CARROLLWOOD — Tony Stewart grew up the son of a preacher and swore that was the one thing he would never do with his life.
Needless to say, he went on to become a preacher and is now the head pastor at Citylife Church in Tampa, with one of the largest congregations in the Tampa Bay area. The current church building used to be an Albertson’s grocery store at the intersection of Waters Avenue and North Dale Mabry Highway. It was completely bulldozed about two years ago and now hosts more than 1,000 people for each Sunday service.
The site of the church has moved since Stewart took over as head pastor, and has had plenty of homes in its more than 85 years in the Tampa Bay area. The new location is by far the biggest and doesn’t resemble the grocery store it used to be. As a matter of fact, Stewart’s office is where the former Albertson’s liquor store used to be.
“We have come a long way, but it was God’s will to be where we are,” Stewart said. “Everybody (else) wanted this location but we ended up here and couldn’t be happier.”
Stewart grew up in Dallas and was always a religious person. He grew up in church, but didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps as a pastor.
Sometimes, though, things don’t just work the way you plan them: Stewart moved to the Tampa Bay area and found the University Church of God, a decaying church that needed an upgrade, so Stewart got involved. When he decided to reform the church that at one point was losing parishioners every week, he decided it was time to start over.
“We needed a new brand and a new site,” Stewart said. “We needed to recharge the whole thing. Now we have people from all over Florida that come here.”
Stewart said he has people from more than 40 different nationalities at Citylife. The church was given the new name for obvious reasons.
“We are life giving and we are a part of the entire Tampa Bay area,” Stewart said. “The name was obvious to us and part of a way to change the brand of the church. We are not just a Carrollwood church, we belong to everyone.”
It didn’t take long for the church’s congregation to more than double in size. Technically, it is under the auspices of the Church of God, but Stewart said everyone is welcome to its services. The main auditorium holds more than 1,500 people and the place is packed now on Sundays. More than 100 kids have been baptized at the church in the past year, including more than 50 on a recent Wednesday.
Stewart’s wife, Kaci, also is a vital part of the church. She has cut several Christian CDs, and Stewart said she is an equal part of the growth of the church.
As for future expansion, Stewart said he has plans but he’s happy with what he has now. The new building offers plenty of space, which it needs when dealing with the diverse population in its area. There is a full-time Hispanic pastor on staff and the services are translated.
“We are fulfilling our dreams here,” Stewart said. “We couldn’t be happier.”
Citylife Church is at 8411 N. Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa. Worship services are at 9 and 11 a.m. Sunday and at 7 p.m. Wednesday.