The Newer Testament
How did a Lubbock preacher create one of the country’s fastest-growing megachurches? With rock music, an open-door policy, and a lot of entrepreneurial savvy.
David has slain Goliath with his slingshot, and the pizza boxes are mostly empty. The seven men sitting around John Gomez’s kitchen table have cleaned up the crumbs and finished their discussion of 1 Samuel 17, scripture they listened to via a Bible app on a tablet. As they do every Monday night, they’ve pondered three questions: What does this say about God? What does this say about humanity? How can we apply this in our lives?
Now the men are reflecting on what brought them together: Experience Life, the four-campus Lubbock megachurch that’s so big that they don’t expect to see one another there. It’s only here, at their Life Transformation Group in this modest brick house, that they reconnect.
“In July 2013 my wife had filed for divorce, and I spent about two weeks drowning at the bottom of whatever bottle of vodka I could find, literally wanting to die,” remembers Bobby Jarnagin, a 48-year-old roofing salesman. “At the end of that two weeks, I finally told God, ‘If you’re not going to let me die, then let me find somewhere to go.’ ” When he arrived at Experience Life, the man who greeted him at the door was a childhood friend; at the end of the service, when Jarnagin approached the volunteer prayer team, he happened to be matched with another long-lost acquaintance.
“If that’s not a sign from God, then I don’t know what is,” he says. “I went from crying to flat-out bawling. In a way, eLife”—that’s what the regulars call the church—“saved my life. ’Cause I had pretty much given up on me.”
Gerardo Arrañaga, 50, is the chief of police for a school district. “I’m married, got kids, got a good job, I’ve had a basically good life,” he says. “I just felt that my life wasn’t really productive.” He walked into a service one Sunday as the pastor was explaining the church’s motto, “No Perfect People Allowed.”
“He was talking about, ‘We don’t care if you’re a prostitute, a drug addict—you’re not required to be perfect,’ ” he recalls. “And I’m sitting here thinking that this is where I’m supposed to be, because no matter what I’ve done to improve my life, it is so imperfect, because I was miserable. But I met human beings there that—” his voice constricts and he stops. The other six men wait quietly. After a moment Arrañaga continues. “They cared about me as a human being. They didn’t require anything of me, outside of me wanting to be there.”
They go on, taking turns speaking and nodding. Jimmy, who had contemplated suicide. Robert, who was on the brink of divorce before he and his wife began attending church. Jeff, who wanted to find a church where his tattooed son would feel welcome.
The confessional intimacy of the small group stands in vivid contrast to the spectacle of weekend services at Experience Life. The church’s casual, contemporary atmosphere drew a record 8,048 people to its ten services this past Easter. Outside the Southwest Campus, at the edge of town, where new homes rise from the windswept fields, a staffer played techno music at a booth that resembled a radio station remote broadcast. Greeters in shirts reading “Welcome Home” scanned the crowd for newcomers and escorted them to a VIP tent where they could pick up Dunkin’ Donuts and coffee. Inside, a volunteer with a glow stick escorted them from the lobby into the dark auditorium to reserved seats in the front row.
The cavernous space was lit only by the spotlights trained on the worship band and the screen behind it, which displayed the lyrics to the songs. By the time the band stopped playing, the room was packed with more than a thousand people, many of them wearing jeans. After some introductory remarks, the screen darkened, and a video began to play. A robed man portraying the disciple Peter—an eLife staffer, actually—appeared on the screen. “All I ever wanted to do was fish,” he began, explaining how he’d become one of Jesus’ disciples before recounting how Jesus was betrayed, crucified, and resurrected.
Near the end of the hourlong service, Chris Galanos, the church’s 34-year-old founding pastor, took the stage to preach on 1 Peter 1:18–20. Bespectacled, slight, and wearing jeans and an eLife polo shirt, he shifted his weight forward and back as he spoke, like a fencer preparing to lunge. “Peter’s reminding his readers, ‘You guys remember how Jesus ransomed you from your empty life? That ransom was the precious blood of Jesus.’ ” Galanos closed his Bible and looked at the crowd. “Have you ever asked God for ransom? Because people think they can get to heaven by being good, but we need a savior. You can’t pay your own ransom.”
At the end of his message, the band began to play, and row by row people rose to their feet, applauding. As spotlights twirled above the crowd and a fog machine hissed, the amplified bass reverberated through the crowd like a collective heartbeat. A woman held up her smartphone to film the scene as people lifted their hands in praise, a sea of outstretched palms silhouetted against the glowing screen.
The Monday after Easter, Galanos sits in his sunlit living room and describes his path to the ministry. A Lubbock native, he grew up in a churchgoing home but identified primarily as a “computer nerd,” he explains. He became a Microsoft Certified Professional as a teenager and majored in computer science at Texas Tech University while, on the side, he led worship in a college ministry. “I loved it so much I thought, ‘Man, I could do this forever,’ ” he remembers. “ ‘I’m starting to like this more than the computer stuff.’ ” After graduation, he enrolled at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Fort Worth, where he took a course on “church planting,” the establishment of new churches designed for people who had limited or negative experiences with religion. Galanos realized that though Lubbock was a heavily churched city, its houses of worship were mostly designed for “church people,” those who grew up wearing their Sunday best and singing hymns. He wanted to create a space that would focus on 20- to 35-year-olds, appeal to the more than half of Lubbock’s 212,000 residents who didn’t attend church, and eschew any denominational affiliation that might evoke bad memories for potential attendees. Essentially, he wanted to capture a share of the market that other churches weren’t targeting.
The market in Lubbock evidently was ripe for a hip, come-as-you-are church that discarded the traditional trappings of worship: in 2010, three years after its first meeting, Experience Life was ranked the country’s second-fastest-growing Protestant church by Outreach, a publication for evangelical pastors. For several years the magazine recognized Galanos as the youngest senior pastor among the country’s fastest-growing churches. ELife’s expansion to a present-day weekly attendance of 3,500 across four campuses classifies it as a “megachurch,” a term that refers to a church that attracts a weekly attendance of at least 2,000. Texas is home to more than two hundred megachurches, including the nation’s largest—Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church, in Houston—but only six are in the High Plains. Galanos, it turned out, had good entrepreneurial instincts.
In fact, eLife’s success is largely a result of its willingness to borrow strategies from the business world. To fund his start-up, Galanos sent an appeal to friends and family and took a twenty-page proposal to Christian business owners in Lubbock. His equivalent of a Kickstarter campaign raised close to the $238,000 he budgeted for the church’s initial costs and first-year operations. These days, he reads business books like Creativity, Inc. and Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win. “The New Testament has a lot of military metaphors, so I thought it was fascinating to say, ‘Hey, we’re in kind of a spiritual battle, and we’re on a rescue mission the same way the SEALs are going to rescue people,’ ” Galanos says.
To reach its tech- and social media–savvy audience, the church posts daily scripture readings on Facebook, where it has more than 150,000 followers. The week before Easter, pastors challenged the congregation to evangelize via smartphone during the service by Tweeting, “I need someone to sit with me at #eLife next weekend for Easter! Any takers? #SitWithMe.” Instead of passing offering plates, congregants can donate via an app.
Having effectively saturated the Lubbock market, Galanos is looking to expand into new territories. This September 11, Experience Life will open an outpost in Abernathy, population 3,000, fifteen minutes north of town, the first on a list of several West Texas locales. But Galanos has bigger plans. “We want to leverage what’s happened here for the sake of places in the world that have never even heard about Jesus,” he explains. Specifically, that means the predominantly Buddhist nation of Thailand, which has been on his mind since a Thai exchange student lived with his family during his college years. ELife’s Thai Vision involves a shift in focus from the “unchurched” to the “unreached,” which is most of the country; less than one percent of the native population identifies as Christian. Undaunted, Galanos and his missions team want to see five hundred eLifers move permanently to places like Thailand to support the evangelistic work of local Christians. The first three are headed to Bangkok later this year.
The goal might seem far-fetched, but so did one of Galanos’s dreams when he started eLife: to see ten thousand people commit their lives to Christ in ten years. The church hit that benchmark last fall, two years ahead of schedule. The fact that Galanos looks, by his own admission, “shockingly young, like I’m sixteen,” doesn’t seem to deter his congregation from investing in his ambitions. “We love Chris because he’s young and exciting and he brings it out in you,” says 53-year-old Terri McInnes, who’s been attending eLife for seven years. “You feel young when you’re there.”
Though the flash of a megachurch’s Sunday service is what typically attracts attention, a popular adage in this world is that “circles are better than rows”: churches flourish when people become part of a small group. And that may be the secret of eLife’s success, the thing that’s easy to miss amid the marketing savvy and fog machines: intimate conversations like the one that takes place in John Gomez’s kitchen are what sustain its members.
For those men, steeped in West Texas’s masculine culture, the small group meetings have a very specific appeal. “In law enforcement it’s not very common to express your feelings,” Arrañaga says. “It was a relief for me to be able to tell a group of adults—particularly men—that I needed to have God in my life. I don’t have to be Superman here.”
“All of the bravado, all of the macho, all of the junk comes down because he’s real, and he’s real, and they’re all real,” Jarnagin says, pointing at Arrañaga and Gomez and the rest of the group. “We’re all just living life, and we all have baggage. We all have broken souls. There are no perfect people allowed; we just bring ourselves. And it’s freeing.”