PORTLAND, Maine — With a futuristic bright green and black motif, the Next Level Church on Forest Avenue in Portland looks more like a technology startup than a house of worship.
The church uses a different lexicon and plays different styles of music — think Coldplay — than almost any other in the area.
But the church is getting attention in Maine’s largest city for more than just it’s iPhone-like iconography and rejection of stained-glass windows. On Easter Sunday, Next Level Church conducted its annual helicopter egg drop, which garnered national headlines during its inaugural run in New Hampshire in 2010, an event that drew 12,000 eager egg hunters and forced organizers to start putting limits on attendance.
Then on April 20, Next Level Church will pay to lower the price of at least 3,000 gallons of gas to $2.99 per gallon at the 865 Brighton Ave. Citgo station.
The catch? Lead Pastor Joshua Gagnon said it’s no secret: He wants people to see Next Level Church and give one of its Sunday morning “experiences” — they don’t call them “services” — a try.
To attend the helicopter egg drop, which is exactly what it sounds like, participants first had to attend the church Easter morning. The requirement was as much to prevent the unruly 12,000-person mob of 2010 as anything else, Gagnon said, but he added, “I’m not going to cry myself to sleep at night [feeling guilty] because some new people attended my church.”
Since the first Next Level Church began meeting at a high school in Dover, N.H., in 2008, the church network has expanded to four locations — one in Massachusetts and two in New Hampshire in addition to the Portland site. The church community has grown from three families to about 2,000 people, about 200 of whom attend in Portland, during that same time, Gagnon said.
The organization is constructing a $2.2 million facility in Somersworth, N.H., from which Gagnon plans to begin simulcasting live Sunday video “teachings” to the other sites. And the founder and lead pastor said he hopes to expand Next Level Church to 20 locations by the year 2020, all in New England.
Next Level, a nondenominational, evangelical church, is affiliated with the Association of Related Churches, based in Birmingham, Ala. That organization was founded in 2000 with the goal of organizing 2,000 new churches around the country. Next Level was launched in Maine with services in the Cinemagic movie theater in South Portland, then moved to a dedicated Portland spot about a year ago.
Gagnon said that although he occasionally hears criticisms from individuals who prefer more traditional church settings, the apparent explosion of Next Level Church popularity is largely not coming at the expense of existing churches in its recruitment areas.
“Well more than half of the people who come to Next Level weren’t going to church anywhere before they started coming here,” Gagnon said. “We always say we’re not better than other churches in the community. We’re just different.”
That difference fills an important niche in a region of the country where churches could use a popularity boost, he said. Gagnon noted that New England is the least religious region in America.
“I think if Jesus were to come back today, New England would be very attractive to him,” he said. “So many people aren’t attending church here. There are so many more people he could reach.”
That statement is backed up by a slew of recent studies, including a 2012 Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies census that found Maine had the country’s lowest percentage of residents identifying a religious affiliation.
“We started Next Level Church as an effort to communicate the timeless truth of God in a way that’s relevant today,” Gagnon said. “It’s not that people don’t want relationships with God, it’s that many of them don’t feel like their churches provide them with that connection in a way that’s relevant to their lives.”
That relevance comes in tangible — DVDs explaining baptisms and salvation in laymen’s terms, as well as portable credit card devices for Sunday donations — and less tangible ways.
“People want to know, ‘My marriage [is terrible], can I get a divorce and still be OK?’” Gagnon said. “We’re in 2013. You don’t want to step into the 1930s when you go to church.”
‘That was a great time’
The Portland church, in a space previously occupied by a martial arts dojo, has a bistro area in the lobby and three rooms for youths of different age groups in addition to its main hall. One picture hanging in the entryway depicts a Sunday “experience,” with an alternative rock band playing against a backdrop of multicolored lights and machined fog faintly rolling over a darkened crowd of outstretched hands.
A basket of earplugs sits on a table outside the door of the main hall.
“Every single person who comes to Next Level, whether they ever come to another service or not, walks out of here saying, ‘That was a great time,’” Gagnon said.
On a grid of “Core Values,” designed to look like square-logo iPhone apps, is one reading, “Consumerism is not an option.” By that, Gagnon said he wants attendees to be active in the church, whether by getting involved in the Sunday morning energy or by volunteering in the community, or both.
“It’s always more fun to cheer the winner of ‘American Idol’ if you’ve voted a few times,” he said.
Local Pastor Allen Robbins is the face of Next Level Church on the streets of Portland.
“One of the reasons we go with the videos on Sunday is that it frees me up to spend more time focusing on people,” he said. “While [Gagnon is] developing his sermons for the week, I’m out in the community.”
The church hosts everything from financial classes to workout groups to book studies on-site, and Robbins said church members actively volunteer during litter pickup days, at food pantries and soup kitchens, and anywhere else in the city where they perceive a need.
Before Christmas two years ago, Robbins said, the church filled a box truck for the nearby Wayside Food Programs to generate what was believed at the time to be the the largest single food drive donation ever in Portland.
“Jesus is the reason for everything we do,” Gagnon said. “As hip and as flashy as everything is here, the reality is, we believe in Jesus.”