Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The New Phonebooks Are Here!: Church Directories, and My Bittersweet Experience

In the 1979 movie, The Jerk, Steve Martin plays Navin R. Johnson, a character described as a "befuddled homeless simpleton".  In one scene, Navin yanks a phone book out of a delivery guys hands and begins furiously whipping through pages.  Then, he stops and yells that most famous line.  "The new phonebook's here!  The new phonebook's here!"

Why is he screaming about such a mundane event in life?  He's excited because he found his name.  On page 73.  What a moment!  He's sure millions of people will see his name in print.  And as a result, he's convinced that great things are going to start happening for him.

Our congregation, like many others, occasionally produces church directories.  This last week, the new directories came in.  I didn't jump up and down screaming, "The new directory's here!" However, I do like having a directory.  A church directory isn't just a photo album.  And it's not just a phonebook.  A church directory should be a tool for prayer and ministry.  Let me explain.

Do you pray for the other people in your congregation?  Not just those on "the prayer list."  Not just those facing crisis.  Surely, we need to be praying for them, but are you praying for every member?  Using the directory as your guide, you can systematically pray for every member of your church.  Even if you don't know all the inner workings of their life, you can pray for them.  I've always found that using Paul's prayers as a model is helpful when I'm praying for someone I don't know as well (e.g.- 1 Cor. 1:4-9; Eph. 1:15-21; Eph. 3:14-19; Phil. 1:9-11; Col. 1:9-12; etc.).

We can also use our church directory as a tool for ministry.  Are there faces in the directory that you haven't seen lately in the Sunday morning gathering?  Use that as an opportunity to write a card, pick up the phone, or make a visit...not to your elders, so they'll do something about it.  Take responsibility for your brother/sister in Christ.  Express your concern about their absence. 

Are their children plagued by illness?  Is there a conflict with another church member she's avoiding?  Is his boss demanding work on Sundays?  Is there some change they're struggling to embrace?  Have they decided things just aren't as exciting as they were at first, so maybe they need to "make a change"?  Is there some other issue that needs to be addressed?  God can use you to speak into your friend's life.

There's more ministry than just noticing who's absent.  As we peruse the church directory, we see the faces of those struggling.  Those recently diagnosed with one malady or another.  The single mom dealing with her rebellious teenage son.  The man who lost his job 6 months ago and can't find work.  The single woman who's subtly expressed her loneliness.  The young couple about to have their first baby.  The not-as-young couple about to have their 6th.  And all these are opportunities to speak and act in the lives of others...for God's glory and their good.

But beyond these basic, helpful uses of the church directory, I find my first glance at a new church directory both bitter and sweet.  The pictures can stir grief and burden.  I see pictures of men or women.  They're alone in their pictures.  However, the last time we produced a directory, a husband or a wife was present.  I also see those struggling with God's purposes in the midst of diagnoses that weren't present the last time their picture was taken.  There are also those struggling with their unbelieving spouses or children.

Then there are those I don't see.  For various reasons, they're no longer part of our congregation.  In another state.  In another county.  In another congregation.  It's probably the last of those three that's most difficult.  People leave churches for all kinds of bad reasons.  And people often just silently sneak away, thinking they're being nice...doing everyone a favor by not talking about their struggles.  But that's simply not true.  And why isn't it true?  Well, that's another blog for another day.  It's sufficient to say that I'm burdened for those I don't see.  (Of course, I didn't mention those absent because of church discipline...or those who have left church altogether.)

That's the bitter part of the church directory experience, but there's sweetness too.  The sweetness of seeing pictures and thinking of how God is at work.  The couple who's fighting for their marriage...and winning.  The families with children in this picture...who weren't in the last picture.  Families we have sent to serve the Lord in other countries.  Men and women who are involved in ministry far beyond what they would've imagined the last time directories were published.

Older couples who have renewed vigor in serving the Lord.  Young, single men and women sacrificing worldly ambition for the sake of others.  People who are being trained in biblical counseling...and sitting in on biblical counseling.  Retired folks who are working like crazy for the Lord, seeking first His kingdom.  Young men who want to pursue pastoral ministry of one kind or another.

Five years of serving in this congregation, and the pictures mean a lot more than they did on day 1.  At the beginning, I was just trying to get the right name with the right face.  Now, I long to know the right spiritual condition that goes with that name and face.  Their needs.  Their strengths.  Their weaknesses.  Their struggles.  And I'm certain these pictures will mean more in five more years.

The new directory's here!  And it's a bittersweet experience.