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Churches expand with bricks and mortar, branches, Web sites

St. Anne Catholic Church in Ruskin is building a sanctuary on U.S. 41 after outgrowing its former home.

SKIP O\u2019ROURKE | Times

St. Anne Catholic Church in Ruskin is building a sanctuary on U.S. 41 after outgrowing its former home.

BRANDON — It's a Sunday morning, and hundreds of worshipers are pouring into Bell Shoals Baptist Church's cavernous new building.

A smaller group of Bay Life Church members are gathering in Riverview High School's auditorium.

And somewhere in cyberspace, people are watching Pastor Greg Dumas of the Crossing Church give a sermon through a live video feed.

Brandon is known for big churches, but what happens when big churches get bigger?

Some build multimillion-dollar buildings to fit thousands, some branch off into new campuses, and others look to the Internet.

These three churches and others in the area are still dealing with the population growth that accompanied the land boom in southeastern Hillsborough County. Though growth has slowed, churches are still scrambling to catch up.

The traditional method is to build. Bell Shoals spent $24-million on its new building, which seats about 3,500. St. Anne Catholic Church in Ruskin is also taking that route.

The Rev. John McEvoy of St. Anne gave eight sermons each weekend in December because the current building seats only 400. The new cross-shaped building taking shape along U.S. 41 will be able to fit 1,000 more.

"We anticipate we'll continue to grow," he said. "It'll be a beautiful icon for Ruskin, and probably down the road we'll start a Catholic school."

Campus approach

Some churches are looking for a less expensive, less permanent way to grow. The answer? A campus.

Bay Life recently started a campus that meets each Sunday at Riverview High School. The Crossing Church is looking at venues in Riverview, New Tampa, Lakeland and Plant City.

"It's almost like a franchise model that allows your body to replicate what you have to offer in another location without the expense of growing a brand-new thing," said Dumas, pastor of the Crossing Church.

The branch will have its own worship team, campus pastor, children's pastor and youth pastor, but the sermons will be played on a projection screen. It will be the same sermon Dumas gave in the main building earlier that day.

Dumas hopes to plant one campus within the next year. Church leaders will probably rent the space, let the flock grow and then consider buying property, he said.

Bay Life, which has a congregation 2,400 strong, is going a similar route with high-tech video at Riverview High School.

The church had its first remote sermon at the high school Sunday. While there is a campus pastor present, the sermon was recorded the previous week at Bay Life and is shown on an 18-foot high-definition screen.

The church expects about 200 people to attend the Riverview service, and hopes to double that number in a year.

"With gas prices and costs of expanding facilities being so prohibitive, we're just going to take our church to other places," Mark Saunders, head pastor at Bay Life, said.

A breakaway group

Meanwhile, one group is branching off from the Crossing Church and forming a separate church. Bobby Triplett led the young adults at the Crossing Church until he decided to form Element, a church that targets young adults, especially those in the arts community.

He calls the Tampa warehouse they'll be meeting in a "big vanilla box." At first they won't have chairs, but he thinks a bring-your-own-folding-chair policy will create the casual atmosphere he wants.

He hopes his church will grow, but once it hits about 300, he'll help members form a separate, autonomous church. It's a reproducing model, he said, and it's based on his idea that "10 churches of 1,000 can better reach a community than one church of 10,000."

"I think the bigger you are, the harder it is to be authentic," he said. "It's the get-back-to-the-basics, less-is-more mantra."

The Internet

Other churches are looking to technology for growth.

The pastor of the Crossing Church is helping to launch an interactive Web site, where people around the world can watch Dumas' sermons live while chatting with a pastor online and messaging people through the church's social networking site.

Dumas sees a future where people join their neighbors on Sunday mornings and watch the service on their computers. People will be able to better connect with each other in that intimate setting, he said.

"The idea is to actually have church like they did in the first century, house to house," he said. "If that's the case, there's unlimited potential to have people exposed to the message of Christ and receive the Gospel, and it's not corporate or money driven."

Times staff writer Jan Wesner contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.

Churches expand with bricks and mortar, branches, Web sites 08/21/08 [Last modified: Thursday, August 21, 2008 4:34am]
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