It’s 9 a.m. on Easter Sunday, and a few hundred people are talking amongst themselves while a pair of enormous speakers pumps a raucous electronic drumbeat into the main room of Church Unleashed’s Commack campus — a not-so-typical-Sunday at a not-your-typical-church.
While the smoke machines and colored lights are being tested, Rev. Todd Bishop, 45, who co-founded the congregation with his wife, Mary, in 2008, tells me in his office that he’s nervous, which is unusual for him.
“There’s a lot of technical components,” he says, referring to the production he is about to pull off — an Easter spin on The Greatest Showman, with Bishop playing a priestly version of P.T. Barnum.
The church is part of the Assemblies of God, under the Protestant umbrella, which touts more than 13,000 affiliated churches nationwide.
A few dozen young volunteers adapted portions of the musical to mesh with Bishop’s Easter sermon. He is technically in costume from the waist up — wearing a red trench coat with gold lace and a top hat, resting his hands on a cane.
His jeans are ripped at the knee and are part of his regular attire. Bishop, who was raised in Buffalo, says he felt disconnected from church as a child. His parents divorced when he was 2, and he is endearingly quick to reveal that, at times, he is still trying to please his absent father. The youngest of three boys, he says his relationship with God made him feel less alone.
“I would literally be downstairs with my G.I. Joe guys, and be preachin’ to ’em,” he says with a laugh.
Perched on top of a wooded hill in a residential neighborhood, with almost no front facing windows, the former site of Commack Jewish Center looks more like an abandoned warehouse from the outside. Nonetheless, people come from all over Long Island to hear Bishop preach.
“When they walk in, they’re going to get an experience,” he says. “It’s gonna feel like they’re at a concert on a Friday night.”
Liz Sartorio, a congregant and volunteer from Melville, says Church Unleashed is “the best-kept secret on Long Island.”
Others describe it as a place to connect with other Christians — a close-knit community that is somewhat removed from the chaos of day jobs, schoolwork and traditional friendships.
“It’s different than any other church I’ve ever been to, in my entire life. It’s more of a place — not only is it Bible-based — but it’s a place where you can find out who you are,” says Alex Coutrier, of Deer Park. “We’re all looking for something in life, we’re all looking to fulfill our purpose. And I feel like, here, I found out who I was.”
The first church was planted in Hicksville 10 years ago. The second, in Commack, was formed two years ago, and the Bishops just announced a third, planned for Garden City. Not only is that growth unheard of for the area, but so too is the church’s popularity with young people.
Part of the reason for that could be Bishop’s willingness to unpack current events occasionally during his sermons. After the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., for
example, he told the congregaion something to the effect of, “People have the right to bear arms, not arsenals.”
The turnout is a testament to how much the sermons resonate with congregants.
“People today are looking for spiritual leadership on some of these issues that they’re not getting,” he says.
That sentiment resurfaces in his Easter opener — a pre-taped video monologue in character as “P.T. Bishop” — in which he speaks candidly about feeling inadequate, but assuring the audience that God will always satiate. The hopelessness of the times, his insecurity, his fear of failure — it is present in Bishop’s sermon, but he is sure to speak warmly to everyone, as if they’re all in on his little secret.
“It’s a place to belong, much more than you have to believe,” he says of his creation. “Belief comes later.”