Last month saw the release of Thabiti Anyabwile’s most recent book The Life of God in the Soul of the Church. I had the privilege of reading the book well before publication and for some time now have been wanting to draw your attention to the closing pages which offer an interesting little glimpse of ministry in a very different context. As it does that it challenges each one of us in our relationships with other Christians and displays the joy of spiritual fellowship. Here is one of Thabiti’s early experiences of ministry on Grand Cayman.
When I first arrived at First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman (Cayman Islands), I found a gentle, humble, eager-to-be-taught congregation of saints. From our arrival, greeted by a couple of dozen members of the congregation, my family and I have received nothing but warmth and love from the church.
However, a few weeks into our service here, we noticed a couple of things that struck us as odd. First, everyone we invited to our home for Sunday dinner turned us down. They were polite, and perhaps a little embarrassed. But everyone we welcomed to our home met us with the same reply. ‘Thanks for the invitation. But we already have plans.’
Second, we noticed that the church became a ghost town almost immediately following the service. There were a handful of people who lingered to greet others. But in those first few months we were in danger of recognizing people only by the back of their heads.
Was my preaching that bad? Was our company that unwanted?
As it turns out, we had a few things to learn about the culture of the Cayman Islands. Unlike most parts of the United States, where we are from, Caymanian culture remains very family-centered. Sundays after church means visiting mom and dad for family dinner with the extended kin. Not coming for family dinner is hardly imaginable. We were unknowingly kicking against the goads of a good cultural value and practice. So, we began to invite people on week nights and our social calendar began to fill.
But we also learned something else about our new church family. They had not yet learned the joy of spiritual fellowship. That’s not to say there weren’t genuine and long-standing friendships, or to say that people did not care for one another. We could see lots of people caring for others and enjoying lasting friendships. However, such caring and friendship tended to occur in smaller clusters of rather homogeneous groups. The caring was rooted in friendship, not in Christ and His body as a whole.
Two conversations stand out to me as defining moments for that first year. The first was a midweek dinner with an older couple in the church. They had become dear to us very quickly, adoptive parents in our new homeland. My wife and I decided to have them over simply to fellowship with them. About ten minutes into the meal, the wife of the couple gently laid down her knife and fork beside her plate. She placed her hands flatly on the table and sat upright in her chair. Then in a no-nonsense voice she said, ‘Okay. I can’t take this any longer. Why are we here? Did we do something wrong? Are we in trouble?’ The husband, surprised by the timing of his wife’s query, slowly lowered the fork an inch away from delivering chicken to his mouth. His face said the timing, not the question, surprised him. It was clear they both wondered why they had been invited.
My wife and I explained that there was no agenda other than to enjoy one another’s company, exchange our testimonies, and to perhaps encourage one another with discussion of our Lord and His work in our lives. As we explained, their shoulders relaxed. Smiles returned to their faces. We began to eat again. Then she explained, ‘I’ve been at the church for twenty years, and I’ve never been invited to a pastor’s home.’ You could have knocked me over with a feather. The Lord stamped that dinner conversation on my mind as an indication that we would need to set an example in recovering the biblical art of spiritual fellowship.
The second conversation—actually a recurring conversation—took place after our church services or over meals with members. It’s been my custom, learned from those faithful saints who discipled me, to ask Christians about their spiritual lives. Sometimes the questions are very general: ‘How is your spiritual life?’ Other times the questions are more specific or probing: ‘Tell me, what are you learning about our Lord these days that’s keeping you close to Him? How is your battle for joy or against sin? ’
As I asked these questions in that first year or two, the most frequent responses were: ‘That’s a tough question to answer,’ and, ‘I don’t think anyone has ever asked me that before.’ I receive those responses even when asking people the most basic spiritual questions.
From those exchanges, the Lord impressed upon me the need to root our spiritual relationships in the rich soil of gospel and biblical truth. We would need a community or culture of meaningful membership, widespread relationships and affection, and persistent inquiry and encouragement in our spiritual lives.