One Saturday night, every month throughout the year, they hold a Casino Night. The Gym gets transformed into a gambling casino complete with lights, decorations, card games and dice games. The teenagers dress up in formal wear and are the dealers and hosts for the event, running the games, handing out mixed non-alcoholic drinks, etc.
They invite the church and the whole community to attend and it's a big hit. The deal is this: any winners get to keep what they win but whatever the "house" makes goes to support the orphans, 100% of it. So far, they haven't had to do any car-washes, and the orphanage is thriving thanks to this youth group. So, our first question is. . .what do you think about this youth group?"
These were the opening words of an Ethics class that my partner-in-ministry-crime Seth and I taught over ten years ago in a local church. The room was packed. It was a Sunday School room for 45 but there were at least 65 people in there, from senior citizens and college students to homeschooling moms and blue collar dads. I blame the high attendance on the announcement we gave from the stage in Big Church the previous week. . .
. . .the announcement where Seth and I threw out to the crowd various ethical questions like "Is it ever right to lie?" or "Should we ever disobey the government?". In the midst of that announcement, Seth went in slang mode, cocked his elbows in the air, mimed pinching a cigarette in one hand and yelled "Can Christians ever burn one?" The crowd erupted in laughter, and ten days later we had an overflowing class. Was it our humor they were drawn to or did they really want to know if they could burn "one"? We may never know.
We started off the class with a "What do you think?" question about the gambling Youth Group in California. To this day, it might've been the most electric 60 minutes of Christian Education I've ever been a part of. . .it was like we had all the Republicans and Democrats of the world in one room and told them we could only nominate one person for president and it was going to be Lady GaGa.
You know those small groups when a leader throws out a question and then ends up answering it because they waited for two minutes and all they got was one mumbled cliche from someone staring at the floor? Well, this group was the opposite of that with gas thrown on it. . .
People had opinions and they let 'em fly. The following are some quotes as best as I can remember them. The one about smoking crack is the only one I'm sure I got right verbatim. Yep, the one about smoking crack. . .
"I don't see what's so wrong with it, as long as the money is going to a good cause."
"Gambling is wrong. End of story."
"Show me in the Bible where gambling is wrong."
"What's the difference between spending a few bucks a month on the lottery and gambling thousands of dollars a year on the stock market."
"There's a difference! One's an investment!"
"Really? I thought it was you taking a chance of making a ton of money off a smaller amount of money. It's like a lottery for rich people."
"We're supposed to be influencing these kids for good. Might as well take 'em to the street corner and teach 'em to smoke crack!"
The class went back and forth, with Seth and I occasionally jumping in and playing Devil's Advocate (or assuming the role of Referee of Civility) and I'm pretty sure we could've filled a second hour. Maybe a third.
We calmed everyone down at the end to give our closing speech which went like this. . .
"There is no youth group in California doing Casino night. We made that up. We are not endorsing gambling or even saying that the ends justify the means. We did want to start this Ethics class off with a dialogue that made us examine what we believe and why we believe it. But we also wanted to point out that life is very complicated and sometimes the easy answers or the cookie-cutter answers we've always had or heard don't satisfactorily answer all the questions.
This class is going to be about navigating some big questions with grace and understanding, teaching us to think through our decisions and actions in a way that is true to the Scriptures but not necessarily what we've always heard."
The class eventually dwindled to about 30 people. After the first class, we had one older gentleman who had a severe hearing problem leave the church in anger saying we were promoting gambling. I tried to invite him back but he didn't hear that either.
The quote of the night, however, came from a middle-aged woman, who didn't leave the church but did leave the class. . .
"I didn't know it was going to be like that. I thought they were going to tell us what to believe."
Christianity at its core should not be a religion (though it manifests as very religious most of the time) but rather a relationship. And relationships require relating with another personality personally. We cannot be content with others telling us what God is like, or just telling us to behave in a way that pleases the Big Guy Upstairs, we must walk in the relationship ourselves. . .and we'll probably end up with the same conclusions most of the time anyways. . .but I like actually drinking the Pumpkin Spice Latte as I walk amongst the falling leaves as a crisp wind flows around my newly unearthed sweatshirt. . .rather than just saying "Oh, yeah, I just love Autumn, too!" because my favorite news reporter or blogger said "that's what we do, we love fall!"
And there aren't always perfect blocks to put into all those weird shaped holes that life keeps showing us (more and more as you get older). . .I don't want other people's factory-issue blocks to cram into those spaces, I want to have a personal relationship with God where I trust Him in such a way that we can fashion blocks together even using my doubts and uncertainties in the process.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go place a bet on a horse named T Party. . .my preacher said he's real fast. . .