WASHINGTON, D.C.—It’s a bright, warm morning in late April, and Kurtis Parks is full of ideas.
The 33-year-old is so positively positive that it’s neither surprising nor disarming when his voice springs from spoken word into song and back again. He exudes happy energy. Everything from his near-full sleeves of tattoos to his 5 o’clock shadow to his hipster-meets-preppy wardrobe quietly affirms a comfortable confidence.
Responding to an interview request by saying he’s “excited to hang out,” and signing off on emails with “You Rock, Kurtis,” Parks is digitally and interpersonally exactly as you would want and expect him—as the worship director of the DC-based National Community Church, a seven campus, Christian interdenominational church with a median parishioner age of 28—to be.
Parks’ Outreach to Millennials
His dark undercut stays slicked to one side, a stray hair rarely breaking rank in the spring breeze, as we discuss things like National Community Church’s “core tenets,” whether or not the church is a metaphorical thermostat or thermometer (hint: they want to “set the temperature” instead of taking it), and why he hates the word “religious” (“I automatically think of rules and regulations and stuff like that.”)
It’s this ability to candidly share private experiences and beliefs without coming across as preachy or polarizing that stands out most when you meet him. It also explains his knack for connecting with D.C.’s youth.
“The environment and the message of the pastors at NCC is very easy to relate to,” says Patrick Shaffer, a 22-year-old originally from Tampa, Fla. While Shaffer grew up Methodist, he began attending nondenominational services in college, and has been attending National Community Church for four months.
“I actually attended NCC my very first Sunday in D.C.,” says Kate Farrar, a 23-year-old Nashville native raised by an Episcopalian mother and Methodist father. Asked what National Community Church does differently, she responds that they “capture contemporary church elements” and “stay grounded,” adding that for her, music is the way she turns her heart and mind to God.
Talk to religious experts and they’ll acknowledge the often purported myth that America’s youth aren’t participating in religious life—and offer another take.
“Young people attend [service] less often in late teen years and through college,” says Byron L. Johnson, director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University.
But “the vast majority will marry, have children, and return to church as young adults,” he adds. “Vibrant and growing churches, almost always evangelical, tend to connect with all age groups.”
According to data from The Heritage Foundation’s 2014 Index of Culture and Opportunity, across 40 years, weekly church attendance has declined from around 40 percent in 1972 to 30 percent in 2012.
According to a recent Pew Research center survey, 71 percent of Americans identify as Christian today, a near eight-percentage-point drop since 2007. At the same time, there has been a seven-percentage-point increase in the number of Americans who do not identify with one religion.
Sitting with Parks over coffee, his messages of finding the purpose and worth in your life, being real, and working to change the world for the better don’t ring religious, necessarily.
It’s clear that his rock-star ambitions and natural charisma have been tamed into this relatable, curated, self-aware, and humble presentation of the self as worship director and virtual human extension of National Community Church. The one-time American Idol hopeful is a ways away from his reality TV days.
Parks’ Spiritual Journey
While Parks insists he never envisioned himself on staff at a church, he was arguably born for the job—to parents who found themselves pregnant in high school and urged by peers to get an abortion. They decided, he says with a sizeable smile, against it.
He grew up both a military brat and a “PK” (“Pastor’s Kid”). As a child, he moved with his family from Pennsylvania to the U.K., living abroad for five years before returning to the States. The family settled in New Mexico and later Florida as they followed various Air Force assignments over the course of 10 years. His father eventually traded in military life for the ministry.
“My dad knew he was going to plan a church, and he’s like, ‘I want you to lead music,’” Parks says. His father had heard him singing around the house and saw a gift. Parks was 11.
He began piano lessons and, by age 15, was leading weekly worship for his father’s 20 or so parishioners. His father later left the ministry when they again relocated to Virginia, but Parks’ time as a young worship leader left a mark.
“I developed this passion and love for music and I saw, for whatever reason, that music is a universal language,” Parks says. “A band like the Beatles can be number one in Japan, and they’re not even singing Japanese … Taylor Swift can release an album and the whole world knows about it … music transcends everything.”
He’d take that outlook throughout his childhood, to his time as a finance major at Virginia Tech (“I heard that Mick Jagger was a finance major, so I was like, ‘OK, that’s not a bad choice’”), to his 2005 stint on American Idol alongside the likes of Carrie Underwood, to years spent touring with his band The Season, and ultimately, to National Community Church .
After he was axed on Idol—an opportunity he says he thought “was it”—he struggled to regain his footing. He got a job as a real estate broker in Roanoke, Va., and lived for the weekends he spent playing gigs with his band. In his spare time, he sent demo albums to producers.
Parks got a call from one based in Nashville and, with the support of his wife Sarah, packed up the little apartment they had signed a lease on only a week before. What was supposed to be a few months in Nashville turned into four years of recording, touring and, later, church work.
In 2007, the band released a song named “Forever Changed” that Parks wrote about the tragic shooting at his alma mater. It reached the number one spot on radio stations nationwide, was played in the background of all CNN coverage of Virginia Tech, and led to calls from producers at “Oprah” and “Fox News.”
Still, despite this small taste of industry success, Parks could feel life on the road, traveling in a 1997 Ford Econoline Van, eating PB&Js, and playing the same venues, growing tedious and “old.” Around that time, he got a call from his church in Nashville, asking him to fill in for their head of worship for the weekend. It led to a two-year-long relationship.
“The pastor (of that church) is the legendary song writer in Christian music, Danny Chambers, and he just mentored me,” Parks says. “I just began to step back into the church that I kind of was doing as a teenager, and I fell back into it.”
Through that connection, Parks came to know Steph Hasler, the former worship director at National Community Church. She’d eventually recruit Parks to join her team before leaving the Washington area to manage National Community Church’s coffee house in Berlin (the church believes they need to be “in the marketplace” and own tens of millions of dollars of D.C. real estate as well as another coffee house on Capitol Hill named Ebenezer’s), leaving an opening for worship director.
Parks and National Community Church
Parks describes his appointment at National Community Church as the work of a slightly exasperated deity.
“Dude, we call them divine appointments, right?” he says. “God’s like, ‘I’m setting this up, this up, this up,’ so that you can just be like, ‘Duh!’ and the light bulb can finally come on.”
Parks felt he had big shoes to fill—perhaps because National Community Church, sometimes known as “Theater Church,” is a monster machine. At the same time, he was adjusting to life as a new father to daughter Norah, now two.
Founded by 43-year-old celebrity pastor Mark Batterson in a rundown movie theater in D.C.’s Union Station in 1996, National Community Church attracted almost 4,500 mostly young parishioners to its 2014 Easter services spread across its seven campuses, according to the 2015 Annual Ministry Report.
Batterson, known for embracing technology ahead of his peers, has nearly 100,000 followers on Twitter, preaches in jeans, and manages a staff of over 50. The church’s website, TheaterChurch.com, had over 47 million page views in 2014.
The church has come to be known as one that attracts not necessarily senators or business leaders, but hill staffers, law clerks, interns and recent transplants. Sixty-nine percent of parishioners have been attending for less than three years, and two-thirds are single.
Alexas Legas, a 23-year-old originally from Virginia, appreciates the welcoming element of the church: “NCC reaches out to those who are new to D.C. There’s a feeling of ‘you are in the right place.’”
For his part, Parks wrote 21 new songs last year for National Community Church, released an album with Christian record label Integrity, led a mission trip to Guatemala (the church does close to 30 missions a year), wrote a to-be-released book, produced albums from his in-house studio and licensed a song to music video game “Dance Dance Revolution.”
Parks easily rattles off more work that needs to be done, such as ending Africa’s clean water crisis and combating sex trafficking in Phoenix.
Social Media and Authenticity
In his music and worship, Parks focuses heavily on “authenticity,” striving to lead an honest life on and off stage and encouraging National Community Church’s members, many who have grown up with the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, to do the same.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had a time in the world where people have been more connected through social media, through Internet, through causes,” he muses.
“But through that, we’ve lost authenticity. I can know everything about you through Facebook, but I don’t know you. You can have 50,000 followers on Twitter and that’s awesome … but at the end of the day, who do you know?”
Parks also aims to remedy preconceived ideas about the church, perhaps set in parishioners’ minds by negative experiences in their past, through his contribution to weekly service and conversation.
“When I just explain who Jesus is, and I talk to people about what He said and what He did and what He’s done in my life … that’s my conviction,” he says. “You’re not going to reach people that have a bad bent towards church by doing what they’ve always known the church to do.”
Kurtis Parks is the Worship Director at the Washington, D.C.-based National Community Church, as well as a singer/songwriter, music producer, and author. For more information, visit his website.