My Visit to Next Level Church

Next Level Church in Fort Myers, FL was featured in Outreach Magazine as one of the top ten fastest growing churches in America (for more on the article that sparked my curiosity, read this post).  Since this was the only congregation within a reasonable driving distance to make the list, it was an easy decision to visit.  This past Saturday, accompanied by a seminarian, I attended the 4:30 p.m. service: the first of five identical weekend services (Saturday at 4:30 p.m. and 6:15 p.m. + Sunday at 9:00 a.m., 10:45 a.m., and 12:30 p.m.).   As a first time visitor seeking to learn as much as possible, I noted a number of things that may not be as apparent to those who are regular attendees.  To give my readers a better sense of my experience, I will elaborate on three strengths, three growing edges, and three observations worth noting based on this experience.

 

STRENGTHS

  • Facility
    • Curb Appeal.  The campus looks postcard perfect.  The roadside sign is easily readable when driving and includes the congregation’s website.
    • Outside. The parking lot is clean and easy to navigate.  It features paved driving areas with clearly defined parking spots on grass (common in Southwest Florida).
    • Inside.  The commons area just inside the main entrance provides a casual environment to enjoy conversation with or without the complimentary cookies and coffee.  The auditorium (their term for the worship space) featured comfortable seats in neat rows facing a large stage lit by an incredible variety of lighting adorned with three large screens (a fourth even larger screen was lowered during the teaching time).
  • Accessible Worship
    • The “bulletin” was a colorful brochure with one panel for “message notes,” a perforated panel for guests to complete, and basic information about the church including staff.  Interestingly, this small guide included not one or two, but rather three QR codes: (1) front cover – links to the church’s website home page and (2) register – links to a discover events page, and (3) online giving – links to an online giving page.
    • The screens displayed the lyrics to all songs that were intended to be sung by the congregation.  Worship leaders provided instruction about the various components of the service and even advised participants when it was appropriate to be seated.
    • Apart from some of the song lyrics, everything said or sung was in plain English and not “church speak”.
  • Technology
    • Website. The what to expect page is especially helpful for prospective visitors. In addition to the common FAQ section and a few pictures of key areas on campus, it includes a video of the Lead Pastor walking through and explaining the campus and worship experience.  Overall, the site is easy to navigate, consistent with the congregation’s culture, and provides considerable information.
    • Video.  The service utilized a vast array of technology, but video was featured most prominently.  In addition to using the three smaller screens to display song lyrics, they also presented video feeds of those leading worship. Although the Lead Pastor was present, he pre-recorded his message and played it as a video during that time in the service.  Baptisms occurred outside, but those in the auditorium were full participants thanks to a “pool cam” and a pastor who interviewed several of the sixteen men, women and children who were baptized.

GROWING EDGES

  • Friendliness
      • Those One Expects to be Friendly.  As a visitor, I expect those who are greeters, the pastor and others “on duty” to be friendly.  In this case, they did an adequate job.  None of these folks, however, went beyond the minimum or sought to truly engage me – even at the visitor’s/information desk.
      • All Others.  We found our seats about fifteen minutes before the service, but were never greeted by anyone.  The first people to speak to us during the service were those seated nearby during a time at which everyone present was encouraged to say hello to several people.  The only person to speak to us who was not doing so in an official capacity was someone I already knew who greeted us simply to say hello.
    • Children and Youth.  This congregation clearly includes a lot of children and youth, yet this part of congregational life was not emphasized.  Children fifth grade or younger spent the entire time in a children’s area while middle and high school students were in their own space; neither group was present in the auditorium.
  • Diversity in Leadership.  The pastoral staff is comprised of seven white men.  The musical team that led worship was comprised of seven men and one woman (based on her last name and age, presumably the wife of the next generation pastor) with no persons of color.  These leadership groups differ dramatically from the congregation, which featured a balance of men and women (more women then men, but not by a wide margin) and a number of minorities.

Worth Noting

While ninety minutes on a church campus offers only a limited opportunity for observation, it is the reality for most first time visitors.  On this Saturday, I was especially aware of the following:

  • Baptism.  The order of worship was adjusted to emphasize baptism.  It is unclear how often baptism is celebrated, but clear that it is a priority.  Sixteen people were baptized, which would project to 80 over the weekend if equal numbers occurred at all services.  The pre-recorded video sermon was a teaching about the importance of baptism.  It was supplemented by the Lead Pastor offering additional encouragement to those present to consider being baptized during the service (whether or not they had pre-registered).  The Lead Pastor also related his own experience of being baptized as an infant then later being baptized again (the second time by immersion) as believer as a teenager.  The message I heard was clear and unsettling: only certain forms of baptism are truly effective.
  • Christianity = Success & Happiness.  The overly energetic and clearly rehearsed positive words given by a few pastors during the service along with the interviews with select candidates for baptism via the “pool cam” presented a view that, taken in isolation, appeared to suggest that by giving one’s life to the person and cause of Jesus one would experience greater success in life.  Happiness was both expected and modeled.
  • Visitor Recognition.  First, second and third time visitors were encouraged to complete the registration form in the bulletin and take it to a prominently featured visitor’s/information area in the commons after worship to receive a gift.  We were informed that the gifts culminate in a Starbucks giftcard.  As a first time guest, my gift was a pack of gum with “next level CHURCH” on one side and “taking your breath to the next level” on the other.


Comments

  1. Ron Thompson says:

    Hey Greg…. Wow! You covered everything really well. I think I was most impacted by the passion and excitement of the Pastor’s that led this service which was very “special” for them as a congregation. I know that they did the offering quickly to make room for the baptisms, but it was way too quick, and I missed the sacredness and “specialness” of the offering of the congregations hard earned money, but perhaps they do it much different for a regular service. May God continue to bless the work at this church!

  2. This Church cares nothing about the neighborhood that they are part of. They have speakers in their parking lot and blast music, soup can rally’s, and miscellaneous loud screaming through microphones that play even when they are inside the church. It is actually so loud, especially when they play their with the bass turned up, that the windows in my house shake. They have no problem ruining every weekend and Wednesday night for anyone living within 1/4 mile of their church.

  3. Mike Smith says:

    I recently visited Next Level for the first time. My son and his family have chosen this church for worship and seem pleased with the pastors, staff, and facilities. For me (a conservative traditionalist) I was pleasantly surprised by the Bible/ scripture emphasis of the sermon. Many modern churches, including my own in Trinity, Florida, seem to veer to topical and shallow preaching.
    Of course the music was a bit loud for my taste but did seem to have a scriptural basis. Some of the modern lyrics of songs in contemporary churches seem to avoid a scriptural foundation which I did not notice at Next Level.
    One thing that I found out was their desire that attendees (members?) go to one service and then stay and serve in another service. This was a “twist” that I like as it gets folks involved.
    The senior pastor, Matt Keller, recently wrote a book entitled “God of the Underdogs” and the Sunday I attended (or was it a Saturday?) was the launch of the series of sermons related to the book. His delivery was enthusiastic and enjoyable. I have since bought 10-15 copies of the book to give friends as I found it very motivational and relevant.
    I plan on going back and visit Next Level when I am in Ft. Myers to visit my kids and grand-kids!

  4. Hayward Snow says:

    My son and I have been to the church on 4 occassions. While I enjoyed the praise and worship and even the video preaching; no has greeted me or enaged in conversation of any kind. I filled out the form for my son to go to the childrens area as instructed then turned it in and was “go to that door on the left”. I went to the door on the left and my son walked in with me following we were told to “just play anywhere”. My son loved that he played with friends from school because the church is closer to home than our last church (15mins compared to 45 mins driving time) but on the way home after service, I asked what he learned in church today… he said “we don’t learn anything, we just play”. I realize it’s a fast growing church and they are frantically trying to please everyone with different programs(small groups)… but I just think they need to work on the basics first. While I do my part at home … my child still needs to interact with children that openly discuss their faith, that’s what was hoping to get from the church! But I’m not giving up, we will continue to attend and wait for the Lord to move on our behalf!

  5. Melissa W says:

    I visited Next Level for the first time this evening. Honestly, I know I am very criticial of churches and how they operate as well as how they represent themself. The facilities are immaculate and all the staff, for the most part is very friendly and welcoming. I did not find much of anyone else interested in welcoming me. The sermon, focused primarily on educating everyone on how the church works/operates, which was an interesting plan since it was the weekend after Easter. I found the sermon to be more of clever ploy to use well chosen bible verses to further their agenda to bring everyone to Jesus “by any means except sin”. I was told that like a car dealership, that they shine their floors, choose music that is appealing for the time, and put their best foot forward for all Sunday services to draw people in and give them God’s word. To invoke real and lasting change, you will, however, need to join small groups. It was also interesting that the pastor made a comment about how the average person can really only know 125 people in their life time….which again plugged the importance of the small group experience…..wonder if he thought about how people would perceive the fact that being in a bigger church, that he probably already knew his 125 people already and chances were slim he would ever know a new member….Was also interesting that he honed in technology and how the word stays the same no matter whether or not it is in writing or on an online application. This was tied into the fact that the church does not always have a live pastor doing sermons and that many times videos were used. The reasoning behind this was that to expect one pastor to do 7 services in a week between two campuses would be impossible. I guess my question would be, since you have multiple pastors why can’t they share the duties and get together to determine content of the sermon to ensure continuity? So to sum this whole experience up I would have to say that my impression was less than luke warm. I felt like you would not find any sense of community in the church (only in small groups maybe), that the pastors do the minimum necessary to get by using the concept that the word does not change to justify using technology in place or real human contact, that the church was more of a place of business than a place of healing and learning, and that physical appearances were more important than developing a strong and lasting relationship with God. I left the service this evening thinking quite extensively about what the point of the message was and realized that it was nothing more than a new members class…..and not a very good one either. I will not be back. If I want to watch videos I can stay home and find many more better-scripted messages with deeper meaning than what I found at a live service at this church tonight.

  6. jennifer says:

    I absolutely love this church and everything included. My boyfriend and I attended for easter mass and he was questioning his religion, he enjoyed the church and positive vibes from the church and we attend every weekend and he’s wanting to be baptized. Next level church changed our lives forever.
    Thank you next level church and god bless

  7. Heather M Knaut says:

    I atteneded next level church since easter 2013 ,i need to be completly.honest im highly disappoined ,im.grateful.for the opportunity i had at next level, but there are some things that need Big time imporovement, and somethings.that need to be adressed ,.
    Again im.dissapointed

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