Dave Gibbons Is a Church Misfit
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.
"Dave is a guy who's most comfortable being uncomfortable," says Bob Shank, former senior pastor of Irvine's South Coast Community Church (which eventually merged with OC's second-largest megachurch, Mariners). "He set out to do things that no one is doing. He's the new generation of church leaders."
A supernatural force fuels him, Gibbons says. "I think what God is calling us to is a radical life that's generous and not boarded by walls like the ones we have in Orange County," he says. "It's not about preaching to people; it's about loving people."
Gibbons was born in Seoul, Korea, to a Korean mother and an Irish-American father. When he was in grade school, the family migrated to Tempe, Arizona, and started attending a Christian fundamentalist church where, he says, "everyone kind of looked alike, with big Bibles and short hair." As a teen, he accepted Christ as his savior. "God discovered me, and I found a purpose and energy from it," he says.
Gibbons attended Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, a Bible college infamous for a ban on interracial dating that lasted until 2000. Gibbons proved a monkey wrench as a mixed-race individual, so much so that school administrators offered him a choice: date white or date Asian, but not both. During this time, the U.S. government wanted to deny funding to the university because of its segregationist ways, and the school decided to take the issue to the United States Supreme Court, which ultimately sided with the government. News outlets were turning to students such as Gibbons to speak out against Bob Jones, and because he complicated matters—he was dating a white woman named Rebecca who would soon become his wife—he was called into the dean's office and asked to leave the school. "I was like, 'What the heck is this?'" Gibbons recalls. "I didn't think Christianity was supposed to be this way."
Back home, tragedy struck. His mother was killed in a hit-and-run accident on Interstate 10 in Arizona. "When I went to the funeral, I remember seeing my mom in the casket, and it was just a stark moment," he says. "I realized, No. 1, life passes by really fast, and No. 2, all that my mom had accumulated, all that material success, it didn't really matter. I was sitting in the front row, and I remember hearing God say, 'Hey, Dave, I want you to give me your life. I want you to give me everything.' At that time, I thought that meant I should go into ministry."
After grieving, Gibbons attended Dallas Theological Seminary, taking a staff job at a Korean Presbyterian megachurch in Baltimore after graduation. "I'd never seen so many people like me—second-generation Asian Americans," he says. But the church was struggling to retain its younger members. A 1994 Los Angeles Times article explored what Korean pastors were calling the "silent exodus," reporting that 60 percent of English-speaking churchgoers in their 20s and 30s were dropping out of Korean churches because they couldn't understand the language well enough to be inspired. "It just burdened me that church was totally irrelevant to them," Gibbons says.
He was hired to help ignite the diminishing generation, but he felt constrained by the controls of old-school church elders. Then, one day, he was invited to speak at a conference for young adults at Bethel Church in Irvine, one of the largest Korean churches in the country. He felt an instant connection to the people there. "I thought, 'This is home. This is right,'" he says.
God confirmed it. While sitting in his room at the Crowne Plaza Hotel on Von Karman Avenue, Gibbons heard Him speak. "I don't hear God all the time," he explains. "Growing up, I was told God doesn't do that. But I heard two words—Psalm 40—and I heard them twice. I thought, 'What the heck is that?'"
He opened his Bible and read the verse: "I took your feet out of the muddy clay, and I placed you on a rock. I gave you a new song." He then looked out his hotel window and saw the sprawling landscape of Orange County.
"I thought, 'Shoot, are you telling me to come here?'"
God said yes.
Gibbons told Rebecca about the spiritual encounter and was shocked when she agreed to uproot their three preschool-aged kids to an area neither of them knew. "I would never start a church out of any natural, logical framework. I don't recommend it," he says with a laugh.
For several months, Gibbons pondered and prayed about the church he would build. "I looked at myself and asked, 'Why did God make me who I am?' I was Asian on the outside, but I felt very American. I felt like I didn't fit anywhere. So I thought, well, maybe I need to start a church for people like me, for misfits, outsiders, marginalized people."
He then thought about his mother. About four years before her death, she and her husband divorced; Gibbons' father had been caught having an affair. "The church didn't know how to adjust to my mom as a divorced woman and, on top of that, an Asian woman," he says. "She didn't fit. Then I thought, 'There are so many people like that. What if we had a church for people like my mom?' I studied the genealogy of Jesus. He comes from four women. One is Bathsheba, King David's wife. She was an adulteress. Another is Rahab, a prostitute. Another is Ruth; she's on social welfare. And then another is Mary, his mother, who said she was a virgin and was impregnated by God. In other words, she came from questionable origins. This is what the church should be, a church rooted in the theology of the misfits!"
* * *
The young family climbed into a U-Haul and lugged its life toward Orange County, one of the Holy Lands of American Christianity, the region that has spawned everything from the modern-day megachurch movement to the Jesus Freaks to the pioneering radio evangelism of Charles E. Fuller, an orange farmer in Placentia whose Old Fashioned Revival Hour revolutionized the use of media to spread the Word and who founded Pasadena's influential Fuller Theological Seminary. By the 1990s, a second wave of influential Christianity had hit the county and its booming South County suburbs in the form of the post-suburban megachurch. There was Mariners in Irvine, Saddleback in Lake Forest and San Juan Capistrano's Ocean Hills Community Church—all places that ditched the pipe organs and pews to become modern Protestant supercenters led by charismatic, casually dressed "pastorpreneurs."
Through that decade, the buzzwords in modern American Christianity were "church growth," heavily pushed by the Fuller Theological Seminary. Gibbons, a wide-eyed pastor in his early thirties, was inspired by OC's mega-movements—Saddleback's Rick Warren and other Christian icons such as Bill Hybels of Illinois' Willow Creek Community Church were like rock stars to him—but he was also conflicted. These churches were very big, but they were also very white. And the Korean megachurches in Orange County—Bethel in Irvine and SaRang Community Church in Anaheim (the largest non-English-dominant church in the United States)—weren't much better in spreading diversity.
"I saw the megachurch growing, but it was based on a homogeneous principle," Gibbons says. "It was all about relevance, and it was all about targeting people. It was like setting a trap. Their idea was 'We can grow our churches if we can attract people like us.' Is there anything outstanding or brilliant about loving someone like you? Anyone can do that. I think it's really tough to love someone who's not like you."
Newsong started in 1994 with seven people in Gibbons' living room. It snowballed from space to space—the Galaxy Concert Theatre in Santa Ana, Irvine High School's football field, the Santa Ana Elks Lodge, a conference room at the Atrium Hotel in Irvine. Eventually, Gibbons connected with South Coast Community Church; it let Newsong use its church facilities for worship services and offices.
The church had a constant forward momentum, attracting mostly Gen X Asian Americans from surrounding churches and UC Irvine. Christine Bae, 26, attended Newsong in its early days and found it a refreshing departure from Bethel, the church she grew up in, saying Gibbons spoke about real-life issues with an honesty and sensitivity she'd never seen.
"At Bethel or any other traditional Korean church, they don't know what marriage counseling is," says Bae, who works in the entertainment industry. "Addictions, pornography—these are things that aren't talked about. It's all about the image factor. You have to be this perfect person. Dave opens up the conversation and allows people to touch on these deeper issues in a safe place. He makes you realize we're all jacked-up people."
She adds, "Dave is one of us. He never puts himself on a pedestal. He's not just someone who just gets up onstage. He makes us feel like we're all doing life together."
Newsong was growing fast. It had planted churches in Fullerton and Los Angeles, and its Irvine congregation had settled into a 65,000-square-foot home. In 2004, the staff discovered a 10-to-20-acre expanse of land on Jamboree Road off Interstate 5 had become available. The church launched a collection campaign, and Gibbons started studying a packet popular in evangelical churches called "How to Raise Funds." When encouraging church members to give, it suggested to use the line "It's not about the building; it's about what happens inside the building."
Gibbons tried it, and it worked. "I felt like I was a puppet," he says. "It felt really weird."
Ultimately, after raising $5 million, Newsong was outbid by Korean car company Kia Motors for the land. "I felt God say, 'Why are you so disappointed?' I thought it wasn't about the building, but what happens inside the building," he says. "Then I heard God say something that wrecked me. He asked, 'Is it more important what happens inside the building or outside?' And that really messed me up. And then God said, 'David, what would the church look like if it weren't confined to a piece of land?' And that just blew my mind."
The pastor was disenchanted by the growth pamphlets and the numbers and the Easter showcase; he went into a deep funk. Gibbons told his staff he didn't want to be a pastor anymore, that his heart just wasn't in it.
Then, in an act of providence, one of Newsong's first major investors invited him to Thailand to start a church there. Gibbons felt God telling him to go. Seeking a good opportunity to get away and perhaps gain some clarity, he left for the country in 2005.
It was an enjoyable experience, but Gibbons noticed things that taught him what not to do in order to successfully spread the Word. Christianity had been in Thailand for 100 years, yet the population was only 1 percent Christian. Westerners had come into Thailand and built Western-style churches with rows and a pulpit in the front, even though Thais traditionally sit in a circle and face one another. He looked at the Christians there and saw that a lot of them wore suits to services despite the relentlessly humid 95-degree weather. "I go, 'Gosh, this is what we do in America. We have all these new cultures coming through, and there's, like, this imposition of culture,'" he recalls.
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."
* * *
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.
He spends much of his time with Newsong's community initiatives and prayer groups; working with Xealot, traveling to different cities around the world; and asking people, "Who here is amazing?" He has helped an Australian chef relocate to Idaho to work on an organic farm that employs refugees and a New York City fashion exec launch a Christian network for corporate moguls such as himself. Throughout the day, Gibbons shares inspirational TED talks and quotes from world pioneers—from Ignatius to Bono—with his Facebook fan base of 28,000.
"I had a lot of issues with church," says Stephen "Cue" Jean-Marie, a former Virgin Records artist who is now the discipleship pastor at Newsong LA, the founder of the Row and the CEO of Xealot Music, a mentoring program for young R&B artists. "I thought Dave was really humble and he really cared about people who are looked at as low-class, like hip-hoppers. Dave was different to me."
For Maribel Toan, Newsong has completely changed her life. The 38-year-old Irvine woman was abused as a child in Mexico City and turned to drugs and prostitution as an outlet. One day, a friend brought her to church, where she had a "supernatural experience." She is now part of the Xealot program and works with human-trafficking victims throughout Orange County. "I didn't realize the great gifts I have by being multicultural," she says. "Where you come from influences who you'll be as a leader. I can walk in the shoes of these women. It was all there, but when you're in darkness, you're unable to see what's around you. Now, I have light."
And it's those stories that Gibbons refers to this Sunday, as he remains on his knees, humble before God, before his congregation, before the world.
"Anybody here who really wants to follow Jesus and know how to grow, we'll uniquely customize a program for you," he says, throwing his finger up to the sky, then pointing it to the crowd. "No more one-size-fits-all stuff in our churches. No more 'Just seven classes, and then voilà, you're done' or, 'Go to that small group, and you're done.' No, no, we're gonna sit down with you and actually get on our knees and pray and ask God to give us wisdom about your life.
"Our job is to serve you," he concludes. "That's what Jesus did with the 12. He spent time with them, had meaningful conversations with them. Let's go back to the roots."
This article appeared in print as "The Misfit: Newsong was on its way to becoming Orange County's next megachurch—then pastor Dave Gibbons decided to pull back and go small."