Where Is Your God?

This Sunday, we’re starting a new series of messages at Restoration City dealing with the topic of anxiety. Matthew 6:25-34 is up next in our study of the Sermon on the Mount but it didn’t feel right to spend only one week discussing Jesus’ teaching on worry and anxiety. One, doing so would run the risk of oversimplifying the issue. I think we all need more than, “Jesus tells us not to worry so you should really stop worrying.” Two, doing so would run the risk of ignoring what a massive issue anxiety is for so many of us. I know this is one of the biggest challenges people in our church struggle with on a daily basis. I also know what a massive issue this is for so many in our city who are not yet following Jesus.

So, we’re going to slow down and devote the next four weeks to understanding how Jesus leads us out of anxiety. Here’s what I can tell you about the series:

  • We’re going to talk about anxiety as a physical, psychological, and spiritual issue. Too often the church ignores the physical and psychological. That’s not helpful. At the same time, our anxiety has deep spiritual roots and lasting change requires bringing God into the conversation. We’re going to take a holistic approach.
  • We’re going to talk about anxiety in a way that doesn’t provoke guilt or shame. There isn’t going to be a hint of, “If you were a better Christian, you wouldn’t be so anxious.” We can talk about deepening our faith in Jesus and the gospel without heaping on a bunch of shame, which only makes the problem worse.
  • The goal is to move together as a community on a path that actually reduces our anxiety. We don’t just want to learn more; we want to trust God for real growth and change.
  • These are a great four weeks to invite family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors. We have a chance to help a lot of people. Let’s not miss it.

So, I hope you’ll join us in person or online for all four weeks of this series.

But I want to ask you to do much more than just show up. I want to ask you to pray with me that God will do a powerful work through our church in the next four weeks. I’m praying we see people come to faith in Jesus, embrace vulnerability in community, take risks on the journey towards healing, and experience real freedom from anxiety. I know God is able to do it but let’s not trust in our power – let’s lean in to Him and His grace and see what He can do in His power!

Mission Requires Community

I can’t wait for this Sunday at Restoration City. We’re going to do something really simple and really meaningful. After our weekly gathering is over, as many of us as possible are going to stick around to serve Gunston, the middle school we meet in every Sunday. They need some help getting the front entrance ready to welcome students for a new year and we’re going to do what we can – pull weeds, trim shrubs, etc… We’ll order lunch, have fun, and make a difference in the lives of the students who will show up next week. And, we’re going to be done by 1pm. It’s like a quick serving blitz.

Not only is this the kind of thing we should be doing as the church but it also helps illustrate a deeper point – community accelerates mission. Here’s what I mean: I think we’re all going to be shocked by just how much we can get done in 90 minutes! Because we’re all going to lean into this opportunity, we’re going to make a significant impact in a relatively short period of time. I pray we don’t miss the significance of that insight. Community accelerates mission.

Maybe even more accurately – mission requires community. When you read the pages of the New Testament, particularly the Book of Acts, you realize just how much the early church saw community as essential to God’s mission. Some people funded things, some preached, some waited tables, some cared for the sick, but everyone was involved. Nobody was foolish enough (or arrogant enough) to think they could make a major dent in the lostness and brokenness of the world by themselves. They knew that God’s mission required all of God’s people working together with the enabling power of God’s Spirit.

So, to be as specific and practical as possible, if you aren’t engaged in biblical community you aren’t as engaged in God’s mission as you could be. You’re missing out, the church is missing out, and the world is missing out.

Sermon Recap: A Subversive Kingdom

Note: This is the first installment of what I hope will become a weekly feature on this blog – a quick, think 500 words or less, recap of this past Sunday’s sermon at RCC. The goal is to help catch you up if you weren’t able to join us, reinforce key points if you were able to join us, add additional content, and create a resource you can share with friends or refer back to in your own walk with God. I’ll give you a one sentence summary of the talk, the key passage, and whatever else seems helpful. Hope it’s helpful!!

Sermon in a Sentence: Understanding why the Kingdom of Heaven causes so much controversy helps us endure conflict and opposition.

“You are blessed when they insult you and persecute you and falsely say every kind of evil against you because of me. Be glad and rejoice, because your reward is great in heaven. For that is how they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Matthew 5:11-12 (CSB)

We’re gearing up for a collection of messages that will walk us through the Sermon on the Mount by taking two weeks to explore the idea of the Kingdom of Heaven as we find it in the first 4 chapters of Matthew’s gospel. When the Scripture says “kingdom of heaven”, we should think “rule and reign of God” or “community, culture, and creation operating under the rule and reign of God.” God’s Kingdom is about an authority, not about a territory. This notion of a Kingdom provides us with an incredibly compelling vision for our lives as followers of Jesus – a community of love, mercy, justice, and concern for the good of the world. Yet, this captivating vision has always created deep controversy. Why?

In this talk, we look at the three primary sources of opposition to the Kingdom of Heaven in the early chapters of Matthew’s gospel.

Political Leaders

Think Herod for this one. Sure, no one loves a political rival but this isn’t a legislator concerned about a strong challenge in their next primary. This is someone willing to murder every male child two and under in Bethlehem and the surrounding region. That’s next level.

And, no, this does not mean that if you work on the Hill, you’re a bad Christian and living in rebellion against the rule and reign of God in your life. The real question for each of us, regardless of profession, is how we use whatever power we have. If you use your power for the good of others, you’re in line with the vision of the Kingdom. But if you insist on using power for your own selfish gain, you’re pushing back against Heaven itself. This one is about power, not position.

Religious Leaders

John the Baptist really goes after the Pharisees and Sadducees when they come to check out his revival meetings, “you brood of vipers!” Not exactly the way to curry favor with the religious elites. But John is worried about religious complacency (you think you’re good with God because of the family you were born into) and religious condemnation (those who use the ethical teachings of the New Testament simply to judge, condemn, criticize, and look down on others). Hypocrisy, empty religion, earning favor with God, and condemning others have no place in the Kingdom of Heaven. Remember, Jesus comes not to condemn the world but to save the world (John 3:17). The gospel offers both salvation and transformation by a grace that transforms our hearts and then our lives.

In short, it never ends well for religious hypocrites.

Evil Itself

Jesus and Satan go toe to toe in Matthew 4. Satan offers Jesus the kingdoms of the world in exchange for His worship but Jesus will have none of it. Jesus and evil and categorically opposed to each other – they’re never going to get along, which is why so many of us are trapped in futility. We’re trying to have a vibrant relationship with Jesus but keep a little foothold in evil. We want Jesus and greed to coexist in our hearts or Jesus and any other form of self-centeredness. There’s got to be a way to honor Jesus and sleep with the person I’m dating, right? Wrong! Don’t waste time trying to get Jesus and evil to be friends. It’s never going to work.

Bottom line: Getting serious about your relationship with God always creates some controversy as the light of the gospel collides with the darkness of evil, empty religion, and the abuse of power. Hopefully, if we understand how the Kingdom of Heaven challenges the values of the Kingdoms of this world, we can find a little more strength to endure the challenges of our lives.

If you’re interested in more, you can watch the full message here or listen to it on our podcast.

Is Your Phone Making You A Better Person?

In my last post, I described some of the reasons why I decided to take a pretty major step back from social media over the past few months. In short, I could see some ways that my use of social media was harming both my soul and my relationships. So, I expected my step back to have some positive impacts. But, in all honesty, I didn’t really know what to expect, as a person or as a pastor. In this post, I’ll tackle the personal impact and in the next I’ll tackle the pastoral (I have A LOT to say about that one). But, for today, here’s what I noticed over the past few months:

  • I’m going to gloss over the obvious: I was less distracted, less anxious, more present, and less enticed by the comparison trap. Before I move on to the rest of my list, I want you to pause and think about the massive claims I just rattled off quickly as the obvious benefits of stepping back from social media. My guess is you weren’t surprised by any of them, right? That’s just the predictable boilerplate stuff that you’ve heard dozens of times, isn’t it? What does it say about us that we maintain a slavish devotion to something that we know makes us distracted, anxious, less present, and constantly comparing our lives to others? That alone should make us stop and think.
  • I was more productive – and not just at work! Our mornings were smoother around the house. Don’t get me wrong, they’re still chaotic…three kids and two working parents make that somewhat inevitable. But they were better. So were our evenings. And weekends. It’s just easier to run a house when your head is fully in the game.
  • I was more intentional with my friends. Social media breeds a level of complacency in our friendships, even with those we truly care about and want to prioritize. Thanks to social media, we all passively monitor each other’s lives and get lulled into this sense that we already know what’s going on with each other. So, why bother with a phone call, grabbing coffee, or inviting someone over for dinner? We’re already caught up. But we’re not! Watching the highlight reel of your friend’s life is not the same as genuinely connecting with others to learn what’s really going on, how they’re really doing, and what they’re really thinking about for their future. I still found myself picking up my phone but now it was to make real phone calls to real people!
  • I was more attracted to substance. It’s not just that I read more or engaged with more thoughtful content, it’s that I found myself desiring substance. Social media is like sugar – insanely addictive and good for a quick hit. But once you break the addiction to digital candy, you realize how much good content there is out there and how much more satisfying it is. Tweets are fine but I would much rather read something that took more than 30 seconds at a stoplight to compose.

All of this is to say if you’re looking to be a better version of yourself, it might be time to rethink your relationship with social. In my next post, I’ll take about the ways that stepping back from social might make you a better pastor too.

Stepping Back from Social Media

At some point this past fall, I hit a breaking point with social media. I was finally able to admit to myself just how much I hated what Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter were doing to my mind and my soul. To be specific, here’s what really bothered me:

  • Even when I was with my family, friends, or church, I wasn’t as present as I should have been because I was always thinking about getting a picture of every potentially “instagramable moment”.
  • Once I found that moment and posted, insecurity, the desire for approval, and the need for a quick dopamine hit would kick in and I would find myself checking (sometimes a little obsessively) to see how many likes, comments, or views my post got.
  • Even when I wasn’t on social media, I found myself thinking about the lives of people I barely know or have never met. Ever been there? Analyzing and envying the fixtures in a celebrity Christian’s kitchen while the dishes pile up in your own sink?
  • More often than not, checking social media would make me feel some combination of envy, outrage, shame, hurt, or annoyance.

In short, social media was making me miserable…and it was distracting me from God, which is why I love the photo at the top of this post. Instead of enjoying a few quiet minutes with Jesus, I was mindlessly scrolling my way through life.

So, I just stopped posting, checking, or engaging for the most part. It wasn’t planned. I didn’t think it required one final post just so you all weren’t up at night wondering why I wasn’t posting. It wasn’t a spiritual fast. It was just stepping away from something I had come to hate.

And I loved it.

Honestly, I can’t say I missed it much at all. Nor can I say that I’m back. Nor can I say I’m permanently deleting my accounts. But I did learn some things over the last few months and I’m looking forward to processing those in my next post.

But here’s the question for today, are you using social media in a way that’s making you a better version of yourself, more full of life and love? Or are you just making yourself miserable?

The Church Is Not A Hotel

Back in December, Laura and I got away for an incredible weekend to rest, celebrate, and talk about everything God was doing in our lives. While we were away, we realized it was only the second time we had stayed in a hotel together since March of 2020. Note: the hotel pictured above is NOT where we stayed but I wouldn’t be opposed! Additional Note: the kids were with us the other time we stayed in a hotel, so that didn’t really count!

Anyway, my point is that staying in a hotel has changed a bit thanks to Covid and the labor market. Biggest change? Housekeeping only cleans the room when you check out or upon request (at least where we were). In the grand scheme of things, that is completely NOT a big deal. But it does mean that they don’t show up and make your bed for you, which hits a little closer to home. In our marriage, I’m the one who makes the bed, mainly because I can be a little neurotic and it’s just better for everyone that way. So, one of the things I love most about hotels is having someone else make my bed for me and I was a little annoyed that I was going to have to do it myself. By the way, if you, like Laura, are tempted to point out that I didn’t have to make the bed, you have failed to appreciate just how neurotic I can be.

So, I made my own bed. In a hotel. And I thought, “Maybe I won’t come back until they’re ready to start making beds again.”

Some days I wonder how many of us think the same way about the church – maybe I won’t come back until they’re ready to…

But here’s the thing, the church isn’t a hotel. We’re a community, a family, a body. We don’t hire people to make our beds, we make our own beds. And I wouldn’t want it any other way because that’s how we grow and change. Jesus didn’t come to Earth to be our spiritual concierge. He came to announce the good news of the Kingdom of God, to offer His life as our ransom, and to invite us to be active participants in His work in the world.

If we’re sitting around waiting for someone else to make our bed, we’re missing the point. Jesus invites us to see ourselves, the church, and the world differently. Where can we serve others? What do we contribute to the body? How are we wired to participate in God’s redeeming and restoring work in the world?

As Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45 CSB)

Photo by Yuliya Pankevich on Unsplash

Fighting For Community

In his classic book on community, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer cautioned that, “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”

I’ve been thinking about that idea since this past Sunday’s sermon at Restoration City. We talked about the idea that biblical community is a beautiful destination that requires us to walk a difficult road. We love the idea of living in a community where we are at peace with one another (1 Thessalonians 5:13) and where we are mutually committed to each other’s best interests (1 Thessalonians 5:15). But we forget that this kind of community requires the courage to admonish one another, to comfort one another, to help one another, and to be patient with one another (1 Thessalonians 5:14). We love the dream but are often unwilling to do the work. We think we’re going to stumble into honest conversations, meaningful relationships, and the transforming joy that comes from being fully known and fully loved.

But it just doesn’t work that way.

Community requires work and courage. It requires us to go to the weekly gathering of a church rather than watch online. It requires us to go to community group when we would rather crash on the couch. It requires us to approach others in love and curiosity, not with cynicism and detachment. It requires us to be honest and it requires us to honor the moments when others chose to be honest with us.

Here’s the thing: the messy reality of community is infinitely better than our airbrushed dreams. But we’ve got to work for it. We’ve got to fight for it.

What’s one way you’ve been fighting for community in your life?

Photo by Valiant Made on Unsplash

Welcome to 2022

Happy New Year from the McGowans

Praying today is a day of fresh vision, new beginnings, and renewed hope for you and your family. None of us knows what 2022 will hold but we can be sure that God will once again be faithful to all of His promises to us. Rest in that as we dream about the things to come.

Masks @ Church

This coming Sunday, August 29th, Restoration City Church will return to Gunston Middle School for the first time in a year and half. I honestly can’t wait to be back for our Sunday morning gathering – it’s a beautiful theater with easy parking and all the room we need to offer a proper kids ministry. In a lot of ways, it’s going to feel like one significant part of life is getting back to normal. Except for the fact that we will all be wearing masks.

Now, in case you haven’t noticed, masks have become a little bit of a cultural lightening rod, to say the least. Add church into the mix and you have everything you need for your very own online controversy. So I thought it would be helpful to offer two quick observations as we all grab our masks and head to Gunston on Sunday.

Keep Masks In The Proper Perspective

For us, the decision to wear masks is far more pragmatic than it is theological or philosophical. Yes, we want to be guided by the Spirit, the Word, and the gospel in all things. But that doesn’t mean we turn a blind eye to practical considerations. For example, Gunston is not only our best option for a Sunday morning gathering but it is also an Arlington County Public School and they require us to wear masks if we want to use the space. So, guess what, we wear masks!

That may seem like an obvious point but it’s important because it should defuse a lot of the tension around this issue. It also enables us to be generous in our interactions with other churches that handle the mask question differently. No church has it easy right now and we’re all doing our best in light of the unique constraints and opportunities in front of each one of us. So, let’s not make a big deal out of something that really isn’t. That kind of foolishness plays great on social media but it’s toxic within the body of Christ.

I’m Glad We’re Wearing Masks

Having said all of that, I am glad that we’re wearing masks. Think about Paul’s words to the Corinthians.

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 

1 Corinthians 9:19-20 (ESV)

I totally get it – Paul isn’t talking about masks. But he is talking about a willingness to meet people where they are and do whatever he can to remove barriers that would prevent people from hearing the gospel. Paul was willing to sacrifice his preferences and comfort in pursuit of a larger and more significant goal. Let’s just be real – there are a lot of people in our city who are appropriately cautious about indoor gatherings due to the delta variant. That’s the cultural landscape of the city God has called us to love and serve. For me, that makes wearing a mask an easy call. If my mask makes it more comfortable for someone to join us, then I’m all for it! It’s a small price to pay for seeing my church family and seeing someone discover the beauty of the gospel.

I hope that we masks not only in terms of our own health but also in terms of aligning with the missional heart of God. That’s what the church and church planting are all about – seeing people come to faith in Jesus. Don’t just bring a mask on Sunday, bring a friend! It’s what we’re here to do. Let’s embrace the mission God has given us.

So, RCC, we’re not totally back to normal yet. But we’ve come a long way and I can’t wait to see you on Sunday!

Simple Math, Big Implications

As I mentioned in this past Sunday’s sermon at Restoration City Church, life is pretty full for Laura and I these days. She’s just started a new job as a school nurse, we’re juggling kid’s summer camp schedules, I’m in grad school, and there’s this whole thing about leading a local church. So, we are most emphatically not bored! In fact, we’ve been having a lot of conversations rooted in the truth God shares with us through Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

Pay careful attention, then, to how you walk – not as unwise people but as wise – making the most of the time, because the days are evil.

Ephesians 5:15-16 (CSB)

This is more than biblical affirmation for good time management. It’s a reminder of how easily we can squander our time in meaningless or even damaging pursuits and a reminder that it takes a tremendous amount of wisdom to steward the days God has given us. None of us exhibit this kind of wisdom by default, it takes tremendous intentionality and a vibrant relationship with God.

It was in pursuit of that intentionality that I was reminded of a significant truth: 12×2=24. Granted, I’m no mathematician but it wasn’t the algebra that seemed so significant. It was the implications for my calendar. Let me give you one simple example.

Three years ago, I started serving in our neighborhood HOA. I wanted to meet the neighbors and make our little community better. Despite those lofty intentions, I’ve learned a profound truth – the first thing Satan did after his fall from heaven was establish an HOA. Ok, that’s a bit extreme. But not by much. It’s been a challenging experience but I’ve stuck it out because I hate quitting and really wanted to make things better. But here’s the thing, part of the way I justified my involvement was by reminding myself that it was only a 2 hour meeting every month. This is where a little math can give us a lot of perspective. What I had lost sight of was the fact that even if my involvement was only 2 hours per month (which is a lie, by the way), then over the course of the year I would have invested the equivalent of three full work days into this one project. Three whole work days!!!

Let’s zoom back out for a minute – my point in writing this is not to bash my neighbors or HOAs. I’m honestly grateful for those who are serving our community and am open to rejoining them when my life calms down just a bit. That’s just the scenario that got me thinking about all of this. My real goal in sharing this with you is to remind us all of how easily small commitments can add up and squeeze out space for the things we truly care about (family, friends, God, church, serving in areas of gifting and passion, etc…) If we’re going to live with focus, intentionality, and significance, we’ve got to watch out for the small things that keep us from the big stuff.