Thursday, January 24, 2008

25 Years of Grace and Faithfulness

This Sunday Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Florida will celebrate its 25th anniversary. We will rejoice over a quarter-century of grace and faithfulness--God's, not ours. Every church that lasts is a story of God's grace. Often I marvel that the kingdom of God makes any advance in the world when you consider all of the opposition, trials and shortcomings that characterize every church's story. It is a testimony to the power and faithfulness of the Lord of the church, Jesus Christ.

As you can imagine I have had lots of time over the last several months reflecting on the last two decades. Our family is preparing a video tribute for the church that will be presented at our special gathering this Sunday. The last several weeks have been spent reviewing old photos, videos and documents in the process. We have laughed and cried and at times been brought to quiet reverence at the various memories. Many good friends and faithful servants have left the land of the dying and crossed over to the land of the living in the last quarter of a century here. A few have walked away from the faith. Far more have been born into the kingdom of Jesus Christ.

I have served Grace for 22 and 1/2 of her 25 years. When I arrived in Cape Coral I was 28 years old and Donna and I had only an infant and a toddler. Today we have 6 kids and our youngest is 10. In many ways the story of Grace is the story our family, which is appropriate, because the people of Grace Baptist really are our extended family. All of the Tom Ascols have sort of grown up here.

The church was not in very good shape when I arrived and the same could be said for me. I like to tell people it was a perfect match: Grace was a church nobody wanted and I was a pastor nobody wanted. We were meant for each other! How I actually got here is an interesting story of God's providence (the telling of which I will spare you), but how I have been able to stay here is a story of divine grace and faithfulness.

The key leader in the church tried to get the members to rescind my call while I was traveling from Texas to Florida. He intended to meet me at the house we had purchased with the news that I was no longer their pastor. By God's grace, enough members were unwilling to go along with him that he could not pull off his scheme. While I was allowed to begin my ministry, it is not too much to say that the honeymoon ended before the reception began.

In the first ten years Grace moved from a season of division and instability into an era of doctrinal clarity and conviction. Though some detractors predicted that it would die, by God's grace we were not only kept alive but enabled to study and adopt the New Hampshire Statement of Faith and 1689 Confession for our doctrinal standards. After much study and some difficult examples of its neglect, we became committed to the practice of church discipline. We adopted a church government that recognizes both elders and deacons as officers who serve in a congregational system. We also joined the local Southern Baptist Association and began giving to the Cooperative Program.

The next ten years were marked by deepening maturity and being awakened to the missionary heart of our God. We learned the painful lesson that being reformed in doctrine is not enough. If Christ is not central then doctrinal precision can be as deadly as doctrinal indifference. While we had never denied the preeminence of Christ we had not focused as intensely as we needed to on the Gospel-centeredness of all ministry and life. God taught us during these years that Christians need the Gospel as much as unbelievers. It is a lesson we are still learning today and from which we are determined never to depart.

We sent our first two missionary families to unreached people groups (Tajiks and Guarani) through the IMB during these years, and became one of the first "Global Priority" churches in the convention. During this time we began to increase the percentage of our giving to missions each year. We just recently increased it to 19% of all undesignated receipts.

It was also during those years that we began our Spanish speaking ministry. After one abysmal false start down this road, we rethought our philosophy and approach and began the painstaking process of trying to establish a church that is comprised of people with two different heart-languages. We are "one church that meets in two languages." We made a commitment that we would have one membership, not two, and that we would not simply sponsor a "Spanish speaking mission." State denominational servants told us we were crazy and that it would not work. It was slow going for the first 5 years, but a solid foundation was laid for the kind of ministry that Grace now has.

The last 5 years have been marked by peculiar, visible blessings from God. Over the years we have seen the Lord build His church among us. Most of the time that work has been slow and not immediately perceptible. Like roots going deep in order to sustain the future growth of a tree, the Lord strengthened us spiritually, sometimes through trials and periods of testing. In the last 5 years, however, we have seen His work rapidly expand in very evident ways. Despite hurricanes and being severely affected by the slump in the housing market, we are currently experiencing some of the very best days in our brief history. Our Hispanic congregation has experienced unprecendented growth numerically and doctrinally. We sent our 3rd family to the mission field through the IMB and they are seeing Muslims come to Christ with some regularity. We have rejoiced over the planting of a church among the Tajik people in Uzbekistan. And we have other members contemplating the prospect that God may be calling them to go to unreached peoples of the world.

Through it all, God's grace and faithfulness have been obvious. Grace Baptist Church has become the most precious body of people in all the world to me. No pastor could ever want a more gracious, loving people. It has been a singular privilege to serve with this culturally, racially, ethnically and linguisticaly diverse body of believers. God has given us friends all over the world. Some of the finest pastors, theologians and missionaries of our day have ministered God's Word to us.

I look forward to the future with hope and joy because I know that all of the blessings we have thus far enjoyed have come not from our own doing, but from the grace of God in Christ Jesus. He has been faithful and will remain so to the end.

As God brings us to mind this Sunday, pray for our gathering. If you are in Southwest Florida this weekend, come worship with us. We will be meeting at Ida Baker High School so that we can all meet and worship together in two languages. We start at 10 AM and lunch is provided. Among the many highlights of the day will be the introduction and singing of "Upon this Rock," a song written by Ken Puls especially for this occasion. It is outstanding! If you know you are coming, drop me a note or leave me a comment to let me know.

15 comments:

GUNNY said...

"Every church that lasts is a story of God's grace."

Amen, brother, and well said.

Getting through our first year was a testimony to His faithfulness. I rejoice to be able to celebrate 25 year of Providence Church, Lord willing.

Keep the faith and we'll rejoice with you and GBC in another 25 years as well.

John Divito said...

Congratulations!

I praise God for the work that He has done at Grace Baptist Church and look forward to seeing what he’ll do through you in the future!

Tom Bryant said...

What a wonderful testimony of God's power and blessing. Congratulations!

K. Morse said...

A great and encouraging story! Thanks God for churches that have such stories to tell.

kingofbleh said...

God bless you, brother Tom and my brothers and sisters at Grace Baptist, as you celebrate this milestone. I am in awe that God would allow a group of his children to experience the infinite joy of worshipping him together for 25 years. Thank you for allowing God to use you to reflect the image and graciousness of Christ to your family, your church and to countless pastors and ministry servants throughout the world.

Lucas Defalco

Thomas Clay said...

Your story sounds so very familiar to our Pastor's story at FBC Muscle Shoals. It's interesting how inevitable the process seems to be to reform a church out of poor health.

Praise God for His grace evident in your church. I hope to get to visit you someday and I also hope that you get to come visit us!

Timmy Brister said...

Tom,

The story of Grace (and other churches like it) needs to be told. What we hear so often are the failures, the splits, the firings, etc. Like secular news, we in the SBC tend to gravitate and give attention to the spiritual train wreck. What an encouragement it would be if young (and old) ministers heard reports of what God has done, not over a year or two, but over a decade or two of faithful gospel ministry.

Our perspective seems like we are too sensational and short-sighted, while those who are experiencing healthy churches are the result of perseverance and patience.

God bless you and the wonderful people of Grace as you celebrate God's faithfulness and goodness. Hearing stories like this really make me want to be a part of it!

With you for his glory,

Timmy

Jason Webster said...

tom, may i ask 1) if you still have contact among the tajiks and 2) are those folk still working w/them.
my family and i worked w/the tajiks for 3.5 years through the imb.
thanks.

jason

Darby Livingston said...

Thanks for the testimony, Tom. Men like you and churches like yours are an inspiration to those of us still cutting teeth. :)

SF said...

From grandparents down through my sister-in-law, three generations of my family have been blessed by God's use of Tom in Cape Coral. Glory to God.

pastorleap said...

Tom,
I praise God for your encouraging story and the wonderful testimony of God's grace at work at Grace BC. Stories like yours and those of many other experienced Reformed pastors need to be told and retold to us younger pastors for instruction and encouragement. We all need to be reminded (esp. when we are young) that reform doesn't come over night or in a 3 year pastorate, but rather after years of faithfulness, which God's blessing on your ministry demonstrates.

I thank God for you and the Founders and pray that He will continue to bless both.

Terry

Strong Tower said...

Congratulations to you and your church family.

timmy said-Our perspective seems like we are too sensational and short-sighted, while those who are experiencing healthy churches are the result of perseverance and patience.

This is so true. I have tried to convince people that it takes a while to raise a family. My former SBC church had eleven pastors in fifty years. When you think of it there is no way that a family can become a healthy vibrant one when it is are always removing its head. It takes real courage and committment on the part of both congregation and leadership to make it work. As timmy indicated the usual path is the quick fix and short term thrills. But, as you and others truly know, it is a long term process of perservering in the face of all the challenges that time delivers. But, if you faint not, God will reward faithfulness.

Thankyou for your love for those under your care, and thank God for giving the church such an example that he would never leave us nor forsake us. May both heart and effort be according to his faithfulness.

May Grace's future shine ever brighter.

tt

Worship Leader Ron said...

What a blessing to hear the story of grace at Grace. I serve at a church that has a turbulent past and am so encouraged to hear this story. Thank you for your faithfulness in ministry, Bro. Tom. You are not only a blessing to your congregation, but to many of us as well. I am thankful for the grace of God in your ministry local and global. May God bless you with 25 more years at Grace and with the Founders Ministries, for HIS glory.

David Wooten said...

Our congratualtions and thanksgiving to the Lord for this anniversary. Please extend our love and joy to all in your Grace family.

Ray Ortlund said...

I am moved by this lovely account of our Lord's goodness to you. May Jesus Christ be praised!