A one-block radius surrounding the Strand Theatre in downtown Kalispell buzzes with the feel of a rock show on a recent Sunday morning. The Fresh Life Church's Security Ministry—a crew comprised of several young men wearing black T-shirts and headsets—mills about near the front door, and Christian rock music from inside can be heard from the street. The headliner for this event is 28-year-old Pastor Levi Lusko, who wears blue jeans and a plaid shirt as he steps to the Strand stage.
The young evangelical's sermon draws from the Book of Nehemiah, and is targeted at a specific demographic: young people. Lusko peppers his biblical interpretation of ancient spiritual dilemmas with modern slang words like "killer" and "stoked." Later, he draws a parallel between God's enemies and pop culture bad guys, like Lex Luther from Superman.
"This is Lex Luther living in the Fortress of Solitude," Lusko says, choosing a more contemporary take on the fox residing in the hen house. "The Joker is kicking back in the Bat Cave."
Lusko's services are certainly noteworthy, but it's his real estate transactions that have attracted considerably more interest. Lusko's fast-growing Fresh Life Church—along with an affiliated outreach project, the Skull Church—has purchased a significant chunk of the city's historic urban center over the last two years. Since arriving in the Flathead Valley from California in January 2007, he's grown his congregation from 12 people meeting weekly in a room above a Main Street bar to roughly 1,500 followers.
"We just continually keep coming to this place where people are coming, saying, 'Hey, there's no more chairs, there's no more seats, we need another service,'" Lusko says in a recent interview.
To accommodate the church's expanding flock, in 2008 Fresh Life purchased the nearly 100-year-old Strand Theatre. Months later, the church again found itself over capacity, prompting it in 2009 to purchase the Liberty Theater. Fiber optic cables connect the two buildings, enabling Lusko to address congregants at the Liberty when he's preaching live at the Strand. The ministry topped off its list of acquisitions this summer, purchasing the First Avenue East Café adjacent to the Liberty Theater. The café now serves as a private meeting place.
"We love and are committed to operating and having a presence downtown," Lusko says. "The historic nature of the theaters that we meet in we really dig. We love the art and the vibe and the culture."
Not everyone, though, is thrilled about the church's recent real estate spree. As a nonprofit, Fresh Life isn't obligated to pay into Kalispell's Business Improvement District (BID), which means there are fewer dollars flowing into a pot used to help sustain the city's core, says Marshall Noice, who sits on the BID board and owns an art studio and offices abutting the Liberty Theater.
Noice and other locals say the church itself is a decent neighbor—just this summer it donated thousands of hours of volunteer time through its Rock This City Campaign—but just not the neighbor they were hoping for. The two theaters had been eyed as possible locations for a long-planned performing arts center.
"Either one of those theaters would function nicely as a performing arts center, certainly. And now they're off the market," Noice says. "Is it the highest and best use of two historic theaters? I think not."
Other downtown denizens, like attorney James A. Cossitt, whose office at 40 Second Street East is at the epicenter of the church's campus, are simply curious about the church's mission. Specifically, Cossitt wonders about Fresh Life's outreach arm, dubbed the Skull Church.
"They're kind of an odd bunch," Cossitt says. "It's a somewhat peculiar species of Christianity."
Lusko is used to the skepticism. He explains the name "skull" is a reference to "The Place of the Skull," or the hill where Jesus was crucified. Though it has a distinctly biblical origin, the skull brand is one that the pastor intentionally uses to draw in young people who may otherwise feel alienated by organized religion.
"Skull in scope is to aggressively reach out to a culture that isn't going to church, isn't interested in church," says Lusko. "It's our attempt to reach out to a renegade culture on their level with a message of the cross with a story of the love of God and to do so in a way that is relatable."
Communication is clearly Lusko's specialty, and he's used new and old media to help grow his congregation. The church launched a radio station, 91.3 KFLF, last November to broadcast Lusko's sermons and Christian rock. Fresh Life is also on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Vimeo. Lusko's sermons are packaged in podcasts and broadcast live via an interactive web stream. During Skull Church services on Wednesday nights, individuals watching or listening online are invited to ask questions of Lusko via Twitter or text message.
"We have to get a hold of the youth culture," he says. "We're going to be speaking Greek to them if we're not incorporating the methods that they communicate the rest of life with...If we don't reach out to the next generation, any movement of God, anything that happens, is going to be headed toward extinction."
As evidenced by Fresh Life's rapid growth, his message is striking a chord. Lusko says he doesn't have his sights set on any particular new purchases in Kalispell to accommodate his church's continued growth, but he's not ruling anything out.
"We don't have any big master plan, except use the loudest speakers possible to communicate with as many people as possible," Lusko says. "But if the need arises for us to purchase more, move more, we're stoked on that too."