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.