The Missional Language of Poker

When Christians think of the mission to take the gospel to every pocket of the earth, two conversations emerge.  The first is centered on learning a foreign language and going to places where the gospel has never been preached.  Or if not ever preached, hardly preached.  We call this going to an "unreached people group."  

The second conversation says, "you are a missionary right where you are."  This means, as Scripture rightly says, that God has given you specific opportunities to take the gospel to the pockets where you live, work, and play.  The Christian life doesn't depend on the 'professional' to reach your co-workers with the gospel--God sent you to those people.  After all, the pastor has zero chance of working side-by-side with your co-workers for eight hours a day, every day.  Why?  Because God has called you to reach your co-workers.  If God wanted your pastor to reach them, he would have given your pastor your job.  But God gave you the job of reaching your co-workers.  Your neighbors too.  And your family.  And your friends.  

Both of these missional conversations are correct.  We have no need to argue one over the other.  Christians should go into all the world as God calls them.  And we should be the sent ones where we live, work, and play. 

But could there be more mission fields around us that we simply miss?  As we are fishers of men, might there be more fishing ponds that nobody is reaching?  I think so, and I've recently found an unlikely one.  Bar poker. 

Before you jump to conclusions, I urge you to continue reading. 

Me and my co-laborer in the ministry, Brett Ricely were struggling to reach the lost in our community this winter.  We live in Utah, a place where winter play can be expensive.  Neither us go to workplaces where there are lots of lost people (the challenge of the pastoral life), so we usually engage with people where they work (i.e., coffee shops, auto shop, the gym, etc).  But play is usually limited to free, outdoor activities.  Our engagement with the lost was slowing down thanks to sub-freezing temperatures and heaps of snow.  So we began praying and exploring places were people play indoors.  Could we adopt a new mission field by adopting a new hobby? Could we simply be missional by changing where we play?

Through prayer and keeping our eyes open, we discovered that a group of unreached people were playing Texas Hold'em poker at a local bar.  This is Utah, so they don't play for money; they play for points.  The point leaders win an entry to the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, Nevada.  There's no buy-in and no cash incentive.  It's really just a way to get people in to the bar to eat and drink.  Through further exploration, we actually found a large community of people who play bar poker, and poker is their community.  There are more than 4,000 people around our community that play.  As many as 80 or 90 pull up a chair to the felt tops, and most play once or twice a week at the specific 'poker club,' as they're called.  There's usually more than 50 players at every tournament at the club we had our sights on. More significantly, the other poker players in the club are 'family,' and it seems others players around the valley are treated like 'extended family.' 

We spent some time in prayer, sought wise counsel, and set some rules.  We would not ever be in the bar alone.  We would not drink.  And when the game became more important than the mission, we were done.  We also started praying that God would open the door to a Bible study over dinner before the tournament started.  

After a lot of prayer, we walked through the doors on our first night.  I quickly learned some things.  First, poker has its own language.  Second, the longer you stay in the tournament, the more time you have to sit next to people and chat.  Third, people in the bar are very lonely and deeply long for community with others.  And finally, nobody was hostile when they found out we were Christians.  It was the opposite, actually.  Doors were open on our very first night to start a Bible study over dinner before the tournament, just as we asked God to do. We prayed for people right there in the bar.  And we were asked to share what we believe. 

During the week before the next poker night, I downloaded a poker app on my phone and played about 5,000 hands of free poker with people online.  I read some blogs about how to play.  I watched the World Series of Poker from the previous year.  I did an internet search of every strange word and term I didn't understand. I had to learn the language of the mission field.  And I prayed my face off.

The next Monday night started with a Bible study.  There we were, in a bar with open Bibles, talking about Jesus with lost people.  We prayed for our server.  We prayed for some of the players that we met the previous week.  And we enjoyed some really good Irish food.  We weren't weirdos (I hope), we were just regular guys who love Jesus and like poker.  And we were ambassadors of the Light of Jesus in a place where his light was not previously shining.  We were engaging our city with the mission of God, one fishing pond at a time.  

In the following weeks, the Bible study grew.  God gave me good enough cards and some wisdom to win second place on the side-table, meaning credibility with the other players.  I've since made it to 14th place out of about 60 people on the main game.  More credibility.  I'm learning the language and making friends.  Connections are happening.  I'm praying for the players and dealers throughout the week.  I'm having fun and being missional at the same time.  We've shared the gospel many times and invited people to join us at Church on Sunday morning.  Brett and I started bringing our worship pastor, Derek, with us. . . and it turns out he's good at poker and even better with the missional part.

We've also got a monthly 'church game' going at our church building.  There's no money involved, no drinking, cussing, smoking, or anything else that's often associated with the game of poker.  We do, however, eat good snacks and laugh a lot.  There is a large trophy we bought at a second-hand store that's ugly enough to make second place look really good.  And we have fun.  It's usually about a 50-50 split of Christians to non-Christians.  We also offer a chip incentive to anyone who brings a guest and the guest gets the incentive too for being a first timer. 

Being missional means we are missionaries where we live, work, and play; but it also means sometimes we change were we live, work, or play to be more intentional for the advancement of the gospel.  And who knows, you might just pick up a new hobby along the way.