LAS VEGAS — Soon after they met and fell in love, native Texans Lantz and Jessica Howard asked God to take them out of the Bible Belt and lead them on an adventure serving him.
The Lord answered their prayers, they said.
His choice of locales: Sin City, a tourist mecca known for its bright lights, casinos and sexual promiscuity.
“It has definitely been an adventure,” said Lantz, 26, who was hired two years ago as youth minister at the 270-member Bright Angel church.
It’s one of the larger congregations in a fast-growing county with an estimated 1.9 million people but less than a dozen Churches of Christ.
In all, about 1,400 people worship each Sunday at the 11 congregations in Clark County, according to the 2006 edition of Churches of Christ in the United States, a directory published by 21st Century Christian.
As Jessica, 24, describes Las Vegas: “It’s a mission field.”
‘GET ON BOARD … WITH THE LORD’
For the Howards, the road to the Nevada desert began in the shadow of oil wells and tumbleweeds in west Texas.
Lantz studied humanities, with an emphasis in Bible and youth and family ministry, at Lubbock Christian University.
Unsure about full-time ministry, he was working as a golf pro and flirting with a career as an airline pilot when he met Jessica in summer 2003.
A junior at Abilene Christian University, she was a youth ministry intern working with girls at the Western Heights church in Sherman.
When she brought a group to camp at Lubbock Christian, Lantz spotted “this girl wearing a cowboy hat” a few rows in front of him at a worship service.
Thinking she might be in high school, he resisted introducing himself. But when she approached him and he learned she was in college, a romance blossomed.
Later, the two joined a group for dinner at a Tex-Mex restaurant. Noticing six or seven strangers rapping and cutting up at the restaurant,
Jessica walked up and started joking with them, Lantz recalled. “I thought, if she can be that bold and have that kind passion for life at a Mexican restaurant, then everything else will be good, too,” he said.
“Tell them what I was saying,” Jessica interjected, laughing. Her rap went something like this: “Get on board / With the Lord!”
Before meeting Jessica, Lantz spent a life-changing summer with Impact Houston, an urban congregation that serves the desperate and downtrodden.
Their relationship combined his passion for inner-city ministry and her love of working with young people.
“My heart’s desire has always been with youth ministry,” she said.
“It all came together,” Lantz said. “As we were getting to know each other, obviously, your spiritual lives start to connect.”
Even before marrying in December 2004, they prayed about how God would use them as a couple. They contemplated helping plant a church in Miami or joining a homeless ministry in Denver.
Then they learned about the youth minister opening in Las Vegas.
“On our interview out here, we were sitting in a little ice cream parlor right in the middle of Caesars Palace with one of the families … and to our left was this nightclub,” Lantz said. “The music was blaring, and the line was out the door. It was like, ‘Welcome to Las Vegas.’”
BEYOND THE GLITZ
In a city that declares “What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas!” the Howards found it weird at first: The local bowling alley, the movie theater and the food court — everywhere, it seemed — doubled as casinos. “You walk by the slot machines. You walk by alcohol,” Lantz said. “There are casinos everywhere.”
A group from the church enjoys a weekly breakfast buffet at a casino. Church members work at the casinos. As member Jackie Nebeker said, “I just go and do my job and go home. I don’t even think about it like that.”
Beyond the glitz and glamour, the Howards found that Las Vegas is just like any other city: It’s filled with people searching for hope.
“There really is a need and an urgency for Churches of Christ out here,” Lantz said. “It seems like the nation has a stigma of, ‘Well, we can’t plant churches there.’ I don’t think that’s true.”
Dave Taylor, a Bright Angel member, said he didn’t comprehend until he moved here that “there was more than just the Strip to Las Vegas.”
“But when you get here, you find that it’s just like any other city,” said Taylor, an engineer. “The difference in Vegas is, sometimes, the sin is a little more visible.
“When you scratch below the surface, you find that people have needs everywhere,” he said. “That’s why I think folks like Lantz and Jessica are so important to a congregation, because they do spend so much time building relationships.”
A youth minister could let the needs overwhelm him, said Harry Palmer, a Bright Angel member. But Palmer said Lantz has focused on small steps. Within a few weeks of moving to Las Vegas, Lantz started taking the youth group to serve in a downtown soup kitchen.
“I normally pass out the soup bowls,” Jessica said. “We have someone who wipes down tables and others washing dishes. A lot of times, we’ll have so many people that Lantz will walk around and visit.”
And build relationships, as he sees it.
As a result of the work at the soup kitchen, Lantz got to know a woman and her husband.
“We were able to study with them, and both of them were baptized,” Jessica said.
Wherever they go — be it the grocery store or a restaurant — the Howards strike up conversations and invite people to church. They know their neighbors by name and have made friends with them. To meet more people, Lantz even started substituting on Fridays at the public middle school where Jessica teaches reading.
For the Howards, it’s all part of making church more than the hour or two members spend in worship on Sunday.
Lantz praised how the congregation has responded. Nebeker, whose son, Grant, 13, is a part of the youth group, recently knitted blankets to give to the homeless shelter. Natalie Beaudette, a first-grader whose family helps with the soup kitchen, organized a toy drive at her school to benefit the needy children.
“I have a heart for our people at church to grow outside of the box because I would say, for the most part … people aren’t very missional and evangelistic,” Lantz said. “I don’t think it’s unique to Las Vegas. I think it’s America.”