SIKESTON – Grace Bible Fellowship, a fledgling Southern Baptist congregation here, hopes to display the power of the gospel to bring people together in Christ – in more ways than one.
The new church was born from the merger of Sikeston’s predominately white Trinity Baptist Church with the historically black Smith Chapel United Methodist Church. The members of Grace Bible Fellowship celebrated their first Sunday together as a new Southern Baptist church, Sept. 8.
The merger resulted ultimately from a relationship between two pastors who love God’s inerrant Word and desire to promote the gospel in their city.
“It didn’t start out with a plan to merge churches or to do something big,” William Marshall, pastor of the former Trinity Baptist Church, told The Pathway. “It really was simply a friendship.”
Since coming to Sikeston several years ago, Marshall has sensed that there was racial tension in the community. So for several years, he’s prayed about and made an effort in building relationships with black pastors in Sikeston. Then, during a Fellowship of Christian Athletes event, he heard Kenny King – pastor of the former Smith Chapel – preach a message from Ephesians 2 on the gospel-centered unity of the church. Immediately, he resonated with King’s message and reached out to him about meeting for lunch sometime.
After they began to meet, Marshall soon realized that King was no run-of-the-mill United Methodist.
“Normally there would be some serious doctrinal tension between a United Methodist pastor and a Southern Baptist pastor, but after the first few lunch meetings we had together it was obvious to me that Kenny and I were way more likeminded than your typical United Methodist pastor and Southern Baptist pastor.”
Though he was raised at Smith Chapel, King moved away from home and realized later in life that he had never really heard or understood the full gospel message as a child. In 2007, God convinced him of his need for Christ, and he surrendered to Jesus as Lord. Growing as a Christian, he recognized that Scripture is inerrant. He also became convinced that, as Southern Baptists believe, only people who have surrendered their lives to Christ in faith should be baptized.
Historically, Methodists have baptized infants, and a large sector in the United Methodist Church has denied the inerrancy of God’s Word and drifted theologically to the left. So King was somewhat surprised when, in 2016, the district superintendent for the United Methodist Church allowed him to become the pastor of his childhood church.
“When I was meeting with the district superintendent, I let him know that I believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, that I don’t believe in baptizing babies, that I’m a complementarian,” King recalled. These views didn’t seem problematic to the superintendent, and as King found out in coming months they weren’t problematic for the members of Smith Chapel either.
King’s first sermon series at the church was a doctrinal overview. He taught the inerrancy of Scripture, the sovereignty of God, the baptism of believers only and other fundamental truths of the faith. “What I learned was that they didn’t really understand what United Methodists believed. So I didn’t really have any pushback on anything I was saying, because it was right there in the Bible.”
Meanwhile, at Trinity Baptist Church, Marshall was working with a church revitalization initiative started by Southern Baptist associations in the area called Renovate SEMO. Through this initiative, a team would come to the church and help them assess their needs and find solutions for problems they were facing. As they worked through this process, the possibility of a church merger was mentioned.
Marshall then told the team at Renovate SEMO about Smith Chapel. And, as a result, he and King began meeting with the Renovate SEMO team to brainstorm the possibility of a church merger. As plans for the merger took place, they decided that Marshall and King would serve alongside each other as pastors at the new church. They also decided to meet in Trinity Baptist’s building, while retooling the Smith Chapel building as a community center for outreach purposes. No matter what, they desired to show the power of the cross to unite God’s people.
When the church merged this month, King told The Pathway, no one “sacrificed the gospel” to do so. Instead, the gospel and the complete truthfulness of God’s Word laid a foundation for the unity that the church aims to display.
“We understand that the gospel is most important,” King said. “It’s the foundation – ‘Jesus Christ and Him crucified.’”
King and Marshall asked Missouri Baptists to pray that God would give them wisdom and discernment as they face potential opportunities and hurdles in weeks to come. But they also want Missouri Baptists to pray that “the gospel will be magnified.”
“We want to show to the community that if you really want unity,” Marshall said, “it’s the gospel that brings us together.”