Once upon a time there was a young, vibrant church in Louisville with sound doctrine, superb teaching, and warm fellowship—it was Trinity Baptist Church, pastored by Tom Schreiner, Shawn Wright, and others.
A great church—but they had no building and weren’t as rooted in the community as they wanted to be. Church members were transient, mostly students connected to the nearby Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
At the same time there was an older congregation in the Clifton neighborhood of Louisville that had a great heritage, a beautiful building, and a solid connection to the community. But the ministry was dwindling, down to maybe 70 people—most in their 70s—with little emphasis on expository ministry, and little evangelistic outreach.
My family and I arrived at Clifton in 2000 and loved it immediately, recognizing the potential for reform. I’ll never forget Gene, regularly at the door handing lollipops to our daughter; or Amby, dutifully serving in the nursery (with only our kids enrolled). We grew to love these saints but, at the same time, we grieved because the Word was not being preached. The sermons consisted only of stories and anecdotes. The gospel was largely assumed.
I remember thinking: what if we took the strengths of Trinity and combined them with the strengths of Clifton—and formed one united church? Why not couple the energy and doctrinal fidelity of the one with the building and heritage of the other?
I proposed the idea, but the leadership of Clifton summarily dismissed it. They were looking for their own pastor, and some of them—not all—were opposed to Southern Seminary and the guiding theology of Trinity Baptist. I still remember some of the old search committee poring over Tom Schreiner’s Romans commentary (which I had given them) and objecting to some of his views.
The proposal was dead in the water. No way would it work. But some of us just kept praying about it. And the Lord began slowly moving people off of that search committee. Some left the church, disgruntled. Others moved away. And eventually, to my amazement, they asked me to chair the search committee! But it remained a very delicate situation.
Once again, I proposed the merger of Trinity and Clifton. I’ll never forget the first time Tom met with the other members of the search committee—and they loved him! I was struck by how candid and open Tom was in his dealings with them. Here was a man who really loved these people, really wanted the merger to happen, and yet would not shade the truth at all in order to win their support. Whether it was issues of theology or ministry philosophy, he just laid all his cards on the table, told them what he thought, and gave them reasons why. He was wise in addressing potential differences, but he was not deceptive.
Then came the day when Tom preached at Clifton with a view to a call and brought about a hundred of Trinity’s members. It was an unsettling time for Clifton—their identity and their church were in many ways threatened—but in God’s kindness it was a joyous joining together of two different communities for the glory of God, and the rest is history.
Here are four lessons that I learned from our church merger.
1. God is sovereign over the affairs of local churches.
Watching how the Lord removed opposition to the merger and changed people’s hearts toward Trinity was one of the most amazing demonstrations of God’s sovereignty I’ve ever encountered. It was like night and day—from settled opposition to almost unanimous approval. God had changed people’s hearts.
2. There will inevitably be fallout.
Some disgruntled Clifton members departed immediately, others wandered away over time. But others stayed, and their lives were changed forever. Some of them were converted. One particularly painful departure was the music minister. He’d been an enthusiastic proponent of the merger from the beginning because he longed for revival. He was a good-hearted brother but, in terms of ministry philosophy and theology, he was on a different page. Eventually he left. It was a painful, but not ungodly, parting.
3. Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.
I’ll never forget the way Tom Schreiner and some of the other leaders obviously trusted the Lord in the whole thing. On the Clifton side of things, I so badly wanted this to happen that I was prone to work, scheme, fret, be political, and form alliances—but Tom just showed up and straightforwardly, openly stated the way he expected things to move forward if the merger happened. I learned a lot about trusting God through observing Trinity’s leadership and transparency those days.
4. Genuine believers love one another.
There were a million ways this could have gone wrong. The two congregations were as different as you can possibly imagine—culturally, musically, theologically, everything. And yet, Trinity came in and didn’t take things over, but rather patiently built their lives into the lives of the Clifton congregation. And Clifton didn’t resist the newcomers as they might have been tempted to, but rather welcomed them with open arms.
These saints—from so many different walks of life, different backgrounds, and different generations—genuinely grew to love each other, bear with each other, and serve each other.
It was one of the greatest things I’ve ever had the privilege of witnessing: the reform of a local church, for the glory of God, almost overnight.