For years, when the “Outreach 100” was released I thumbed through it, circled names and paid close attention to the details. I was excited to look at the list and say, “Hey, I know him” or “Who is this?” or “How did they do that?” My wife would look up church websites and sometimes give the church a call to ask how they did certain things. We loved the list, because we love to learn!
When we found out we had made the “Top Ten List” of The Fastest Growing Churches in America this year, we decided to let you in on the story, “Behind the Nine.” Let’s be honest, sometimes looking at other church’s numbers can be discouraging. So, my hope is that no matter where you are on your journey, our story will be an encouragement to you!
Although from 2010-2011, our growth was fast…our story of growth is anything but fast. As a matter of fact, my wife said we should call ourselves one of the “Slowest Fastest Growing Churches in America.” In the Fall of 2001, we felt God calling us to leave our comfortable ministry position in the Midwest and start a church. In January 2002, we moved from Indiana to Fort Myers, Florida with our 18 month old son and Mike Ash (who is still on our team). Beginning with four of us in a coffee shop, clueless and with $9,000 to our name, Next Level Church was birthed out of a heart to reach Southwest Florida and to influence the world around us. It wasn’t a big vision that I needed, it was the patience to see the vision come to pass.
When we arrived in Florida, I began working in a jewelry store in the day and every night we would sit down at the card table in our living room and talk about the future of Next Level Church! In May of 2002, we launched at the “Bell Tower 20” Movie Theater. It was the only movie theater in Fort Myers at the time and God opened the door for us to be right in the center of town. The rent was $325 a week, so according to the $1,500 we had in our savings, we knew we could have services for four weeks! If people didn’t start attending (& giving) by then, we’d have to go somewhere else.
On launch Sunday, we had 35 people in attendance and by the next Sunday, we had dropped to 19...including kids. That day I stood up to preach to 12 adults in that little theater and thought, “Really God? I use to teach Sunday School classes bigger than this!” I’m telling you, our services were so primitive, we didn’t even have drums for the first year! Those were hard and lonely days, but God brought us the right people at the right time and by the end of that year we had around 80 in attendance.
We had services at the Theater for four years (went to 2 services) and grew to about 300 people. Looking back on the theater years, I can now see how God was setting a foundation in place. During those years, we learned a lot about systems (having to set up and tear down before the movie started), how to handle conflict & how to create and protect the culture. We had moved to Southwest Florida knowing a lot about what we didn’t want to be, but it took those early years to figure out what we did want to be.
After 200 Sundays in the theater, we moved to a High School 2 miles away. We “re-launched” in this beautiful 900-seat auditorium, sent out a huge mailer and really thought we would double overnight. That didn’t happen! Instead, the 5 Years we spent in the High School were more “Slow and Steady” growth.
When the reality that this move hadn’t caused us to double really sank in, I had a moment where I cried out to God and said, “God, if you never let my church grow beyond this, I will still pour myself into other Pastors, so they can grow faster and bigger than we ever will.” That was the moment that caused me to start giving back to those who were a few steps behind us. I began investing in other Pastors, encouraging and coaching them in their journey.
As a church, we also decided we were not just going to exist for those who were “coming to us.” Instead, we would be a church who reached out to the broken, hurting and forgotten in our community. Our “Community Outreach” was birthed in us during the years we spent at the High School.
We LOVED our portability (I am being serious). For nine years, we never let the fact that we were “portable” slow us down. Instead, we embraced it and taught many pre-launch churches how to implement systems to keep portability sustainable! However, in late 2009, God began making it clear we were to start looking for a permanent location. In the fall of 2010, and after much searching, we purchased 10 acres of land and a 14,000 SF Building (an older church).
Southwest Florida was in a financial depression. People were losing their homes, jobs, and moving away. It seemed like the worst time to be in a building project…but God had other plans. Originally, we wanted an 850-seat auditorium, but with our community’s financial state, we settled on 600 seats and told God we would be faithful. We gutted and renovated the 14,000 SF & added another 6,000 of kids space to it. Plus, we renovated a 3,000 SF Trailer… making a total of 23,000 SF on a 10-acre property. God did the miraculous and financially provided every step of the way.
During our last month in the High School, March 2011, we averaged 946 people in our two services. (This is the number Outreach Magazine asks for.) We moved into our facility the next month, April of 2011. By the following March of 2012 we averaged 1,879. During that time, we added two Saturday night services to our existing 2 Sunday mornings (making a total of 4 weekend services). One of those was added the weekend we moved in and another was added in the fall.
In the last 16 months, we have seen hundreds of salvations, baptisms and people rededicating their lives to God, after years of being away from Him and the church. It truly has been a move of God. Many people ask me, “Do you attribute all of your growth to your building?” My answer is, no.
I believe God wanted us to be permanent and yes, it did draw many people who would have never stepped foot in the High School. But more than that, I feel like nine years of preparation led us to be able to add and sustain twice as many people in one year.
It didn’t come without its challenges. Hard decisions had to be made quickly and we felt the attack of the enemy like never before. During that season, one of my sons had severe health issues, my wife had a surgery and spent 12 days in the hospital the month before we added our fourth service. It was the best year of our church and the worst year of our life. But in the end, when I think of the stories of life change, I reflect and know that it was all worth it.
So, that is our story “Behind the #9.” Through the last 10 years of Next Level Church, my wife and I have always prayed, “God, find us trustworthy with what you have given us… so you can trust us with more.” Let me encourage you today, wherever you are, be found trustworthy, because I believe, when you are, He will entrust you with more.
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