The Next Level Church in Denver began as the Gen-X brand of Applewood Baptist Church in 1993. It eventually became independent, and was known for a high-energy Tuesday night worship event drawing thousands from the Denver metro area.
Now 15 years old, The Next Level Church is facing the challenges and changes that come with time. It's now more, well, level.
Entering the building of Greenwood Community Church (the facility TNL now rents for its Tuesday night service), it becomes clear that some elements have not changed. The crowd is still young and predominantly single. No walkers or strollers here. And they still prefer the music loud. TNL brings their own giant stacks of speakers to supplement the sound system used by Greenwood's largely Boomer congregation.
But these holdovers from The Next Level's origins belie the maturation the church has experienced. Today those gathering number in the hundreds, not thousands. The primary focus of the church is no longer the Tuesday night event, but the geographic home groups that meet on Sundays. And unlike the first half of its life, TNL is no longer led by a highly visible and dynamic senior pastor. Instead, a team of four core pastors share equal responsibility for the ministry.
One of them compares their leadership philosophy to the way a band composes music: "It's organic, artistic, and collaborative. It's right-brained." They compare it to bands like Coldplay or U2 rather than corporations like Microsoft or GE. And there is no room in their lexicon for words normally associated with workplace hierarchies. Authority, they say, comes from trust, love, and being a brother rather than a boss.
Two of the core pastors, Jared Mackey (ministry pastor) and John Miller (worship pastor), have been with The Next Level Church from its inception. Dave Terpstra (teaching pastor) took a more prominent staff role after TNL's senior pastor departed in 2000. And Brian Gray (community pastor) is the newest member of the team. Together with six additional elders, the core pastors set the direction for The Next Level.
By choosing to flatten the leadership hierarchy, TNL represents a trend among next generation churches of discarding the corporate models popularized by traditional and megachurches alike. But does it work? Can a church function efficiently and faithfully without a senior pastor sitting in the corner office and standing in the pulpit? After eight years filled with successes, failures, and personal crises, the pastoral team of The Next Level answers with a resounding "Yes!" But, they caution, team leadership is not for everyone.
Leadership's Skye Jethani sat down with TNL's core pastors to discuss the blessings and challenges of their team approach and chronicle the church's journey from one man's band to becoming a band of brothers.
When did you first develop the idea of team leadership?
John Miller: We started in '97 with a team leadership model. We had four core pastors leading the four core areas of the church—teaching, worship, community, and ministry. But as time went on, there was cultural pressure for a single leader. Our teaching pastor at the time was the guy everyone saw, and his raw talent was attracting people. Eventually he was seen as the senior pastor. It was an evolution.
Jared Mackey: At the time we had an outside board of advisors encouraging us to use a more traditional leadership model. They were all pastors at other churches with dominant senior pastors. As TNL began to grow, they pushed us toward a more corporate model with a senior pastor.