After two years of vacancy, the seats of downtown Kalispell’s Liberty Theater will once again be filled, but not by moviegoers. Instead, the Liberty will accommodate the rapidly growing congregation of the Fresh Life Church.
Since occupying the 1920s-era Strand Theatre in January of 2008 with about 250 congregants, the size of Fresh Life has exploded to about 1,500 people, according to Levi Lusko, head pastor of the church. Over the summer, the church’s three weekend services drew so many people they sat on folding chairs on the sidewalk watching a monitor of the proceedings inside.
“In the wintertime, I don’t think people will like sitting on the curb so much,” Lusko said.
Expanding the church’s facilities became a necessity, with Lusko fearing that some people might be dissuaded from attending because of the crowds. Fresh Life closed on the deal, purchasing the Liberty from local developer and Signature Theatre owner Phil Harris, on Sept. 11. Lusko declined to reveal the deal’s details.
As of last week, a crew was hard at work on the Liberty, removing the old concession stand to install a new espresso bar, repairing the roof and deep-cleaning the 500 theater seats. Just one block from the Strand, Lusko said he likes the architecture of the old buildings, and finds the nontraditional facilities are a good fit for his nontraditional church, offering a more inviting venue than standard sanctuaries.
“The movie theater doesn’t intimidate people the way a church can,” Lusko said, adding that a newcomer might approach the Liberty thinking, “If I saw ‘Spiderman 3’ there, I can go hear someone teach the Bible there.”
Lusko also likes the old theaters for their acoustics, since live music is such a big part of his services.
The Liberty will open for its first service Nov. 15, and Lusko envisions what he called a “Siamese Sanctuary,” with the two theaters linked by fiber-optic cables. High-definition screens in each will simulcast what’s going on in the other, so congregants in both theaters will experience the same service – all while Lusko travels between the two.
“I’ll bounce back and forth,” he said. “Wherever I’m not, we’ll have an HD signal linked up.”
Lusko also takes advantage of the marquis spaces out front where movie posters usually hang to advertise different Bible study classes, and Fresh Life’s unique branding seems a contributor to its success. Wednesday night “Skull Church” services are drawing massive crowds and the bumper stickers with its logo are ubiquitous throughout Kalispell.
“Skull Church” derives its name from the hill upon which Jesus Christ was killed in the New Testament, which is said to be shaped like a skull. Describing it as “church on Red Bull,” Lusko said the skull image retains a grim potency that appeals to younger people and helps lead into interpreting Bible verse, which remains the core of what he does.
“We’re trying to preach the death of Jesus in a way that makes sense,” Lusko said. “We just teach the Bible verse by verse and people love it.”
Nor is Fresh Life stopping there. The church has received a license from the Federal Communications Commission to operate a full-power FM radio station, which will launch by November, called KFLF at 91.3. As of last week, testing and training was underway on the small but advanced studio located next to Lusko’s office on the second floor of the Strand.
KFLF will broadcast alternative Christian rock and modern worship, Lusko said, adding, “I don’t know of a format on a Christian station like this.”
Fresh Life’s purchase of the Liberty comes at a time when some downtown business owners had hoped there was a way to turn the old theater into a live music venue for Kalispell – particularly in the wake of the fundraising effort for a larger performing arts center fizzling out.
“We had high hopes that the Liberty could function as a key element in downtown revitalization in creating an entertainment district,” Marshall Noice, a local gallery owner who sits on the boards of the downtown association and Business Improvement District (BID), said.
Acknowledging that as a nonprofit, Fresh Life’s purchase of the Liberty will take a downtown property off the tax rolls and will not pay into the BID, Noice said he and other downtown association members had previously inquired with Harris about turning the Liberty into a music venue, but “it was one of those situations where the timing never quite came together.”
“My hope is that the Fresh Life church might make the space available from time to time so that other organizations might be able to promote live music events there,” Noice added.
For his part, Lusko isn’t looking too far ahead into Fresh Life’s future growth, and is instead focused on accommodating the current expansion – but that isn’t to say the thought hasn’t crossed his mind.
“I pray about satellites in Whitefish or Polson or even Missoula,” Lusko said.
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