Ministry at Mansion America features mighty spirit
BRANSON – Larry Wilhite is a member of First Baptist Church, general manager of the Mansion America Theatre, founder of Backstage Ministries and pastor of a church with no name.
“I guarantee you we’re out of the box,” Wilhite said. “There’s not even a lid.”
Wilhite, 49, is a longtime Branson entertainer who used to sing with his brothers, Marty and Jeff, in a group called the Noblemen. He quit show business 10 years ago to minister among the stars, musicians, technicians and stage hands. On Sunday he is either preaching or preparing to host a guest preacher at the Mansion, operating up on the stage in his pastor role.
“It’s a worship experience,” he said. “It’s a worship service. It’s a church to some people.”
Noted Bible teachers who often come to Branson for events like the Worldview Weekend tend to draw well for Sunday morning worship.
“If you’ve got David Barton, you’re going to have 2,000 people,” Wilhite said. “If you have Woodrow Kroll, you’re going to have big numbers. You get me and you’re going to have 100.”
About a decade ago, Wilhite, whose musical heritage can be traced to the 1970s when he sang with his father and brothers in a Gospel quartet, did some soul searching about his career. He wound up coming to grips with some difficult concepts. Here were his thoughts:
“If we never perform again, I’m OK with that. If I never do another show, I’m OK with that. And the big one was, ‘OK, Lord, if I never sing again, gulp, I’m OK with that.’”
Through Backstage Ministries, he and his wife, Julia, began to look for ways they could make a difference around Branson, where it is common for a show to suddenly shut down and leave 20-30 people unemployed.
“We try our best to help them financially, if it’s making a rent payment or buying medicine or groceries—trying to help them find another job,” he said.
In 2003, Gene Bicknell, a Pittsburg, Kan., businessman who owns the Mansion Theatre, offered Wilhite a job as general manager. Wilhite was not at all sure he should leave full-time ministry for a job like that, but three of his friends convinced him it would be good for the kingdom.
“They said it looks like God is just positioning you in a great facility to work and be a part of people’s lives, and have an office if you will, and be able to use a theater for a lot of good things,” Wilhite said. “So with that we talked, and Gene and I said, ‘OK, let’s try it.’”
Bicknell has given Wilhite total freedom to minister in a place that employs nearly 100 people. He can go meet needs all around town.
Early on, Bicknell attended one of Wilhite’s Sunday morning services when his general manager was preaching.
“It was about basically you can’t take it with you, no matter what,” Wilhite said. “Our mansion is built by the materials we send up from here. Gene was there, and after the service we met and talked, and he said, ‘You know, it dawned on me today what you were saying, that this is God’s theater. Take it and use it.’ And so from that God has blessed us.”
Branson’s annual flow of tourists is said to be seven million. With two of the biggest shows in town—“Celebrate America” and “The Promise”—the theater Wilhite manages is transformed into a church setting on Sunday that lifts up Jesus with the help of something called the Mighty Spirit praise team. The tourists have a tendency to come.
“What I tell the audience is, ‘Yes, you are sitting in a theater, and yes, we are standing on a stage, and last night you were entertained, you were the audience,’” he said. “‘This morning you’re not. God is.’”
Singers, dancers and actors come to Branson from all over America. Wilhite said “The Promise,” which is a Broadway style musical, draws performers from such cities as New York, Chicago, Boston and Dallas. Competition for any given role on a Branson stage tends to be fierce, he said, with theater owners sitting in a position of strength due to the supply of people wanting roles. Rather than falling into the pattern of dehumanizing the entertainers, Wilhite likes to remind himself that each one has a soul.
“They are more than just a dime a dozen,” he said. “They’re people with lives and families. Are there many out there working to be on that stage? Yes. There are people flipping burgers, working at Wal-Mart, waiting for someone to get sick, quit or leave town so they can get a shot at being on a stage somewhere. It’s addictive. It’s a drug. Anytime you stand in front of people and they applaud you, it’s addictive. They get addicted to the platform.”
Plans are in the works for media expansion at the Mansion in 2007, including streaming video of the Sunday morning church services. The brand name “Mighty Spirit” might become more prominent as plans fall into place, and the general manager / pastor is sure to be at the center of any type of ministry component that the theater produces.
“I feel responsible to God as far as what goes on in this place,” Wilhite said.