Matt and Sarah Keller had it in their hearts as high-school sweethearts that they wanted to be local church pastors. They also knew that “planting” a church somewhere was a great way to do that. In August of 2001, after they had served in different areas of ministry, the vision that God had placed in Matt’s heart came alive! Matt & Sarah knew that it was time to move to Fort Myers and begin the process of birthing Next Level Church.
After traveling and sharing their vision, Matt & Sarah moved with their son Will to Fort Myers in January of 2002. Their plans were to bring into reality the dream that God had placed in their hearts by creating a culturally relevant & user-friendly church. Accompanied by four others who moved with them, they became the beginnings of Next Level Church.
The church planting team began in late February to hold a weekly Bible study at a coffee shop, and, from there, a group of twelve was formed from ten adults and two children. After looking at one other potential venue, Pastor Matt & Sarah were on a date at the local movie theater when he turned to her and said, “Hey, do you think that they would let us meet here?” God was so good to open every door necessary to be able to do just that!
On Mother’s Day, May 12, 2002, Next Level Church launched their first service at the Bell Tower 20 Theaters. Mike Ash, Executive Pastor, says, “We were all so nervous that morning. I will never forget the relief we felt when the first people actually showed up.” There were 35 in attendance that first Sunday, and the church continued to grow through the summer months.
By Christmas of 2002, Next Level was averaging 80 in attendance in their Sunday morning service. “I kept looking around and thinking, ‘How did these people get here?'” Pastor Matt says. “I guess just one family at a time!” The church continued to add new faces throughout the spring months, and on Easter 2003, attendance skyrocketed to an all-time high of 175. It wasn’t just numerical growth; many people were giving their hearts to the Lord.”It was awesome to see people who had turned away from their faith for years returning to Him,” Pastor Matt says. “I was so thankful for every life that was being touched. After starting so small, it was easy to be grateful.” Because of the incredible growth and need for people to know each other and grow in God, Small Groups (our Connection Groups) were formed.
In September of 2004, Next Level Church launched an additional Sunday morning service. “Everyone just pitched in to make it happen,” Pastor Matt said. It was hard to pull off two services before the box office opened. “We were one of the first churches to attempt two services in a movie theater!” By Easter of 2005, there were 300 in attendance, and lives continued to be changed.
After continued growth, the leadership team of NLC felt it was time to move. On April 9th, 2006, NLC moved into the brand new auditorium at South Fort Myers High School. By Easter of 2007, the church had grown to 600 people. In the fall of 2007, the church built out 6,300 square feet of warehouse/office space. This served as a place for the youth and other small meeting events. It was also a huge asset for the staff to be able to function in great offices. In January of 2008, NLC launched two identical services at the high school.
In December 2009, Next Level Church put a contract on ten acres of land and a building that was for sale by another church. The property was only two miles north of South Fort Myers High School on Plantation Road. The existing building was not large enough to house the congregation, so, in December 2010, Next Level renovated the existing building and added 6,000 square feet of new space, giving the church a total of 23,000 square feet to provide incredible worship environments in!
In order to create space for continued growth, Next Level added a Saturday night worship experience and on April 9, 2011, Next Level Church had their Grand Opening in their first permanent location and hundreds committed their lives to Jesus Christ for the first time. NLC grew quickly, from 980 people before the Plantation Campus, to 1,800 in just 9 months! That fall, Next Level created a second Saturday night service to accommodate the steadily increasing number of people calling Next Level their home.
A piece of the Next Level Church vision has always been to be a multi-site church, with campuses stretching across Southwest Florida, so that no one will have to drive more than thirty minutes to attend and be involved. The growth at the Plantation Campus continued and had over 2,500 in attendance and 5 weekend services! So, NLC’s leadership quickly knew that it was time to find their second location. In December 2013, Next Level Church paid cash for 7.3 acres of land on Gateway Boulevard and 15 months later, that land became a beautiful state-of-the-art facility to reach more and more singles and families East of I-75! The vision to become a multi-site church came to pass as the Gateway Campus opened in March of 2014 with over 3,400 in attendance between both campuses!