Jud Wilhite: Central Christian Church, Las Vegas
Respected pastor and leader Jud Wilhite talks about his new book, "Torn," and the impact of what he says is the hardest sermon he’s ever preached.
Jud Wilhite is the pastor of Central Christian Church, an author and sought-after speaker at numerous conferences throughout the year.
CONNECTION TO OUTREACH MAGAZINE: Wilhite is featured in the 2011 Outreach 100 special issue. He also was one of the 2010 National Outreach Convention speakers highlighted in the September/October 2010 issue, and Central Christian Church was profiled in the 2007 Outreach 100 special issue.
Your new book, Torn: Trusting God When Life Leaves You in Pieces, originally started as a four-week message series on Job, right?
Yes, at some level. The book went a whole other direction, but the core idea came out of the series. It did start out as a book on Job, but by the end, Job was one chapter. I didn’t want the book to just be a Bible study on Job. I wanted it to speak more broadly to the topic of suffering.
What was the impetus for teaching the message series on Job?
The thing that drove me with Job, as well as with Torn, was the question of “why” that most of us ask when we’re suffering: Why are we going through something? Why are we suffering? When you really think about it, “why” is not a very helpful question, and it’s not a very redemptive question, and it’s not really a biblical question.
When you really look at the biblical framework, the Bible doesn’t give a lot of validity to the “why” question. I found that fascinating. God never answers Job’s questions. He never tells him why he suffered. In fact, He just upholds the validity of the question: Yes, He’s all powerful, He’s all good and He’s all knowing, and yes, Job suffered.
What surprised me when I was going through personal trials as well as just navigating all the stuff we’ve been going through in Las Vegas in the last three and a half years, was that when we turn to the Bible, the primary question is “who”: Who do you trust in the midst of the pain and the suffering? The “why” is important, don’t get me wrong, but the faster we can move past the paralysis of asking “why” into exploring the question of, “Who do we trust and who is worthy of our trust or hurting?” the more healing and the more redemptive we’ll find that experience.
I’ve seen that either experiencing suffering or watching people suffer is often the primary obstacle of faith for nonbelievers, as well as Christians.
I see that, too. What I have found is that even with nonbelievers, they will move past that question if you frame it like I just did. You can stay paralyzed by it, caught up in a cycle of questions, or you can move forward in your life and leave those valid and real questions suspended. Even if you have the answers to “why,” is it really going to change anything? It might even open up a whole new spectrum of questions.
In fact, I think if we had the answers to “why,” we would find them unredemptive at the level from what we think they’re going to be. People always think when we get to heaven that we’ll know all the answers to the whys. I’m not even sure I buy that. If I get to heaven, I don’t think God could give me an answer that if I lost a son in this life would make it all right. So at some point, you have to move past that question and decide: Do I trust God that He’s good and powerful and that He’s worthy anyway?
Was writing Torn cathartic for you?
Totally cathartic! I think it came out of my own experience. With all the things we went through in Las Vegas—I’m watching friends commit suicide. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that every person of means at our church that I know has either lost everything or almost everything. Think about that statement. This is unbelievable financial devastation and watching all of that play out in people’s lives and in their families and us laying off staff.
I just felt like the whole city of Las Vegas was asking, “Why?” They were paralyzed by it, and out of that paralysis I did the “Torn” series out of the book of Job. At the end of that series, I had this defining moment where I was standing back stage. It was the last service of the series. We were singing “Blessed Be Your Name,” and I’m looking out and there’s just people weeping, hands in the air singing. It was so powerful for me because it felt like we grew up!
What do you mean by that?
We moved past bubble gum American religion. We moved past pop-culture Christianity. We grew up as a church, and God was showing it to me! Here were people that had lost everything with their hands in the air saying, “God we’re going to worship you, not for what you can give us. Even if you take everything away, we’re still going to worship you because you’re worthy.” And that was so moving for me and out of that I started writing Torn.
What is the hardest message you’ve ever preached?
It was for a funeral for a friend of mine, a police officer who was shot at point blank range by a rap artist when he was trying to break up a domestic violence case. Basically, our whole city came. It was broadcast on every local channel. They shut down Las Vegas Boulevard for the funeral. He died with his Bible open in the car seat. He prayed for friends who were far from God all the time. That was his heart. So his family was like, “If you’re going to honor him, then you’ve got to go for it!”
So we had a little Billy Graham moment. The entire metro Vegas police department was there. We estimated that we had about 4,000 people in our building and another 3,000 to 5,000—some even said maybe 6,000—standing in our parking lot. All of the leaders of Las Vegas, literally senators, were there, It is probably the largest funeral in Nevada’s history. And as I’m talking to these people, I mean, it’s like I’m preaching the Gospel, straight up, to all of them. It was John 3:16 unpacked over 20 minutes.
I really wanted to represent him because I knew his heart. Because of the audience, I think that was probably the hardest message to preach.
Any tips you learned as a result?
I’ll tell you the best advice I got about it. A friend said, “Jud, all you need to do is be yourself, and don’t be anything other than yourself. You’ve just been getting ready for this moment your whole life; it’s just one more moment. You’ve been preparing every day. God has been getting your heart ready. Go in there and be yourself and move on to the next day.” And he was right.
How did people respond?
Well, it was remarkable. We saw unbelievable response, and the stories that came out of it are still happening, though it was 2005, six years ago. Hundreds and hundreds of people came to faith, and I directed people to go to other Bible-believing churches in our community. I’ve heard stories from pastors all over our city talking about people that have come to their church out of that experience and how faithful they were. Because it felt more community-oriented, I didn’t want to make it all about our church. I wanted to make it about Church, with a capital “C.”
Did the service impact your church, as well?
It was a powerful turning point in our church. I’d been at Central for a couple of years, and I think we fully turned the corner in transitioning the church. It was such a catalytic moment for us. Literally, every day of the week we baptized officers. They would show up at our church when they rolled off duty; some of them came at lunch when they were on duty. We were baptizing officers and other people in our community every single day, and that went on for months! I think for us, it was the mark of the real turning point in a tough church transition.
Why was the transition so difficult?
I followed a great leader. The church is a great church. It’s healthy. But any transition is hard. It doesn’t matter who the church or leader are.
I would think preaching a funeral for someone who wasn’t a Christian is one of the most hopeless moments for a pastor.
I’ve done a lot of those kinds of funerals, and they are challenging in their own way. But this one was on a different level for me. I’ll tell you the other most difficult message I ever give is not really a single message. It’s when I have a specific friend that I’ve been praying for and inviting to church and he comes. I know he’s sitting in the room. It’s such a great experience though. It just reminds you of what our people go through every week when they’re sitting next to their friend who finally came after five years of praying for them. Every word that I say is weighed.
Can you think back to a recent time and story?
Yeah, it wasn’t too long ago a guy that I have been inviting for a while showed up. I know he’s sitting out there. Or even a couple that Lori and I had been talking to, and they’re sitting with her in the front row. I’m trying not to look at them, but the whole time I’m aware.
Situations like that also come in different ways. I’ll be in the lobby with a lot of people who come up to shake my hand. I’m high-fiving people, and it’s not uncommon for somebody to say, “This is my friend, and I’ve been praying for her for so long.” I’ll immediately go back and start praying, “God, give me the words for that person!”
What’s happening now in Las Vegas economically?
I don’t think much has changed in the average person’s life. I do feel like we’re not paralyzed anymore; we’re moving forward. I was talking to a police officer recently, and he said there are a lot of suicides right now, a lot of barricaded homes. He said it feels like every day they are getting called out to one situation or another because unemployment cycles are running out for a lot of people.
What has navigating these milestones taught you about leadership?
What I’ve learned about myself is that I’m not the best strategic leader. I’m a pretty strong intuitive leader, which has its weaknesses. Strengths and weaknesses. I lead from my gut. But I have to surround myself with great people who think strategically so that we can actually get something accomplished.
At the end of the day, how does Jud Wilhite measure success?
For me, it’s really about being faithful in the little things and minding the details of my life. Success is having kids that love me and that remember me being home and me being present in their lives. It’s having a wife that realizes we are partners in ministry and that I value and love her. I think more than having a ministry that is known for this or that, it’s the staff and those that serve with me and those that are at our church who, when it’s all said and done, say, “He was a man of character and he loves God.” That to me is success, more than, “Wow, God used him to reach all these people.” That is powerful and important, but this stuff is more important to me.
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Who is the most unique person you’ve encountered in Las Vegas who has become a Christian through your personal evangelism and/or through your church’s ministry?
We baptized Elvis (an impersonator who looks like him and stays somewhat in character 24/7) just two weekends ago, and a few weeks before that, I had the privilege of baptizing a middleweight boxing champion.
My favorite story through the years is Gabriella. She bottomed out in life after a tough divorce and numerous medical expenses. When she sent her kids off to their first day of school without any school supplies, she felt like a failure. She decided she would work the streets as a prostitute that night to support her kids. But when her kids came home from school, they had new backpacks filled with school supplies donated from our church through the public school system. Gabriella said that for the first time in years, she felt God had not abandoned her. She decided not to work the streets that night and instead called the church to say thanks. She went on to become a follower of Jesus, and we helped her find work and get back on her feet. I still remember the joy in her face the night of her baptism.
What has been the most successful, rewarding experience in your ministry to date?
The simple privilege of leading someone to faith remains the most rewarding experience for me. Most recently, a couple days ago, I had the joy of leading a woman to faith who had been on a spiritual journey for the past year. She danced at an adult club Saturday nights until 5 a.m. on Sunday morning and then stayed awake to come to services. For months, she listened and struggled with the guilt and shame of her lifestyle. But she couldn’t deny that she was beginning to believe. Last week, I prayed with her to receive Jesus into her life. When I looked up after praying with her to make Jesus number one in her life, tears were streaming down her face. The joy in her eyes was just remarkable. That never gets old.
What has been your most fantastic mistake? What did you learn from it?
Hiring too quickly. I tend to trust my gut on things, but sometimes my gut has been spectacularly wrong!! Hiring the wrong person may take a while before it shows. And if they have lots of responsibility, you are not only needing to deal with the person, but with their team and volunteers, etc. It is really hard to unwire and very painful. I’ve learned the old adage is true—hire slow and let go quickly. Trust your gut, but back it up with really solid perspectives and tools to make sure you have the right person.
What has been your biggest ministry disappointment so far?
I think my biggest disappointment has been around resourcing the vision of the ministry financially. It is a constant tension between knowing we could do so much more for the community and we could help so many more if people in the church contributed even a little more. Pouring your heart out teaching stewardship and asking people to help resource the vision without seeing the kind of results you anticipated and prayed for has been disappointing. But you also learn the blessing of financial constraint. You learn how to depend on God each day and stop making excuses because funds may not be there. You get a lot more creative and resourceful in other ways.
What areas of growth have you experienced in your personal spiritual life in the last year? I’ve really grown to trust in the sovereignty of God in a deeper way. The local/national economic crises of the past year along with leading in a new reality without a compass brought me to my knees. I would have said, “God is sovereign” before, but I believe it at a deeper level now. I’m resting in it more, and it is an awesome and wonderful thing.
What has been the greatest obstacle to spiritual growth for you in the last year? How have you overcome it?
My greatest obstacle in growing spiritually, but also my greatest joy, is the ministry. I’m talking about not being able to turn it off mentally. This year, I just lost the ability to turn the mind-switch off and just be home with my family. The best thing I’ve done to deal with it may not seem spiritual at all, but I think it is deeply spiritual. I picked the electric guitar up again after 13-plus years, and I started taking a course for college credit in music. It takes my complete focus several hours a week just to keep up. It gives me some “distance” from the constant mental churning about the church and leadership. It has helped me lead better, I think, and also be more present with my family.
HOW TO LINK: Connect with Jud at Central Christian Church, People of the Second Chance, on Twitter, @JudWilhite, or on Facebook.
BOOKS BY WILHITE:
Torn: Trusting God When Life Leaves You in Pieces (Multnomah, 2011)
Throw It Down: Leaving Behind Behavior and Tendencies That Hold You Back (Zondervan, 2010)
Uncensored Grace: Stories of Hope From the Streets of Las Vegas (Multnomah, 2008)
Stripped: Uncensored Grace on the Streets of Las Vegas (Multnomah, 2007)
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