An article on last Saturday's Religion Page stated that the Chinese Community Church of Washington is "liberal" in its approach to Scripture and to social issues. According to the Rev. William Teng, the church's pastor, Chinese Community is "socially liberal" but "theologically evangelical, placing equal emphasis on the Gospel and social issues." (Published 12/18/1999)

In one of the most ambitious efforts in its 64-year history, Chinese Community Church of Washington, D.C., will present Handel's "Messiah" tomorrow featuring 80 singers from more than half a dozen Chinese congregations throughout the region.

Past musical performances at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church--with which Chinese Community has had a shared ministry since 1994--have brought together two or three Asian choirs. But none has matched the breadth of this production, said Sally Long, musical director at Mount Vernon Place for 28 years and leader of a nucleus of 30 singers from the two congregations.

The 2 1/2-hour free concert is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. in Mount Vernon Place's historic sanctuary at 900 Massachusetts Ave. NW. The program will be in English, although the singers come from a variety of backgrounds, including Chinese, Korean, Thai, Filipino, Caucasian and African. Programs will have lyrics in English and in Chinese, for members of the audience whose primary language is Chinese. An 18-piece orchestra will provide the music.

"The Chinese community brings such a joy for singing," said Long, whose aging church and congregation got a "wonderful spark of life" when Chinese Community moved its offices and worship services into Mount Vernon Place's buildings.

Long said the concert will showcase the Chinese church's downtown ministry to a growing Asian population in the District and suburbs, which now exceeds 330,000, more than 6 percent of the region's total population. The production also amounts to a "cultural offering" from Mount Vernon Place, a multinational, multiethnic congregation that Long says "opens its door" to people of all races and backgrounds.

Mount Vernon Place, once the flagship congregation of Southern Methodism, celebrates its 250th anniversary in 2000. But like many inner-city churches, it has been losing members to death and the suburbs more quickly than it has brought in new, younger people, said the Rev. Carroll Gunkel, 62, the church's pastor. Since the 1960s, membership has declined from 2,000 to 450.

Chinese Community Church, founded in 1935, met at Mount Vernon Place before building and moving into its church at 1011 L St. NW in 1957. The congregation outgrew that building as its membership increased to more than 500, but it could not afford to expand or rebuild at another location and began looking for an alternative.

The church found it 1 1/2 blocks away at Mount Vernon Place, whose massive sanctuary, separate chapel and 118-room office and educational complex had served as many as 5,000 people but were then largely unused. Both congregations saw the advantage of sharing the facility, and in 1994, they agreed to formalize their relationship.

Each church maintains its identity and ministries, Mount Vernon Place as a United Methodist congregation and Chinese Community as an independent, nondenominational body. On Sundays, the Chinese congregation holds Chinese-language services in the chapel. But the 11 a.m. service in English is open to both congregations, and the pastors preach on alternate weeks.

Today, Gunkel shares the pulpit with the Rev. William Teng, who arrived in February as Chinese Community's pastor--the first to fill that role in three years. Teng, 47, said he took the job in part because of the "challenge" of the shared ministry with Mount Vernon Place.

Part of the challenge comes from nearby commercial development, including construction on the new convention center a block northeast of Mount Vernon Place, Teng said. Churchgoers have lost some street parking, and a private lot across the street--now available on Sundays for free parking--eventually will disappear.

Building a parking garage is one possible solution, but to accomplish that, the two congregations would have to enter a more complicated business arrangement, Teng and Gunkel said. The Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church owns Mount Vernon Place, valued at about $20 million, and Chinese Community is a tenant with no ownership rights or privileges.

Teng said his primary focus--and most immediate challenge--is providing "spiritual input" to the growing number of Chinese living here, most notably in nearby Chinatown and in Montgomery and Fairfax counties.

Chinese immigrants often say they follow Buddhist, Confucian or Taoist teachings. But many are only "cultural" adherents and have no spiritual or religious commitment, said Teng, a fourth-generation minister whose father served as the Rev. Billy Graham's interpreter when the evangelist visited China.

Chinese also are individualists and don't always work well together, Teng said. His goal is to engender a more cooperative spirit among the area's 36 Chinese congregations. Many churches, some recently formed, believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible, while others--including Chinese Community--are more "mainline" and "liberal" in their approach to Scripture and to social issues, Teng said.

By bringing together Asian singers and listeners to a central worship service, tomorrow's performance of "Messiah" could ignite a more "ecumenical feel" among the area's Chinese Christians, he said.

The concert's success lies largely in Teng's hands. The pastor, who earned degrees in orchestral conducting and sacred music before attending seminary, will be directing the choir and orchestra in performing excerpts from Handel's classic work.

"Hopefully, this will not be the last time we will come together," Teng said of the congregations represented in the mass choir. Discussions are under way in the Chinese community to hold two or three joint concerts a year, perhaps even an evangelistic revival or crusade.

CAPTION: Chinese Community Church will present a combined choir from several congregations in a performance of Handel's "Messiah."

CAPTION: The Rev. William Teng, of Chinese Community Church, directs the choir during practice for tomorrow's performance at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church.

CAPTION: The joint choir, made up of members of Chinese Community and Mount Vernon Place churches and other congregations, rehearses. The two churches share facilities on Massachusetts Avenue NW.