Can Churches of Christ be saved?
KRESS, Texas — "Oh land of rest, for thee I sigh.…
TULSA, Okla. — In “Hoosiers,” one of Mitch Wilburn’s all-time favorite movies, a small-town high school basketball team beats all odds to advance to the Indiana state championship game.
In the giant arena where the Hickory Huskers will play for the title, coach Norman Dale checks the distances from the free-throw line to the goal (15 feet) and the floor to the basket (10 feet).
“I think you’ll find it’s the exact same measurements as our gym back in Hickory,” Dale, played by Gene Hackman, assures his team. “OK, let’s get dressed for practice.”
But out of earshot of the awestruck players, the coach allows, “This is big.”
On a recent Sunday, Wilburn — preaching minister for The Park Church of Christ in Oklahoma’s second-largest city — told his congregation he could identify with Hackman’s sentiment in the 1986 sports film.
Just off a main Tulsa highway, a crowd had filled the 1,800 purple-cushioned seats in the multipurpose auditorium — with basketball goals pushed toward the ceiling — where the fast-growing church was assembling for the first time.
“Today, we find ourselves as a congregation in the midst of a big transition,” said Wilburn, pausing to express his discomfort at seeing his face flashed on two big screens behind him.
The church — formerly known as the Park Plaza Church of Christ — began meeting in an elementary school in 1963 and later constructed its own building in the heart of Tulsa.
In recent years, even as the landlocked church outgrew its 850-seat auditorium, the congregation eschewed investing millions in a new, larger building and moving to the suburbs.
Instead, the church — one of the 10 largest Churches of Christ in the U.S. — expanded to two services. In 2014, it opened branch locations in two other parts of the metro area.
Most recently, Wilburn was preaching five times each Sunday morning — two times at the original location, two times at the Brookside branch campus and once at the Jenks branch campus. Each week, the original facility drew about 1,000 worshipers, with roughly 250 each at the other branches — for a total average Sunday attendance of 1,500 or so.
“I never got a ticket,” Wilburn said of racing from site to site each Sunday.
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Asked by The Christian Chronicle if he deserved one, he replied with a chuckle, “No comment.”
Content with the multi-site arrangement, church leaders were not looking for real estate when approached earlier this year about buying a 50-acre complex formerly owned by Grace Church, elder Allan Trimble said.
Grace, originally known as Grace Fellowship, was one of Tulsa’s largest churches in the 1980s and 1990s but decided to sell its property because of a declining membership in recent years, the Tulsa World reported.
But after months of prayer and consideration, the elders decided the move was the right one.
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“This opportunity truly took us by surprise,” said Trimble, a retired football coach who won 13 state championships with Jenks High School. “We were happy where we were, and we weren’t looking (to move). So when the idea surfaced, we tiptoed cautiously.”
The $7.5 million purchase in southeast Tulsa was finalized this summer.
The complex has 175,000 square feet of buildings — including a worship center built in 1983, a children’s facility built in 2000 and a youth area built in 2001.
The move allowed The Park Church of Christ to consolidate all its branches back into one, easily accessible location, leaders said. The new property will house services, too, for Spanish speakers and the hearing impaired.
With donations from members and the expected sales of the original and Brookside buildings, the church will maintain no building debt, Wilburn said. The Jenks branch met in a school.
“So many doors opened,” Trimble said of the move. “We ultimately couldn’t deny that this was not only a smart move — it had to be what God must want for us.
“The new facility will provide us with a launching pad to offer every ministry and event we could ever imagine,” he added. “We see it as a tremendous blessing from God and a responsibility to the community.”
On the first Sunday at the new site, church member Lyndsey Perez stood by the road, waving a sign that said, “SO GLAD YOU’RE HERE!”
Perez said she, her husband, Charles, and their children, Delia, 10, and Donovan, 8, previously worshiped at the Brookside branch.
“It was kind of cool to have a small-church atmosphere with a big-church support,” the hospitality ministry volunteer said.
But she added, “I’m really excited for this. I think it’s going to be great to have everybody back together.”
The Park church’s emphasis on missions at home and abroad, as well as its children’s program and Wilburn’s “amazing preaching,” drew the Perezes to the congregation, she said.
The entire family has traveled with other young families from the church to work with the Agape Church of Christ in Portland, Ore., where domestic missionary Ron Clark serves.
“We worked with the homeless outreach down there,” Perez said.
While many Churches of Christ nationally struggle numerically, The Park church thrives.
One reason, Grady King believes, is that the congregation’s leaders are “compelled by a Christ-centered vision that fosters a ministry culture blessing people to use their gifts.
“People want leadership — to be a part of something that depends on God’s strength and power.”
“The elders are not afraid of taking risks, trying new things and challenging their people to give of themselves,” said King, director of church resources at Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City.
“People want leadership — to be a part of something that depends on God’s strength and power,” he added. “Mitch’s long-term relationship with Park Plaza’s elders and the church as a visionary teacher and encourager of everyone doing ministry is significant. Being the presence of Christ in the world is a constant theme at Park Plaza.”
In his first sermon in the unfamiliar surroundings, Wilburn focused on love.
He described, in a choking voice, how church members Steve and Hannah Craver had lost their 3-year-old son, Eli, in a recent crash and then donated his organs to save others.
Just a few weeks before he died, the smiling boy had helped his grandparents Jerry and Sarah Taylor welcome worshipers to a Sunday assembly at the original location.
“I began to think to myself: Here is a small one that spent his days inviting, preparing and setting the tone for others to enter worship,” Wilburn said. “And now, his loving parents have made the decision to give their child, literally, so that others may live. You don’t have to look that far to see Jesus in that example.”
Use the new building, the preacher urged, to invite more people to meet the Savior.
“We want everyone to know they can encounter the love and forgiveness of Christ in this place,” he said. They can “come join this imperfect group of people who follow after a perfect God.”
“We want everyone to know they can encounter the love and forgiveness of Christ in this place.”
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