Houses of God? Try sprawling campuses of worship events
Quaint little downtown chapels don't cut it anymore, as churches look for space to spread out and spread the Word.
By MICHAEL VAN SICKLER
Published August 28, 2005
[Times photo: Mike Pease]
The sanctuary at the new Idlewild Baptist Church is so big, Air Force One could fit inside. "When you're not growing, you're dying," said Ken Smith of the church.
Hanging in the office of First Baptist Church of Plant City is a painting of a modest white church with a steeple.
It's a romantic and humble vision of Americana, a sensibility echoed by an array of architectural elements that distinguish First Baptist's sanctuary at the northern edge of Plant City's downtown.
With a steeple, white columns, red brick facade and arching windows, First Baptist epitomizes a 20th century Southern church.
But in coming months, the church will relinquish its home of more than 80 years. Congregation members will migrate 3 miles south to build a modern complex on 53 acres now covered with orange groves.
It's an exodus that is becoming a Tampa Bay ritual. As a suburban housing boom swells the population, established churches and upstarts alike scramble to keep pace in an expanding, competitive marketplace of soul saving. The new compounds barely resemble the shrines they're replacing.
First Baptist's construction plans are as ambitious and elaborate as other fast-growing local churches: athletic fields, a bookstore, a restaurant and a sanctuary twice the size of its current one. The parking lot will be so big that shuttles will ferry worshipers from their cars to the main campus.
"We'll be right in the middle of where thousands of new homes will be," said the Rev. Ron Churchill, church pastor. "We have to go where the people are and build enough space to hold them all."
These newer churches dwarf their predecessors. For example, an analysis of the 895 churches built in Hillsborough County between 1900 and 2004 shows that the average size is nearly five times greater now than the buildings from the 1930s.
Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz is building what will be one of Florida's biggest churches, with one-third the floor space of the Westfield Citrus Park mall. Other churches are adapting massive existing buildings. Calvary Chapel of St. Petersburg moved into a former Wal-Mart last year.
With a shortage of parking and a population that has flocked to the suburbs, many churches have concluded they must abandon their downtown locations. Two 1920s neoclassical Greek revival churches in Pinellas County are in jeopardy because of this demographic shift.
"We're throwing away things that can't get built now," said architect Tim Clemmons, who is trying to preserve one of these churches in downtown St. Petersburg. "Older churches glorified Greek and Roman society, where there was an investment in the public realm.
"Churches today reflect a society that has turned inward and become less public," he said. "They've responded to changes in our society in the same ways the private sector has. Shops used to be on the town square and owned by locals. Now we have large-scale stores that can only be reached by car. What we have now are big box churches that, physically, are less embedded in the community."
But for evangelical church leaders, mammoth-sized campuses are the best way to achieve their main mission of spreading the Gospel.
Ken Smith, Idlewild's minister through administration, puts it this way: "When you're not growing, you're dying."
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While relatively few in number, megachurches are fueling much of this size inflation.
Just 35 years ago, there were only about 10 non-Catholic churches in the country big enough to be called megachurches, with an average worship attendance of at least 2,000, said John Vaughan, who runs the Megachurch Research Center in Bolivar, Mo.
But a great evangelical awakening has reshaped America's religious landscape, especially in the Southwest and Southeast. By 2000, 500 megachurches were established. In the past five years, that number has more than doubled, Vaughan said.
He counts eight megachurches in the Tampa Bay area using last year's attendance figures: two in Tampa, four in Brandon, two in Clearwater.
Some have sparkling new campuses and several buildings, like Idlewild Baptist. Some move into old buildings, like Without Walls International Church. It occupies two buildings south of Tampa International Airport - a 1960s Canada Dry bottling plant and a former insurance office.
Founded in 1991 in an old South Tampa storefront with five members, the nondenominational church gained 4,330 in average attendance last year - the biggest boost in the country, Vaughan said. Its average attendance of 24,000 is second only to a Houston church.
In the Without Walls worship center, big-screen TVs, a massive sound board with hundreds of knobs, and a band with a bongo player, keyboardist and drummer have replaced crosses and other religious symbols.
Technological savvy is a common trait for megachurches, said Alan Wolfe, the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.
"They provide a place to go for people who live in pretty alienating, suburban environments where there isn't much going on socially," Wolfe said. "The attraction is primarily cultural and social. No Bach on the organ. It's rock 'n' roll and PowerPoint presentations."
For congregants, the proceedings are less stiff.
"It's not overly religious," said Janet Gonzalez, 29, a Lutz Realtor who attends Without Walls. "There's rap, there's hip-hop. It helped me get closer to God."
With more people attending, megachurches must have bigger buildings. Idlewild Baptist is making sure it will have room.
Its $73-million complex, which will open in late October, is, at 440,000-square feet, bigger than St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, which has a surface area of a mere 163,182 square feet.
And that's only Phase 1. To be built later is a second children's wing, a chapel and a dining hall.
Set back by a milelong main entrance from Dale Mabry Highway, Idlewild spans the horizon. With a stucco facade and a barrel-tile roof, the building's only hint of its mission is a single cross, draped across a second-story window.
Its sanctuary is so big, it could fit Air Force One. There are eight catwalks, two giant high-definition rear projection screens, a 75-seat orchestra section and dozens of speakers and lights perched from the ceiling. Each sermon is aided by a staff that would outnumber those working a production at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.
While the majority of churches in Tampa Bay don't have as many congregants as megachurches, many have pursued ambitious expansion plans.
First Baptist Church of St. Petersburg is well short of 2,000 in attendance, but it moved from its downtown location in 1990 to a new complex on Gandy Boulevard that's nearly 100,000 square feet and has plenty of parking.
In New Tampa, members of St. James United Methodist, which is about half the size of a megachurch, raised $1-million in 10 days last year to buy 22 acres for future construction.
Catholic churches don't aim to be supersized, but other factors pull in that direction, said Robert Gibbons, the chancellor for the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg and pastor of St. Paul's Catholic Church in St. Petersburg.
"There's been a tremendous growth in the number of Catholics, but not a corresponding growth in priests," Gibbons said. "With construction material costs rising, it's more efficient for us to build bigger."
Sometimes, church growth threatens to wipe away vestiges of the past.
St. Peter's Episcopal Cathedral in downtown St. Petersburg bought the 1924 sanctuary from First Baptist Church of St. Petersburg when that church moved in 1990. This summer, St. Peter's signed an agreement to sell the sanctuary to a developer.
The developer plans to build a condo tower in place of the building, which was deemed a historical structure 11 years ago. St. Peter's paid the developer $5-million to use 60,000 square feet of the tower.
What happens to the sanctuary isn't known. If the developer plans to demolish it, the St. Petersburg City Council must first approve it.
Uncertainty also clouds the future of the domed sanctuary that has been home the last 79 years for Calvary Baptist Church in downtown Clearwater. Later this year, Calvary Baptist plans to leave for a new home on 22 acres on McMullen-Booth Road.
"We're here to communicate a message to people, and we have to go where the people are," said the Rev. William Rice, the church's pastor. "Downtown Clearwater is like swimming upstream for us. Parking is a headache, and no one lives downtown."
No need to worry about that at their new home. It'll have plenty of parking and several new amenities to make people feel welcome. A common area will be designed for people to gather on couches. There will be a coffee bar.
"We want it to be like a living room," Rice said, "where people can sit and relax."
Gone will be the ornate artwork of Calvary's current church, which is replete with carvings of angelic figures.
"We're going for the 80 percent in Tampa Bay that aren't going to church right now," Rice said. "So we don't want to create this big institutional wall that will scare everyone away."
It's not clear, however, what will become of the 1926 building getting left behind.
A developer plans a 25-story condo tower where it is now, and city officials are considering ways to salvage the sanctuary, possibly by moving it and using it as a performing arts center.
Like footprints in the sand, these older buildings instruct us of where we are coming from and should be removed with great caution, Clemmons said.
"These churches tell the story of the boom times of 1920s Florida as much as the hotels do," he said. "It was a time when the downtown churches fulfilled the social and entertainment needs of the community, and you went there whether you were a member or not because that's where everyone went.
"There's much more separation between churches now and the surrounding community," Clemmons said. "You have to drive there, and that tends to encourage only members of that church to attend."
Although newer churches are remaking communities with large campuses and an array of activities throughout the week that generate traffic, they draw scant attention from public officials. No one at the Hillsborough County Planning Commission even tracks the issue. In 2000, Congress passed a bill that was quickly signed by President Bill Clinton making it harder for government to impose zoning restrictions on churches.
With few restrictions, some churches are disengaging from the rest of the community by building sprawling campuses, said Phillip Bess, a professor of architecture at University of Notre Dame.
"Most churches aren't conscious about the implications of how they use the land," Bess said. "They just go where the people go. But they're isolating themselves from the civic realm with these big structures, and that undercuts the evangelical mission."
Church leaders say they're responding to a marketplace that forces them to build immense facilities that can support a diverse, and growing, congregation.
"The goal of the Gospel is to reach as many people as possible," said Churchill, who counts Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton as one of his heroes. "That's why you don't want a smaller church."
Times staff writers Shannon Breen, Waveney Ann Moore and Bill Coats contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at email@example.com or 813 226-3402.
[Last modified August 28, 2005, 01:15:11]
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