Next Level: The rise and fall of a New Hampshire megachurch
The sermons Pastor Josh Gagnon delivered each Sunday were different from what you’d hear at your typical New Hampshire church.
“Here's the reality: there are some things I wish Jesus would have not said,” Gagnon told the congregation of Next Level Church last year. “There are some things I wish Jesus would have just been like, ‘Yeah, nevermind.’ ”
And the biblical call to love your neighbor? “The heck with that,” Gagnon joked with his congregation. “Like, how many of you wish you could just flip people off willingly?”
Gagnon’s relatability as an average dude during sermons, his approachability as a pastor who preferred T-shirts and jeans to formal vestments, and his ambition would help transform Next Level Church into one of the fastest growing congregations in the entire country over the past decade.
After starting Next Level in a rented high school auditorium and then a Dover movie theater, the church eventually occupied more than nine different locations, operating almost like franchises, across New England and then Florida, all from a base church in Somersworth.
Then, earlier this year, it all suddenly collapsed. Amid allegations of financial self-dealing and a culture of abuse, Next Level shut all its locations in a matter of weeks, leaving church employees and parishioners to make sense of the spiritual hole left in Gagnon’s wake.
Building a congregation from scratch
As Gagnon tells it, his first congregation was the empty passenger seat of his Ford Bronco.
“That gas-guzzler was my first pulpit,” he wrote in a 2020 book, It’s Not Over: Leaving Behind Disappointment and Learning to Dream Again.
In 2008, he decided to launch a formal ministry, starting his own church in Dover with $270 in the bank. The first service was in a rented high school auditorium. Soon, Gagnon was renting space in movie theaters on Sunday mornings.
Gagnon wasn’t afraid to use a bit of showmanship in growing his congregation: In 2010, he put the church on the map, and on the local news, through a unique promotional gimmick that went viral. Next Level rented a helicopter to drop Easter eggs onto a field in Rochester; inside some eggs were prizes. After plastering the region with road signs announcing the event, more than 10,000 people showed up, leading to a slew of complaints and warnings from local police. (In future years, the church kept the location of the egg drops a secret until Easter morning.)
By 2013, Gagnon and Next Level had built the church’s first physical home in Somersworth, with other locations operating in Epping, Portland, and Danvers, Mass.
Gagnon would often record his sermons, which he called “messages,” from one church, and then stream them into other locations onto a large screen. Each location had a local pastor on site who would help coordinate Sunday services, which Next Level dubbed “experiences.”
“It's pretty exciting for me, because I never wanted to pastor a big church. I wanted to pastor a healthy church,” Gagnon said in a sermon posted to YouTube. “And it is exciting to watch us become more and more healthy.”
Wherever Gagnon opened a location, it seemed there was a congregation ready for his style of preaching.
“I loved everything about it. I loved going to church,” recalled Serena Berube, who started attending an Next Level location in Worcester.
Berube said at the time she and her husband and four kids had been looking for a spiritual home. At Next Level, they found it. The services had the thrill of a trip to the movies, and the live band at every location created a buzz. Berube, who joked that she was a “church shopper,” said nowhere else offered what Next Level and Pastor Josh could.
“He managed to have a church that had energy and had youthfulness and had a lot of things that people would be, you know, attracted to,” she said.
When Next Level opened a location in Peterborough, Berube said she began attending that location, as well. She said there was no mystery that Gagnon was trying to expand the church as broadly as he could.
“He would often speak of the fact that your tithe would go towards growing the word of God, and having more people join church,” she said.
Donating money, or tithing 10 percent of your income, were regular asks at Next Level Church, as they are at other churches. Gagnon made sure parishioners had plenty of ways to give as well.
“There was like a QR code you could scan. You could do it by check. There were a zillion ways to do it,” Erin Nolan, who also attended the Peterborough location, said. “It was brought up at least three or four times every single service.”
That persistence turned off Nolan’s husband, though Erin said she was more patient.
“Everyone understands that God doesn’t pay the electric bill,” she said.
Gagnon didn’t shy away from talking about money or materialism from the pulpit. In one sermon, posted to YouTube but recently deleted, Gagnon told his parishioners that desiring money while trying to follow Jesus was like “being a Yankees fan and a Red Sox fan at once. It can’t happen.”
But as Next Level Church grew, there’s evidence that Gagnon benefited as well.
Churches are not required to disclose their finances the way most other charitable groups are, so it isn’t clear exactly how much Next Level Church collected from its congregation. (The church also sold branded merchandise through its website, including hats and joggers.)
The only published financial statement came in the form of an annual report released In 2020, claiming Next Level had collected more than $3.3 million in the previous year, or the equivalent of nearly $65,000 each Sunday.
At its peak, the church was operating at least nine different locations. In 2018, a top pastor tweeted that more than 8,000 people attended a Next Level Easter service. Outreach, an industry publication that tracks the growth of churches, repeatedly ranked the church as one of the fastest growing in the country, beginning in 2015.
What Gagnon’s church had successfully done is known in the Christian ministry world as “church planting”: starting new churches in new places, sometimes as offshoots of an existing church.
Successful church planters, according to Warren Smith, executive director of Ministry Watch, a watchdog group, tend to have charismatic personalities.
“They tend to be able to attract a crowd,” Smith said. “They go into areas where maybe a church of their kind had not previously existed.”
Though common in other parts of the country, church planting remains something of a novelty in New England, which in surveys is often ranked as the least religious region in the country.
A Pew poll found New Hampshire ranked 49th among states for residents who attend a service weekly, at just 22 percent.
As local churches struggle with flagging membership and the high costs of keeping up a building, Smith said, they become possible targets for newer churches looking to expand.
“It has become increasingly common over the last five or 10 years that a dying church will give their assets to a rising church, to a new church plant,” said Smith.
Next Level would pursue similar transactions on at least four occasions, buying out or merging with churches in Peterborough, Keene, Belmont, and West Boylston, Mass.
The COVID-19 pandemic appears to have slowed down NLC’s growth. But one other real estate transaction has recently come to light.
Earlier this year, the Roys Report, a Christian media website, detailed how Next Level purchased a house in Dover in 2015 for $495,000. Three years later, it sold the house off-market to Gagnon and his wife for just $250,000. The transaction was signed off by one of Gagnon’s location pastors, Roman Archer.
Then, two and a half years later, Gagnon flipped the 5,000 square foot Dover property for $950,000 – nearly four times what he paid for it in the sale with Next Level Church.
“That is not normal, and is not what I would consider to be a best practice, to put it mildly,” said Smith.
Other publicly available records show that Gagnon and the church have had several tax liens filed against them, including failure to pay the state’s meals and rooms tax for a period while Next Level operated its own coffee shop in Dover.
The coffee shop’s landlord would file a lawsuit against the church for failing to pay its rent, and another lawsuit contended the church failed to pay a contractor. Both suits were settled.
The Roys Report also detailed a string of other troubling allegations made against Gagnon by former employees, including bullying and threats.
“This is something I think was building up over time,” Jesse Davies, a former member of the church who helped coordinate a Facebook page called "Stories from Josh Gagnon’s Next Level Church" that aired testimonials from former employees.
One of those workers claimed Gagnon physically assaulted him during a meeting, and used his immigration status as a lever to keep him tied to the church.
Another former employee, Chris Boardman, who served as a location pastor in Epping, claimed that Gagnon would pressure staff members to grow the church.
“I would get reprimanded or scolded if we weren’t beating our numbers week over week,” Boardman said. “The fact that we had to count how many people came on a Sunday – are you freaking kidding me? That just made me want to throw up.”
Since his former employees went public with their allegations, Gagnon has kept a low profile.
He didn’t respond to an interview request, and also ignored a list of questions NHPR mailed to his homes in New Hampshire and Florida.
In early February, the church announced Gagnon, along with two of his top managers, had stepped down. A few weeks later, one of the remaining employees posted a video announcing Next Level Church was shutting its doors: There was no money left to keep it going, he said.
“We believe that the seriousness of the allegations being aired require an investigation to establish fact,” Pastor Shane Becton said.
The New Hampshire Attorney General’s office confirmed that it is looking into the church, but offered no more specifics.
Serena Berube, who found her spiritual home at Next level, stopped going to the church last year, well before any of the allegations about Gagnon surfaced. She said the Sunday experiences felt different post-COVID, a lot less energy.
But she said anyone who was still attending, right up to the end, would have been crushed by the sudden closure.
“I really feel for all the people that were hurt by the church,” she said. “They have turned away and they might not come back to a church. And that's a shame.”
In Pastor Josh, church-goers found an inspiration, a guide to Christian life. In the end, though, many are left still searching.