APOLLO BEACH — Founded 55 years ago, Bell Shoals Baptist Church has grown from a tiny community church to one of two megachurches in Brandon. Grace Family Church started in a Lutz strip mall in 1994 with a handful of regulars, and now hosts more than 5,000 people each Sunday.
The two churches are part of a national trend, branching out with smaller campuses in growing communities and jump-starting existing churches where attendance or interest has dwindled.
Bell Shoals Baptist Church, merged with an existing church in Apollo Beach in 2011 and has seen attendance explode. There were 12 regular members at Apollo Beach Community Church before the merger; now some 400 people attend regularly. Bell Shoals Baptist Apollo Beach expects about 800 people will attend services on Easter Sunday.
“It takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people,” said George Thomasson, senior pastor at the Apollo Beach campus. “We work with what we perceive as the makeup of a community.”
Across the country, according to a study done by the University of Chicago and Duke University, most multisite churches are growing with the help of lay people and church newcomers. Sixty percent of the churches with multiple campuses made the transition within the past five years.
According to the study, one in 10 Protestants in the United States now attends a church with multiple campuses.
“It’s not our vision to grow another megachurch here,” Thomasson said. “Our vision is this: We consider this campus to be an incubator to spawn other campuses.” That includes branching farther into the growing South Shore area with a look toward new church campuses in Wimauma, Riverview and possibly near Waterset, a massive master-planned community now under construction off of Big Bend Road.
Bell Shoals also has merged with First Baptist Church of Palm River, where the congregation has struggled for years to find a permanent senior pastor. Renovations are under way on the sanctuary there and the church has been renamed Bell Shoals Baptist Palm River Campus.
Grace Family Church has merged with Center Point Church in Temple Terrace and has bought a warehouse on Waters Avenue to relocate a congregation now meeting at Sickles High School. Both satellite congregations average 500 worshipers on Sundays.
Grace Family will live-stream sermons from its primary campus in Lutz to the satellite locations, but the smaller campuses will have their own staffs and volunteers to run the local operations, said Greg Froelich, senior director of communications.
“We embarked on this strategy about two years ago to start branching out,” Froelich said. “You can only put so many people in one location.
“A lot of older churches are falling off,” Froelich said. “In Temple Terrace, they had about 100 people there and they stayed and grew with us.”
In each case, the smaller congregations sought help from larger churches.
“We were not looking for corporate expansion, or to run roughshod over anyone,” said Jeff Meyer, Bell Shoals’ executive pastor.
“We are not actively looking for the next one. We don’t really know where it will be,” he said. “It’s more a matter of, ‘Let’s see how God wants to orchestrate his perfect timetable.’ He’s got the wisdom on that and He has given us plenty to do.”
For Grace Family, the growth at its newer community campuses has been noteworthy, as well. The Sickles High congregation quickly outgrew the high school location, prompting Grace Family to buy the 100,000-square-foot warehouse on Waters Avenue near the Veterans Expressway, about half of which it is converting into a sanctuary and church campus.
“I think it is one of the most amazing and phenomenal experiences I’ve ever been through,” said Bill Morris, who had been a member of Center Point Church, a church Pastor Craig Altman had established. Altman, who heads Grace Family, has completed the circle by bringing Center Point into the fold, Morris said.
“To be a part of this experience is so revealing to me about God’s plan and God’s timing,” Morris said. “This is essentially the completion of the circle.”
Morris said Altman wanted to have church members reap the benefits of serving God, “for it to be relevant to people’s lives today.” And he has accomplished that, Morris said.
He said a vast majority of those attending Grace Family in Temple Terrace have taken well to the live-streaming sermon coming from Lutz. The fact that the local campus also has its own staff makes it work, he said.
“We have completely redone the sanctuary there and the kids’ ministry has been re-energized,” Froelich said. “And we actually just announced plans for a fourth location in Ybor City. We have a ministry called the Dream Center for inner-city outreach. We are going to start in the fall doing children’s church there. There are a lot of kids down there that need help. As that grows, we know that little fish bring in big fish.”
“Sometimes, continuing to grow in one area is not as effective as having multiple campuses where it is convenient for more people to not drive as far,” Bell Shoals’ Meyer said. “Those are some of the factors we are recognizing.”
Bell Shoals’ branching is part of what the congregation calls its D.R.E.A.M., Meyer said. “It’s a vision, if you will, for our future. ‘D’ stands for development of Christian leaders; ‘R’ is for revitalization, strengthening and starting congregations for kingdom growth; ‘E’ is excellence, providing for increasing ministry effectiveness; ‘A’ is attraction, connecting our community to the gospel through different outreach events; and ‘M’ is mission, fulfilling the great commission, which to us as we understand through gospel, is to take Jesus through his love and forgiveness.
“What we have done at Apollo Beach is, in essence, a relaunching of a church,” Meyer said. “It just needed a makeover. Sometimes as you drive around you are going to see church buildings, some thriving and some that once were but aren’t at the moment. Sometimes, it’s just the cycle and the season of things.”
“We were kind of nervous to begin with because when a change comes, you’re not sure what to expect,” said Conrad Dehn who, with his wife, Jackie, had attended Apollo Beach Church. “When I first started going to this church about five years ago, in the old regime, we had quite a few members. It got down to 10 or 12. After the new pastor came in, people started coming. I could not believe there were that many people that would come that quick.
“You can’t beat it,” Dehn said of the new church. “This pastor that is here is very optimistic about everything and he is a driving force and gets everybody involved in everything. It’s 100 percent (better) as far as I’m concerned.”
Bell Shoals got started with a handful of volunteers from its Brandon campus, and soon learned it needed to focus on the needs of young families in Apollo Beach, Thomasson said. The congregation paid off construction of a $360,000 children’s building in four months and is about to sign a contract for a new $2.6 million building that will have 13 Bible study rooms, a large welcome hall, a cafe, a commercial kitchen and worship space for 600 people.
“You have to constantly be in development mode,” Meyer said. “As God gives us opportunity to see another church that has come near to closing its doors, we want to make ourselves available to assist and help.”