SPRINGFIELD — When the band struck its first note, the lights began to strobe and a fog filled the stage. North Point Church's new southeast location looked like a nightclub ready to rock.
In fact, the new location is exactly that — the former Club Intensity location. And people who may have been rocking out over the weekend are the church's goal audience.
"We want a person who goes to a rock concert on Saturday night to come into our church hung over and understand," says Justin Glenn, media director for both the original Norton Road campus and the new East Sunshine Street campus. "We want their hearts and their minds open whenever they walk in the building and whenever they hear our band and hear the music they're playing. ... That way, when Tommy gets up, it's a lot easier to communicate God's love for them."
Tommy Sparger is the lead pastor at North Point. Although he is not standing on the stage at the East Sunshine campus, he is there on a giant TV screen and on smaller screens throughout the building, preaching his message of God's love for all and God's call to love and help each other.
Like the Norton Road campus, the new southeast location uses a youth-oriented look, cutting-edge technology and straight-to-the-point messages that don't presume the audience has a biblical or religious background.
That strategy has grown North Point Church from a small group meeting in an old movie theater to a large building that seats 1,000 and hosts about 4,000 people during five services every Saturday and Sunday.
Sparger, who started the church in 2003, seems an unlikely person to stand behind a pulpit. He wasn't raised in a church and didn't become a Christian until he was a young adult. Even on Sunday mornings, he wears weathered blue jeans and T-shirts and sports a few tattoos, with slightly disheveled hair and a boyish look.
But Sparger has touched a nerve in a community made up of mostly young people who have never been churchgoers or who left a church disenchanted. He teaches a message of inclusion and social involvement using titles such as Girls of the Bible Gone Wild and the Whoopee Cushion Life.
Part of the draw of North Point, however, is its unorthodox and slightly irreverent presentation, from its "Star Trek"-style logo to its rock band. , The Intensity building's modern architecture played in perfectly with that image.
"It just popped," Sparger says. "The style of the outside fits the personality of North Point Church. ... It has a certain cool factor."
And its history as a nightclub fits, too. "We reach people who probably went to that club," the pastor says. "It's easy to tell them where it is."
While Kristin Molenaar never went to Club Intensity — she and husband, James, moved to Springfield four years after it closed in 2005 — she would have visited similar clubs in her native California.
Molenaar, 24, recently joined the church staff as campus coordinator, but when she and her husband first attended North Point in 2009, they had pretty much given up on church.
"We didn't feel at home at other churches," she says. But the "awesome" website inspired them to try North Point, and Sparger's "positive" messages left her feeling "hopeful."
The friendliness of the people — the fact that they greeted her by name after a few visits — "spoke volumes," and the great music — "I never heard a church band that could have been on the radio" — made church a positive experience for Molenaar, one that was more like her secular life than her previous church life.
The message for Molenaarwas "You don't need to change to be here."
The concept for North Point Church's East Sunshine location is part of a "multi-campus strategy" to facilitate growth, Sparger says. A third, southwest campus is likely within the year.
"It's the wisest way to multiply without having to spend missions on new buildings," says Sparger. "It's being done around the country, and it's very successful."
North Point is leasing the Intensity building, which it remodeled to provide education areas, a nursery, cafe area and a 300-seat auditorium. Inside, the design intentionally mimics the Norton Road campus.
"You have to view it as one church, two locations," says Sparger. "We're all one team. We share the same culture and environment."
Technology is part of that culture.
"We try to be very tech savvy in everything that we've done," says Justin Glenn, media director, as he steps out of the sound booth at the new location.
Using volunteers and working with technical arts students from Missouri State University and Evangel University, the lights, sound, effects and the videotaped message are all important elements of the culture of North Point. The video message will also be used at the Norton Road campus.
"We're totally for the video," says Glenn. "We think it works."
Glenn is not satisfied, though. "We could always get better equipment for keyboard, for drums, anything to make the band sound better."
Technology is also used outside of the auditorium. People can sit in the cafe and watch the message on flat-screen, high-def TVs.
Parents can check on their kids through the Fellowship One database. Young people can play Wii or Xbox games.
The bottom line is reaching people with a decidedly low-tech message, Glenn says.
"God is for everybody."