It was our first time in Las Vegas and we were staying at the ‘legendary’ Four Queens hotel. Bursting through the doors, we dropped our bags immediately. We were on our first real tour and, in classic planes-trains-and-automobiles style we had to move on early the next morning.
So, two hours was all we had. Two hours to get our first glimpse of Sin City. And two hours was all it took to learn a little something about Post-recession Vegas on that first visit.
I learned that you can quickly evaluate the intended clientele of a Vegas casino based on two things.
- As you walk the brightly-carpeted paths in higher end casinos the card-tables are often the first thing you see. Sharply-dressed card-dealers smile invitingly in every direction — begging you to spend your money with their professionally detached-but-inviting demeanor. The ‘cheap’ casinos, on the other hand, prefer to let it all hang out with an array of slot machines no further than a few feet from the front door and the constant rattle of coins-to-machines.
- You can also accurately guess where a casino falls on the kitsch-to-classy scale by whether or not they advertise the affordability of their most lavish dish. A $3 Prime Rib Dinner is too true to be good, or, at least I know that now.
In any case, our particular hotel turned out to be the kind that favoured coins to cards and discounts to deliciousness so we quickly checked in, dropped our bags in our rooms, and met in the lobby to explore the crazy world outside. We stepped out onto the legendary Fremont street and —ducked!—as a squealing man flew only a few feet over our heads on a zip-line.
Now knowing to look up we were greeted by the forty-six foot face of none other than Gene Simmons, his elongated tongue wagging across the sky in every direction. The ceiling of the covered street doubles by night as a gigantic LED screen and KISS was the evening’s feature. And while CGI flames licked the extended tongue of Mr. Simmons made-up face, I learned that Las Vegas is permanently ‘jumping the shark’.
Here’s a bit of pop culture history: It’s 1977, and Fonzie — who has by now become a caricature of himself and the focal point of “The Happy Days” — needs to show off his water-skiing skills. He does. And it’s completely anti-climactic. So now it describes all kinds of shows that are past their prime. Creative endeavors that become become caricatures of themselves, dependent on unsatisfying gimmicks, cheap tricks and shock value to maintain a sense of relevance.
Vegas exists to entertain. The gambling and sparkle draw you in — begging you to put money senselessly in the middle of the desert. The skyline is littered with cranes and half-built, abandoned temples to cold-hard cash. It’s a city crying out for today’s Kevin Costner — someone to draw the ghosts out of an economy in the doldrums and build a sparkly new field of dreams.
If You Build It, They Will Come
It wasn’t too long ago. My family and I were driving through something like a miniature Las Vegas, you know, the kind of town that tragically begins to believe that their only hope in the world is to add a Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not to their otherwise beautiful scenery. Growing up near Niagara Falls, Canada we’re used to this sort of place but something in particular caught my attention as we left town. On the side of the highway we passed a colourful billboard for a new local church plant: “Offering a new, exhilarating worship experience for you and your family”, it said.
The message was clear: bored of your church? Come to ours!
Because who, other than well-churched Christians, is out there looking for anything like an exhilarating worship experience? If I had to guess, it’s other Christians from other churches. That’s it. So whatever it is this church is building, the “they” is an interest group, a club, not those outside the Church.
But I have to believe that at some point the pursuit of relevance in Evangelicalism was about reaching people through the culture. It seems to me now that it has become about maintaining Christian subculture instead. It’s the dog chasing its own tail. We’re out of ideas, a caricature of ourselves.
But if you build it, they will come… right?
Or is Christianity simply the kind of good news that is relevant regardless of its surroundings, like life-changing, earth-shattering, world-saving good news always is.
We’ve got the jackpot of a huge poker hand hidden in the back room, one where everybody who plays wins and the cards themselves are somehow grateful too. Meanwhile we’re busy talking about the $3 prime rib and high paying slot machines.
Yes, the good news of Jesus is free… and it’ll cost you everything. He wants a bride — not a trophy wife.
With all this relevance-chasing we’ve created a strange self-congratulating sub-culture. Insular. Separate. Easily ignored. Irrelevant.
If only we could genuinely find a way to be ‘in the world but not of it’. Relevant not because we’re trying so hard but because we live in the same world we helped to shape for the better. Familiar foreigners. Exiles busy making ourselves at home.
There’s this great story in the book of Jeremiah. The nation of Israel had been taken captive by Babylon. All the priests, the prophets, royal family —everybody who was good at anything— all exiled far from home. They cried out to God in desperation: “this is not where I belong!”
And God sends them what may seem a confusing message: “I brought you here for a reason. Make yourselves at home. Plant gardens. Pray for the Babylon’s well-being. Raise your families to do the same. Thrive as Babylon thrives.”
Make yourselves at home.
We’ve Been To The Mountaintop
After hearing a pretty incredible sermon by a pastor friend of mine, we wrote a song called “Mountaintop”. It’s all about another great Biblical story that drives this point home for me. Jesus takes Peter, James and John for a hike. Now, I don’t know if he explained himself or if this was some kind blind-fold and hand-holding thing, but either way what he does shocks these lucky three disciples.
They get to the top of a mountain and Jesus starts to change. Suddenly they’re there on this mountain and He’s blinding them in all his glory, hanging out with Moses and Elijah, these storybook legends of the Torah. Imagine what that must have been like, sunlight pouring from His face. It must have been incredible.
So, naturally, Peter starts to babble, saying things like: “I have an idea. Let’s stay here forever! We can build tents! A place for you to live with us!” This wasn’t all that strange, after all. For a long time God lived in a tent, keeping His people company.
God interrupts. “This is my Son and I’m happy with Him. Trust Him.” The disciples hit the floor, terrified. They’ve heard the voice of God. They realize they’ve been hearing it all along in Jesus. The Son of God calms them down and takes them home — back down into the valley.
And Peter learned something incredible that day. Much later in his life, in one of his letters to the Church, he writes;
“And I consider it right to keep stirring you up with reminders, as long as I am in the tent of this body.”
- 2 Peter 1:12-13
The tent of this body. We don’t need a new tent — we are tents— not made of human ingenuity but at the very hands of God. We don’t hide God on the mountain, but take Him with us into the valley.
Where we make ourselves at home.
And the intended “they”, the world, they don’t need us to water skii … not even in these shark-infested waters. They don’t care about our new exhilarating worship experience. They need it, but God knows they don’t know it.
“They” don’t need a cultural invasion.
“They” need love.
The kind of love that spends itself for the good of the world, even its enemies. The kind of love that tears down temples of stone, only to have it rebuilt of living stones.
The kind of love that is infectious.
The kind of love that makes itself at home.
After all, if you build it, they will come.