacked by God’s love, and now it bleeds gratitude. He experienced a grace explosion in the depths of his being, and he hasn’t been the same since. He’s become consumed. He’ll do anything for God; he figures he owes him that, at the least. He ingests the Bible, serves in all kinds of ways, leads his friends to Jesus. And it’s because truth has set him free and changed his life.
But it started with love. It’s because we led with love. And love is the magic sauce.
Vince Antonucci serves as senior pastor of Verve Church, Las Vegas, Nevada. He has written several books, including I Became a Christian and All I Got Was This Lousy T-shirt, Renegade and Guerrilla Lovers.