Two decades ago, Craig Altman decided to start a church.
He didn't go into it with a grand vision. He didn't set a goal to save X number of souls or build a megachurch. He simply felt called to lead.
In spring of 1994, Altman and his wife, Debbie, left the Temple Terrace church they attended to try something new. They gathered with a few others at a North Tampa strip mall, where they worshiped together in a 2,000-square-foot space. They named the new venture Grace Family Church.
On Saturday, as Altman stood before approximately 10,000 people at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, he spoke of those small beginnings. He thanked the crowd for coming out to celebrate the anniversary of one of Tampa Bay's largest churches. Today, Grace Family has more than 7,000 members with campuses in Lutz, Citrus Park and Temple Terrace.
"I just wanted to reach people with grace and love," Altman said. "I didn't realize it would be this many people."
At Saturday's event, congregants and members of the community listened to stories of lives changed. They danced to praise music and enjoyed a high-tech show featuring special effects and Jumbotrons. They prayed.
The crowd used an app, Wham City Lights, to synch their phone lights with the live music.
"Seeing 10,000 people holding up their phones, all lit and flashing in unison — it was really cool," said Greg Froelich, communications director for Grace Family. "It was something we'd never done before. Something stretching beyond what people think church is. It showed you can really use technology to worship."
Through the years, Grace Family has challenged tradition with new ideas. Members helped usher in the jeans-at-church trend. They unapologetically added coffee and rock-concert-style music to the God equation. They also started several successful outreach ministries, including a weekly traveling soup kitchen that brings food to the hungry on the streets. In 2010, the church founded the Dream Center of Tampa, which serves inner-city youth.
Altman said the impact Grace has on the community continues to surprise him. He didn't grow up in the church. He came to Christianity after meeting his wife, who was inspired by a high school friend, Martha, to learn more about Jesus.
"People always seem to look at something big (like Grace) and think, 'wow that must be the result of something really special,' but really, it isn't that at all," Altman said. "This story started well before me. It started with Martha sharing her faith, and it turned into something greater than anyone ever imagined. It shows that you just need to be faithful and obedient, and God does great things."
For more information on Grace Family, visit gfconline.com or call (813) 265-4151. The church's main campus is at 5101 Van Dyke Road, Lutz.
Dare to Be, a motivational event for women featuring Christian recording artist Natalie Grant and author Charlotte Gambill, begins at 1 p.m. Saturday at City Life Church, 8411 N Dale Mabry Highway. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit florida.thejoyfm.com/event/dare-to-be.
Brandon Christian Women's Connection will host a luncheon fashion show featuring vintage wedding dresses from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. March 10 at the Bell Shoals Special Events Center, 2102 Bell Shoals Road, Brandon. Cost to attend is $14 or $9 for first-time guests. No membership is required, but a reservation is requested by March 3. For more information, call Lillie at (813) 740-0098.
Congregation Beth Shalom, 706 Bryan Road, Brandon, will present physicist and author Dr. Clifford Will, speaking about Big Bang Cosmology and creation theories, at 1 p.m. March 23. The event is free. For more information, call (813) 681-6547.