‘Blue Jean’ Jesus Comes to the Strand

By Beacon Staff

Pastor Levi Lusko has nothing against church tradition. He just thinks its time has run out.

“If Jesus were alive today,” Lusko said, “he’d be wearing blue jeans. That’s what we’re doing – we’re trying to put the bible in blue jeans.”

And he’s also putting the bible in the Strand Theatre, the 1920s downtown movie theater soon-to-be Christian church. Fresh Life Church, which is currently located above the Overflowing Cup coffee bistro on Main Street in Kalispell, has a lease-to-purchase deal with Phil Harris, owner of Signature Theaters, that allows it to begin using the Strand in January as the church’s headquarters. To Lusko, the snowboarding 25-year-old pastor with spiked hair, a movie theater is a perfect fit for his inventive services.

“It’s a place where guys who don’t really like religion,” Lusko said, “wouldn’t feel too uncomfortable coming – because it’s a movie theater. What a great place to hear God’s word.”

Lusko considers much of Christian church tradition to be binding, restrictive and mostly irrelevant. He’s not necessarily talking about the teachings – just the way they’re taught. Today, he said, the old methods of conducting services, developed centuries ago, don’t relate to modern congregations. Pastors need to find new ways to spread the word of God, Lusko said – like iPods, streaming Web casts and plasma televisions.

“I believe you can worship God on your iPod,” he said, referring to his efforts to broadcast each service in podcast format. “It’s amazing what God does on the Internet. It makes the whole world a community.”

Lusko said people watch his services in Hungary, Argentina and Great Britain, among other places. Some of these are his previous congregants from past churches. Before moving to the Flathead, Lusko was a pastor at Ocean Hills Church in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., which had a congregation of 2,000. He still appears occasionally as a guest speaker around the nation, including recent services he led in New Mexico and California that both had about 15,000 attendees. Before he ever set foot in Montana, Lusko had established himself as a well-known pastor in the nation’s youth Christian movement.

Lusko first came to the Flathead last July as a guest speaker for the Christ Help Crusade held at the Majestic Valley Arena. He said he was impressed with the Flathead and, after moving back to California, he prayed and concluded he belonged in Northwest Montana. He moved to Kalispell in January.

“I was just an Orange County surfer who came here and preached,” he said. “It was the passion from the valley that excited me.”

He and a team of seven, including his wife and others he knew from church in California and New Mexico, visited local coffee shops and businesses in the Flathead, spreading Fresh Life’s message and gaining a handful of interested congregants. At first a dozen or so people showed up at Lusko’s services, he said. Today around 250 attend, which is more than double the capacity of Fresh Life’s current church, hence the need for three separate services each week. The Strand seats 400, Lusko said, and will allow him to conduct one large service to the entire congregation each week.

When too many people show up now for services, the ones who can’t fit go downstairs to the Overflowing Cup and watch the service live on big-screen plasma televisions. Bob and Kelly Osborne own both the shop, which was previously a VFW bar, and the space Fresh Life uses for services. The Osbornes, who attend Fresh Life, lease the space to the church. Kelly said Kalispell, with its rapid growth, is ready to become even more of a destination because of its dense Christian base.

“I think the mark (Kalispell’s) going to make is with the Christian community,” she said. “There’s a huge Christian community here.”

Though the Strand is in good condition, Fresh Life Church is making some improvements. Currently, workers are building a stage that will stand in front of the movie screen. The projector will be replaced with a high-tech digital one that will display, on the existing movie screen, song lyrics during the hymns and any video or television clips Lusko thinks are relevant to the service. The renovations, as with the operation of the church, rely on congregation contributions. Fresh Life does not have memberships nor does it pass around a collection basket, but Lusko said congregants voluntarily donate money. He has contributors from past congregations as well.

“People see the vision,” Lusko said, “and want to support it. I don’t have to make people feel obligated (to pay).”

Services at Fresh Life have an edge to them, an atmosphere that hovers between a bible discussion group and a Christian rock concert. A band opens up with drums and guitars, playing both established and original songs. Lusko reads verse-by-verse from the Bible, methodically completing individual books from start to finish. His focus is young people, but from looking at Fresh Life’s diverse and enraptured crowds, he appeals to all ages.

“We’ll have a skateboarder sitting next to a stockbroker,” he said.

Nicole Gnam, who works at the Overflowing Cup and goes to Fresh Life Church, said Lusko creates a dynamic atmosphere unlike the stuffy church experience of her youth growing up in Whitefish. The 18-year-old says at Fresh Life, she can wear whatever she wants and nobody bats an eye.

“It’s just more alive,” she said. “(At my old church) you would got to church, sing the hymn, get the message and go home. But here it’s like you want to hang out with the people.”

Gnam was introduced to Fresh Life by her sister, who found out about Lusko as a waitress at Shaker’s Steak and Ale in Whitefish. Gnam’s sister had served a group of young guys who had just gotten back from snowmobiling. They chatted with her after they ate and when they went home, they left behind a $75 tip and a Fresh Life business card. Gnam went to the next service.

Lusko said he will have to decide what to do once his congregation exceeds the Strand’s capacity, which, at this pace, is sure to happen.

“We’re going to keep doing it until the whole world hears,” he said.