Image: Community Lutheran Church in Las Vegas
Community Lutheran Church
Community Lutheran Church in Las Vegas has more than 3,700 members. “God is everywhere,” says senior pastor Dr. Mark Wickstrom. “Even here in Las Vegas.”
By contributor
updated 3/29/2011 1:36:23 PM ET 2011-03-29T17:36:23

Las Vegas has a dirty little secret it’s hiding from many of the 35 million tourists who come to cut loose in a place where sin is celebrated and sold with messianic zeal.

Brace yourself.

Las Vegas has churches. Lots of them. Mosques, temples and synagogues, too, representing vibrant faiths from all over creation.

And each and every Sunday these prayerful halls are filled with devout worshippers whose idea of big stakes differ vastly from those who pray for a lucky roll of the dice.

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“I think America would be surprised by the huge religious undercurrent that runs through Las Vegas,” says Dr. Mark Wickstrom, senior pastor at the 3,700-member Community Lutheran Church of Las Vegas.

“A Baptist church in Henderson (just outside of Las Vegas) recently surveyed how many churches of all denominations were within a 2-mile radius of its location. In that 2-mile circle, it found 102 churches. God is everywhere. Even here in Las Vegas.”

Story: Splurge in Sin City as if money is no object

Some surveys over the years have even included Las Vegas among lists of cities with the most churches per capita. A recent Internet search revealed listings for more than 500 churches in the city.

You don’t find that nugget touted on any of the splashy websites hawking near-naked show girls, games of chance and the gaudy secular temples where you can find it all. Prominent and otherwise comprehensive guide books such as Fodor’s and Lonely Planet detail laws regulating Nevada prostitution and where to find the best strip clubs, but fail to include helpful mention of where someone needing spiritual assistance ought to go.

Faithful worshippers
Yet, church attendance thrives.

“Many people make it a point to find a church to attend before they visit and make sure they’re here in time for worship,” says Mike Matijevich, senior pastor at the Paradise Christian Church. “Their faith is an important part of their lives, and that’s a part they are unwilling to overlook no matter where they go to vacation.”

He takes pains to clarify: “It’s not ‘Pair o’ Dice’ Church,” he says.

Matijevich is a successful extension of a religious phenomenon that is rare if not unique to Vegas: retail religion.

The recent downturn devastated the city and left it with 15 percent unemployment and many shuttered businesses.

The combination continues to lure de facto mom ‘n’ pop clergy intent on opening offbeat storefront churches.

“You can’t drive past a Vegas strip mall without seeing some church where maybe a dry cleaner used to be,” says Wickstrom, 62. “People come here to start churches because they believe there must be a lot of souls here that need saving. Some may be untrained, unconventional and unaffiliated, but my sense is their intentions are very honorable.”

'The music is fantastic'
It’s the same motivation that lured Matijevich, 63, a native of Jacksonville, Ill., to Las Vegas 32 years ago. He’d been an associate pastor at the First Bible Baptist Church, an independent Baptist church, in Rochester, N.Y., from 1973 to 1978 when he decided to move to Las Vegas.

“I wanted to find a city that was really popping with life and would be filled with people that might need my help,” he says.

The man who preaches about paradise settled there. Paradise is in the unincorporated area of Vegas that includes McCarran International Airport and large sections of the The Strip just three miles from his pulpit.

Matijevich started advertising and knocking on doors, and one soul at a time, began building a church he soon filled. He’s since filled two other churches and now counts 500 regulars in his non-denominational evangelical Christian church congregation.

“We’re progressive and growing,” Matijevich says. “In Las Vegas, we have an endless number of prospects. We try and reach them all.”

Wickstrom says Las Vegas churches offer another secular aspect that may surprise tourists who attend less traditional, more modern services.

Vegas churches rock.

“Lots of the people who entertain tourists at night on The Strip will be the same ones entertaining them on Sunday mornings in church,” Wickstrom says. “The music is fantastic.”

Saving souls in Sin City
What you won’t find at many churches like Wickstrom’s are fire and brimstone denunciations about what will happen if you succumb to a primary temptation of Las Vegas.

“I know there are people in our congregation who enjoy gambling and will tithe when they win,” says Wickstrom who, like Matijevich, does not wager.

Finding chips in the collection plate happens, he says, but he cannot confirm a Vegas legend that an earnest area monk makes the rounds every Monday to collect the chips and cash them in at the casinos to use for various needy ministries.

“That’s an unsubstantiated rumor,” he says. “There is no chip monk.”

He delivers the “chip monk” punchline with practiced timing of a Strip comic.

A sense of humor is helpful ministering in a town that can seem to be an apocalyptic cocktail of excess, gluttony, gambling and addictions. Believers are to be forgiven if they’re convinced the end is near and, indeed, the end is bound to begin in Las Vegas.

It’s why both pastors encourage tourists to set aside a little time to visit one of the many Las Vegas places of worship and return home with something so much more soulful than hard luck stories of near misses at the blackjack table.

Wickstrom says no one need know and flips the meaning of the popular Vegas slogan to signify, not sin, but salvation.

“If you visit Las Vegas and attend church, I promise I won’t tell,” he says. “No one needs to know. Trust me. What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”

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Explainer: Splurge in Sin City as if money is no object

  • Image: XS Nightclub
    Barbara Kraft  /  Courtesy Encore
    High rollers can take a seat at the main table at XS in the Encore Casino.

    Remember that euphoric bicycle ride to the ice cream stand after you found that dollar bill blowing across the parking lot? You flew the whole way knowing you’d soon be enjoying not one, but two scoops of your favorite treat, and mom would never know.

    Take that recollection and turn that tiny rumpled buck into a million of ‘em. Dress it up in a tux and escort it onto a private jet.

    Your idea of a really dandy splurge is all grown up and now it wants to go to Las Vegas.

    Here are some of the over-the-top ways to enjoy Las Vegas IMINO (If Money Is No Object).

  • Private jet

    Luxury Air Jets will wing you and a buddy direct from New York to McCarran International aboard a Gulfstream IV for $60,000, round trip.

  • Hotel

    Image: The Kingpin Suite
    Courtesy Palms Casino Resort
    The Kingpin Suite at The Palms Hotel in Las Vegas features two regulation-size lanes.

    Make no mistake: Every single hotel in Las Vegas has high roller suites so lavish they’ll knock the pins right out from under you. But only The Palms Hotel has a suite that’ll let you return the favor. The bowling-themed Kingpin Suite features two regulation-size lanes that let you become your very own Big Lebowski. Cost: $15,000 per night.

  • Rent your own paparazzi

    What good is being a big shot if you look like just another plumbing fixtures salesman from Dubuque, Iowa? Terry O’Connor, director of sales for Vegas hosting experts Red Carpet VIP, says he arranges this $5,000 stunt maybe twice a year. “It’s great fun,” he says. “Everyone stares, wonders who you are and then adds to the frenzy by taking your picture to show people back home.”

  • Steaks

    Some toddlers already proficient with TV remotes aren’t as aged as long or lovingly as the steaks at Carnevino, Mario Batali’s steak house. It’s where John Curtas, author of “Eating Las Vegas: The 50 Essential Restaurants,” goes to enjoy enjoys steaks aged 14 months. “The ribeye is so dense and delicious it’s almost ham-like.” The price is $100 — that’s $100 per inch thickness.

  • Own an ocean

    Image: Mandalay Bay Beach
    Darrin Bush  /  Courtesy Las Vegas News Bureau
    At Mandalay Bay Beach, big spenders can rent a private cabana for between $500 to $2,000 a day.

    Mandalay Bay Beach has private cabanas spacious enough to accommodate up to 16 people with private pools and convenient access to the resort’s faux-cean fun. Cabanans range from $500 to $2,000 per day.

  • Hamburgers

    Sure, you can have it your way at Fleur, but these days you can afford to have it Chef Hubert Keller’s way. That means the FleurBurger 5000. The Wagyu beef burger comes with foie gras and black truffle and a bottle of 1995 Chateau Petrus to wash it down, and costs $5,000. And, no, you’re not allowed to substitute the rarified vintage with, say, a Big Gulp Dr. Pepper.

  • A really smokin’ shopping place

    Image: The Forum Shops at Caesars Palace
    Courtesy Las Vegas News Bureau

    The Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace is America’s most successful mall, attracting 15 million yearly visitors and earning nearly $1,000 per square foot (national average is $250). “This is perfect for couples,” Curtas says. “There's high end shopping, and the guys can grab a good smoke at Casa Fuente, an outstanding cigar bar.”

  • Exotic eats

    The old you might have collapsed at the idea of paying $300 for mostly uncooked food you didn’t even order. But that’s the fabled fare at Shaboo, Bar Masa’s exclusive restaurant-within-a-restaurant. It’s where master chef Masa Takayama creates edible art served omakase-style, loosely translated to, “Chef, you decide.” Curtas says entrusting dining decisions to Takayama in Vegas is no gamble.

  • Cocktail

    It’s unlikely many convivial adults have spent a sum total of $3,000 on liquor in all the years since they departed puberty. You can now afford to spend that much on one drink. The playfully named “Menage a Trois” at Tryst in the Wynn Hotel is a sexy threesome of gold embellished grand liquors. The straw is gold and studded with a glittering 9-point diamond.

  • Nightclub

    Image: XS Nightclub
    Barbara Kraft  /  Courtesy Encore
    High rollers can take a seat at the main table at XS in the Encore Casino.

    Your jackpot now enables you to vaporize in one night what it used to take you six or seven years to earn. “We’ll get you right at the main table at XS in the Encore Casino,” says host O’Connor. “You’ll look like you own the place. From there you order the $100,000, 3-foot, 100-pound Midas bottle of Ace of Spades champagne and treat the whole club.” A night like that will cost you about $250,000 and will likely attract genuine paparazzi.

  • Bauble

    Simon Ku-designed “Hello Kitty Pendant” with pink diamonds for bow, as worn by Britney Spears: $50,000, at Ice Jewelry;

  • Buffet

    Gluttony never craps out at the magnificent Sterling Sunday Brunch Buffet at The Steakhouse at Bally’s. For $62, you get unlimited champagne, caviar, lobster, sushi and, yeah, scrambled eggs. It’s every Sunday from 9:30 to 2:30 p.m.

  • Entertainment

    Image: "The Beatles LOVE by Cirque du Soleil"
    Ethan Miller  /  Getty Images
    Performers ride a Volkswagen Beetle across the stage during a preview of "The Beatles LOVE by Cirque du Soleil" at the Mirage Hotel & Casino in 2006 in Las Vegas.

    What says Vegas entertainment better than a night at Cirque du Soleil? How about a night with Cirque du Soleil? For $260 per person, a limited number of guests at LOVE or Mystere receive choice seats, gift bags and intimate backstage tours.

  • Dinner

    Image: Joël Robuchon at MGM Grand
    Courtesy Las Vegas News Bureau
    Enjoy a 16-course dinner at Joël Robuchon at MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

    You might want to snag an Early Bird reservation at Joël Robuchon at The Mansion, not because you’ll get a senior saver discount on the $385 per person bill, but at 16 scrumptious courses, you’ll want a head start on a dinner that deserves to be savored. There are constellations magnified through the Hubble Telescope with fewer sparkling stars (and diamonds) than Robuchon’s illustrious restaurants have earned.

  • The ultimate souvenir

    Image: Penske-Wynn Ferrari Maserati dealership
    Courtesy Wynn
    For $299,000, you can buy a 2009 Ferrari F430 Scuderi Red at The Wynn Hotel.

    The Wynn Hotel has a Penske Ferrari-Maserati dealer that’ll be happy to sell you a 2009 Ferrari F430 Scuderi Red for $299,000. That ought to make a better impression than a kitschy hip-shaking Elvis clock you brought home last visit.

  • Ice cream

    Image: Serendipity III Restaurant
    Courtesy Las Vegas News Bureau
    Try a sundae at Serendipity 3 at Caesar’s Palace, complete with a 23-karat edible gold leaf.

    Feeling nostalgic for the days when two scoops was still a splurge? Celebrate the innocent recollection and order the $3,000 Golden Opulence Sundae from Serendipity 3 at Caesar’s Palace. Made with Tahitian vanilla ice cream, rare Venezuelan cocoa beans and chocolates, exotic fruits and a 23-karat edible gold leaf. Requires a 48-hour advance order so better get on the phone now. Your jet is waiting.

  • The bill

    Estimated total cost for this entire splurge, 1 person/1 night . . . $693,407.*

    * Does not include tips.

Video: Mob exhibit opens in Sin City

  1. Closed captioning of: Mob exhibit opens in Sin City

    >>> a hotel in the middle of the mojave desert .

    >> i don't understand this desert thing of yours. what are we bedouins?

    >> what are we talking about here?

    >> i'm talking about about a hotel.

    >> i'm talking about a place where gambling is allowed.

    >> destiny, las vegas .

    >> well, now you don't need the movie "bugsby" to relive the birth of sin city . today is the grand opening of the las vegas mob experience. newest attraction on the strip shows how organized crime members helped create a gambling and entertainment empire. and even though they were mobsters, they were family men, too. melissa st. rosen is the daughter of bugsby. and cynthia duncan is the daughter of maya lansky. ladies, nice to see you both today.

    >> nice to see you.

    >> all right, so cynthia , tell me a little bit about this experience. that's what going to be like for people who go into this mob experience in vegas?

    >> i was at the opening, soft opening yesterday and i was blown away. it is significantly historic. the public will be able to see all of the family's it's way that they lived, personal photographs, artifacts. it's something that really caught me by surprise. the structure of the museum is amazing. and i believe that it will be a real big plus for las vegas , finally.

    >> melissa, where are your memories of your dad and the plan for las vegas , the importance of las vegas in your family?

    >> well, as a child, i came out here with my father, spent summers out here when school was off. and while he was looking around for a hotel which he took the one in town to learn how to run a bigger hotel, the el cortez and i have watched vegas grow from a little town to what it is today. and i don't know if he would like what he sees today, this glorified disneyland, because he didn't envision it that way. but i'm glad to see its prospering and he's still remembered here as being one of the founders.

    >> let me share a little bit with you of this review from the director of the center for gambling research at the university of nevada las vegas . says, focusing the story on prohibitioning and gambling makes it seem like organized crime had and has no victims, only happy customers. i wonder what the restaurant owners and garment district entrepreneurs thought about while they were being shaken down for protection money . that's really glossed over. is this glam glamourizing, do you think, the mobster life, what do you think, cynthia ?

    >> absolutely not. i think that the public will be very surprised when they go through the museum. it is not glamorizing any of that at all. it's a little more personal with the families involved and it's really the behind the scenes . it's a real look and a truthful look at their lives that actually the media really never covered before.

    >> well, cynthia duncan and millisent siegel rosen, thanks so much for sharing a little bit about the experience with us.

    >> thank you.

    >> thank you.

Photos: Welcome to Vegas

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  1. Welcome to Las Vegas

    The Bellagio's fountain show entertains visitors nightly. In the background is Bally's Las Vegas, left, and Paris Las Vegas, which has a 50-story Eiffel Tower replica in front. Over 37.5 million people visit Las Vegas each year. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Fremont Street Experience

    Located in downtown Las Vegas, this exciting pedestrian promenade is home to approximately 16 million lights, making it one of the largest LED screens in the world. (Brian Jones / Las Vegas News Bureau) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Looking for Lady Luck

    Casion visitors play slot machines at the Mirage Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Dunking Elvis

    An Elvis impersonator performs a slam dunk during the 2007 NBA All-Star Game on February 18, 2007, at Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. (Jesse D. Garrabrant / NBAEGetty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Grand casinos

    Lights from passing vehicles are seen in front of the MGM Grand Hotel/Casino in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Poker face

    Jamie Gold, right, of California and Paul Wasicka of Colorado go head-to-head on the final table of the World Series of Poker no-limit Texas Hold 'em main event at the Rio Hotel & Casino on Aug. 11, 2006, in Las Vegas. Gold outlasted more than 8,700 other poker players to win the top prize of $12 million. Wasicka won just over $6.1 million for finishing second. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Glitz and glamour

    A Canon display is seen inside the Las Vegas Convention Center at the Consumer Electronics Show. Las Vegas is the nation's top business travel destination, with easy airline access, numerous hotel rooms, low rates, plentiful convention facilities and a wide range of dining and entertainment options. (Karl Polverino / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Over-the-top entertainment

    Performers ride a Volkswagen Beetle across the stage during a preview of "The Beatles LOVE by Cirque du Soleil" at the Mirage Hotel & Casino on June 27, 2006, in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A New York minute

    The New York-New York Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas recreates the Manhattan skyline, complete with replicas of the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building and Brooklyn Bridge. (Courtesy of MGM MIRAGE) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Entertainment mecca

    Kenny Chesney performs "Out Last Night" at the 44th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas on April 5, 2009. (Mark J. Terrill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Tying the knot

    From left, Elvis Presley impersonator Norm Jones plays guitar as Bruce Barnett of Virginia Beach, Va., escorts his daughter Gayle to her wedding ceremony at the Graceland Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas, Nevada. Graceland is the oldest wedding chapel in Las Vegas and offers ceremonies with or without Elvis impersonators. (David Mcnew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Explosive attraction

    The $25 million, newly redesigned volcano display in front of the Mirage Hotel & Casino features 150 choreographed FireShooters sending fireballs more than 12 feet in the air and a custom soundtrack created by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and Indian tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images for MGM Mirage) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A night on the Strip

    Hotels and casinos line the Las Vegas Strip. From thrilling roller coasters to erupting volcanos to art museums, Las Vegas' many attractions appeal to people of all ages and interests. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Fight night

    David Diaz and Manny Pacquiao fight during the fourth round of the WBC Lightweight Championship at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on June 28, 2008, in Las Vegas. Pacquiao won in a ninth-round knockout. (Harry How / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Day at the races

    Rookie driver Shawn Langdon earned his first No. 1 qualifying position of his career at the NHRA Nationals at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on April 4, 2009, in Las Vegas. (Richard Wong / NHRA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Fabulous shopping

    The Juicy Couture retail store at The Forum Shops at Caesars Palace is seen before the grand opening February 5, 2009, in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images for Juicy Couture) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Stunning shows

    Buyi Zama as “Rafiki” in the opening number “The Circle of Life” from THE LION KING Las Vegas. (Joan Marcus / Disney) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A slice of Italy

    Visitors take a gondola ride at The Venetian in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Get into the groove

    Dina Buell, left, and Carla Giordano, both from California, dance at the pool at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino during Rehab, the resort's weekly pool party, in 2005 in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Let’s get this party started

    Party goers gather for the grand opening of LAX Nightclub Las Vegas in 2007. (Chris Weeks / WireImage) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Big laughs

    Comedian Ellen DeGeneres performs at a taping of ''Ellen's Even Bigger Really Big Show'' during The Comedy Festival at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace in 2008 in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A kingly stay

    The Excalibur Hotel and Casino features a castle motif with newly refurbished hotel rooms. (Courtesy of MGM MIRAGE) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A dancing fountain

    Visitors are silhouetted against the backdrop of The Bellagio's fountain show on the Las Vegas Strip. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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