From A Small Traditional Church To A “Mega” Church – Central Christian Church, Las Vegas, NV

Most Christians agree that not all traditions are essential.  Traditions like the wearing of robes by the choir, thundering organ music and the order of worship are honorable traditions, yet they are nonessential.  There are other ways to do things, which are equally honorable.  But even when nonessential traditions become an albatross to the church, many Christians are still loath to let them go.  At the very suggestion of change, all traditions suddenly become essential traditions and they don’t go without a fight.  When the leadership decided to make some minor changes in the Sunday worship service, thus breaking with tradition, the reaction of some members of the congregation was unsettling.  The services had followed an almost ritualistic routine for years, which included the congregation reciting the Lord’s Prayer in unison and the singing of the doxology.  In addition, we decided to clear the platform and have the minister sit on the front seat.  They would not introduce who was going to sing and no one gave their testimony before singing.  It was a well-planned and organized presentation of the gospel.

The board agreed to this approach.  After about three weeks we had three families leave because we had removed the American flag and were no longer being patriotic.  Some asked why we were hiding the preacher.  Had he done something wrong?  I could not believe the controversy that occurred over these few changes.

It was not long after Gene Appel arrived in October 1985, as our senior pastor, that we decided that every Tuesday morning at 6:30 a.m. we would meet and pray for God’s vision for Central.  We did this for three straight years, 1986, 1987 and 1988.  To this day, I feel assured this was one of the most important things we have ever done at Central.  From these meetings Gene and the board received a vision that our church should change from being a traditional church, largely made up of traditional Christians who voiced a concern for lost people but their concern seldom translated into action.  With a few exceptions, it appeared the church had lost their passion for reaching lost people and lost people stayed away.  Was there another city that had more lost people than Las Vegas?

It was a problem making the transition from a traditional church, that ministers to a closed community, to a nontraditional church that reaches out to lost people.  It can be hazardous!  If it is not carefully and prayerfully planned and executed the road to spiritual renewal can end up leading to ruin!

As a traditional church the members expected a robed choir accompanied by a thundering organ like other churches.  Instead, we had drums, horns, guitar and a keyboard.  The music had a distinctly secular flavor to it, but the lyrics had an equally distinctive Christian flavor.  Sermons were not the normal; they seemed to be demonstrating that the Bible is a practical book that can be applied to our present lives rather than just a holy book.  It took some getting used to.  Some believed it sounded too much like self-help stuff and did not have enough traditional worship.

We did not make changes for the sake of change.  We needed to free ourselves of nonessential traditions.  We needed to explore new ways to help unchurched people feel comfortable in our services.  We will never reach lost people in any great numbers if we do not create an atmosphere that is friendly to them.

Gene preached a long-term diet of teaching sermons to lead comfortable Christians out of their comfort zones.  They needed to be reminded, sometimes again and again, what Christ had done for them, what it means to be saved and what it means to be lost.  Once the congregation began to grasp the urgency of the situation, namely, scores of lost people facing eternity without Christ, the need for prayer was obvious and they responded.

Gene’s sermons examined the difference between that which is unbiblical and that which is antibiblical.  Most of our Christian traditions are unbiblical.  For example there is nothing in the Bible that forbids women from taking an active part in Christian ministries or favoring a piano and organ over a guitar, drums and keyboard.  Nor does the Bible say anything about things like choir robes, song books, Sunday School classes, the wearing of neckties, or whether the congregation should applaud or not.  These things are unbiblical and we are free to decide for ourselves.

We are not free to alter things like God’s plan of salvation.  The Bible teaches that we are saved by grace and when a church adds some requirement to this it is doing so in defiance of Scripture.  Such things are antibiblical.

It was continually emphasized to everyone; we must understand the reason for church services changing.  The purpose of the weekend service is designed to help us reach people with little or no church experience.  The purpose of the midweek service is to build up believers through worship, teaching and praise.

The transition did not go easily.  The Board of Elders realized that spiritual leadership involved more than being right.  It involves love and compassion for those who do not agree, or do not understand.  It involves what one might call finesse or a spiritual touch.  Spiritual leadership requires a sensitivity and skill at knowing when to do what.  In some respects, spiritual leadership is like parenting.  Parents have to know when to encourage, when to correct, when to stand firm and when to ‘let go’ and let a child make some mistakes.  Of course, parents also make mistakes and we, as a Board could be guilty.

We realized one thing, nothing would happen until both the leadership and congregation, or at least most of it, was willing to listen and respect each other’s ideas and opinions.  We had to learn to cooperate with one another and once something was decided we had to set aside our differences and work together toward a common goal.

Prayer, as I noted, began with the Board, but it had not yet spread through the congregation.  Everyone had to get out of the habit of praying occasionally for a few special projects or causes and become a congregation that prayed daily, for everything.  This would include personal prayer plus corporate prayer.  Praying together helped bond people together and start them on the road to spiritual maturity.  Everyone knows there is no such thing as total unity.  No two people ever agree on everything and the more people who are added to the equation the more disagreement there is.  But it is entirely possible to build a team, or congregation, where most of the people agree on a few key things.  We believed prayer played a major role in making this happen.

Church board meetings were not like what you would find in the corporate boardroom.  Every Elder would pray for the Lord to lead us in all of our decisions.  There was an excitement in serving God.  Many decisions were influence by applying a Biblical principle to it.  Most board meetings were very relaxed affairs with every one feeling free to participate.

It wasn’t long before we realized that our Board had to stop our hands-on leadership to hands-off leadership.  Once we were accustomed to having authority, it was not easy to give it up.  If our vision was to be achieved, the leadership had to become very much like a corporate board of directors who had overall responsibility for the church without being directly involved in all of its ministries.  Gene was designated the CEO and would be in charge of the church staff.  He would run the day-to-day operation as a team.  The Elder Board would make major policy decisions, they would monitor progress, they would mix with the congregation and in so doing; they would be a conduit for people to communicate with church leadership.

In 1988, we decided to build a 42,000 sq. ft. addition to our previous Mojave sanctuary.   It would require borrowing 1.7 million dollars.  I was chairman of the Board.  I believed we should build in three phases.  We barely had enough money to build the first phase. I strongly thought that was the way to go and was adamant.   Having worked as a store manager for Montgomery Ward and having been in nine different stores, I was very conservative in my thinking.  But it was pointed out that it would be much cheaper to build all at once than stretch it over in two or three year phases. I stated it would almost require us to double the church’s income for us to pay the mortgage and the additional upkeep.  I had a real faith problem.  But, after much discussion and prayer, we unanimously agreed to go ahead and build the complete plan.

As chairman, I worked with the contractor, as did others.  The building was completed in 1989.  Almost overnight, the tithes and offerings were sufficient to pay all of our expenses, the mortgage and allowed us to also add additional staff.  This made a tremendous change in enhancing my faith and made a difference as we approached our relocation.  I believed all things were possible if God is in it and He was.

Early on we believed God had asked us to become a different type church.  We were to make our Sunday service attractive to the non-believer.  A new comer did not want to come and be embarrassed.  They just wanted to hide in the crowd and not be given any special attention.  It also became our vision that God wanted this church to evangelize the Las Vegas area and beyond.

Even after a number of years of trying everything we could to maintain our vision and keep people happy it almost seemed impossible.  Many believing Christians, who had always gone to services that were geared to their liking, still were not pleased that the emphasis was on those, who were not even members.  No matter how hard we tried, we realized Central would not be for everyone and that we would continue losing some members.  It was difficult to see some very strong, tithing Christians leave the door for another church.  But we believed God needed these people to strengthen other churches in our city in order for Las Vegas to be evangelized.  It also opened seats for more unsaved people to attend our church.  We found other churches growing to over 1000 and have seen a change in many Las Vegans lives.

Having been Chairman of the Board for four years and kind of spearheading the previous building program, I was asked to head up a task force to relocate and build a new church in 1991.   We were running close to 1200 on the weekends.  We did not have the parking and it required four services to meet the needs.

The board believed that we would need 80 acres.  At the very beginning of our search for land, we felt the most ideal location was at Russell and the expressway.  With its highway accessibility, population density and visibility it would be perfect.  However, the land on the west side of the expressway was priced at $110,000 an acre.  Believing we needed no less than 80 acres, this land was not affordable.

Our real estate agent and church member heard that a parcel of land on Russell east of the expressway was coming out of bankruptcy.  It was land that had previously been taken and used to build the expressway. It was nothing but a gravel pit and the land was three feet above the water level.  It had about 25 feet removed from its surface.  It had a wash drainage continually flowing through it and there were acres and acres of thick vegetation so dense you could hardly walk through it.

We believed if the price was reasonable, this was an ideal location.  We met with owners of the property, to see if the church could purchase it.  In previous meetings property owners could not understand why a church would need 80 acres.  They thought that we would buy that amount and then later sell most of it for a profit.  No one was willing to give us a discounted price, I assume, for that reason. That may have been the reason that our other bids on other land were never accepted.

We took to the meeting drawings for the church complex, including all four buildings and the need for parking.  We showed our renderings and told them about all of the programs presently being provided and our vision of the future.  Not too far into my presentation about the many programs being offered, one of the owners stopped me and said she was about to receive her PhD in clinical psychology.  It was about time that a church did more than just save souls.  She had a lot to say about what she believed and what churches should be doing.  We could sense the family wanting to participate in our dream.  We offered to buy the 80 acres for 2.8 million dollars.  They said that was way too low but they would accept 3.0 million dollars.  That was a God thing.  We bought it for $37,500 an acre.  We later sold 24.5 acres to the City of Henderson who had to have it for another project for $66,800 an acre.

An all-church breakfast was held in the activity center in mid-March of 1993.  Then an all-church banquet was held a week later at the Hacienda Casino.  Bill Hybels senior pastor of Willow Creek Church in Chicago served as our guest speaker to help us kick off our financing campaign.

In the meantime, the property owners were offered twice what we had offered for the property.  Yet they stood by their word.  When the land closed escrow in January of 1995, we too were offered a similar price.  Even with its apparent flaws, the land was of great value and that value would continue to increase with the purpose for which we would use it.  We wound up with the property we had most wanted in the first place; only on the other side of the road.

Our initial church plan included a 100,000 sq. ft. building costing approximately $15 million.  We turned the architectural part over to the design committee.  They rose to the task and months later returned with a 150,000 square foot facility costing approximately $23 million.  As our church continued to grow and expand, our initial estimates had already been outgrown and so our plans had to grow too.

October 8, 1995, we held our first service on site, in an open field and witnessed 98 lives dedicated to Christ in baptism.  It was an awesome sight!

April of 1996, we made the last payment on our land.  We can always say there was a time when Central was debt free while owning a $4 million church campus on Mojave Road and 80 acres of land.  Because our site at Russell Road and the expressway was a low area with a wash running through, it was prone to periods of flooding.  This made it necessary to raise our property seven feet and the pad on which the buildings would set had to be raised fifteen feet.  Of course, the actual building could not begin until fill was brought in, compacted and leveled.  (Parts of the building’s foundation go down thirteen feet into the ground and are just five feet above ground water level.)

It was at this time that the City of Henderson came to us and said they had to have 24 acres of our property in order to complete their major league spring training baseball facility.  We met with the mayor and the city manager and told them this was impossible.  We needed this land to complete our own sports area.  We planned soccer and baseball fields, tennis and volleyball courts and more.  The Las Vegas Convention Authority and the City insisted they had to have the land.  They were planning to build a park north of us between our property and Russell.  But how could we lose one fourth of the land we had worked and prayed so hard for and give up on a part of our vision?

After much discussion and deliberation, the City offered to build their sports park adjacent to us and allow us to use it during specific times if we would sell.  Although this initially sounded good, they did not wish to pay what we believed the property was worth.  However, after an appraisal and comparisons, the City agreed to a fair price.  (We were able to sell the 24.5 acres for $1,639,000 or $66,800 an acre.)  This paid for the hauling, spreading and compacting of the 70,000  loads of fill dirt coming from all over the city.  A few months after selling, the Convention Authority decided they would not build the major league baseball spring training facility after all and really did not need our land.  The city went ahead and built a beautiful all-purpose sports park on Russell adjacent to our church.

Through the summer of 1997, we received 300,000 cubic yards of dirt from the site of the former Hacienda Casino.  (What a sense of humor God has…that the Hacienda was the location of our all-church campaign banquet just four years earlier.)  Our landowner neighbors to the west gave us 110,000 cubic yards and we received almost 70,000 cubic yards from the Desert Inn Road and Convention Center underpass.  We saved more than $1 million by getting the dirt free.  Acquiring 600,000 cubic yards plus hauling, added up to big savings.  A God Thing”!

July of 1998, serious construction began.  It became apparent that additional funding was going to be needed. The church board authorized the selling of approximately $10 million in bonds.

As the building progressed, many changes were made.  This caused a number of delays and extra costs.  However, we held our first service December 1999 and it was one of the most exciting church dedications I have ever attended.  Central is like no other church now and I doubt if it ever will be.  We have never sought large numbers or a gigantic campus.  Our vision has been to stay ahead of the growth as much as is possible and to follow wherever God leads.

We joined the church in 1981 when the attendance was 470 on weekends.  I became a member of the board in 1983 and participated on and off for 20 years.  I was selected as chairman of the relocation task force and served in that capacity for nine years.  We first started attending the church and it was so traditional I was not sure I was willing to continue.  We had just left a denominational church that too was traditional and legalistic. However, Central was an independent church and could change.  I read an article that described a group of ladies on the east coast who prayed weekly that America would have a spiritual revival.  It started one of the largest revivals in America during the 1800s.  After reading that article, it was an inner voice saying to me, this church will help evangelize Las Vegas.  Our family needs to become a part of this.  We joined and have stayed.  We have had as many as 40,000 attend on a special weekend.

In 2003 Jud Wilhite became our senior pastor.  Every year our attendance continues to grow.  The leadership’s vision is to expand our present sanctuary to include 1500 more seats.  As our church continues to grow, with satellite churches and prison services being added continually, we are one of the top ten largest churches in America.  Over the years we believe there have been at least 50,000 conversions and 24,000 baptisms.  The greatest thing God has shown me during this journey was how prayer guided us and opened so many doors.  We have seen the impossible become possible.  I am just thankful that we as a church could make decisions on a church level and not have to wait for a denomination approval.  We have seen too many traditional churches having dwindling membership.

May I stress how much I believe it all started with those three years of weekly prayer meetings with the board asking God to give us a vision and mission for our small church.    All of it is: “A GOD THING”.  As a result, we wrote the book: God & The Bottom Line.  Putting faith into the workplace!

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