A meager 42 percent of millennials attend church, according to a recent Gallup Poll, but one local church is drawing them in droves. Known for their high energy music, LED lights show and full on theatrical production, Church by the Glades, with its “No Perfect People” slogan, attracts a diverse crowd of about 9,000 people to their campuses on a typical weekend (pre-COVID) with the average age of attendees in their early thirties.
“It’s hard to fall asleep in our church,” said David Hughes, Lead Pastor of Church by the Glades (CBG), who utilizes innovative and creative methods to passionately point people to Christ. “The Church has kind of lost the 20 somethings. Our church is multigenerational – you’ll see all ages – but we go really heavy with Gen-Z and Millennials, and then we charge hard after people who are unchurched, which is the vast majority of Broward and Palm Beach counties.”
Targeting people who “understand the club better than they understand church,” Hughes said, “we make church feel not dissimilar to what they’re used to.”
In an effort to pull from pop culture to grab the audience’s attention, the worship team once danced onto stage beside a Pink Cadillac, while singing the Aretha Franklin tune as a tribute to the soulful music legend.
“She had just passed, It was all over the news, so we thought, how can we leverage that to connect with culture?” said Hughes. “Our biblical basis for that is Acts 17 where Paul went to Athens to connect with the Athenians. He was troubled by the idols because idolatry is a sin, but when it came time to preach, he used one of the altars as his visual aid…. He was trying to build this cultural connective bridge from where they are to Jesus. And so we use the same MO…. It’s always somehow tracking toward the theme. And Jesus used parables. He used pop culture.”
“David is always very clear that he’s the middle aged white guy that they’re going to get for 40 minutes when he preaches, so he’s like everything else does not need to look like me,” said Raul Palacious, CBG Executive Pastor. “On the stage its very intentional that we’re much younger, very diverse. And David thinks church should be fun.”
How do they do that? Modernizing the story of Noah and the flood, CBG once built an elaborate space shuttle on stage for a series entitled “Lift Off” comparing the first floating of the ark to the countdown of a shuttle “launch” illustrated with smoke-filled special effects.
In another series on The Big Comfy Couch, CBG built a giant couch and jumped on its trampoline cushions to discuss getting too comfortable in life, being stuck and needing to rediscover your purpose, power and momentum.
Their unorthodox methods have received some criticism online. One series that was particularly provocative ran in 2017 entitled Hogwarts Halloween. With a message about being discerning in relationships, it featured their dance team dressed as Harry Potter characters “battling it out” on stage.
Asked how he responds to his critics, Hughes said, “You know the only way to Salvation is through Christ. I’m doctrinally as sound as they come, but I do believe the Scripture says I become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some, and that phrase all possible means is something very dear to our heart.”
And their Easter celebration is among the biggest of the year. “We know that people who don’t normally do church will come to church on Easter. People are more receptive, so we take full advantage. We get our people in invite mode and create two weekends trying to move the crowd. Then we come in with heavy production. And the reason for that is I feel the gospel is the greatest truth that’s ever existed and the greatest truth deserves the greatest presentation we can possibly muster,” Hughes said.
During Easter services in 2019, “we found a creative piece from a Pink concert and we created – not a little drip, but a rain storm with real water – it literally rained on our stage,” he added.
Easter in the season of COVID
When 2020 moved all Easter services online, Hughes announced at that time, “This is our most unorthodox, unconventional Easter ever, and that’s saying a lot because we’ve had some pretty spectacular Easters… typically with over 20,000 people showing up at one of our five physical campuses in South Florida.” While there were only ten people in the actual 2,000-seat auditorium during the broadcast due to COVID restrictions, Hughes said, “It may be our biggest Easter ever” due to the people from all over the nation watching online. And their original plans for a special 300-person mass choir on stage transformed into a digital choir created from tracks recorded individually at home and edited together by their production team for a spectacular CBG Virtual Mass Choir.”
“In this world you will have trouble, but take heart I have overcome the world” (John 16:33), recited Hughes during the service, adding “The promises of God are not cancelled!”
A few months later Hughes experienced COVID-19 firsthand. “I got COVID back in June and it’s not fun. I was not hospitalized, but I was pretty dog gone sick for 17 days. It was a long time. And it ran through our staff pretty well too. So we have established protocols with masks and all the precautions.”
Before opening the church to in person services, Hughes went to Disney World to check out their protocols, saying “If Mickey can do it, we can do it.” They now allow families to sit together with empty seats between each group and alternating rows. Temperatures are checked at the door and social distancing is enforced. “I want no one to touch you except God,” said Hughes.
This Easter CBG will be open in person and online. “It’s the resurrection story, but we are full steam ahead with full on production.”
A polished performer
When it comes to production, Hughes has some experience. A former model and actor, he has appeared in commercials, magazine ads, infomercials and feature films. “Gosh I did about 300 in three years,” said Hughes. “I looked like a nice guy next door, trustworthy dad, and that was a good niche. So you name it, Disney, major car companies, McDonalds, Burger King, and I was actually the Levi Jeans guy. It was fun playing pretend for a living.” His wife, Lisa, was his agent during this transition season in his life. Having pastored at Flaming Road Church, Hughes was working on his doctorate and acting to pay the bills.
“I never finished my doctorate because I started working so much in that, and we thought maybe God was leading us to Hollywood. We were going to relocate to California.” Then Hughes received a phone call. The interim pastor at Coral Baptist Church (the previous name for Church by the Glades) was sick and they wanted him to preach at one service. “I’ve never heard God speak in an audible voice, but I feel like God said, ‘Just one time, speak.’ It was a declining senior adult heavy Baptist church, and we’ve watched God do his favorite thing – it’s been a church resurrection to see 20 years later we’re now 20 times the size and we’ve baptized over 1,000 people each of the past seven years.”
Raised in South Florida, Hughes attended Sheridan Hills Baptist Church as a boy. “At 9-years-old, I caught my first large mouth bass and gave my life to Jesus at the same camp, and my pastor baptized me a few months later.” Calling himself a knucklehead in high school, Hughes said, “my parents laid that great foundation and were super consistent,” so he never strayed too far. “I’m the proud son of a Christian plumber – very dedicated to church, served and volunteered all the time. They laid that foundation, but in college my faith really became my own. It’s where I first got discipled and started following close to the Lord.” A graduate of Baylor University, Hughes later attended Southwestern Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Lisa, have three children: Charlie, Victoria and Zane.
Want to learn more about Church by the Glades? For service times and information, visit cbglades.com
For more articles by Shelly Pond, please visit goodnewsfl.org/author/shelly/