TAMPA — It has been arguably the toughest year in the 17-year history of Without Walls International Church, once the largest church in Florida and the fastest-growing congregation in the country.
A year ago this month, its founders announced they were divorcing. Three months later, a U.S. senator launched a federal inquiry into the church's finances. Some 50 percent of the 22,000-member congregation left in the aftermath, dragging collections down by half.
With the departure of his high-profile evangelist wife, the Rev. Randy White, the church's co-founder and senior pastor, is dealing alone with the new realities.
This summer, White blocked the Internet broadcast of church services within a 60-mile radius of the ministry's Grady Avenue campus. White said he took the step to encourage "lazy Christians" to come to church.
Earlier, he directed staff members to remove 500 chairs from the sanctuary because they sat empty during two Sunday morning services, which have since been merged into one. White said he needed to ease the strain of preaching twice as he dealt with personal crises, which also included his daughter's death.
Despite all this, White, 50, says his church is "alive and well."
"We're coming back stronger," he said in a recent interview. "It's not rhetoric, but it's reality. The God we serve is the God of a second chance."
White cites examples of rejuvenation: In recent weeks, staff members have had to add chairs as worshipers filled the building, once a Canada Dry bottling plant. Some Sundays, they have turned people away for lack of room in the 4,000-seat hall, he said.
White said the church is taking steps to attract new members, many of whom don't know the recent history. There's free valet parking for visitors and an expanded coffee shop. Church leaders speak of the day when appeals for tithes will cease, a move that could possibly silence some of Without Walls' critics who have long claimed it focuses too much on money.
Those who study megachurches, however, said they are doubtful that Without Walls will be able to easily regain the public status it once had.
"I'm not sure that I can think of an instance where, after something like this, the church is as large or as strong as it was before," said Mark A. Noll, a history professor at the University of Notre Dame. "Sometimes the work goes on but in a much diminished way. … It's been easier for politicians to recover than religious leaders."
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Clad in a gray suit on a recent Sunday, Randy White took his sermon from I Samuel 22, a passage where the warrior David is on the run and leads a band of distressed, indebted and discontented people.
Becoming more exuberant as he preached, White shed his suit jacket and tie and rolled up his sleeves. He compared himself to David, at one point crawling on the floor simulating a spy on a reconnaissance mission.
"You're about to P.U.S.H.," White told the congregation. "Praise Until Something Happens. You keep on praising. You keep on shouting. You keep on dancing, and see where God is going to take you."
White ran around the pulpit. The crowd roared.
These are the people who have stood by White during this tumultuous year. Aside from losing his marriage, White's grown daughter, Kristen, died in his arms in April after a long battle with cancer.
White said he struggled mightily, often sharing his pain in sermons and song. When he looked for support, many of the people he had stood by during difficult times in their lives fled, he said.
"The people that I paid their mortgage … people that I paid their rent, their electric, I counseled them through their divorces and the loss of their children, when I needed them they left me," White said in an interview.
White said he learned a life lesson: "You cannot put a lot of trust and emphasis on people who say that 'I've got your back.' You've got to keep your focus on Jesus."
Several former members of Without Walls contacted for this story declined to speak on the record about why they left. They said they simply preferred to move on.
Walt Walker used to attend Without Walls every Sunday with his wife. Stung by the Whites' divorce, he only visits about twice a month.
"We still don't know what happened," said Walker, 48, of Tampa. "It bothers me not to know. Something is just not on the level."
Hurt by what seemed a never-ending stream of bad news, Luz M. Bovell of Tampa stopped going to Without Walls for three months. She admits that, initially, she passed judgment on White. She came back after some soul-searching.
"Randy is one of those people who brings the message and brings it well enough that I walk out of service every Sunday with an understanding of what my role and obedience to (God) is," said Bovell, 37, who attends the church with her 8-year-old son, Amori.
Charnell Williams, a banker from Valrico, said she never contemplated leaving.
"Among all the chaos, there's consistency," said Williams, 51, noting that the church still operates its outreach ministries with which she volunteers. "It's an awesome church to me. I've never seen any thing like it in my life, and I've been in church a long time."
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When White and his now ex-wife, televangelist Paula White, contemplated divorce, they knew it would take at least a year for the congregation to recover.
White said that recovery is finally well under way. He is entertaining a purchase offer for a branch campus, Without Walls Central in Lakeland. But despite putting the church's Tampa location on the market earlier this year for $30-million, the preacher now says he has no plans to sell or move. He has hired new staff and put mirrors along the side walls of the sanctuary, a move intended to lighten the dark atmosphere in preparation for a return to a weekly television broadcast, the pastor said.
He may also get some help in reinvigorating the church from his ex-wife.
She packed the house when she led service two weeks ago. Attendees cheered when the minister, who now splits her time between New York and San Antonio, announced she would now preach at Without Walls once a month.
"I am excited about what God is doing at Without Walls," Paula White said in a statement.
And White continues his longtime practice of inviting boldface names to the church. Earlier this month, Bishop Eddie Long of Georgia was a featured speaker. Like White, he heads one of six ministries that face federal scrutiny from Sen. Charles Grassley on whether they're abusing their nonprofit status.
White likens members who remain at Without Walls to the phoenix that burned and rose from its ashes. But this time, as the church rises, White said he wants to make sure people don't focus on him.
"I'm just a guy God's used to build this," White said. "He can take his hand off me, and I'll be a car washer tomorrow. I don't know. But keep your eyes on Jesus. And, that's what I think I'm seeing happening with my church now. They've finally got their eyes off me. They're coming to worship God, and they know that I have a lot of stuff in my life that God's still working on."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Sherri Day can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3405.