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Not Such a Graveyard After All

One of the nation’s fastest-growing congregations is in the hard soil of Tampa.
Hayden Boles invited Chris Rhinehart to church. Rhinehart said yes to his co-worker, though he didn't actually intend to follow through with checking out Radiant Church in Tampa, Florida.

When Sunday morning came around, “I texted him that I wasn't feeling up to it,” says the 27-year-old Rhinehart — who had stepped inside a church twice in his life: once for a funeral and once for a wedding.

Rhinehart, a certified public accountant originally from upstate New York, had a happy, healthy upbringing in an unchurched family before moving to Tampa three years earlier. Life seemed fine.

His work colleague’s persistent reply to his text surprised him: Just check it out once. You have to come!

The two barely knew each other. But Rhinehart consented to go.

“It was the most welcoming thing I'd ever felt,” Rhinehart says. “I didn't realize what I had been missing until I found Radiant, Jesus, and God.” A few months later, at the end of Radiant lead pastor Aaron Burke’s message, Rhinehart responded to the altar call.

In the early 2010s, Burke, 35, and his wife, Katie, lived in Pensacola, Florida, where he served as a youth pastor at Brownsville Church. Meanwhile, the couple sensed a calling to reach those who wanted nothing to do with church. They learned that a city in the Sunshine State fit the bill. The 2010 U.S. Religion Census designated Tampa as the nation’s second most unchurched city (behind Portland, Oregon, and just ahead of Las Vegas).

“The pastors in the surrounding communities called it a graveyard for church plants,” Burke says. “The churches that catch on don't sustain.”

They knew no one in Tampa, yet in January 2013 the Burkes with their 6-month-old daughter, Lily, moved in with Katie’s parents in Lakeland, Florida, and began to build a team. For the first planning meeting on St. Patrick’s Day, half of the 17 people who showed up were family members.

As a meeting place for services, Burke rented a second-run movie theater that reeked of popcorn and carpet stains. Scent machines masked the smell. Burke’s feet stuck to the floor goopy with syrup from spilled soda pop.

After a Facebook ad, postal mailer, and word of mouth campaign, the first service in September 2013 had 348 in attendance. At the end of the message, 30 received Christ as Savior. By that December, Radiant added a second service; by the following Easter, a third. That entailed renting space across the hall to run a video feed. Eventually the church leased the entire building, took over five of its theaters, knocked out walls to enlarge a main auditorium, while reserving one for kids church. Today, Radiant subcontracts the remaining two theaters to a company that now shows first-run films and pays half the church’s rent.

Radiant is a Church Multiplication Network and AGTrust Matching Fund church. Burke serves on the CMN lead team and is a facilitator for CMN Launch training events. Radiant has received funds from CMN for an additional campus in a high school 10 minutes from the original site. Last September, Radiant launched a third campus in St. Petersburg, 25 minutes away. Among all the locations, Radiant holds eight weekend services, with 3,100 in attendance.

“We're seeing so many lives transformed and marriages restored,” Burke says. “God is willing and able to reach people. We just have to do our part.”

By 2018, Radiant Church had become the 13th fastest-growing church in the country, according to Outreach magazine.

That’s no surprise to Chris Rhinehart. He wants people to know that there's more out there, even for those who live happy lives.

“There was a miracle in my life, finding the Lord,” Rhinehart says. “I was yanked out of a gutter I didn't even know I was a part of.”

When Rhinehart returned home to New York for Christmas, his family sensed something had shifted within him. Then he told them he wanted to go to church.

In the end, on Christmas Eve he simply called up Burke’s sermon on the Radiant YouTube channel that had sealed his decision to follow Christ. He and his parents watched that message together.

Deann Alford

Deann Alford is a journalist and author. She attends Glad Tidings of Austin, an Assemblies of God congregation in the Texas capital.