In the next edition of the HUM, I will have an article about "Rethinking Church & Gambling." Please read below and send me comments. I hope we can begin a conversation about the church's mission in a post-Christendom context, especially in Indiana. Here is what will appear:
The other day I spoke with a United Methodist Friend of mine who said he enjoyed gambling. He said he didn't gamble to make money, but only to have a good time. It was more recreational than habitual. Playing the lottery or going to the casino was a source of entertainment.
It would be interesting to know how many times the above conversation takes place around Indiana. Now that gambling seems to be a permanent fixture there are plenty of occasions to speak with the "recreational gambler." And, who knows, such a person may occupy a pew or two in our own church? At least my friend does.
Over the past year United Methodists across the connection have been encouraged to "rethink church." It's our church's latest slogan or catch-phrase. Not to throw cold water on it, but it does hold some promise: How may we rethink church in light of our Wesleyan heritage when it comes to various social issues, gambling in particular?
Twenty years ago when I was ordained, the gambling industry was just beginning in Indiana. As a denomination we thought we would be able to hold off loteries and horse parks. Our church's collective efforts seemed worthwhile; casinos and betting parlors seemed unlikely.
Today, the landscape looks different: Indiana is a leader in legalized gambling revenues. The state looks to these revenues for supporty, especially after cutting other sources of revenue, public funding for schools for example. A financially struggling state looks to receive gambling's win-fall.
To date, however, the gambling industry in Indiana and elsewhere doesn't appear to be disappearing. On the other hand, one wonders if we as United Methodists have thrown up the white flag. As our Methodist forebears were unable to stop the distribution of alcohol during prohibition so it now seems we are unable to stop gambling. The Wesleyan vision of mission to reform the nation and spread scriptural holiness seems to have stalled, if not stopped.
And yet, our Social Principles state very clearly that "gambling is a menance to society, deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic, and spiritual life, and destructive of good government and stewardship. As an act of faith and concern, Christians should abstain from gambling and should strive to minister to those victimized by the practice." Surely, we can hear the Wesleyan emphasis to "do no harm" and "do good" both collectively and individually. The General Rules echo in the background.
But there is a problem: It is very difficult to reform what we cannot resist. If we as United Methodists cannot abstain from gambling (as my friend above can't), then what influence do we really have? If holiness of heart and life cannot begin here, then where will it?
Perhaps this is where we can begin to rethink church: First, we can begin by practicing an ethic of resistance as a whole church body. If our holiness is not social holiness, then our efforts, however good, will simply remain invisible. Our witness will have lost its saltiness. Viewing gambling as "undesirable" is surely one of our tasks of preaching and teaching.
Second, we can support our Gambling Recovery Ministries led by Janet Jacobs in the new Indiana Conference. Ours is one of the few Annual Conferences in the country that carries out healing ministries to those victimized by the practice of gambling. Prayerfully, we can find other ways to expand in this area as we offer God's healing grace.
And third, we can find creative ways of re-engaging in a mission of reform that works to promote standards of justice and advocacy. Over the years, few have carried this banner. But we can only imagine what would happend if others would also begin to make noise with our public officials. It takes the church to engage the principalities and powers, not simply a few passionate servants. "Speaking the truth in love" to the false claims of gambling's so-called benefits to the common good is a long-term commitment.
In short, all three of these strategies are necessary if we are to be true to our own Wesleyan understanding of ministry. We cannot separate resistance, recovery, and reform and expect otherwise. Surely, the people called United Methodist in Indiana can begin to rethink church along these lines. Hopefully, we can imagine new ways to continue this vital witness and mission.