At Work & Economics 101

Card-Counting Christians and…Value Creation?

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Anyone who wants to be a serious disciple of Jesus should learn blackjack.

With a shocking quote like this in the trailer, it’s no wonder why Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians was a controversial documentary when it was released in 2011.

The film follows the rise of the “Church Team,” one of the largest blackjack teams in America. Here’s the kicker: the team is made up entirely of Christians, many of whom are pastors and ministry leaders.

The activities of the Church Team surely falls into a moral grey area, but their work also raises questions about what it means to do meaningful work that creates true value.

Holy Rollers

The Church Team understands the stigma that comes with blackjack in Christian circles, but the players don’t see it as a sin. In their opinion, card counting isn’t technically gambling – it’s just a game strategy.

Church Team co-founder Colin Jones is confident his job as a professional card-counter is godly since he has the right mindset:

Our most effective ministry was running the team. […] It’s important to understand what work is. […] A janitor is no more ignoble than a pastor if he works with love and pure motive for the Lord. It depends on the heart.

Many members of the Church Team claim to be doing good by stealing money from “evil” casinos to give to their families and churches. In the trailer, one player says, 

It doesn’t seem like one of the most noble things a person could do in the world, but at least we can liberate the money from the clutches of those who would use it for ill purposes.

Man has an inherent desire to find significance in his work and to create value in the world—evidenced by this quote—because that’s how God created us. But in the end, when all the cards were counted, the Church Team’s “business” (they see what they do as a business) wasn’t creating any value for their community.

The Meaning of Value Creation

One team member, Mark Treas, begins to realize this as he develops a slightly contrasting view of the team’s activity. He struggles to understand how playing blackjack for a living adds value to the world around him. He says,

The biggest issue I ran into […] regarding the nature of what blackjack is, as a Christian I think that that whatever we put our hands to do should bring out more value in the community. It should be left better than when I found it. My problem with blackjack is, it in itself doesn’t actually do anything.

The tensions between the two seemingly opposite worlds of churches and casinos start to weigh on Treas. It becomes a point of wrestling he cannot come to grips with, so he decides to leave the team.

But Treas makes it clear he leaves the team not necessarily because he finds card counting to be immoral, but because he believes as a Christian, he is called to more. He tells New York Times,

I just felt like it didn’t do anything for anyone else. It wasn’t good enough.

His inner-vocational struggle paints quite an opposite picture of Psalm 128:2,

You will enjoy the fruit of your labor.
How joyful and prosperous you will be!

Treas recognized the fruit of his labor—the value creation, rather—was missing in the long nights he spent counting cards and dodging casino managers.

Though blackjack may have been a personally valuable pastime, Treas was not satisfied in blackjack as a vocation. He did not believe it contributed added anything significant to the outside world since he was acting merely as a consumer of redistributed wealth rather than a wealth creator.

True Value Creation

Consuming for entertainment can certainly be productive, but in terms of vocation, we are called to produce something of value. We were made for value creation.

Christians know this because the cultural mandate calls us to be fruitful. We usually think about children in this context since these words are followed by “and multiply,” but to be fruitful also means to contribute something of value. Dr. Anne Bradley explains what it means to be called to be a “value creator”:

As Christians, we are called to use our creativity […] not only to improve our lot in life, but to add to the flourishing of others…Living out the Cultural Mandate as Christians requires us to find productive ways to serve others.

Treas’ experience in Holy Rollers sheds light on an important theological truth: God created us to add value to the world through our work. This is written on the hearts of humans as we are all made in the image of God, the ultimate creator of value.

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  • JRW

    This is the most profoundly edifying blog I have ever read. It’s changing my life!

  • Michael Foster

    I played on the team. Treas’ struggle was the same one I had from early on. It was only exacerbated when I read Dorothy Sayer’s excellent article “Why Work” midway through my time on the church team. Anyways, I highly recommend Sayer’s article to anyone that is working through the theology of work.

    • Thanks for sharing this Michael. I haven’t read Dorothy Sayer’s book yet but I hear great things about it. I’m doing a follow up interview with Mark and I’d like to include you in it. Can you email me at eamyx@tifwe.org?

  • Colin Jones

    Well put. Thanks for writing this. -Colin Jones (from said ‘Church Team’)

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