SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

December 11, 2012

Taking religion to the Next Level

Church moving to Peabody after outgrowing space at mall

By Alan Burke
Staff writer

---- — PEABODY — Daniel King grew up a Baptist. But he attended a Catholic school — the Jesuit-run Brophy College Preparatory in his native Phoenix.

King hasn’t a bad word to say about either religion these days, except that they are not for him. Instead, he wanted something that focused on the message of Jesus Christ and stressed tolerance and forgiveness over a hierarchical system of rigid rules. And on a family vacation to New England, of all places, he found it.

In New Hampshire four years ago, he and his wife saw an ad for the Next Level Church in Newington. It’s an institution started by a former Canadian league pro-basketball player named Joshua Gagnon.

The Kings decided, “‘Let’s go to church.’ And it turned out to be the second week of the church’s existence. We thought God was telling us to be a part of it,” Daniel King said.

The message he heard that Sunday stuck with King. The Next Level Church seemed focused on the words of Jesus rather than a set of organizational rules.

“We don’t think God intended to formulate rules,” King said.

The experience brought King into the fold. He became what his church regards as a “location minister,” serving a specific church. Meanwhile, he watched the organization begin to expand, to Epping, N.H., to Portland, Maine, and now the North Shore, where King is based.

Here, the church has grown to as many as 75 congregants. For that matter, it’s at the point where it can no longer hold services in one of the Liberty Tree Mall theaters. Instead, the Next Level is moving to Covenant Christian Academy at 83 Pine St. in Peabody.

As befitting a new religion, the Next Level Church has a different idea about what constitutes a worshipful service. The words “fun” and “casual” are prominent.

“We do a full band,” King said. “We start with music almost every week. ... It’s kind of rock-concerty, but not that loud.”

Colored lights are part of the presentation, which is intended to sound familiar, to put the attendees at ease. “It just helps people to relax.”

King, 28, lives in Topsfield with his wife and two children. He attended Arizona State University. For him, the decision not to stress the rules is not the same as having no rules.

“We teach everything the Bible teaches,” he said. “We don’t believe we have to water down what God says.”

If you break the commandments, however, “We’re not going to kick you out. ... It’s the opposite of what I experienced growing up. Do this. Do that. ... I don’t believe that’s the God of the Bible.”

When a member was revealed to be sinning — committing adultery — King decided, “We’re going to care for him, help him work through this situation.” The organization acknowledges the harm in the sin: “We believe that’s clearly wrong, but the church doesn’t exist to throw people out.”

King stresses that the Next Level Church is not in competition with existing religions. He sees good things, for example, in both his Baptist and Catholic experiences. “Our focus is on people who are not attending any church.”

Gagnon is styled the “lead pastor,” although King concedes that he basically functions as a bishop. Moreover, he has a role to play at every church service at every location, speaking electronically in a simulcast.

“We’re hearing the same message,” King said. “We’re trying to unify our church.”

The church has been successful enough that it is building a new $1.5 million facility in New Hampshire. And it won’t be the typical church, King said, resembling instead “a Chipotle-type restaurant.” At its current rate of growth, the church expects to have 20 locations by 2020.

With “pastor Josh” handling the sermons, King expects that his role giving personal attention to his congregation is strengthened.

“We believe Jesus really makes a difference in people’s lives,” he said. “The Bible says you should live a life of love.”