By Timothy Gillis
Pastor Allen Robbins preaches to the beat of a different drummer. The South Berwick native is a percussionist and uses an acoustic rock band to deliver his weekly message from Next Level Church, on Forest Avenue.
In terms of trying to connect with today’s youth, who are not so much agnostic as simply worshipful of technological gods, Robbins said his church tries to meet the kids where they already are.
“We try to use the things that they’re using, like technology,” he said. “Our messages are online, we’re using Twitter and facebook a lot. We try to structure what we do to fit a family’s schedule, with school, soccer… We try to focus our message on the things that people are dealing with.”
Robbins said their Sunday service is similar to those that are professed from other pulpits, the same message that Jesus taught.
“But it’s a different approach. We have a bistro area with greeters and coffee, a place to check your younger kids. We do a lot with multimedia. We have two side screens with a ten-minute countdown (before mass) with slides of upcoming events,” he said. “The band starts with music like Coldplay.” Robbins plays a little bit of piano and guitar, in addition to drums.
“I’m trying to phase myself out. I would rather have new members get ‘plugged in.’ I tell them ‘I want to be able to use your gifts.'”
His musical inclinations extend to his children, especially the eldest, whom he named Cadence. “I’ve been been a drummer since age nine, so I just had to do it,” he said.
He and his wife Maegan met at his father’s church, and have two other children, Alivia and Brooklyn.
“I liked (the name) Olivia, but wanted to make it more alive. And we loved the name Brook, and my wife’s sister’s middle name is Lyn.”
Robbins, who went to Noble and then was homeschooled, said his church is similar to his father’s, the Family Christian Center in Berwick. Allen Robbins, II, has been a pastor there for seventeen years. The Next Level’s pastor, Allen III, says he is simply continuing father’s business. The family influence got him interested. “That, and honestly just a passion for people,” he said.
Next Level Church launched in 2010 and had been portable up until April. Members had been meeting at the Clark’s Pond movie theater – the adults in one theater, three other theaters for kids – until they moved into their Forest Avenue locale, formerly Fournier’s karate studio.
“We gutted it out, had it rebuilt completely,” said Robbins, whose own family is moving to Portland this month, to be closer to his ministry. The concept of Next Level is that it is one church with multiple locations.
“We’re hoping to have twenty churches in New England by 2020,” Robbins said, of the non-denominational Christian variety.
The church is willing to try a big stunt to attract attention. Last Easter, at Payson Park, they let loose more than 10,000 plastic eggs from three helicopter drops over Payson Park. Kids would go out with their age groups and collect them. The church has 130 families in Portland after only two years in October.
“We’re fairly young, but we have seen growth,” he said. “We started with twelve people.” In addition to the egg drop, they have youth events that they plan out during the year. For example, they participate in the “Word of Life Super Bowl,” which starts at the Cumberland County Civic Center. Youth groups from all the local churches in the area convene for a hockey game.
“Then the kids head to different activities in the area like extreme bowling, roller skating, or indoor soccer,” Robbins said.
The latest youth-centered promotion is a backpack giveaway for students heading back to school. During the month, the church is asking people to donate paper, pens, rulers, etc., and the church aims to give away as many as 300 stuffed backpacks, free to area students.
“We’ve just started pushing this on social media a couple days ago, and we already have twenty kids registered so far,” he said.
Parents are asked to visit the website nlc.tv/freebackpacks, and register their student(s) for the giveaway.
On September 2, they will ready to go and available for pickup at the church.
On September 9, Next Level hosts a kids’ carnival, with bouncey houses, a dunk tank, an obstacle course, popcorn and snocones, from 10:30 am to 1 pm, directly after church.
“The whole parking lot will be transformed into a kids’ playplace,” Robbins said. This element of youthfulness is not surprising, especially given Robbins’ own tender age, notable even moreso when contrasted with a stereotypical pastor, venerable and wizened gray. The average age of the staff of Next Level’s three churches in New England is twenty-eight. Lead pastor Josh Gagnon, who lives in Dover, New Hampshire and rotates among the three churches is thirty-two, so “he brought the average up a bit,” jokes Robbins.
The two other Next Level churches are in Danvers, Massachusetts, where services are held in AMC Loew’s Theater in Liberty Tree Mall, and in Newington, New Hampshire. Church members there congregate at Fox Run Regal Cinemas, site of their first church launched four years ago.
Next Level Church are full sponsors at the Sea Dogs home game on Saturday, September 1, where Pastor Gagnon will throw out the first pitch, they will enjoy PA announcements about their group, and they will be giving away a free 42′ plasma TV.
Some may say such an approach is merely a gimmick to fill the pews, even an unsavory mixture of material goods to convey a spiritual message, but Pastor Robbins says they are just trying to share Good News, regardless of the medium.