By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
By Charles Lam
This was it.
Easter had arrived, the most monumental day of the year in Christendom, and it was moments before show time. Parking-lot attendants dodged the herd of cars spilling in from Interstate 5, as thousands packed the Anaheim Convention Center's arena for Newsong's 2005 worship-service extravaganza. The multiplatform stage was set: Backup singers stood in their places, digitalized clouds floated across Jumbotrons, laser strobe lights beamed in every direction.
Dave Gibbons, founder of the Irvine-based megachurch, was stunned. "It was mammoth, surreal," he says now. "A picture of what pastors dream about." He had built up Newsong for more than a decade, and the numbers gave him confidence. People were coming in masses. He must be doing something right.
The crowd of mostly twentysomethings went quiet as the Convention Center turned to darkness. The words "What if there was no hope? What if there was only DEATH?" flashed on a massive, color-changing screen. A performer took the stage, tilted back the microphone stand, rocker-style, and sang Creed's "What If" with raspy abandon, electric guitarists jamming behind him and sound engineers cranking up the volume to loud.
Waiting to give his sermon, Gibbons watched his event unfold from the sidelines. It was humongous, catapulting Newsong to the level of Mariners, Rock Harbor, Eastside Christian and other up-and-coming Orange County megachurches that were giving the old guard over at Saddleback Church, Calvary Chapel and the Crystal Cathedral a run for their tithes.
But something felt . . . off. Gibbons couldn't shake it. God was here, he was sure, but was this really how he wanted His resurrection celebrated?
"I was like, 'Wow, this is a production,'" Gibbons recalls. "I started thinking, 'Is this what our church has come down to? A consumer-oriented presentation?' I wondered, 'What the heck am I doing? Is this what I'm supposed to be about?'
"That's when the disillusionment began."
* * *
Six years later, the pastor is the face of ambitious contentment. The 6-foot-tall Gibbons sinks into a plush armchair in his Irvine living room, propping his bare feet on the coffee table. At 49, he's effortlessly hip, his graying hair spiked to a point and his skin tanned from having been at a Newsong outpost in Thailand. He glances through rectangular geek glasses at the notes on the iPad resting on his jeans.
"Jesus hung out with prostitutes," he explains to the casually dressed college students, young professionals and families who've gathered in his home for a weekly Bible study. They sit wherever they can find room—on the couch, on the floor, in the dining room, up the stairs.
"How many people would say they're friends of prostitutes?" he asks, his voice mellow yet captivating. "Jesus was a lover of people who were outsiders. He said, 'Come as you are.'"
The message is one that Gibbons clings to, one that has radically transformed the way he sees the role of church leaders. Since the 2005 Easter spectacular, he has shifted his focus to "the fringes, not the masses," as he puts it, zooming in on a careful selection of "misfits" whom he believes will change the world. In Orange County, where the Wal-Mart-ized megachurch and its subsequent prosperity gospel is one of our most influential exports, his ideals are bold: Do away with big, resource-swallowing buildings. Dissolve church brands. Decentralize. Shake up the model of mass evangelism that has witnessed dwindling results in recent years.
Small, he says, is the new big.
It's a jolting message from a pastor whose church was named one of the nation's 100 fastest-growing by Outreach Magazine just six years ago, whose Sunday-morning services at Newsong's industrial-warehouse-like home base on Teller Avenue continue to draw about 2,000 each week. But by focusing on "the few," just as Jesus did, Gibbons believes he can spread God's love to the multitudes in a natural, non-preachy, non-formulaic way.
"The common world philosophy is to focus on mass movements," he explains. "In doing so, you're actually creating products that diffuse potency. You're creating a one-size-fits-all piece of clothing. Then, these really brilliant people, like the Mandelas or the John Lennons or the Mother Teresas, are gonna be left out. They're gonna reject church because it's too cookie-cutter, too processed, seems too much like an Amway presentation. But if you nurture them, they'll actually be the movers of the masses."
Gibbons is living out his renewed mission in a spectrum of ways, all of which involve figuratively breaking down church walls. His main passion project these days is Xealot (pronounced "zealot," with the "X" standing for Christ), a nonprofit consulting group he created to identify and equip the next generation of socially conscious leaders. It has mentored handpicked misfits across the globe, from Fortune 500 execs and chart-topping musicians to former drug dealers and orphans. Gibbons' new book, Xealots: Defying the Gravity of Normality, out next month, spotlights some of the success stories and teaches people how to utilize their failures to help them thrive.
He has also made sure Newsong isn't confined to any space or culture or class. The church has launched locations in Mexico City, Bangkok, London and India. Locally, Newsong members are in the community nearly daily, delivering burritos to the homeless, doing laundry for the financially struggling in Fullerton and hosting a "church without walls" on a street corner on Skid Row in Los Angeles, where Gibbons once spent 24 hours as a personal endeavor, to center him on what really mattered in the pastoral experience.