How Would Paul Use a Church Directory? He’d Look for Grace on Every Page.
I would not follow myself on Instagram. Over the past year, I’ve been posting pictures of my first child at an exponential rate. Yes, I am one of those parents, and I know it’s ridiculous. I used to mock parents like me. Now, I’m posting pictures of my little girl like she’s the first baby to ever laugh, smile, or play with a soccer ball. I notice everything, and I want everyone to see.
God notices every bit of grace in his children (Heb. 13:21). And he wants everyone to see (Matt. 5:16). As God’s children, we should follow suit. We should be like the Apostle Paul, who modeled this point well. He consistently pointed out God’s grace even in deeply flawed local churches. If Paul was on Instagram, you’d think the Ephesian church was the first congregation to ever trust in Christ and love others (Eph. 1:15–16).
What about you? If you had to describe your local church, what comes to your mind? Signs of God’s grace? Or ways your church needs to grow?
Of course, our churches do need to grow. They do need to become holier and healthier. Paul knew this. Repentance mattered to him. Just ask the Corinthians. But what first grabbed Paul’s attention when he thought about that rowdy, discriminatory congregation in Corinth? God’s grace (1 Cor. 1:4–9).
If you want to be countercultural, then celebrate God’s grace in your local church. The world doesn’t need another clever hot take on what’s wrong with evangelicalism. Don’t worry, if you erase your novel critique of the church, Twitter will find a replacement.
Let me offer another outlet for your creative insights about the church. Pull out your church directory and notice God’s grace in predestination, regeneration, justification, sanctification, and glorification.
Paul didn’t have access to a pre-released copy of the Book of Life. But that didn’t shake his confidence that God “chose” the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 1:4). Paul didn’t see Rufus’ name printed on page 456 of heaven’s guest list. But he wanted the Roman church to know that God “chose” Rufus (Rom. 16:13). When Paul saw fruit in a church, he knew of only one explanation: God produced it (1 Cor. 3:6–7). When Paul saw a river of sanctification, he followed it upstream to the spring of predestination (Rom. 8:29–30). When he heard about the Ephesians’ faith in Christ and love for the saints, he thanked God for choosing them (Eph. 1:4–6, 15–16).
Your church’s membership directory isn’t the Lamb’s Book of Life, but if you’re practicing regenerate church membership, it’s a pretty good rough draft (Phil. 4:2–3). Look over the names and then praise God for his glorious, predestining grace (Eph. 1:6).
Years ago, my wife and I were members of a church that held a prayer meeting every Sunday evening. We noticed a pattern in how these dear saints began their prayers: “Father, thank you for saving, [fill in the blank].” It didn’t matter what the prayer request was. Someone might have asked the church to pray that God would heal her sore throat, but inevitably her salvation headlined the prayer.
Initially, I balked at these prayers. Can’t we come up with something more original? Why can’t we just pray for her sore throat? But over time, the Spirit showed me these prayers weren’t the problem, my heart was. I had grown cold to the miracle of conversion.
Pull your membership directory back out again. You’re looking at people who used to be dead (Eph. 2:5a). Now, they’re alive (Eph. 2:5b). You’re reading names of people who were once in darkness. Now, they walk in light (2 Cor. 4:6). Regularity can breed boredom, but it doesn’t have to. It doesn’t matter how many babies were born yesterday when a couple finds out they’re expecting today. I can guarantee you a sore throat won’t headline that mom’s prayer. “Father, thank you for giving life.”
Paul didn’t mince words. When he wrote to the Roman church, he didn’t ask them how their pets were doing or chat about the weather. He talked about their “many trespasses” (Rom. 5:16). Most of us would be asking for a different pen pal at that point. But Paul didn’t end his sentence there. He brought up the Romans’ many trespasses in order to talk about God’s gracious gift of justification:
And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification.
As you scan your church directory, the faithful zeal of Christ’s prayers covers each page. Yes, these men and women give into temptation. Yes, your church directory is full of sinners. But it’s also soaked in the blood of Jesus. So as you flip through its pages, make sin in the church a springboard to thank God for justifying each and every church member. Don’t put a period after “many trespasses”; complete the sentence.
You might be familiar with Robert Murray McCheyne’s encouragement to keep your eyes on Jesus: “For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.” But what if we applied this to our fellow church members’ sins? What if, for every look at your church, you took ten looks at Christ?
Fingernails changed the way I relate to other church members. Shortly after Leah and I found out we were expecting, the doctor told us that Jane had fingernails. In September, Leah wasn’t even pregnant. But just a few months later, Leah was carrying a baby with fingernails, and I was changed forever. I could care less about keratin, but that little collection of proteins represented life.
When the doctor told us that my little girl had fingernails, I didn’t respond, “But why can’t she talk yet? When will she be able to do long division?” No, I just sat in the doctor’s office with a silly grin on my face, and I haven’t been able to wipe it off since.
Friend, your brothers and sisters are still developing in Christ, just like my little girl was in her mother’s womb. Don’t expect every member, or even most members, to be stalwarts of faith. Do they love the gospel (Phil. 1:5)? Are they growing? If they are, the Father is smiling, and no one can wipe the smile off his face (Heb. 13:21).
View your brothers and sisters the way the Father does. Stop over each name in your directory and look for fingernails. And praise God for their growth!
In The Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewis writes,
It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.
Paul would agree with Lewis’s sentiments. I’m sure the Colossians had a few “dull” folks in their pews, but Paul knew what was coming. So, when he prayed for them, he thanked his Father for their imminent glorification (Col. 1:9, 12). The Colossians’ future glory shaped Paul’s present thankfulness.
Living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, my family and I like to swim in the Rio Grande. If I’m being honest, the Albuquerque portion is rather dirty. But the Rio Grande doesn’t stop in Albuquerque. Starting in Colorado, the 1,900-mile-long river dumps out into the Gulf of Mexico. And the Gulf of Mexico is anything but dull. It’s a beautiful sight.
As I look through our church directory, as I start to consider even my own heart, I realize it sometimes looks like we’re in Albuquerque. We’re not in the Gulf of Mexico. But we will be. Because one thing is clear: rivers start somewhere, and they also end somewhere (Rom. 8:29–30).