They pass the pick, not the collection plate, and most of the preaching comes by way of crooners and guitar chords. Tuneful testimony springs from singers age 9 to 90. One by one, they ascend the stage to belt time-tested gospel melodies or offer original songs inspired by personal hardships, the ordeals of others and their love of Jesus.
Once a month, in a cavernous barn at the Farm USA, the aroma of sizzling meat mixes with barnyard smells. Horses snuffle in their stalls, part of the gathered faithful. Humans shuffle their feet across a sawdust covered floor, and yell, "Amen!" when they hear something they like.
Presiding over the unlikely concert hall is self-described "preacher kid" Mike Holmes, who fell away from his faith a quarter-century ago and then fell for it again — hard. About three years ago, the longtime horse trader and his wife, Denise, began hosting a monthly cookout-concert combo at their 11-acre spread near Lithia-Pinecrest Road and County Road 39.
Everyone's invited for burgers and hot dogs. And some months, said Denise, who sizes up crowds by the number of sandwiches served, it seems like everyone shows up.
Attendees come from Gibsonton, Zephyrhills, Lakeland and Lutz, some wearing cowboy hats and boots, others sporting sneakers and baseball caps. Singers, from polished professionals with CDs on display to amateurs who don't read music or play an instrument, come from across the country.
The couple accepts donations to offset the costs, but even in a tough economy, no one checks to see if guests bought their burger.
"We feel like we've been inspired to do this and open the farm up to people," said Mike, 60. "This is not about money."
He has only one stipulation: "If it offends you that we sing about God and the USA, then don't come."
He starts every concert by gathering the performers in a prayer circle, but he doesn't insist that every song incorporate the Lord.
"If it's country (music), let it be positive," he told performers on New Year's Eve. "Nothing about sneaking away with somebody's dog or running off with somebody's wife.
"The whole idea is to lift up our fellow Americans … and lead them into the presence of God."
Performers aren't restricted to country music, either. Last month's concert featured guitarist Richard Kiser playing a rock song on his "heavy metal guitar," a 30-pound novelty contraption made from a 1968 Ford Thunderbird muffler.
Mike and Denise trace the start of the concerts to their involvement with the Inspirational Country Music Association and their first trip to Nashville about four years ago. They were impressed with informal post-concert "pickin' parties," where big names and lesser-known singers would pluck their guitars and sing Christian music for fun and fellowship. They decided to introduce something similar back home in Lithia.
But really, the couple agreed, it started a year or so before that. Mike, then 55, a successful horse breeder, trainer and founder of Horse 'N Tack, a trade magazine with statewide circulation, attended the funeral of his father, an Assemblies of God preacher in Kentucky. He said a transformation occurred as he gazed on the man in the casket.
"Something happened as I stood there," Mike recalled. He said he felt charged with a mission to "reach out to people spiritually, physically and financially."
Denise, 57, who had been attending church solo for years, said she was thrilled with the change in her husband. Initially, the couple hosted sing-alongs around a campfire. When listeners and performers outgrew that, they moved to one of the smaller barns on their property.
The concept really took off, the Holmeses said, when they hosted a benefit concert for Nashville Christian music artist Greg McDougal, who tells of the need for a specially equipped house on his website, ahouseformykids.com. Three of McDougal's four children have cystic fibrosis. The benefit attracted Christian music singers from across the country and raised about $11,000 for the cause.
The Holmeses continued the concerts, moving to a large barn once used for horse training clinics and auctions. Recent performances have been shared live on the Internet at thefarmusa.com.
Unlike her husband, Denise doesn't play the guitar or sing. But she woke up with a tune in her head one morning, and she and her husband ended up co-writing a song, What Are You Waiting For?
"Music can feed your heart," she said. "You can be ministered to through music as well as the Word."
Nancy Facenda, chairwoman for the children's program at First United Methodist Church in Seffner, brought a group of seven adults and 10 children to the Farm this year.
"It's a wholesome outing, and it doesn't cost the parents much in the way of money," she said.
Janet Lee, pastor of New River Church in Zephyrhills, said she regularly accompanies attendees from her congregation.
"We love to come down here for the music," she said. "The atmosphere is so uplifting. … There aren't too many places that people can go that aren't churches that have gospel music."
Cherlene Adewunmi of Wesley Chapel spent New Year's Eve at the Farm with her husband, Sola. Why?
"God and America," she said.
Mike said he's especially pleased when he finds out, by a show of hands, that Baptists, Catholics, Methodists and other denominations sit together in the audience.
"I see a need for denominational barriers to be torn down," he said. "I don't see why people who profess to be Christian can't fellowship together."
He and Denise said people have told them a trip to the Farm sent them back to church or at least on a spiritual journey.
"It's about having a relationship with God," Mike said. "If you don't have one, get one. ... Everyone needs a fire, and we want to be that."
Susan Green can be reached at [email protected]