TAMPA — In the dark auditorium of Sickles High School, an audience is on its feet.
Drums, guitarists and a quartet of singers belt out Our God. Lyrics linger on the lips of the congregation. Arms sway with the beat, reaching toward something higher.
In the wing, campus Pastor Hal Mayer waits. This is just the buildup. What comes next is the main event.
As Mayer introduces himself and this Sunday morning's message, a 16- by 9-foot white screen descends silently behind him.
That's his cue to step aside. It's time for technology to take the pulpit.
Life-size and in high definition, Grace Family Church's lead pastor, Craig Altman, appears. His presence is commanding, even in one dimension.
"Let's welcome Citrus Park Grace Family Church! We love you," Altman, 55, booms before launching into a sermon based on Philippians 2:14-15.
While many area churches are using advanced technology to enhance regular services, Grace, which boasts more than 6,000 members at its main campus in Lutz, is one of the few churches in the country using it to replicate its brand elsewhere.
The idea of a church with multiple locations is not new. More than 5,000 churches have opened satellite campuses across the country, and a third are using video technology, according to Greg Ligon, vice president of Leadership Network, a Dallas-based organization that promotes church innovation. The cost to open multiple locations varies widely. Expenses depend on staffing, a church's use of technology and whether it merges with an existing church or constructs a new site.
At some church campuses, a pastor may simply travel from one campus to the next and preach live at each service. At other churches with multiple locations, like LifePoint Church in New Tampa and Calvary Baptist Church in Clearwater, cameras record services at the main campuses Saturday night and the videos are replayed in HD at smaller venues the next day.
The more sophisticated the technology, the greater the cost. Grace invested nearly $900,000 into the technology infrastructure at its main campus, which includes a 25- by 13.5-foot LED video wall. Plus, the church spent another $200,000 for screens, lighting and equipment at each of its new campuses in Citrus Park, which opened Aug. 18, and Temple Terrace, which launches next month.
That investment "brings a sense of realism to what is essentially a projection sermon," said Scott Thumma, a professor of sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. "It has just really improved the quality. I've heard a number of people say when they left similar venues that they swore that was the real person there."
Like many churches with multiple locations, Grace's new campuses are the result of mergers with smaller churches, where Grace assumed all property and assets. In exchange, each campus gets the backing only a megachurch can offer, including human resources, accounting, public relations and more.
Campus pastors take backseat roles, interacting with members personally while the lead pastor performs the weekly sermons.
For Grace, the investment pays off in terms of people reached. When the Temple Terrace location launches, the church's total audience will have increased by almost 1,000 people.
"There is a cost involved to reach others, but what greater value for us (than) to see a person's life touched for eternity?" said Altman, the lead pastor. "I mean, you can't put a dollar value on that."
LifePoint, which has four campuses, hopes to expand as finances allow.
"Our overall vision is that at some point you won't be more than 15 or 20 minutes away from a LifePoint church anywhere in the greater Tampa Bay area," said Rob Baer, the pastor at the South Tampa campus.
At Grace, Altman envisions a similar scenario, especially as audiences become accustomed to expecting everything on a screen.
An LED screen replaced two of the services at the Lutz campus this year. And attendance hasn't changed, Altman said.
There are downsides to the use of technology, though. Relying too much on one pastor can mean neglecting the gifts of others, Thumma said. There's also concern that creating multiple church locations dilutes the diversity that megachurches often boast about.
"You are fragmenting the congregation," Thumma said. "People in each area will stay in their satellite campus rather than everyone together in one big church."
At the debut of the Citrus Park location, which used to be the Church at the Bay, many people in the audience, mostly in their 30s and 40s, embraced the use of technology.
"It was almost like he was standing there," Chris Logan, 30, of Citrus Park said of Altman. "As we get heavier and heavier into technology and more into smartphones, it seems the natural way to go."
Still, there was some confusion over whether the use of technology was a temporary fix.
Lowell Gutzler, 75, of Naples was in town visiting his daughter.
"I would've preferred it to be live," he said. "But I think that will eventually happen."
That's not the case, Altman said. But he does hope that, as technology improves, the experience will get closer and closer to the real thing.
"If you have a product or something that works well, you want to be able to reproduce it in another environment," Altman said. "The farther you go from your original campus, those can be challenges. But they can be done."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Shelley Rossetter can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401.