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An evangelical edifice

Idlewild Baptist, one of the state's largest churches, is nearing completion on a new $73-million facility that will feature a sanctuary big enough to hold Air Force One.

By BILL COATS, Times Staff Writer
Published January 8, 2005

[Times photos: Mike Pease]
Reflected in a pond, Idlewild Baptist's new campus takes shape off Van Dyke Road. The $73-million facility is to open in September.
Idlewild Baptist Church's 35,000-square-foot Gatheria lobby is being built to accommodate hundreds of diners and will boast top-notch acoustics and a stage.
Scaffolding fills the sanctuary of Idlewild Baptist Church. When complete, the auditorium will have room for 5,152 seats.
$73-million: Cost of the new church and 143-acre campus
9,000: Number of members of Idlewild Baptist Church
66: Number of full-time staff members at the church
5,152: Number of seats in the church's sanctuary
400,000: Square footage of the church's buildings

LUTZ - Drive down a shady neighborhood street just off N Dale Mabry Highway in northwest Hillsborough and suddenly, one of the biggest churches in a state of big churches looms ahead. Yet the future Idlewild Baptist church is screened from the nearest road by cypress swamps. So far, only construction workers, neighbors and church members have seen it.

That will change in September, when the 9,000-member church moves to its new campus. The main entrance road, mile-long Exciting Idlewild Boulevard, will become a public road. People will be able to drive right up to the $73-million church and campus, all 143 acres of it.

How big is the church building itself? Air Force One, the president's jet, would fit comfortably inside the 5,152-seat sanctuary, though the tail would jut among the ceiling beams.

In the past two months, 1,100 members have taken tours of the new church. It's intended for more than just exciting the faithful.

"One of the motives for the tour is to get our people familiar with the building so it's not strange on the first Sunday," said Ken Smith, Idlewild's minister through administration.

Without help, you could get seriously lost. The new church has a pair of two-story classroom wings with warrens of rooms, plus a two-story office section for Idlewild's 66 full-time staff members.

In the midst of such scale, the new church will have features that most pastors could only dream about. The children's wing will have a room exclusively for nursing mothers. The youth wing will feature its own auditorium, plus a game room with foosball, pingpong and a snack bar.

The 35,000-square-foot "Gatheria," with 25-foot freeze-dried palms, will be much more than a grand lobby. It will boast top-notch acoustics, and the roof of its centerpiece bookstore will function as a stage. Rigging above the arched windows will hold backdrops for productions.

The Gatheria will accommodate as many as 400 diners for Wednesday night supper, and as many as 800 for banquets, said Norman Childers, one of 35 volunteer tour guides.

All this for a church that began in 1933 in an old garage building on W Idlewild Avenue in Seminole Heights, hence the name. Idlewild Baptist grew steadily over the years, but began exploding with members in the 1980s. By 1988, the church had bought its current 42-acre site off Bearss Avenue in north Tampa.

Idlewild built an 1,800-seat sanctuary at Bearss, but needed more room after only four years there. It had to break its worship services into four, beginning Saturday nights.

Several factors have marked Idlewild's growth into a megachurch, and they are reflected on the new campus:

* First, Idlewild seeks to make church exciting. Pastor Ken Whitten is charismatic in the pulpit.

Construction workers have kept the location of Whitten's new pulpit marked, even when it was simply a spray-painted circle on a patch of rough asphalt.

"They put a lot of energy into keeping that spot reserved for Pastor Ken, so he would see where it was," said Childers, the tour guide.

* Second, Idlewild serves up old-time gospel Christianity through an arsenal of modern technology. Dual projection screens punctuate the service at the Bearss sanctuary, and more of the same will be used in Lutz.

The ceiling of the new sanctuary is laced with eight catwalks, enough to accommodate hundreds of lighting and special-effects fixtures.

"Our Christmas program is always a major production, and Easter and the Fourth of July," Childers said. "This is going to give us a lot of capabilities we never had before. . . . Our technical guys are really thrilled about this."

In the children's wing, hallway computer stations will tap a database with information about each child, such as allergies and parents' cell phone numbers.

* Third, the church is a vibrant place for small-group socializing, which the Gatheria is meant to enhance. For many members, the focal point of their Idlewild experience is small-group Bible study, designed to inspire friendships as well as faith. The new campus will open with two Sunday services, but three shifts of Bible study.

Idlewild's booming recreation programs sealed the church's decision six years ago to move rather than expand at Bearss. Idlewild bought the new site in 2000, and four ballfields were the first things built.

By September, Idlewild will have invested $73-million in the new campus. Of that, members have given or pledged more than $30-million.

Idlewild's dreams reach well beyond September. One is to reshape the lakefront outside the Gatheria for a picturesque island chapel for weddings and funerals. Until then, they are to be held in the main, 5,152-seat sanctuary.

But a small gathering there might not feel as awkward as one might assume, Childers said.

"We can dim the lighting in the balcony and the terraces and force the lighting onto the floor," he said. "You can make it feel small."

Bill Coats can be reached at 813 269-5309 or

[Last modified January 8, 2005, 06:39:04]

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