Last month at the NewSpring Leadership Conference, Sharefaith was able to interview Jud Wilhite, lead pastor at Central Christian Church in Las Vegas. Jud pastors a huge church (over 16,000) in a tough context (a.k.a. “Sin City”) with amazing results (all from God). During his talk at NewSpring, he discussed the need to reach out to broken people. We met with Jud to find out a little bit more about his ministry.
You’re in Vegas, a city which most people know by the nickname, “Sin City.” But you call it “Grace City.” We’re in the middle of the Bible Belt, which is cultural worlds away from Las Vegas. How do you achieve relevance within your culture?
The “Grace City” concept is rooted in what I think God can do, and how he sees a city. The world sees this place [Las Vegas] as Sin City, but if you step back from it, you see that God’s grace is available. When it comes to connecting with our culture, this idea of telling the truth in love is the linchpin for us. We don’t try to be relevant. We don’t try to be cool. We’re not making a big effort to “connect.” What we’re trying to do is live the gospel in our culture—honestly and truthfully.
A women come up to me recently and said, “I work on the Strip all week long. Everything in my life I do is fake. This church is the only real place I come all week long.” She was just saying how thankful she was for an hour when she wasn’t being liked to, she wasn’t getting spinned. Nobody was out to get her. We weren’t trying to get her money. People wanted nothing from her.
It’s the idea of just being truthful. It may sound too simplistic, but that is what is important.
Your church is one of the biggest churches in the country. Central Christian Church is listed as the 13th largest church, with an attendance of 16,582. What would you identify as some of the reasons for this kind of growth?
- First, radical grace. We cultivate a culture of radical grace that accepts people where they are, and lets them come and belong. Now, when I talk like that people, always want to say, “You must be kind of emergent in your theology.” But I’m like, “No! We’re not at all!” We’re straight up. We’re a Bible church–a Bible-oriented evangelical church. So I don’t mean ‘belong’ in the sense that it doesn’t matter. I mean that they can come, be a human being, and hang out with us first. Then, these people will believe the gospel, and over time they will become what God wants them to become. This church is a safe place, no matter what’s going on in your life.
- That radical grace is coupled with radical alignment. From a church strategy side, radical alignment is really important. We’ve embraced our own version of Viral Churches. We went from being McDonald’s, with a huge menu, to being In-N-Out Burger, which has like three options. We thought it was very important to carefully look at what we were doing, and find out what we should say no to, and what we should say “yes” to. We narrowed our focus.
So radical grace and radical alignment have helped us move people. And once you start moving people in a strategically-aligned approach, there is momentum. People are experiencing God. Thousands of people every year are going through this class we call First Step, They’re growing in their faith. Many of the people in the class are already in small groups. Vegas is a town with no community, like none. So now they’re already in a small group, and the evangelistic culture snowballs.
Jud, I’ve seen you do some pretty attention-grabbing object lessons in your teaching. You’ve hung upside down on a gurney, smashed a pane of glass, etc. I want to ask you about the use of object lessons, visual media, and that whole package. What role does it play in your ministry, and what are some guidelines for using it?
They must have a goal. Whether it’s object lessons, visual media, creativity, any of that, the goal is better communication of the gospel. The goal is better communicating the message of the text. The danger in it, is that you can allow the object lesson to be the message, rather than illuminating the message. I’ve learned that I’m not the judge of that. The people are the judge of that. If people are walking out of the service, and all they’re talking about is the object, that tells me right there, they don’t remember the point; they just remember the object. If that’s true, then I’ve failed as a communicator.
I still use object lesson, visuals, and visual aids. I’ve just become more strategic and more aware that the visual aid isn’t the message. Instead, it helps to drive the message home. Vegas is not a churchy culture, so there are different challenges that you must overcome as a communicator. Now if I were in Anderson [South Carolina, the location of the conference], or if I was in the South, I would not do it the way we do it in Vegas. I would do it in a way that would contextualize with this audience. The way I do it in Vegas is for that audience. When people leave, I don’t want them to leave thinking about the object lesson. In the past, I think that I crossed that line. There’s a real temptation there–to please people, to be liked. It can be unhealthy, and it can drive you out of bounds.
What is one area in which the evangelical church in America could improve?
There’s a lot of good that’s happening, and I’m thrilled about that. There are a lot of churches that nobody hears about–hundreds of thousands of them. They’re making dents, in their neighborhood, and in their areas. They’re doing great and they’re serving God. But I feel like the church gets such a bad rap, because a few churches abuse things. Then we just look past the hundreds of churches that are doing things right—churches that are really trying to be faithful with where God has put them.
There are a couple things that are dear to my heart. These are the culture of radical grace and radical truth. They are really important. Jesus was full of grace and truth. Today, it seems like it’s hard to find a church that values the Bible as the Word of God–that values it as the truth, that doesn’t want to compromise or bend it, that doesn’t want to take it in a liberal direction. But it’s hard to find a church that does so in the context of a truly grace-filled culture—a culture that lets you come in jacked out of your mind, and still be loved. I’m encouraged to be seeing this in church plants and church starts. I’m seeing a love for grace and a culture of grace that loves people, but also a love and respect for God’s Word and a willingness to take a stand on his Word.