As a teen quarterback at Land O’ Lakes High School, Drew Weatherford inspired his teammates on and off the field.
Weatherford, who went on to play football at Florida State University, accepted Christ as his savior at age 16.
When fellow Land O’ Lakes Gators saw a positive change in Weatherford, many began attending services with him at Grace Family Church in Tampa.
Weatherford grew up with founding pastor Craig Altman’s son Brent and often the visited the church before becoming a regular member in his mid teens.
“Pastor Craig was my peewee football coach,” Weatherford said. “After games, I would spend the night at the Altman’s house and go to church with them in the morning. I never could have imagined then, sitting in their small congregation, what the church would become.”
On Sunday, Grace Family Church will celebrate its 25th anniversary at Raymond James Stadium.
The church, which now operates 5 campuses and cites more than 20,000 members, invites the public to come tailgate and learn a little something about Jesus.
A come as you are approach and disinterest in serving only ‘religious’ people propelled Grace to it’s near megachurch status, Altman said.
The church has sites in Lutz, Temple Terrace, South Tampa, Waters Avenue and Ybor City. A Pasco county campus is under development in Land O’Lakes.
“We started with 80 people, subleasing a jazzercise space next a bar, and now here we are, one of the biggest church’s in Tampa Bay,” Altman said. “My vision was always to connect with people who might not know a lot about God or the Bible, and to stay relevant.”
Members from all five Grace campuses, including its main building on Van Dyke Road, will gather at Raymond James.
Altman and teaching pastor Matt Rhoden will speak, among others. Longtime member Tony Dungy will give a message via video.
Dungy and Weatherford are among many athletes, including Steelers defensive lineman Trey Johnson, who attend Grace.
“I think its the diversity of the church that attracts athletes,” Weatherford said. “Team sports is a lot about working together with a diverse group of people. It’s what we are used to, people of all ethnicities and walks of life.”
Now a family man, Weatherford continues to attend Grace with his wife and children.
The church’s youth and teen programs bring in many families, Altman said.
Technology, engaging lessons and high-energy music keep them coming back.
“We have children dragging their parents to church,” he said.
Grace offers many opportunities to get involved outside of Sunday services. The church operates the Dream Center in Ybor City, which serves low income families. Small groups focus on people’s individuals needs covering issues ranging from recovery from abuse to grief. The church itself veers off the traditional path.
“People are tired of fake in the church,” Altman said. “We aren’t trying to be self righteous. We have things like our coffee stations. Some people have a big issue with that but it’s those little things that make people feel more comfortable. Our message is sacred and holy. Our methods are less conventional.”
Weatherford said the Altmans, Craig and wife Debbie, haven’t let the church’s success change their mission.
“They are still the same people they were when I met them,” he said. “They could’ve have became less real, less relatable, but they haven’t done that in the slightest.”
The event at Raymond James is part reunion and part welcome party, Altman said.
“Its a celebration of how big God is and what He has done,” he said.
The GFC 25th Anniversary event begins at 9 a.m. March 17 at Raymond James Stadium. For more information, visit www.gfconline.com.