It's hard not to grin at the symbolism as you enter New Life Church on Easter Sunday, the day Christians celebrate the miraculous resurrection.
It's more than a stroll from the nearest spot in the parking lot to the big sliding-glass doors, behind which awaits a spectacle that would have given Puritans the willies. In the foyer, a mass of people flows, breaking around the central information desk like a stream around a boulder.
Three kings (no kidding!) stand waving by the desk. The biblical characters, dressed in layers of robes, carrying big staffs and beards that drag to their hips, meet your eyes and smile like prom queens.
The several Roman soldiers guarding the entrance to the main room are a lot less friendly in demeanor (though just as impressively outfitted). Their eyes, steely as their armor, glare from under mohawked helmets.
New Life's auditorium has been rearranged, and there are a lot more chairs. The rows are so tight today that it's almost comical attempting to shimmy past anyone. As the hour approaches, it seems the room could not contain one more knee or elbow.
In the back, a small boy stares at one of the huge screens over the stage, and reads aloud:
"Five, four, three, two ..."
All of the congregants leap to their feet; it's time to sing along with the rock band. Some jump up and down, throwing their hands to the heavens as the magenta and green lights play across their faces. It's like a Stones concert, minus the devil horns. Look around and you'll notice even the 4-year-old in her Easter dress has memorized the lyrics.
Everyone is excited. And why not? Today, they will see Jesus. Or at least a character playing Jesus in a high-production musical involving several impressive sets, light effects and a seriously bloody crucifixion. It's the main attraction.
But in between the tides of drama as Christ lives, dies and is resurrected, you hear the grounding voice of senior pastor Brady Boyd, the guy behind New Life's own little miracle.
Today, Boyd is talking about the disciple Peter, the guy who denied Jesus three times before the rooster crowed.
"Peter really blew it," Boyd says.
But Peter, he says, was forgiven by God. And all of us, as imperfect as we are, though we make so many mistakes, can be forgiven.
It's the good news.
Not dead yet
Less than a year ago, it looked as if New Life Church was clean out of good news.
Boyd had inherited a mess after his predecessor, Ted Haggard, took a free-fall from grace. Outed by Mike Jones, a Denver gay prostitute, Haggard admitted to "sexual immorality" and buying methamphetamine. Jones claims Haggard paid for sex with him for years, and used meth frequently. As the scandal broke, Haggard resigned as leader of the National Association of Evangelicals. Then he was fired from New Life, the church he spent more than 20 years building, from a gathering in his basement to a congregation of 14,000.
Since then, news from Haggard, who was supposed to undergo an intense, years-long "restoration" process, has been less than encouraging to his congregation. Haggard dropped out of restoration early and sought tax-deductible donations for his family, which were processed through an organization led by a twice-convicted sex offender.
All this would have been humiliating enough for any church, but the pain and shame were only exacerbated by the type of guy Haggard had been: a magnet for media attention and a moral warrior on social issues including gay marriage. He'd appeared in movies like Jesus Camp and had the White House on speed dial. He was selected to lead the National Association of Evangelicals, one of the most influential faith-based organizations in the country.
Through Haggard, New Life had gone beyond the evangelical charge of recruiting others to the faith. It had become a north-side complement to James Dobson's Focus on the Family as the flagship church in a city proudly known as the "evangelical Vatican." In 2005, Harper's Magazine published an article about the Springs' evangelicals with a special emphasis on Haggard, portrayed as a man battling a spiritual war to take back America, and gaining ground.
"No pastor in America holds more sway over the political direction of evangelicalism than does Pastor Ted," author Jeff Sharlet wrote. "[A]nd no church more than New Life."
Haggard's fall in late 2006 swept the rug out from under a movement whose expansion into every arena, especially politics, had seemed almost unstoppable. And it tainted the purity of a spirit that, for many, had come to define Colorado Springs.
Dave White, from the Colorado Springs Economic Development Corp., says many businesses around the country especially the very conservative and very progressive know of the Springs' conservative Christian leanings. When the Haggard scandal broke, he fielded plenty of questions.
"Once something bad happens, it's very difficult to overcome that perception," White says.
Just look at Waco, Texas.
But the media circus seems to be moving out of New Life. The man who replaced Haggard lacks his predecessor's star power, rough edges and drive for glory. Boyd seems satisfied to lead his flock, and not the city (or the world).
Hired almost 10 months after Haggard's dismissal, the former associate senior pastor at Gateway Church in Southlake, Texas, says he felt called by God to come here. Apparently he was wanted; after a trial period of a few weeks, 95 percent of voting parishioners approved him as their new pastor.
Boyd says he was surprised that the church wasn't even worse off spiritually when he came though the general situation was sour enough to scare off most people.
"I inherited a church that was really broke," he says, "that had no available cash."
But Boyd will tell you that he didn't save this place. This was a miracle.
On Sunday evening, March 30, hundreds have packed into the auditorium. These are the true believers, the people showing up twice in a single day.
Church starts as it always does, with the rock band. Dancers still perform excitedly, but the overall mood is a key (or three) lower than in the morning service. The big screens in the back flash scenes from the service's big event, a water baptism. One by one, 95 men, women and children march toward a cross-shaped pool and are dunked. Some people slip on the steps. Some of the smallest kids cry and bury wet faces in their mothers' shoulders.
This goes on for about half an hour.
Finally, we get down to tonight's "family meeting." It's the first since Matthew Murray went on a shooting rampage at New Life in December, killing two girls and wounding three others before killing himself. Murray also had killed two at Youth with a Mission, in Arvada, the night before.
The attack, naturally, had shaken the church deeply. It also had fixed the media spotlight back on New Life, just four months after Boyd came on board.
And yet, Boyd hasn't taken the stage tonight to depress his "family." He's here, of course, with good news.
His speech is about those mundane issues that make a church function: attendance, money and functional government. But in his hands, this boardroom discussion takes on uncanny emotion. The importance of keeping old members, and gaining new ones, becomes a discussion about vision and the need to "pursue the lost," "disciple believers," "equip leaders," and build "authentic community."
"I want guests to just feel awkward that so many people are greeting them," he says, with a grin.
The talk on budget recalls It's a Wonderful Life. Boyd tells parishioners that in December, the church was out of money, staring down a dark tunnel. But come January, there was a sudden, unexpected light.
"What I'm about to tell you is an absolute miracle," he says. "We had a million dollars."
The financial boost, Boyd says later, came after the December shootings. In reverence to the victims, New Life had canceled its extravagant Christmas-themed show, Wonderland, and refunded more than $19,000 in tickets. Because the show was canceled suddenly, the church had to swallow related expenses. New Life, which had gained precious little ground financially it had a measly $30,000 cash on hand at the time of the shooting was once again out of money.
And then ...
"Miraculously, people just rallied together and gave, and we never had to go back to a line of credit," Boyd says. "We never had to go back into debt."
Once operating in the negative, the church now has about $1.2 million in cash (money not budgeted to its various expenses and programs) and is chipping away at its debt, which includes almost $25 million still owed for the complex that sits on about 35 acres and features a worship center of more than 250,000 square feet.
"As far as our financial situation and health, we're probably in a better place now as a church than we've ever been in the 22-year history of the church," Boyd says in a later interview. "As far as attendance, we haven't quite caught up with the height of [Haggard's] attendance. I mean, at one point they were averaging 8,500, 9,000 in attendance, and we're averaging about 7,500, 8,000 ... but we would say confidently that we have about 10,000 active members right now, that call New Life Church their home and attend on a regular basis."
Boyd aims to keep 'em coming, and part of that, of course, is building trust. In addition to largely booting the media (he's apparently the church's sole representative dealing with media), Boyd says he's "streamlined" the governance. In essence, he's created a new council of elders, of which he's a member. Together, the elders make spiritual and financial decisions about the church, duties that had belonged to two separate bodies. The elders are also responsible for overseeing Boyd, and ensuring he never leads the church into a Haggard-esque situation.
"As a pastor, I want to be in a safe place," Boyd says. "I'm as capable as anyone else of making a bad mistake, because I'm human, so I want people in my life who speak to me and hold me accountable, and walk with me. And I've had that for many, many years, so it's not anything new for me."
Cup of cold water
Boyd says it so often that his parishioners find themselves repeating it: There are no perfect people.
"The world is just full of people who are hurting, and who are going through difficult times, and they're discouraged, and they don't feel like life has given them a fair shake, and the church is there to offer them hope and to give them a cup of cold water," Boyd says.
"We have the good news. And oftentimes, evangelicals have been painted as people who are mad, or angry, or narrow-minded, or bigoted, or all those things. And, for sure, I think there are some evangelicals who have earned that reputation. But for us, at New Life, we want to have a reputation of being a gracious people who love and care for humanity."
Boyd has made no secret of the fact that he has not lived a perfect life. He readily admits to "immorality" in earlier years, especially his college days, back when he was "living for nobody but myself."
In August 1988, Boyd says, he was "saved." It was a turning point, but it didn't end his problems. When he married, he and wife Pam were excited to start a family, only to find out neither was capable of having children.
"It was devastating to us as a young couple, because we were like any other young couple we had our life perfectly planned out," Boyd remembers. "We were going to be married for a few years, and then we were going to have a house full of children and grow old being their parents and being grandparents."
But Boyd was able to rebound when two pregnant women separately approached him and Pam, and allowed them to adopt their children, Abram and Callie, at birth.
When Boyd took the reins of New Life Church last August, he faced yet another test. Departing a secure position at Gateway Church, he left behind two men: Pastor Tom Lane, whom he views as a dad, and Pastor Robert Morris, his mentor. Boyd is still in close contact with both, but he has had to forge close bonds with a new set of people, many of whom have been at New Life for years.
"[The parishioners] recognize that I came into a very difficult situation," Boyd says. "And then the shooting only added to the difficulty of the transition. So, they've been very gracious with me, and allowing me to lead and be their pastor."
Boyd, generally, has led the church inward. His sermons touch on such subjects as building strong marriages, having self-esteem, and offering forgiveness and redemption.
"I think Boyd has that focus where he's very interested in people," parishioner Steve Glaeser says. "He's really interested in individuals, families, healthy church relationships, rather than being more expansive or politically active."
On Sunday, April 6, Boyd's talking about the Holy Spirit. The spirit, he tells the congregation, is often the only thing that clues him in when he's hurt his wife's feelings. It's a message, he says, in his heart that tells him to apologize.
"What if I just ignored the warning signs?" he says, and the congregation laughs and yells back at him. "Yeah, it gets worse. You're exactly right. Then I start sleeping on the front porch."
Hey, nobody's perfect. Which brings us to another thing you hear all the time from Boyd's flock, even from Pat Karstens, a devoted Catholic who comes to New Life merely as "a Bible study."
"I like him," she says. "He's a regular person."
Dont call him savior
So if Boyd himself hasn't saved the church, who or what has?
"I think it's probably the small groups," Glaeser says.
"Probably [the church] wouldn't be doing anywhere near as good as it is if weren't for the groups," parishioner Will Wilson says.
From Boyd himself: "I think [having small groups] was one of the key things that kept our church together."
New Life Church has a wide, strong foundation, starting with 700 to 800 small groups (or more, depending on whom you ask), which are essentially church-based clubs. Many churches have groups, but the variety at New Life is striking. Here you will find groups related to women's Bible study, kids' algebra or Chinese lessons, the Christian Bowhunters, parents who've adopted children from China, cooking, cowabunga classes (sorry, kids only) and offerings for married couples, dog owners, veterans, dirt bikers, parents, people with no accounting skills, sailors. Just about anything. And if the group you seek doesn't exist, New Life will train you to start and lead it.
At 6:30 on a Thursday morning, the Glaeser-led "Real Men" group meets at Panera Bread on North Academy Boulevard. Ten guys gather with bagels and coffee, ready to talk feelings with their spiritual brothers. The guys say they can bring anything here the pain of divorce, or having lost a parent, or financial trouble and discuss it honestly.
Member Bruce Nygren says he doesn't always think it's appropriate to open up to his family about his fears. Here he feels open to talk about anything.
"That's a hard thing to find in today's society," he says.
Todd, who doesn't want his last name used, says when he moved here, he felt a great sense of rejection from an ex-wife, an adopted son and his old church. But he was welcomed into this group, and it helped carry him through those tough times. You hear this kind of story, over and over.
"It's really hard for men to be honest about what's going on with you," member Geoff Hazel says. The group, he says, is "like a release valve."
Small groups aren't the only groups at New Life. Next up the ladder in size are larger groups, like Desperation (for young adults), New Life Kids, and Believe: Single Mothers. Beyond that, New Life offers educational programs. Then there are global ministries, focusing on charity, prayer and mission work in other countries.
People love their groups, and are eager to attract more followers. Glaeser and his group even offer to pray for this reporter and a photographer, and extend a hand of welcome to New Life Church. (We are not invited into the Real Men group, being that we are both women.)
"People have pretty strong allegiances to places that have changed their lives," says Steve Holt, senior pastor of the Springs' 3,500-member Mountain Springs Church. "I never thought that New Life was going to fall apart."
In fact, the scandal has not kept people away. Wilson moved here in August from Alabama, specifically to attend New Life and participate in its programs.
"I heard about how awesome the church was, and how awesome the program 24/7 was," he says.
24/7, another of the church's offerings, is an intensive program intended to empower young Christians while giving them enviable experiences, from trips to Great Sand Dunes National Park to travels abroad.
"The success of the megachurches is that they're full-service," Colorado College religion professor David Weddle says. "They really are and I don't mean this in a derogative way, but religious Wal-Marts."
And there you have it, one-stop shopping for a sense of belonging in our sprawling, suburban city. New Life offers a place where, as Boyd says, people can build "authentic community."
"The world's full of lonely, lost people who just need friends," he tells parishioners.
Indeed. That's why Boyd has set a goal to have every member of the church involved in at least one small group.
A sleeping giant?
If Boyd seems different from Haggard, that's because he is. And it's apparent he will continue moving the church in a different direction.
"Ted was really kind of an anomaly," says Holt. "He had such an ability to kind of he could spin things as good as any politician I've ever been around ... guys like Ted Haggard, they come along one in a million."
It's not that Boyd doesn't care about abortion or gay marriage. He just doesn't talk about them in the same way. He says he encourages church members to be politically active, but that doesn't mean the church needs to be.
"We're not going to back away from controversial issues, just because they're controversial," he says. "But we're going to be very gracious in our approach to social issues, because it's the grace of God that wins people, not anger and nastiness from the church. That doesn't do anything but polarize and isolate us from the community."
Boyd knows that evangelicals have largely aligned with the Republican Party in the past, but he thinks that the link's less powerful than it used to be. He notes that he's spoken with politicians as diverse as President Bush and Democratic U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar.
"Regardless of your party affiliation," Boyd says, "I'm more concerned with the truth that motivates you to vote."
When Boyd talks about influencing the outside world, he generally talks about charity (which the church does plenty of, locally and throughout the world), or getting more people to church. Sometimes, Boyd even seems to have a disdain for political life, noting that his real leader is in heaven.
Interestingly, those viewpoints don't make Boyd an outsider in the evangelical movement. In fact, they may bring New Life more in line with the rest of the country. Leith Anderson, now president of the National Association of Evangelicals, says most evangelical pastors have always left politics out of preaching.
"The shift has been in perception and publicity," he writes in an e-mail. "Overwhelmingly, most evangelical churches have long focused on the spiritual, not the political. A small number of leaders and churches gained visibility that gave an unbalanced perception."
But Anderson notes some changes remain afoot in the movement. Younger evengelicals, while still pro-life and anti-gay marriage, have reached out to other issues like poverty, race, health care and creation care (translation: environmentalism). And, he says, as more ethnic minorities have become evangelicals, the group's voting patterns have shifted a little from the right.
Evangelicals in America have held strong sway on politics since the '70s, when they helped bring Jimmy Carter, and then Ronald Reagan in 1980, to the White House. This year, the Pew Research Center found that 26.3 percent of Americans attended evangelical churches. In 2006, Pew found that white evangelical Protestants made up over one-third of the GOP's electoral base.
Yet some say evangelicals, at least publicly, are backing away from the political arena. Bob Loevy, Colorado College political science professor, thinks it could be a political move, a recognition by evangelical leaders that Republicans' long-standing coalition of social, economic and defense-conscious conservatives is falling apart, as some factions tire of the focus on abortion and gay rights. He thinks evangelicals are simply accepting a need to compromise.
"I think it may be a permanent realization that, in order to get some of what you want, in order for the political party that's closest to your values to stay in power, you may have to pull back a little from more of these doctrinaire, socially conservative positions," Loevy says.
Others like Joshua Dunn, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs assistant professor of political science, say evangelicals are quieter now because the Republican Party doesn't seem to be catering to their interests as much. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has little to offer evangelicals.
"For many evangelicals, their first priority is not the Republican Party," Dunn says. "It's a close relationship, but it's not one without difficulties."
It's hard to imagine Republicans would abandon a group that has done so much to increase their political fortunes in the past few decades. Perhaps this is temporary. Historically, there seems to be a natural ebb and flow to the political influence of charismatic Christians just think back to the reign of revivalists. New Life, along with the rest of the evangelical movement, might be like a great, hibernating bear, awaiting a more hospitable season to once again spring to life.
Meanwhile, back at the Real Men meeting, the guys say it's not that Haggard was better, or that Boyd is better. They're just different.
But perhaps Boyd is a bit more humble, a bit more concerned with marriage and family, more inwardly-focused, kind of like ...
"Kind of like Jesus?" member Jim Kotsaftis offers, with a grin.
"Name dropper," Nygren teases.