TULSA, Okla. — From outside, the stately, colonial-style building at East 51st Street and Sheridan looks much the same as it did when built in 1966.
But inside, the Park Plaza Church of Christ has changed substantially. Since 2005, attendance is up nearly 50 percent. About 1,200 people attend each Sunday. Leaders said that the church has a heightened interest in missions and a new zeal for reaching the lost its community.
“Their outreach to us was huge,” member Joe Hough said. “They opened their arms from the very beginning.”
Hough, a 29-year-old petroleum engineer, found out about the church after a friend, Brent LaBiche, invited him to join a volleyball team.
Several Park Plaza members played on the team. The Christians were kind, took the time to get to know him and didn’t pressure him to come to worship, Hough said. Soon, he and his wife, Katy, visited the church.
Nine months ago, after a Bible study at LaBiche’s house, they were baptized.
Park Plaza’s growth isn’t the result of a far-reaching, all-encompassing strategy, agreed upon after months of surveys and committee meetings.
“Intentionally, we don’t have a strategic plan,” said Don Millican, one of the congregation’s eight elders. “What we try our best to do is discern where God is leading us. Then we try to follow and help facilitate his plans.
“It was a learning experience to witness what God was doing here and not get ahead of him,” Millican said. “We would never have planned what has happened during the past five years. … God did this.” STAYING PUT
One of the things God did was grow the church in spite of its location and facilities, elders said. The church building is near the geographic center of Tulsa, a former oil boom town that today has more than 1 million souls in its metropolitan statistical area.
A few years ago, the landlocked church was outgrowing its 850-seat auditorium.
Church members considered a move southward, into a rapidly growing suburb filled with affluent housing developments. But that move would have required millions of dollars for a larger piece of land and a bigger, megachurch-style building.
The elders decided it was best to remain where they were and move to two worship services.
“It was a gut-wrenching decision,” said elder Bill Bequette. “But we really felt the Lord was calling us to use our building to its capacity.”
As a result, Park Plaza has had no building debt for 10 years.
Even with two services, the church was outgrowing its limited classroom, office and parking space. The elders decided to wait and see how the Lord might address the challenge. And they believe he has.
Earlier this year, they signed a five-year lease on a 39,000-square-foot space in a neighboring strip mall, where a large furniture store went out of business. Newly remodeled, the facility houses all the church offices, the campus ministry, the counseling ministry, clothing and furniture ministries and worship services for Spanish speakers and the hearing impaired. EMPOWERING MEMBERS
The decision not to move allowed elders to concentrate on the people they serve.
“We used to spend a lot of time talking about bricks and mortar, paint and parking lots,” elder Craig Loney said. “But we decided to spend the majority of our time dealing with people, not things.”
The elders have tried to empower deacons and church members.
Ministry leaders have budgets, spend money and make decisions without micromanagement by the elders, Loney said.
Millican, who also serves as chairman of the board of trustees at Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City, said that empowering leaders has created a sense of ownership in the church’s ministries.
“People feel empowered if they have a passion for something and they can do it,” Millican said. “We have people running around everywhere involved in ministry.”
Coordinating all the ministries through the church office can be a challenge at times, he acknowledged.
“It’s controlled chaos.” MISSIONS-MINDED
Through the chaos, church members show a renewed interest in missions, pulpit minister Mitch Wilburn said.
“What we are trying to get our people to see is that … missions is not something you do,” he said. “It is something you are.”
When Sowing for Eternity — a one-day contribution for the missions budget — began five years ago, leaders estimated the offering would be $100,000, five times the weekly contribution. To their surprise, the missions contribution was $330,000.
“That blew everyone away and changed everything,” Wilburn said.
Involvement in short-term missions has mushroomed. In 2009, 25 to 30 Park Plaza teams — made up of 320 adults and their children — traveled to 13 foreign countries and 11 U.S. cities.
The church also supports more than 50 full-time missionaries in such places as Honduras, Panama, Brazil and South Africa, said Jamie Sweeney, missions coordinator assistant.
In March, the annual missions offering exceeded $750,000. Texas-based Missions Resource Network presented the church with the Antioch Award for Congregational Excellence in World Missions.
Sweeney, a veteran of nine short-term mission trips since 2005, said the opportunity to share her faith in foreign countries has changed her life.
“I feel more compelled to share my faith and build relationships here at home,” she said. Husband Patrick and daughters Emily and Erin have accompanied her on trips to Ukraine, Peru and Croatia. NEW ZEAL FOR LOCAL OUTREACH
As members return from short-term missions, they find new ways to serve their community.
Park Plaza’s children’s program, directed by Will Spoon, has become a family-based, relational ministry in which parents and kids work together on service projects.
“Our children’s ministry … looks a lot like youth ministry,” said Spoon, now in his 19th year as a children’s minister. “All of it is designed to model what an active Christian life is like and how to live.”
The children’s ministry hosts Park Plaza’s two largest community outreach events.
Each spring the church’s Eggstravaganza egg hunt draws about 2,500 people.
In the fall, members decorate their cars and hand out snacks during Trunk of Treats. The Halloween alternative and carnival attracts nearly 3,000 people.
“Many members bring their friends to give them a positive contact with the church,” Spoon said.
Church members include an invitation to attend services with any items they distribute. Church members also make sure to greet the guests who attend services and follow up with notes and phone calls.
Each October, the church sponsors Pumpkin Patch, a fundraiser for nearby Francis Scott Key Elementary School. The school serves many underprivileged children, and the annual pumpkin sale brings in more than $2,000 for the school.
“What they are doing for us is beyond description,” Neal Pasco, the school’s principal, said of the church. When the 2010-2011 school budgets were cut, Key lost funds for field trips. Pasco will use the donated money to reinstate them.
“Our kids don’t get to go many places, and we think this is so important,” he said.
As the economy flags, Tulsa officials have closed several recreational centers. The church offers its facilities to local groups for meetings.
“Our buildings are used every day and night of the week,” associate minister Ed Mosier said.
Members offer FriendSpeak, a program that uses the Bible to help non-native speakers improve their English skills.
Asians and Muslims are among those studying with church members in the program.
“We are sensitive to the changing demographic we serve, including foreign nationals,” Mosier said. “God is truly blessing us as we make a feeble attempt to bless others.”
Wilburn said he is grateful for the impact Christians are making on Tulsa. Still, one of the biggest challenges facing the church is how to strike a balance between doing good and spreading the Gospel.
“As we clothe and feed people, we understand the priority of also sharing that which is eternal — the gospel message,” he said. PARK PLAZA CHURCH OF CHRIST LOCATION:
Metro Tulsa, south of Interstate 44. WEBSITE: www.parkplaza.org MINISTERS:
Pulpit minister Mitch Wilburn, associate minister Ed Mosier, children’s minister Will Spoon, youth minister Aaron Loney, youth minister Jay Mack, Hispanic minister Francisco Davila, deaf minister and counselor Carl Moore, college minister David Skidmore, Celebrate Recovery coordinator Ryan Pope, counselor Kevin Nieman and worship leader Keith Lancaster. ELDERS:
Bill Bequette, Craig Loney, Charles Mahaffey, Gary Medley, Don Millican, Jack Reese, Joe Reese and Roy Riggs.