Pastor on sabbatical plants church on Caribbean island

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MAARTEN—Fine white sand and turquoise waters sound like the perfect setting for rest and relaxation. But for one southwest Florida Baptist pastor, this setting was a perfect opportunity to plant a church on a Caribbean Island.

Just six days after landing in St. Maarten for a three-month sabbatical, David Acton, pastor at New Hope Baptist Church in Cape Coral, along with his family, launched Island Church.

‘Answer to prayer’

After connecting with a local pastor who serves in Simpson Bay, Acton heard the pastor’s heart for ministry and desire for a church to be planted specifically for the large international community that travels to the island each year. With a background in international missions and church planting for 24 years with the International Mission Board—serving in the Caribbean, Germany and Spain—Acton knew that he and his family could provide the experience needed to launch a new work quickly.

The local pastor “had the heart and vision for this church but needed a church planter that had experience working with Europeans and North Americans,” he said. “It took over a year of long-distance conversations before I was able to visit the island and meet directly with the local pastor. We quickly realized that we have the same heart for ministry. He calls us ‘the answer to the prayer he has prayed for 20 years.’”

Landing on the island on January 1 and launching the first service on January 7, Acton hit the ground running, understanding that his time of sabbatical on the island was limited. Gathering on Sunday mornings in a ballroom at the Simpson Bay Resort and Marina in Philipsburg, the church plant seeks to engage “those who are far from God” and equip people to love God and love people.

Island Church is attempting to do just that.

‘God has done incredible things’

In just two months, Island Church has seen an average of about 70 people attend their Sunday morning service–all due to intentionality and word-of-mouth. In an attempt to make evangelism and invitation part of his family’s everyday life, Acton is encouraged by the openness and gospel sensitivity on the island. Whether he and his family are playing pickleball, hiking, snorkeling or enjoying the island’s 37 beaches, they are intentional about reaching out and inviting others to be involved in this new church plant.

“We have met most of our contacts as we ‘do life’ here on the island,” he said. “We are involved in activities that we naturally enjoy as a family, but we are purposeful about inviting others to join us in these activities. While we play, hike, swim, eat or hang out, we talk about Jesus and Island Church as a normal part of our life.”

Acton is encouraged that the Lord has brought the nations to the island. St. Maarten is considered to be the most international island in the Caribbean with more 100 nations represented. Along with a strong international presence, the church plant consists of a variety of groups—those who visit the island for short-term vacations, seasonal snowbirds who make the island home for several months a year, and locals with young families.

Because many who attend Island Church are “not-yet-believers” or are re-entering the church after “decades” of not attending a church, Acton has been intentional in what he is teaching the people. Wanting to meet people where they’re at, Acton is centralizing his preaching on gospel hope from the life of Jesus. The church also has a strong core attending home groups that focus on gospel impact and the application of biblical truth.

When asked what the future of Island Church looks like, Acton was enthusiastic at how the Lord has worked and provided every step of the way. Not exactly knowing what would occur after his three-month sabbatical ends, Acton is convinced that Island Church is just getting started.

“God has done some incredible things before we arrived and during our time here,” he said.

One purpose of a pastoral sabbatical is to rest and recharge. Nothing recharges my spiritual batteries more than being a part of something new and exciting like planting a new church in a new culture.

David Acton pastor, New Hope Baptist Church, Cape Coral

The church plant has already partnered with a local international school to host a vacation Bible school in April and June. Also, in partnership with New Hope Church in Cape Coral, a mission team will arrive on the island in April to complete various ministry and service projects in the community.

Though the church is currently under the watchcare of the International Baptist Convention and the nearest local Baptist church, LifeBridge International Church in Panama, Island Church has roots in the Sunshine State. Jeffery Singletary, regional catalyst for the Florida Baptist Convention, and Florida Baptist pastors like Jim Olsen at First Baptist Church Pine Island, are already scheduled to visit the island next month.

With Island Church growing and thriving, Acton is grateful to return home to southwest Florida on April 2 with his “spiritual batteries” recharged.

“We were literally made for this role,” said Acton. “One purpose of a pastoral sabbatical is to rest and recharge. Nothing recharges my spiritual batteries more than being a part of something new and exciting like planting a new church in a new culture.”

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