VIVID, LIME-GREEN BALLOONS waved in the breeze on a mid-September day as a slew of volunteers and staff in green tee-shirts greeted attendees, who were arriving at Next Level Church in Somersworth, New Hampshire, for the fifth annual Activate Leadership Conference, an event designed specifically for church leaders and pastors local to the New England region. While most churches in the North East are typically quite tradi¬tional and small, Next Level is a dynamic, fast-growing church under the leadership of Activate founder and NLC lead pastor, Josh Gagnon. In fact, NLC just ranked num¬ber eight in Outreach Magazine's 2015, The 100 Fastest-Growing Churches In America.
According to Gagnon, the 2015 Activate line-up of speakers were hand-picked to fit the conference's theme, Overcome [also the name of NLC's first live and original worship music CD, The Overcome EP]. "Knowing that we have a unique culture here in New England, I was very selective about who we chose to speak at this year's event. We're really basing choices on those who can bring a clear perspective on how to reach a largely unchurched Northeast and Canadian region; Our desire isn't to bring big names for the sake of celebrity," says Gagnon.
On hand to address the 500 plus attendees who represented over 96 churches were: NLC's Josh Gagnon; Tulsa, Oklahoma, Church on the Move's Whitney George; [founding] pastor of New Jersey based Liquid Church, Tim Lucas; former president [and lead visionary] of Catalyst, Brad Lomenick; and Carey Nieuwhof, author and pastor of Connexus Church in Toronto, CAN.
Worship Facilities was invited for a post conference interview with Gagnon and his guest, Nieuwhof in NLC's "green" room to talk about the Northeasts church movement.
Alison Istnick: You're reaching out to local church leaders in other ways beyond Activate, can you explain?
Josh Gagnon: So what we've seen is this need for continuous ministry, not just one big celebration. We want to see Activate take on a leadership role and minister to church leaders throughout the year. Our first roundtable was held for worship/creative arts. We had 55 leaders come to this location from all over the Northeast and they did life together for an entire day. We plan on expanding those roundtables for 2016. They are free of charge. Next Level Church pays for everything, including all food, so it costs nothing for those who participate. (To see a schedule for 2016 Roundtables visit www.activateconference.tv.)
You each regularly host your own podcasts. What's your vision or reason for recording them?
Gagnon: Originally, my podcast was meant just for my staff. My platform of influence has grown as more and more people have connected with us.
So my vision for the podcast has become a "place" where leaders are being trained from their treadmill, or loved from their living rooms. I've been talking to church leaders and sometimes giving leadership tips. It's been powerful just being able to go into their environment where they can be ministered to.
Carey Nieuwhof: Although it has been around for a decade, people are calling 2015 the year of the podcast. I started my podcast about a year ago because I kept having great conversations in back rooms like this with great leaders. I would think, I wish my whole team could have heard this,' or, I wish a church planter could hear this.' And that's what led me to envision an unscripted long form conversation with leaders and pastors. Everyone from Andy Stanley, Craig Groeschel, Mark Batterson, Jon Acuff, and of course Josh, have been on my podcast as well as pastors you've never heard of who are just telling stories from their churches.
You also have a book being released this fall, Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversations That Will Help Your Church Grow. Can you share with our readers a bit about this book?
Nieuwhof: My newest book addresses seven key issues that church leaders are wrestling with, or they need to wrestle with. Such as, Why people are attending church less often and why are people who've been raised in the church walking away?' I wrote the book so it can be read by an individual, but also so that [ideally] you will read it together with your team. At the end of every chapter are discussion questions for teams to work through. It's really designed to be a book for church leaders. It's not purely academic; it's a practitioner's handbook.
You mentioned two church trends you are seeing. What are some others?
Nieuwhof: The church will get smaller as it gets larger. I think Next Level is a perfect case in point of how a smaller footprint works. This is an amazing building, and it's only 14,000 sq. feet. Next Level's six locations one church, is a great example of a number of smaller gatherings, and smaller services, actually producing a movement that's changing the lives of more than 3,000 people every weekend. Another important factor here is that you feel a sense of connectedness and authenticity. We all felt that today when Brad Lomenick, at the last minute, decided to scrub his talk, and instead shared a message on five ways he failed as a leader [tune in Nieuwhof's podcast with Lomenick to hear this same talk].
People admire your strengths, but they resonate with your weaknesses. It seems we're often just waiting for leaders to fail or to fall, I think the new generation of leadership demands that you are transparent as you go along. The idea of build it and they will come era is dying that you can spend a million dollars, have a great building and band with lights and that everybody will assemble I think is gaining less effectiveness than it probably enjoyed ten years ago. Today the average unchurched person isn't really upset at church, they just never think about it. So, I think we have to be more relational and honest and transparent in our approach to bring people to Christ.