Vince Antonucci on planting a church in the heart of Sin City
Vince Antonucci is a passionate, gutsy soul. The kind of guy who’d just as soon belt out a Led Zeppelin tune, tackle stand-up comedy, or plant a church on the Las Vegas strip. (Yes, he’s done all three.)
For the last year, Antonucci, his family and about 15 other adults have been living and working in Las Vegas with the goal of planting the first-ever church on the Las Vegas strip. Calling the church Verve, Antonucci plans to hold the first worship service on Feb. 21, 2010.
Verve has its roots in Antonucci’s outreach ministry at 11-year-old Forefront, the previous church he planted in Virginia Beach, Va., where attendance grew to 600. There, Antonucci used what he calls “guerilla lover tactics” to attract the unchurched—among the most audacious was borrowing a bar for a church service.
But Vegas was never on Antonucci’s radar or wish list. He says God just told him one day to go. He and his wife, Jen, battled the thought of uprooting themselves and their two kids until the wheels started turning beneath them. But while the journey’s been anything but easy, Antonucci can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
What adjustments have you made to plant a church in this context?
First, we wanted to make sure we didn’t start a Virginia Beach church in Las Vegas. So we came here to live for a year before officially launching the church to immerse ourselves in the culture. We got jobs. Our kids are in school here; they play Little League. I took a stand-up comedy class and have been doing open-mic nights. I’ve been able to connect with other amateur comedians. It helps me feel, not just learn, what it’s like to work on the strip. It’s about becoming all things to all men so we can start a church that’s true to God and true to Las Vegas.
What struggles have you encountered so far?
It’s not called Sin City for nothing. All over town are billboards for porn casting calls. Online porn studios are making movies every night; you just show up, and they pay you 500 bucks to be in a movie. Of course you’re driving around with your kids, and they see this stuff.
Then there are the things you don’t see. Las Vegas is a city of single parents. You have single moms who work shifts on the strip from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. and leave their children at home alone. Then there are people in massive debt because of who knows what. There are no last calls at bars. It’s a city of addicted and broken people. But it’s also a cool opportunity for the Church and the Gospel because peoples’ needs are so much closer to the surface—it’s easier to scratch that itch.
Feb. 21, Verve’s launch date, is coming up. How are you telling people about Verve?
We did a needs-assessment survey of about 200 local people in leadership positions. We talked to a vice president of one of the casinos, newspaper editors, guys in charge of marketing Las Vegas, the owner of a Triple-A baseball team. We asked all of them about the unmet needs in Las Vegas, and repeatedly what we heard is that Las Vegas lacks community. It’s been called the “least neighborly” city in the United States, and I can say that’s absolutely true from my experience.
But over the last three months, we’ve held six block parties. We posted fliers in our neighborhoods and spread the word naturally through relationships we’ve built. I’ll talk for about five minutes and encourage people to stay connected with a sign-up sheet. We’ve probably had about 80 sign-ups. And once a month, we volunteer at First Friday, an art-fair block party.
Where and when are you meeting?
Right now, we’re meeting in a hotel just off the strip. We have an opportunity to lease an amazing warehouse space just off the strip where we plan to have church services, seminars and a food co-op. If we get it, we’ll make it look like a nightclub. We want to try to make the entry point to our church as easy as possible. What’s said up front—following Jesus—will be really challenging. It’s going to get uncomfortable, so we want it to feel like Las Vegas but still present the first steps of faith.
How are you making sure that Verve will reach the unchurched and not just Christians?
Launching a church plant with a core of highly committed Christians is a difficult trick. People who’re in deep with Jesus tend to hang out with other people who’re in deep with Jesus. So there are non-Christians on our launch team. It creates the right culture and comfortable vibe for non-Christians. Plus, if we want non-Christians to find out about Verve, who better on the launch team to let their friends know?
Do you hope to see more churches planted on the strip? Are you thinking about reproducing already?
We have two church-planting interns with us right now. Our dream is actually to start churches on the most sinful streets in the world. The places where Jesus would go but Christians forsake—like the Las Vegas strip, Bourbon Street, Amsterdam’s Red Light District, South Beach, areas in Thailand known for sex slavery.
When you get down and frustrated, what reaffirms you that God has sent you and your family here?
The first two people I saw come to Christ were a gay guy who just got out of prison and a hostess at a strip club. It all happened supernaturally. To me, it’s like a favor and a wink from God to me, and He’s saying, “There’s lots more to come—this is going to be really fun for you.”
Verve will launch concurrently with the release of Vince Antonucci’s new book, Guerilla Lovers: Changing the World with Revolutionary Compassion (Baker). For more information, go to VinceAntonucci.com and; VivaLaVerve.org.