PORTLAND – Rock music blared on Sunday morning inside Hannaford Lecture Hall at the University of Southern Maine’s Abromson Community Education Center, where people sipped complimentary Starbucks coffee.

This was no concert, but a church service.

One church member stood near the stage and danced. Another clasped his hands together and appeared to pray.

The Next Level Church held its first “weekly experience” on Sunday at the auditorium packed with more than 250 people.

“This is just our expression of worship to Jesus this morning,” Pastor Allen Robbins, 27, said to those gathered. “We love to get excited and play some music and celebrate what our awesome God has done and is going to do in the great city of Portland, Maine.”

The nondenominational Christian church offers its members a different kind of experience compared to traditional Catholic or Protestant church services.

Its band plays rock music, similar to U2, Kings of Leon or OneRepublic.

Above the stage, a projector screen displayed quotations from Scripture. It showed videos from its members telling how the church has changed their lives.

Another video message encouraged churchgoers to volunteer from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Monday at Preble Street Soup Kitchen.

Robbins, the pastor for the church in Portland, said its message is reaching many young people. He said the sermons are relevant to the struggles people face, and its message is conveyed in a language that young people can relate to.

“We call this a ‘weekly experience’ because the name sounds cooler than a service,” Robbins said. “When you show up, we want you to experience the love and find a relationship with God. We try to make it easy, understandable and relevant. That’s the goal.”

Josh Gagnon, 30, founder and lead pastor of Next Level Church, delivered Sunday’s sermon.

He walked on stage — dressed in a black T-shirt, a black vest and ripped jeans — and told worshippers that the church doesn’t claim to be better than any other local churches. He said the church came to Portland to help bring spiritual change to the city. “We believe God is going to do an absolute miracle,” Gagnon said.

His sermon explored the pursuit of religion. Gagnon told the crowd he was not a religious man and couldn’t stand religious people. He believes organized religion teaches people to “worship an institution, rather than the Creator.”

“I get asked all the time, ‘What denomination are you?’ ” Gagnon said in his sermon. “You want to know the answer? Jesus. Sorry. We are Jesus. Unfortunately, what has perverted the church today is this war of denominations and the titles we place on ourselves. Religion teaches us to identify ourselves with an institution, rather than identifying ourselves with Jesus Christ.”

Gagnon founded the church in 2008 with 12 people meeting in a movie theater in New Hampshire. Last summer, church members founded Kaleo Coffee, a nonprofit business that supports community-based projects and financially assists families who are adopting children. Kaleo’s “back room” is home to the church’s second location, which opened earlier this fall. Total membership has grown to nearly 800 people.

Will Church, a member of Next Level’s board of directors, said its purpose is to change how Christianity is viewed today.

“Most people, when they hear the word ‘Christian,’ have this perception of people who are judgmental with thunder and lightning coming down from God, carrying hate signs against homosexuality,” Church said. “It’s not the way Jesus was in the Bible. Jesus loved everybody. He was a friend to the sinners, and that’s what we want to be.”

After the sermon and a finale from the band, the church offered pizza to the crowd. Sue Martelle of Cumberland said she enjoyed the experience.

“I like it a lot,” she said. “I know the music is loud and they are showy, but I think our culture today is high-tech. They want to reach (young people) with that message of love and forgiveness and grace and hope.”

Another newcomer, Tawny McCullock of Portland, said the service was a lot of fun.

“It was kind of surprising because I’m used to church being really boring and really slow-paced,” McCullock said. “I really enjoyed it.”

The church will hold its “weekly experience” at 10 a.m. on Sundays at Hannaford Lecture Hall at USM.

 

Staff Writer Melanie Creamer can be contacted at 791-6361 or at:

mcreamer@pressherald.com