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A New Hampshire church rose quickly — until questions about its pastor led to its equally rapid fall

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The sermons Joshua Gagnon delivered each Sunday were different from what you might hear at most New Hampshire churches. They were often funny, earthy. And those sermons helped increase his congregation until it became one of the largest in the state, a state that's not often thought of as a center of religious fervor. Then this year, it all fell apart. New Hampshire Public Radio's Todd Bookman has the story.

JOSHUA GAGNON: What's going on, Next Level Church? Let's get loud across all of our locations.

TODD BOOKMAN, BYLINE: It's a typical Sunday at Next Level. Joshua Gagnon preaches in front of a live congregation at one church, and it's streamed almost like a movie onto big screens in other Next Level Church locations.

GAGNON: It's pretty exciting for me because I never wanted to pastor a big church. I wanted to pastor a healthy church. And it's exciting to watch us become more and more healthy.

BOOKMAN: At Next Level Church, services are called experiences - sermons, messages. Pastor Josh is dressed in his Sunday best - skinny jeans, T-shirt. Sometimes he wears a baseball cap.

GAGNON: I got a question for you as we start today. I'm going to need somebody to help me out. Could anybody use $100? Anybody could use $100, just raise your hand if...

BOOKMAN: Pastor Josh pulls a wad of cash from his pocket and gives it to a guy in the front row. Then he turns to scripture.

GAGNON: Jesus talks about money, and Jesus says, you can't be a fan of money and a follower of me. You can't. It's impossible. It's like being a Yankees fan and a Red Sox fan at once. It can't happen.

BOOKMAN: Josh Gagnon was something of an outlier in New England. In survey after survey, the region ranks last in terms of religious participation. And yet, with his ambition, Gagnon launched a successful megachurch here. He started Next Level in 2008, renting out a local school auditorium. He then moved on to renting out movie theaters before the church built its own headquarters in the town of Somersworth.

SERENA BERUBE: I loved, like, everything about it. I loved going to church.

BOOKMAN: This is Serena Berube, who started attending Next Level in 2016. Next Level billed itself as nondenominational. Its focus was on the biblical teachings of Jesus. Berube had attended other Christian churches, but none of them had what Pastor Josh had.

BERUBE: I mean, he managed to have a church that had energy and had youthfulness and had, you know, a lot of things that people would be, you know, attracted to.

BOOKMAN: Next Level opened satellite locations across New Hampshire, in Maine and Massachusetts, upstate New York, even Florida. To fund its growth, the church put a heavy emphasis on tithing - giving 10% of your income.

ERIN NOLAN: Everyone understands that God doesn't pay the electric bills.

BOOKMAN: This is Erin Nolan, who attended with her family for a little over a year. She said the church made it easy to give. There was a QR code and a bucket passed around.

NOLAN: And it was brought up at least three or four times every single service.

BOOKMAN: In 2020, Next Level published an annual report showing that it had collected more than $3.3 million. That's 65,000 each Sunday. Again, a rarity in New England, where the majority of churches are sleepier and struggling to hold on to members. Next Level actually began acquiring or merging with struggling churches. Warren Smith, the executive director of Ministry Watch, a kind of accountability outlet in the Christian ministry world, said that acquisition model is happening nationwide.

WARREN SMITH: 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.

BOOKMAN: But as the church was growing, there's evidence that Gagnon himself was benefiting. Earlier this year, a Christian media website detailed a questionable real estate transaction. Next Level, the church, sold a residential property it owned to Gagnon and his wife for half of what it paid. Then, 2 1/2 years later, Gagnon flipped the house for nearly $1 million. And recently, other allegations about Pastor Josh started to surface.

JESSE DAVIES: Things happen gradually and then suddenly, right? Wham. So this is something I think was building up over time.

BOOKMAN: This is Jesse Davies, a former member of the church. He wound up coordinating a Facebook page that detailed stories from people who worked closely with Pastor Josh - stories of bullying and cruel pranks. One former employee, Chris Boardman, a pastor who led one of the satellite churches, talked about the pressure he was under.

CHRIS BOARDMAN: I would get reprimanded or scolded if we weren't beating our numbers week over week. The fact that I even had to count how many people came on a Sunday - are you freaking kidding me? Like, that just made me want to throw up.

BOOKMAN: Gagnon didn't respond to an interview request. He also ignored a list of questions mailed to his homes in New Hampshire and Florida. In early February, the church announced Gagnon had stepped down. A few weeks later, one of the remaining local pastors, Shane Becton, posted a video announcing Next Level Church was shutting its doors.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHANE BECTON: This might feel like a key part of your lives have been ripped away as well.

BOOKMAN: The New Hampshire attorney general's office says it's now looking into the matter. Serena Berube, who found her spiritual home at Next Level, has joined a new church. But she says the allegations and the suddenness of it all will leave a bruise.

BERUBE: I really feel for all the people that were hurt by the church and those people that had believed or really were growing in community, and they have turned away, and they might not come back to a church. And that's a shame. That's really sad.

BOOKMAN: In Pastor Josh, churchgoers found an inspiration, a guide to Christian life. In the end, though, many are left still searching.

For NPR News, I'm Todd Bookman in New Hampshire. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.