Before you step a foot into Next Level Church for a Sunday service, you start to get the idea that this isn’t a typical churchgoing experience.
Speakers in the parking lot pipe out upbeat rock music. The same music is playing inside the packed lobby as people check their children into the kids programs, or pick up pamphlets or talk to the volunteers there to introduce them to Next Level.
The church has technically been operating in Peterborough for the past few weeks, after taking over the assets and building of the former Trinity Evangelical Church, which closed down when its membership dipped too low to be able to sustain its costs. Trinity approached Next Level, which is a quickly growing church with multiple locations in Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, to see whether they would be interested in the location. This Sunday was the first time Next Level was able to meet in the former Trinity church, after spending several weeks on renovation.
It becomes clear pretty much from the outset — this church is a little different than the one you might have grown up with.
That aura is deliberate, said Pastor Kenny Laughters, who recently moved to Peterborough to become Next Level’s settled location pastor.
“A lot of people out there have preconceived notions about church,” said Laughters in a recent interview with the Ledger-Transcript. “The experience you have at Next Level is probably going to be something different than that.”
Which is the sense you might get, walking into the church’s auditorium, it’s seating facing a broad stage backed with acoustic foam, and no less than four multi-media screens showing a countdown.
To the experience.
‘You might feel like you’re at a rock concert’
It’s not unusual these days for churches to have a “worship leader” or a “worship team” that leads the congregation in singing Christian-based music – generally more modern than the traditional hymn – during services.
Next Level’s worship team is a bit more elaborate than most.
Not just in its makeup, though it’s a full seven-piece band complete with guitar, bass, drums and keyboard, but in its presentation, complete with lighting cues and music flavor that leans heavily towards Christian rock.
“You might feel like you’re at a rock concert,” said Laughters.
And even after the music ends, that feeling still lingers. The start of the sermon – which Next Level terms “experience” – isn’t a solemn welcome. Instead, Laughters, who led the worship team on guitar, jogs back out onto the stage, dressed in jeans and a jacket over a T-shirt and holding a microphone.
“What’s up NLC Peterborough!” he proclaims, more like a hype man at an entertainment venue than a church pastor welcoming his congregation.
And here is another way that Next Level Church is different than other nondenominational Christian sects – while Laughters is the Peterborough pastor, he doesn’t give the sermons. That task is left to the church’s lead pastor, Josh Gagnon, who founded the church and preaches from their main location in Somersworth. The message he preaches there is broadcast to the church’s other nine locations, displayed on those big media screens – at least usually.
In honor of the official opening of Peterborough’s location, Gagnon ministered in person.
Dressed casually and exuding a similar energy, Gagnon rarely stands at the podium, instead preferring to roam the stage as he preaches in the church’s current ongoing series “I Am,” based on seven statements of Jesus Christ describing himself in the Bible. While the message is rooted in scripture, Gagnon also keeps it light.
Sometimes he’s a little self-deprecating (“Nine years ago, I started Next Level Church. If I’m the pastor, that’s the worst start.”).
And sometimes irreverent (“Who here’s a Celtics fan? Great, the rest of you are going to Hell.”).
But mostly, the message is a positive one based in scripture. And the audience responded to the energy of the moment, often calling out “Amen” or “That’s right” or just clapping at several points.
And both those sides appeal, said one Peterborough resident who decided to try out Next Level for the first time on Sunday.
“It was a great experience,” said Colin Murdough of Peterborough, who attended the experience with his family. “It’s very different to other church experiences I’ve had – which haven’t been many by any means.”
But the fact that Next Level Church has an active children’s program appeals to him, said Murdough, as did the “great energy” of the experience, and he said he’d definitely consider returning for another Sunday.Continuing to grow
Only a few weeks into starting their Peterborough location, Next Level has announced that they will be starting a second church in the Monadnock area – this one in Keene.
Similar to how they began their Peterborough campus, Next Level was approached by the Keene-based Life Journey Church also wants to turn over their assets to assimilate as the next Next Level Church. The church parishioners, which currently consists of 130 people, will attend church at the Peterborough location starting the first week of May while the Life Journey Church undergoes the same renovations that the Trinity Evangelical Church underwent in the past few weeks to accommodate the Next Level model.
The assimilation of the Life Journey Church will be the sixth location for Next Level in New Hampshire, and eleventh overall, with a twelfth church already planned in Tampa, Florida.
Since Gagnon started Next Level nine years ago with 12 people, as a worship space for himself, his wife and several friends that were disillusioned with church, he sees the speed of the church’s expansion as proof that their approach works.
“I felt like I loved God, but I wasn’t at home in church,” said Gagnon. He wanted church that “makes sense in the culture that you live in,” whether that means the use of Twitter hashtags or using big screen televisions or movie theater screens to get the message across.
“You don’t have to change the message of Christ to change the platter it’s served on,” said Gagnon.