Skip to comments.shopping for faith: churches vie for members as New Hampshire’s social atmosphere changes
Posted on 04/29/2009 11:06:19 AM PDT by Alex Murphy
People of all ages milled about the lobby of Newingtons Regal Cinemas at 9:30 a.m. on a recent Sunday, sipping coffee, munching doughnuts and chatting amiably. Some guests were in their 20s and arrived with friends, while others were whole families with parents and children. Some wore T-shirts that said No Perfect People Allowed. Rock music blasted through the sound system as a couple of hundred guests filed into one of the theaters and took their seats. The atmosphere of anticipation seemed more typical of a rock concert than a church service.
And indeed, a six-piece rock band soon took the stage beneath the movie screen. The band leader, who played acoustic guitar and sang, instructed audience members to rise to their feet and sing along as the group energetically rolled through three songs, the lyrics scrolling across the screen.
But this was not a concert or a movieit was a gathering of Next Level Church. When the band finished its set, pastor Joshua Gagnon bounded up to the stage in a pair of jeans and a black T-shirt. After an enthusiastic introduction, during which he expressed amazement at the churchs rapid growth and informed audience members that they can sign up for NLC updates on their cell phones, he dived into a fiery sermon focused on Christians who practice phony faith.
Gagnon accused many churchgoers of living a lie. They say they believe in Jesus, but they live their lives as if He doesnt exist. They say they trust in God, but they seek security in money. Why are most New England churches failing to grow? Because followers of Jesus Christ are leading lives of phoniness, Gagnon said.
For a pastor who bills his church as being less overbearing and judgmental than traditional Christian churches, his lesson was pretty austere. But Gagnon, who regularly dropped words like dude and man into his sermon and even confided that his wife is smokin hot, said he is compelled to speak harsh truths, because he is accountable to God.
Next Level Church began in Dover about a year ago, initially holding services at Dover High School. The church held its first service in the 480-seat theater at Regal Cinemas shortly before Easter. Next Level has grown from 12 people when it started last spring to about 525 members today, and plans to soon open another location in Boston. Starting next Sunday, the church will begin holding two morning services at Regal, one at 9 a.m. and one at 10:30 a.m.
Following a recent service in Newington, church member Rose V. Ellia described Next Levels services as being on fire. Although she was raised Catholic and later stopped going to church altogether, she now travels about 40 minutes from Berwick, Maine, to catch Gagnons sermons. She said she finds Next Levels services more inspiring and fulfilling than traditional church services.
The music is much more upbeat and the preaching is much more relevant to todays world, Ellia said.
But another guest, who attended for the first time, was less impressed. Naomi, who asked to be identified only by her first name, said she is currently church shopping. A friend brought her to Next Level on April 26, but Naomi said it was definitely not the right fit for me. She said she found Gagnons sermon unwelcoming, almost cultish. And when Gagnon reminded guests that Jesus instructed people to give 10 percent of their income to the church, Naomi said she felt like it was a scam.
More people than ever seem to be church shopping like Naomi, who was raised by a Catholic mother and a Protestant father. Rather than dogmatically embracing the church they were born into, many people are actively searching for a church that suits their personal values and beliefs. And with several new reformist churches building followings in the area, shoppers have plenty of options.
Still, its a tough market in northern New England. A Gallup Poll conducted this year found that New Hampshire and Vermont are the two least religious states in the nation, with 46 percent of Granite Staters saying religion is an important part of their daily lives. Another Gallup poll conducted in 2006 found that only 24 percent of New Hampshire and Vermont residents attend church on a weekly or near weekly basisthe lowest percentage in the nation.
Attendance at Christian churches is dipping across the country. A Gallup poll conducted in April found that 77 percent of Americans now identify with some form of Christian religion, down from 91 percent in 1948.
Meanwhile, Christian churches must adjust to the continually evolving social atmosphere in New Hampshire, where issues like gay marriage, the death penalty and global warming are undergoing heavy debate in Concord. As church shoppers make the rounds, pastors approach to these issues could inform their choices.
A video on the Web site for Portsmouths Harbor Church shows intern Seth Hoffman surveying people in Market Square about their thoughts on church and Jesus. When Hoffman asks people to say what first comes to their minds when they hear the word church, most of them answer with words like pretentious, money, or even evil. When he asks the same question about the word Jesus, however, the respondents use words like love and savior.
The conclusion? Portsmouth is a city where people are interested in Jesus but turned off by the church, the videos text reads. We are a church thats all about Jesus, not religion.
Harbor Church leader Ian Ashby said many traditional churches seem to preach an antagonistic, us-versus-them message. Its a kind of self-righteous, judgmental stance, I think, he said. That attitude has turned many people away from religion, he added. They feel judged by the church. Were diligently trying to break through that.
The seed for Harbor Church was planted in 1982, when a group of Dartmouth College students started The Durham New Testament Church on the UNH campus. As attendance grew, the group moved to a building on Route 108 in Dover and became Christ the King Church. In 1995, Christ the King joined a chain of New Testament churches known as Newfrontiers, which started in the U.K. in the late 1960s and now includes more than 600 churches around the world.
A number of Christ the King members began meeting in Portsmouth in the late 1990s and founded Harbor Church in 2002. Ashby, who had served as pastor of a Newfrontiers church in England for 12 years, moved to Portsmouth with his family to lead the new church, which is headquartered in a second-floor office on Congress Street.
Since then, Harbor Church has been holding Sunday morning services in the Portsmouth Middle School cafeteria, usually drawing around 150 people. Just before Easter, the church began also holding Sunday evening services at North Church in Market Square.
Our philosophy is much more being in the center of things, where you can serve a particular community, Ashby said. We wanted a very central downtown location.
Harbor Church takes a more casual approach to its services than most traditional Christian churches. Holding services in a school cafeteria, Ashby said, underscores the churchs dedication to offering informal, unpretentious gatherings. Its a nonreligious place, Ashby said. You havent got to put on an appearance.
Next Level Church has a similar philosophy. Gagnon described the pastors there as regular guys with wives and families who are far from perfect. Church members dont refer to Gagnon by any formal title; they just call him Josh.
People dont reject God as much as they reject his church. They reject a church thats judgmental, overbearing, and kind of makes you feel awkward when you walk in, he said.
Gagnon refers to Next Levels services as experiences. His sermons often address topics like sex, money, marital issues and addiction. Next Level also organizes Life Groups that meet in area communities for discussions and activities. We talk about things that relate to peoples lives, Gagnon said.
But talking about some issues can be tricky. Both Next Level and Harbor Church preach the traditional teachings of the Bible. That means theyre fundamentally opposed to things like gay marriage, but they dont want to scare people off by denouncing their lifestyles. Its a fine line sometimes to try to tread that, Ashby said.
Both churches generally avoid getting involved in the states political debates. Same-sex civil unions became legal in New Hampshire last year, and the Legislature is considering a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage. The bill already passed the House, and the Senate was expected to vote on the bill as early as this week.
Were not interested in politics, were interested in Jesus, Gagnon said. Were not there to get into a political debate or get into a judgmental debate.
He said the issue of gay rights does not typically come up during Sunday sermons, although the church basically supports the Biblical view on marriage. I think that Gods ideal standard for a marriage is one man to one woman, Gagnon said. We believe God is God and we believe the Bible is the Bible. But we do believe that no sin is greater than the other. The more we judge one another, truthfully, the more we break the heart of God.
The Unitarian Universalist congregation at Portsmouths South Church, on the other hand, fully supports gay marriage rights. When civil unions officially became legal on Jan.1, 2008, South Church administrator Julie Frank officiated 15 civil unions in the historic Court Street building.
We just had this wonderfully joyful celebration, Frank said, noting that the sanctuary was filled with about 250 community members, including several legislators. Speaker of the House Terie Norelli and state Sen. Martha Fuller Clark were among the attendees.
Unlike Next Level and Harbor Church, the Unitarian Universalist faith is not affiliated with Christianity. In fact, UU churches embrace people of all creeds, including Buddhism and Earth-based spiritualism. According to Frank, South Church even has an atheist or two running around.
Frank said UU churches historically take a firm stance on issues their members view as social injustices, and that includes the prohibition of gay marriage. Unitarian Universalist churches are known for their social justice ministries. Were known for going out into a community and working on the causes that the majority of the people in the congregation feel are important, she said.
Even some traditional Christian churches have eased their views toward homosexuality. New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson, of the Episcopal Church, sparked controversy when he became the first openly gay non-celibate priest to be ordained a bishop in a major Christian denomination. President Barack Obama chose Robinson to give the opening invocation at his inauguration ceremony in January.
But most major Christian denominations still firmly oppose gay marriage. Father Marc Drouin, pastor of St. Michael Parish in Exeter, said he encourages church members to contact their legislators and express opposition to the gay marriage bill, although he does not bring up political matters in his sermons.
We address the issues to be in line with the churchs teachings, Drouin said.
St. Michael is a Roman Catholic church at the corner of Lincoln and Front streets. Catholicism is the largest of the Christian denominations, with well over 1 billion members worldwide and a history stretching back 2,000 years. Although newer emerging churches like Next Level have provided worshipers with more options, he said, most Christians ultimately return to the consistent message of traditional faith.
People are looking, but ultimately they go back to where they find the truth, Drouin said.
St. Michael Parish has been at the core of a contentious town debate in Exeter for several years. In need of a larger space, the church hoped to build on Fort Rock Farm on Newfields Road. The plan riled hundreds of residents who worried development would decimate the historic parcel. Confronted with the prospect of ongoing and costly appeals, Drouin recently announced that St. Michael had dropped its plans for Fort Rock and instead purchased property adjacent to its current facility. He said the church hopes to expand its congregation space and its offices, which no longer support its 2,000 member families.
Despite the recent controversy, and the changing social atmosphere in New Hampshire, Drouin said attendance at St. Michaels masses has been stable. He has even noticed some new faces in the church, which he attributes largely to hardships caused by tough economic times.
People are looking for a place of solace, he said. The (new) people most likely would be coming to a church at this time right now because theyre looking for stability in a changing world, for truth in a time of confusion.
Gagnon said Next Level Churchs members are also searching for truth. Next Level does not subscribe to a particular Christian denomination. Jesus never named his church a denomination. He named it church, he said. And although he shares the same basic belief system as St. Michael, Gagnon feels that traditional churches must change the way they package their message.
We believe in the entirety of the word of God, he said. At the end of the day, timeless truth doesnt need to change, but sometimes the platter you deliver it on does.
Places like South Church adapt their focus to reflect the topical modern issues that affect people. Those issues include not only gay rights, but the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. On Memorial Day in 2008, South Church hosted a litany in which volunteers read the names of every American serviceperson who had died in Afghanistan and Iraq over the previous five years. It took eight hours.
South Church is also active on environmental issues. In June 2008, church members helped plant a number of trees, shrubs and flowers at an affordable housing community in Brentwood. One of the tenets of Unitarian Universalism is the interconnected web of all being, Frank said. That means that the Earth and the water and everything that makes up our world is part of who we are.
Issues like global warming have spurred many churches to become more involved in environmental causes. Harbor Church has not addressed the environment yet, but Ashby agrees that protecting the planet is important. He noted that the scriptures tell of Heaven coming down to Earth rather than people being wisped away to Heaven.
Ashby said Harbor Church, like South Church, is dedicated to taking social action. He said Harbor Church falls under the New Calvinism or Reformed Christianity movement. The church has collected offerings to support food aid programs for hungry people in places like Mexico, Zimbabwe and Kenya. Members also offer free lunches in Portsmouths Vaughan Mall every Saturday at 11:30 a.m. Our purpose in doing it is not to give handouts, but really to build relationships, Ashby said.
Ashby and Gagnon are both adapting to new facilities, as Next Level settles into its space at Regal Cinema and Harbor Church builds its audience at North Church. Christ of King Church, meanwhile, will soon shift to a downtown Dover location, seeking to become more engaged in the heart of the community. And St. Michael, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, looks to expand in Exeter.
Ashby planned to meet with Gagnon last week to discuss the common causes of their two churches. Although they are not exactly the same, he said, they share the same root goal of spreading Jesus Christs message.
We believe we can do more together than we can apart, Ashby said. The more we have an understanding of each other, the better.
....For a pastor who bills his church as being less overbearing and judgmental than traditional Christian churches, his lesson was pretty austere. But Gagnon, who regularly dropped words like dude and man into his sermon and even confided that his wife is smokin hot, said he is compelled to speak harsh truths, because he is accountable to God....
....Still, its a tough market in northern New England. A Gallup Poll conducted this year found that New Hampshire and Vermont are the two least religious states in the nation, with 46 percent of Granite Staters saying religion is an important part of their daily lives. Another Gallup poll conducted in 2006 found that only 24 percent of New Hampshire and Vermont residents attend church on a weekly or near weekly basisthe lowest percentage in the nation.
Nugget of gold found.