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Church goes ‘International’ while never leaving the U.S.

OKLAHOMA CITY (BP)–“International” is a name usually associated with churches or missions started to minister to people from other countries. The congregation is usually multiethnic and led by an ethnic pastor.
An Oklahoma City church, however, has bucked tradition by changing its name to “Trinity International Baptist Church,” perhaps the first time an existing church has renamed itself an international church.
While seen as a big step by people outside the congregation, Trinity leaders say it is a natural progression as the church seeks to minister to its community.
Trinity has a long history. Begun as a mission Sunday school June 2, 1907, by First Baptist Church, Oklahoma City, it grew and was organized as a church May 1, 1911.
Its first pastor was J.B. Rounds, one of the men who helped start the state’s Falls Creek Baptist Assembly. By 1920 church membership was 400; by 1930 it was 1,538; and 2,109 by 1942. Average attendance topped 1,000. Trinity also started a number of missions, including Village, Spring Creek and Wheatland Baptist churches in the Oklahoma City area, as well as churches in Ohio.
As the neighborhoods around Trinity changed, though, church attendance began a downward spiral; the main services draw but 150 today.
Instead of accepting that decline, Trinity adapted to its changing neighborhood by starting ethnic missions. A Laotian mission began in 1982, a Korean mission in 1994 and last August a Chinese mission.
Boon Vongsurith is pastor of the Laotian congregation; the Korean pastor is Kee Soo Na; and the Chinese pastor is Raymond Chow.
Church leaders were discussing erecting signs for all the missions when Ted Lam came up with a possible solution: rename the church.
Lam, language missions specialist of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, felt the name change would better emphasize Trinity’s mission field, and the church agreed. After discussing the reasons behind a change, members unanimously approved it last November.
Jim Pittman, who became pastor at Trinity in September, said, “… this exciting step sends a message that our purpose is to be known as a church for all the world’s people.”
Lavada Loper, chairman of the church’s missions evangelism council, said the church had just gone through an eight-week “Focus on the Vision” emphasis in planning for the future. Every mission committee tried to come up with a vision for the future, and her committee was looking at the sign issue.
“We just wanted a sign to show who we were,” she said. “Ted Lam hit the nail on the head.”
“‘International’ is a ‘world word,'” she added. “When a Chinese or a Laotian hears ‘International,’ it means the church has services in English and in their language.”
Town meetings with church members were held about the name change. “We knew we had been a landmark for years,” Loper said, “and we wanted to be sure this was God’s will.”
Mark Meredith, minister of education, said the change was “so exciting to me and to the church. It is new ground to plow. It is fresh and exciting.”
He said the change was necessary “if we are going to be relevant to our community. We celebrate our diversity. It’s wonderful to meet Laotians, Thais, Koreans and Chinese, as well as Japanese and Malaysians.”
When Pittman was interviewed by Trinity, he said one of the most exciting aspects was working in partnership with the international pastors. He said he does not refer to the ethnic works as “missions,” but as “congregations.” He said he is not the “senior pastor,” but “pastor of the English congregation. We are all brothers here.”
Vongsurith, who has been pastor of the Laotian congregation since it started in 1982, said he has always felt welcome at Trinity, but the name change helps.
“I appreciate the awareness of the church,” he said. “To me, Trinity is aware of God’s will. That made it perfect for us to fit together.”
Pittman said Trinity is flexible with its space; rooms are changed as necessary to accommodate the other congregations. In addition, Trinity is housing Horace Mann Elementary School while that school building undergoes repairs. It is the third school Trinity has housed.
Also, it shared facilities with First United Methodist Church after that church’s building was destroyed in the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
Loper said the ethnic congregations eat lunch every week after church services, so Trinity “looks, smells and sounds like an international church.”
“That demonstrates the kind of body we are, celebrating in that instead of complaining,” Pittman said.
Since the congregations meet in the same facility, Loper said that helps the church meet the needs of the different age groups.
“The kids prefer to speak English, but their parents want services in their native language,” she said. “That works only because the parents trust us with their children. We had to learn to respect their backgrounds and traditions for that to work.”
Respecting traditions is something Trinity attempts even in such things as calling a pastor. Pittman said the Anglo approach to calling a new pastor is for the previous pastor to leave first. That does not work with a Korean congregation, where the new pastor starts alongside the current pastor. The church then holds a ceremony, effectively turning the reins over to the new pastor.
“We were apprehensive about that, but we respected their traditions,” he said.
Said Loper, “I admit I am culturally ignorant, but I am willing to learn. I have learned things here that are not taught in schools or in seminaries. We have had to learn firsthand.”
“When we have joint worship services,” Pittman said, “there isn’t a greater blessing than seeing Laotians, Chinese and people from all over the world getting baptized. Many of them are students at Oklahoma City University. They will go home and influence the world by becoming ambassadors for Christ.”
Pittman said he hopes other churches can catch hold of that vision and minister to internationals in their communities.
“I have a 7 1/2-year-old daughter,” he said. “What we are doing impacts her. Maybe one day she will come up and say, ‘I want to minister to people in another country.'”

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  • Dave Parker