Starting in 1920, Istrouma Baptist Church grew from a handful of congregants into a large north Baton Rouge church, then moved across town and kept growing. When the church commemorates its centennial next weekend, part of the celebration will be about what hasn’t happened.
Since every Southern Baptist church is autonomous, with congregational votes to determine pastoral leadership and myriad other decisions, disputes often come with the territory. That, however, is not part of the Istrouma legacy.
“This church is 100 years old, and I’ve heard some of the old-timers say they’ve never known this church to have a fight … which is pretty remarkable,” said the Rev. Jeff Ginn, Istrouma’s current pastor.
“It’s been the most unified and collectively loving church I’ve ever heard of,” said Ron Lambe, who was the church’s music minister then administrator until retiring in 2014. “This church has never had a serious disagreement. We’ve never had a pastor or church staff member who has been fired. That is a unique environment. There is an acceptance of one another and association with one another that’s extremely unique in my mind.”
The church began following a 1919 revival conducted by the state Baptist organization, which led Dr. W.A. McComb, pastor of First Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, and the Rev. U.E. Reed to organize a small Sunday School class that, on June 1, 1920, became Istrouma Baptist Church. It started in a small frame building that later became Istrouma High School.
In 1939, Dr. Samuel Rushing became pastor, a role he would continue until retiring in 1962. His pastorate coincided with a period of tremendous growth, as Istrouma Baptist greatly expanded its facility on Tecumseh Street and began four mission churches in the city from its base in the thriving section of Baton Rouge near the Mississippi River industrial plants.
However, the opening of the Interstate 10 bridge over the Mississippi River sparked big demographic changes as plant workers moved to areas now easily accessible to the interstates and the area around the church. The Rev. Jim Bain became Istrouma’s pastor in 1981, and one of the church’s deacons advised him not to bring up relocation, said his wife, Betty. The church studied and debated the topic anyway and voted in 1984 to relocate, showing its traditional unity.
“When we did move, he voted to move,” she said.
Istrouma Baptist held its final worship service at its Tecumseh Street location in 1988 and moved into some of the most visible property in Baton Rouge near the Interstate 12-Airline Highway interchange. The road leading to the church entrance was named for Rushing. The current worship center was completed in 2002, and the church has opened a campus in Ascension Parish and started a Spanish-speaking worship at its main campus.
The church has about 4,500 members at all its campuses, and its current pastor credits the congregation’s willingness to adapt to the times as a key factor in its growth.
“We have two services on this campus for English speakers, and sometimes you’ll hear people refer to them as the traditional service and the contemporary service,” Ginn said. “But if you were to come to the traditional service, you wouldn’t think it traditional. There’s innovation even in that service, every Sunday.
“I have to credit our senior adults for being kind enough to put up with it. I know it’s not what they would necessarily prefer for themselves, but they’re willing to see innovation on a weekly basis be introduced because they know we’ve got to keep moving forward to reach the new generations to come.”
The church will have a celebration banquet at 6 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 25, at the Baton Rouge Renaissance Hotel Ballroom and celebration worship services the following day at 9:15 a.m. and 10:45 a.m. In honor of the centennial, Istrouma Baptist also provided money to retire the medical debts of 670 indigent families in Baton Rouge and the surrounding parishes. The church has worked with RIP Medical Debt to settle debts totaling $1.5 million at a steep discount, Ginn said.
“The way people care about each other here, it’s not just a surface thing,” said Doug Pacas, Istrouma’s worship associate. “It’s people connected. It’s relationships, people putting love in action.”
“This is a serving church. It’s not all about just being inside these walls. We go out into the community and assist others and look for ways beyond ourselves. I think that strengthens our body. We are stronger believers because faith is put in action. … They understand that awesome responsibility and are willing to invest in service and in love.”