LUTZ — The bar was dark and the beer was cold. Just the way Craig Altman liked to spend his Saturday nights.
Only this time, it was different.
At 19, he was at a crossroads. The party boy from Hillsborough High who lived in the moment was finally thinking of his future. He was smitten with a green-eyed girl named Debbie who worked at a local toy store.
There was just one problem. She was a newly committed Christian and he was far from it.
At first, he thought he could seduce her away from such nonsense. When that didn’t work, he went to church with her, reluctantly. He started to read the Bible, thinking it might impress her. After three months, she was ready to move on. To go any further, she told Altman, we have to be on the same faith walk. If that doesn’t work for you, we need to go our own ways.
He sought solace with his brew on a barstool at the Tapper Pub in South Tampa. And that’s when it happened.
“You hear of those supernatural moments, when God speaks to you,” Altman says. “I had mine when I got the message loud and clear: You know the truth, now go do something with it.”
That decision to heed the voice would change his life — and thousands of others. He got the girl and, eventually, he got a church when he founded the nondenominational Grace Family Church in Lutz. What started as a Bible study in a friend’s living room has grown into one of the most successful and influential megachurches in the Tampa Bay area.
On Saturday beginning at 4:30 p.m. Grace Family will host a free public celebration honoring its 20th anniversary in a venue designed for hockey fans and concert crowds: the Forum on Channelside Drive. Food trucks, live music, a video presentation and a worship service will be part of the festivities at the Forum, one of the few places big enough to accommodate a congregation of 7,000-plus spread over three campuses.
For Altman, 56, none of this is what he imagined when he began with a few dozen people who shared his vision two decades ago.
“I’m just not this smart,” he says, laughing. “I am amazed what God can do with ordinary people.”
Craig Altman likes to say he’s from a “long line of heathens.”
His late father, God bless him, was married four times, he says. Given that both he and Debbie have a family history of alcoholism, infidelity and divorce, their respective conversions were met with a lukewarm reception by relatives.
Even after committing his life to Christ, Altman hadn’t a clue he would be called to the ministry. He dabbled in construction, pipefitting and real estate.
Then Calvary Temple, the Temple Terrace church he and Debbie attended, had an opening for a youth pastor.
He felt drawn to apply for the job. Unofficially, he already was involved in youth ministry, going to school bus stops at 6 a.m. to pray with high school kids and hanging out in front of bars to witness to college students. So he went to Calvary pastor Dale Brooks and told him that he was the right person, even though he didn’t have a theology degree or a Bible school background.
“That’s what I liked best about him,” Brooks says. “He wasn’t messed up by all that formal teaching. Craig was all heart and on fire for the Lord.” Brooks went to his board and said he had found their man.
It didn’t all go smoothly right away.
The first week of his youth group, Altman had 12 kids. The next week, only six showed up. And on his first outing, he accidentally left one of the youngsters at Malibu Grand Prix. He didn’t know it until the missing child’s sister started crying at the fast-food restaurant the group stopped at after a night of go-cart riding.
“Maybe not the best start for a career in ministry,” Altman concedes.
With the average church congregation growing older, Altman fretted for the future. We need to hand off the baton, he said, but what if no one was there to grab it? So he launched a youth group with edgy music and tech-friendly elements, calling it a name that baffles Brooks to this day: High Places.
Word about a hip way to worship spread quickly. Hundreds of teens and young adults made their way to Calvary. The Altmans loved their work so much that they would joke about going for a record as the “oldest youth pastors of all time.”
In 1993, Altman strode into Brooks’ office, tears in his eyes. It caught the senior pastor off guard. He wasn’t used to seeing Altman, a Type A personality who usually had control of his emotions, so vulnerable.
He sat down and blurted it out. “I think I’m supposed to start a church.”
Brooks didn’t see that coming. But within seconds, he felt God’s presence, telling him to bless the young man and offer prayers of encouragement.
To prepare for the next step, Altman led Bible studies in a friend’s living room for a few months. In January 1994, the young couple was officially sent from Calvary to begin their new church.
Joy Sutton found the church she was looking for in a former Jazzercise studio in a Carrollwood strip center.
That was Grace Family’s first facility. The minute she walked into the makeshift sanctuary, she felt she belonged. People were friendly, and she didn’t feel judged for being a divorced mother of four.
“What you see is what you get” is how she describes the Altmans. “Both are down-to-earth with no pretensions. The couple I met back then is pretty much the same couple I know now.”
The church has come a long way from the exercise studio, where worship services in the cramped quarters were often disrupted by the sound of flushing toilets in the restroom and barking dogs in the pet store next door.
Since 2000, the church has made its main home off Van Dyke Road in Lutz on a former ranch. The congregation got a 17-acre piece of property in an owner-financed $215,000 sale — a fact that still brings a smile to Altman’s face.
People kept coming. Some came because their children showed up first, drawn to Grace’s storied Youth Center, an 11,000-square-foot complex that opened in 2001. It’s a teen’s dream: an indoor basketball court, game stations, pool tables, foosball, an elaborate sound system, wall-mounted televisions. It’s all free, except for the snack bar. This $1 million investment is a nod to the Altmans’ roots as youth pastors.
Evangelist RV Brown, who moved his family here from Tennessee, checked out the church after his kids discovered the center. Now he bases his own ministry, Outreach to America’s Youth, at the church, and works with Grace’s thriving men’s ministry, which draws up to 150 men every Tuesday night.
“I’ve raised five kids from babies to college students to adults here. There’s no finer place to grow and develop your children, because there’s something for every single stage,” Brown says.
As part of the growing multisite trend, Grace Family now operates two other campuses: one in Citrus Park at Sickles High School, which will move by Easter to a 100,000-square-foot warehouse at Waters Avenue and Veterans Expressway that recently was acquired for $4.6 million, and Altman’s former church in Temple Terrace. That doesn’t include online viewers; there were more than 46,000 in 2013.
It’s a come-as-you-are dress code, with the jeans-wearing Altman setting the tone. There’s a Starbucks café in the lobby, and a policy that welcomes using iPads to follow along with the teachings. On Saturday nights, you can attend either the 5 or 7 p.m. service, eat a home-cooked dinner for $5 and hear live music by the courtyard.
Transforming lives is always Altman’s first priority. Of the church’s $8.8 million annual income, more than $1 million goes to missions and benevolence. And on the second Saturday of every month, members spread out and volunteer in the community, donating more than 20,000 hours in 2013.
Three years ago, the church launched The Dream Center in the closed Boys and Girls Club in Ybor City to serve inner-city youth with activities, sports and faith lessons. Grace spent more than $350,000 and hundreds of volunteer hours to bring the dilapidated building up to date to reach a population that is often neglected.
Ed Stetzer of Lifeway Research in Nashville says Grace’s growth is “freakishly abnormal,” putting it in the top 1 percent of the country’s 300 fastest-growing churches. That the church has accomplished this over a steady 20-year period, as opposed to a few short years of frenzied growth, makes it even more impressive.
“People are responding by the thousands for a reason,” Stetzer says. “Nondenominational evangelical churches like Grace are thriving because they’re providing a timeless message in a timely way. They’re paying attention to the cultural shift, and they’re adapting.”
So far, Grace Family has sent two of its pastors off to start their own churches, cut of the same biblically sound and culturally relevant cloth: James Dodzweit to Grow Life in Wesley Chapel, and Mark Quattrochi to The Chapel in Tarpon Springs.
“There’s no ego there,” Dodzweit says of Altman. “He’s secure enough to give us the wings to pursue our own calling.”
More important, Quattrochi says, Altman genuinely cares about the people he serves. He remembers one Easter — a service where attendance skyrockets — when no one could find Altman. The worship band was ready to wrap it up, and the pastor was AWOL.
Finally, someone spotted him. He was in the parking lot, directing traffic.
“He hated the idea of a newcomer having a bad experience because of not being able to park,” Quattrochi says and laughs.
It’s been quite a journey since Altman made that decision sitting on a barstool almost 40 years ago.
Some things haven’t changed. He’s frugal, a holdover from the days when they struggled financially. And, as he likes to remind his congregants, “I’m the one who takes out the trash.”
He and Debbie still live in their 2,400-square-foot ranch house in Carrollwood, where they raised son Brent, 28, and daughter, Dara, 29.
“We thought if our church grew to maybe 500, it would be wildly successful,” Debbie Altman says.
He says he’s proof that you don’t need a special pedigree, advanced degree or a pristine background to be a successful church leader. What happens next, he doesn’t know. That’s the beauty of a place called Grace.
“It’s never our plan. It’s been God’s plan all along,” he says. “And it’s taken us on an incredible ride that is not over yet.”