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The church family at baptism. Thirty nationalities washed in the blood of Christ!

Yesterday, First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman entered its 35th year of gospel ministry in the Cayman Islands.  Since July 17, 1977 the Lord has been pleased to keep the candle burning in this place and to build a congregating family of saints.

A church’s history tends to be a very interesting study in the spiritual life of God’s people.  Most people tell the history of their church through key events (a new building, a community-wide crisis or need, and so on) and key leaders and personalities (pastor A, pastor B, and so on).  But the life of a church cannot primarily be defined by the life of its leaders or the major events, however important those leaders and events.  The church’s character and likeness really gets shaped by the actions of God in the midst of the entire people.  After all, the glory all belongs to God and He is the One who promised to build the church.

I wonder how the church’s history would read and how the church would understand itself if we told “a people’s history” of the congregation.  For example, yesterday, on our 35th anniversary, the Lord called home a dear brother named Steve Koranda.  In the written annals of the church Steve’s name might not figure prominently.  But in the oral record of the church people will recount his amazing radio voice, the encouragement he gave through choir, and the friendship he offered so many.  The story ought to be told of Steve’s courageous fight with cancer and the faith he maintained through the final stages.  Also on yesterday another sister named Mandi Ponce lost her mom, Donna Tesson.  Official church records won’t record the Ponces’ grief or the church’s response, but no doubt both will be a part of shaping the future church.

Shane and Ronnie Ebanks walking aisle as "Mr. and Mrs. Ebanks"

As a pastor, I’ve often been surprised at what God uses to mold the hearts and minds and lives of His people.  What can take months and months to teach from the pulpit sometimes takes root through in an instant through the members of the church.  I recall Shane Ebanks’ proposal of marriage to Ronnie during a potluck fellowship.  When Ronnie, a young woman who had come to faith in the church only a year or so earlier, asked the congregation to give her away because her parents couldn’t make the trip from England, that gesture deepened our love for Shane and Ronnie, deepened our commitment to the marriages of young people, and deepened our notion of being a “church family” more than any sermon I’ve preached.  It was a surprisingly defining moment when the entire church was mobilized to provide for their reception, to help them get started in their new apartment, and to answer the question “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?”  Back came the answer: “We do, her mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters in Christ.”  Priceless.

But the history of FBC is filled with defining people living out defining commitments and moments that have made us who we are. The faithfulness of long time members in showing up every Sunday and providing continuity and backbone defines the church.  The new members who come, join the family as their own, and add fresh zeal and energy define the church.  The persons converted and baptized, giving testimony to the Lord’s work in their lives, shape the church every day.  The stream of people coming and going makes the church new and different at each moment along the way.  The births and the deaths, the hospital visits and prayer requests, the victories and the losses in the battle against sin and the Devil, the disciplinary actions and the receiving of new members are far more than administrative actions or dots on a timeline, they’re the marks of God’s work and presence among and in His people, building them and keeping them just as He promised.

In truth, the history of our local church is one long story of one family doing life together.  Rarely are the decisive events a major theological dispute or an unresolved church conflict–though those happen and the matter.  No, it seems to me the true history of the church is best written as a biography of the Holy Spirit’s actions in giving gifted people, producing spiritual fruit, and maintaining unity in the family.  Our church should certainly remember that Rev. Herbert Neely served as the church’ first pastor and remember that his wife Jackie was a stalwart support and servant alongside him.  But we should also remember the 21 persons from Cayman Brac who formed the actual congregation, without whom there literally would have been no church body.  We should keep in mind that the story includes God growing His family from those 21 members of the same ethnic group to hundreds of people over the years from dozens of ethnic backgrounds.  We should remember that period before a permanent church home when we were called “the church on the move,” meeting in government buildings and even on the beach on occasion.  But we should also remember those people who moved the equipment so there could be a service, who moved their affections wherever the saints journeyed, who moved from other countries to be a part of the story, and who move in the power of the Spirit to make Christ known.  The church is not the building or the programs; it’s the people.

And that’s what we celebrate at a church’s anniversary.  We tell the story in a timeline and according to major events, which are important.  But really we’re narrating the lives of a people together under the lordship of Jesus.  Those people past and present have made the church what it is.  Some of them are nameless while others are noted.  But they all matter greatly.  They are the church.  Our anniversary is God’s achievement through them.

Sang Troy!

So, happy anniversary First Baptist Church!  For 35 years the Lord has established His people here and for 35 years you’ve loved, served, mourned, rejoiced, worshiped, prayed, preached, sang, and witnessed in the Cayman Islands and beyond!  It’s been 35 years of “the people’s history” written in the ink of all of our ordinary lives.  May the Lord give us many more and keep us faithful until the end!

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Thabiti Anyabwile

Thabiti Anyabwile is a pastor for Anacostia River Church in southeast Washington, DC and a council member of The Gospel Coalition.

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