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One day, a man named Boyd Kosiyabong visited the Bangkok church. He was one of the most famous pop singers in Southeast Asia, and he was newly Christian. Gibbons started mentoring him and encouraged Kosiyabong to write worship songs, which then played on the airwaves across Thailand and beyond. "The Lord showed me something there," Gibbons says. "He said, 'You can build a church of thousands, but if you're measuring it by numbers, I've got one guy who can influence millions. I can multiply whatever you could do in your lifetime. You should focus on loving people individually.'"
When he returned to Newsong Irvine a year later, Gibbons was bubbling with energy. He insisted church members get out of the building and into the community. "I was like, 'We need to go love Santa Ana. How can we not love people who are right next door to us?' And then I said, 'Maybe we should move our church to Santa Ana,' and that's when people were like, 'Whaaat?'"
Around that time, 30 percent of the congregation left. "They wanted to go to a church where their needs were being met," he says. "It was like a restaurant; we would create programs to satisfy the needs of the consumer. But I didn't feel that was our mission. The mission was actually to love people."
With those who stayed, he traveled to different communities throughout Southern California and around the world and initiated church ministries that fused into their already-established cultures. There were Pub Nights in London, music-and-poetry fests in Mexico City, spoken-word showcases on Skid Row. "We don't come in and overtake," he says. "We work with what's already going on."
Richard Flory, director of research at the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture and co-author of the book Finding Faith: The Spiritual Quest of the Post-Boomer Generation, says Gibbons is smart in adapting to the changing landscape. While megachurches still coddle the masses, their numbers have stalled. Flory explains that people increasingly want a worship space that is participative and intimate, a place where "one can actually experience the community rather than being entertained."
The Crystal Cathedral declared bankruptcy in October 2010 in a story that made national headlines, and Flory believes it's because it was selling a product that people no longer wanted. "Their product is rooted in the '60s, when it was a different model of church," he says. "They haven't been able to adapt that model over time. If you're gonna be that big, you have to adapt to the times, or people are not going to show up to keep paying your bills."
Bob Fulton, one of the founders of the Vineyard movement, which started in Anaheim in the 1970s and now has an association of more than 1,500 churches linked to it, says that over the past five years, he's noticed that people have been leaving "the bigger institutional structures."
"The church has become something condemned," Fulton says. "It's become all about 'the church' and not about the people and their lives. God's desire has always been to make a church for every generation."
Gibbons often speaks to pastors around the country and shares with them what he's learned. He tells them he'd like to see a shift in resources—as of now, in the Christian church, up to 85 percent of resources are spent on the physical building and professional staffing, and Gibbons wants to see that change. He tells them of his dream to eventually drop the Newsong brand, a move that he believes will help the church grow even bigger because it's not wrapped in any name or person. Today, Newsong's multisite congregation numbers about 3,000.
In February, he spoke at Rick Warren's Radicalis Conference for church leaders. Addressing some 2,000 pastors and church leaders, he posed the question, "What would happen if all the churches were to forgo their individual names and just simply called themselves 'the church'?"
Gibbons explains, "We should be willing to be able to give up our brand. I look pastors in the eye and say, 'If it's really not about the church, that means you don't have to put your name on it.' I think I'm most successful when people can walk into Newsong and don't even know who I am. I get greater joy when I see someone else up in front. If you ask a typical Orange County congregation member, 'What's your role in the church?' They'll say, 'Oh, I'm here to support the pastor.' No, it's actually supposed to be the other way around."
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On a recent Sunday morning at Newsong Irvine, Gibbons stands on the circular stage, wearing a white shirt with rolled-up sleeves, black jeans and sneakers. The worship band and congregation sit around him, facing one another in a large-scale setup inspired by his trip to Thailand. Holding the microphone, Gibbons falls to his knees. "I need you, God," he declares. "I can't do anything without you." When he stands up, he announces his recommitment, not just to the church, but to each member.
If one were to graph Gibbons' daily schedule, it would look much different from 10—or even six—years ago. He believes Sunday service is integral, but not the most important component of church. For Christians, it's "just one of the many moments in their lives," he says.