March 27. 2013 9:24PM

Megachurches grow to accommodate crowds

New Hampshire Union Leader

Pastor Joshua Gagnon stands outside the still-under-construction home of Next Level Church in Somersworth. (COURTESY)

Your Turn New Hampshire

Question: Where do you find hope?

Growing up in Raymond, Josh Gagnon wasn't much of a church-goer. Today, at 33, he leads the Next Level Church, headquartered in Somersworth, as pastor to a congregation approaching 2,000 worshippers every weekend at four locations in three states.

The rapid growth of the church in just five years since its founding reflects the emergence of "megachurches" as a force to be reckoned with in Christianity.

Evangelists like Gagnon, along with pastors Bo Chancey at the Manchester Christian Church and Bruce Boria at Bethany Church in Greenland, are bringing the phenomenon to New England, where church attendance is the lowest in the nation.

Think rock concert, with live band, fog machine, light show, flat screens and simulcast of sermons at multiple locations, or taped for broadcast after the fact.

"If the church wants to reach people in 2013, we have to create an environment that works today," Gagnon says. "You can't change the message, but you can change the platter you deliver it on."

Many New Hampshire residents who've never attended Next Level have heard about the church's gas discount day in Epping on March 3, when 200 motorists filled up their tanks for $2.99 a gallon, or the helicopter Easter Egg drop for the children of the congregation, now in its fourth year. It's scheduled for Easter Sunday again this year in three locations. (See related story, Page A12).

The first Easter Egg drop in 2010, covered by CNN, was chaotic as 12,000 people showed up at the Rochester Fair Grounds. Since then, controls have been put in place to keep the event manageable.

Gagnon said the church set a $2,000 budget for the gas day subsidy, and each egg drop costs less than $1,000, thanks to donated equipment, time and sponsorship. Another "gas buy-down day" is scheduled to take place in Portland, Maine, on April 20.

"Is it about membership? Sure. But if no one came to church because of the event, we would still do it," Gagnon said. "The largest reason for these events is to show people in New England that the church wants to give back and love the community. Do we do it for media? No. Do we enjoy getting good media? Of course. And if anyone ever said the opposite, they'd be lying."

Not a likely candidate

Gagnon wasn't a likely candidate for the clergy. After graduating from Raymond High School in 1998, he attended Southern Vermont College in Bennington, majoring in pre-law and criminal justice. "I didn't go to church once in college," he recalls. "Although I believed in God, I didn't see the relevancy in my life."

After graduation, he was urged by his mother to join her at the Christian Worship Center in Barrington. "My mom told me there were some pretty girls at the services, so I went," he said. "And from that moment on, God started to show himself to me as more real than ever in my life, and I began to develop a relationship with him."

In 2006, he was speaking at a youth event in Rochester and was approached by a group of worshippers asking him at first to serve as pastor at their church in Wolfeboro, and later to start a new church. The group started with 12 worshippers at Gagnon's home, where he still worked for his father's drywall business. The group grew to 30 within the first year, and started renting a screening room at a local cinema for planning sessions and services.

Next Level Church was launched on Easter Sunday 2008 at the Dover High School auditorium with 180 to 200 worshippers, many of whom were recruited by a mailer Gagnon paid for himself. The following Easter, the congregation had grown to 400 and was meeting at Regal Cinemas in Newington.

In 2010, Next Level established a congregation in Portland, Maine; and in 2012 began services in Danvers, Mass. Inaugural services at the O'Neil Cinemas in Epping on March 10, two weeks after the gas buy-down, attracted an estimated 300 worshippers.

A 14,000-square-foot church is under construction on Route 108 in Somersworth that will be the first worship center owned by Next Level. The $2.2 million facility, expected to be ready for use by May, will include a 538-seat auditorium; a kids room with multimedia; a separate children's auditorium; bistro area in the foyer; wireless Internet, flat screens and speakers throughout the building, all managed from a state-of-the art control board.

"Our vision is to launch 20 locations by 2020 all throughout New England," Gagnon said. "We believe this Easter we will be over 2,000 (worshippers) on our five-year anniversary. We are expecting that when we open up this new facility, our attendance will triple if not quadruple in size."

Tremendous growth

The Manchester Christian Church began in 1961 as a storefront mission on North Elm Street, but really started to grow in 2010 when Pastor Bo Chancey arrived from Texas and began urging each member of the congregation to invite one new person to services each week.

"Our attendance has grown from an average of 1,400 to somewhere closer to 2,900 every weekend at three locations," said Barry Lewandowski, director of communications.

Manchester Christian looked like a traditional church until 2005, when a $2 million renovation project funded by the congregation created a 650-seat auditorium, a new cafe and the high-tech amenities associated with megachurch services.

In September 2011, the church celebrated its 50th anniversary with nearly 4,000 people at a worship service at the Fisher Cats stadium. It now hosts services at the church on 1308 Wellington Road; at the Bedford Community Church on Old Bedford Road; and at a new location in the Waumbec Mill in the Manchester Millyard.

Next Level, Bethany and Manchester Christian each have their own style, but share characteristics common to megachurches everywhere. "We try to do our best to partner and learn from each other," Lewandowski said.

"We've got a great relationship with Next Level, Bethany and Dialogue Church in downtown Manchester, which is an up-and-coming church that just moved into an old church building on Pine Street."

Gagnon described situations in which Next Level helped a traditional church in Concord make its mortgage payments, and a church in Berwick pay its heating bills. A strong balance sheet is another characteristic shared by many megachurches, given what Gagnon called a commitment to tithing, in which "people who believe in God give 10 percent of what they make."