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.

Back to School…for me.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that my posts to this blog have been a bit, shall we say, “infrequent” as of late? Sporadic or virtually non-existent would also be fair descriptions. It’s not that I don’t enjoy writing. It’s actually one of my favorite ways to clarify my own thoughts and serve others interested in faith and life. I’ve just been a little busy with another side hustle – finally finishing my m.Div.

I have a long and painful history with seminary. I first started taking classes in 2003 at Capital Bible Seminary where I finished something like 36 credits before dropping out because I was “too busy.” As a married, 43 year old father of three, I would do anything to go back and slap some sense into my single 27 year old self! But I was convinced that God was doing so much through me that I just couldn’t make space for grad school. I got back on the horse in 2011 because I felt really ashamed and inadequate as a seminary drop out. This time I went to Dallas Theological Seminary and accumulated about 20 credits before once again “taking a break” to move to Raleigh-Durham, do a residency with The Summit Church, and plant Restoration City. So, I was roughly half-way to a Masters in Divinity when I achieved the rare distinction of being a 2 time seminary drop out! All of this would be comical if it wasn’t so sad.

In 2019, I started to feel an increased leading from the Lord to finish my degree. So, I enrolled at Fuller Theological Seminary and started chipping away at my remaining requirements. I’m so grateful to our elders at Restoration City for their support and to Laura for all of the sacrifices she has made to help me find time for grad school in the midst of everything else we have going on in life. On a sad note (and, please, someone learn from my mistakes!), I found out that none of my credits from Capital would count towards this degree because the “time limit” had expired. So, it was an even longer road than I initially expected. But, by the grace of God, I will finally be done in December. Hang in there, RCC, I’m almost at the point where I’m actually qualified to be your pastor!!

My purpose in sharing this now is not only to explain infrequent blog posts but to offer two thoughts that might be helpful for all of us.

Challenge Yourself

I literally can’t believe I dropped out of school in my late 20’s because I was too busy. Trust me, my life now is a lot fuller than it was 15 years ago. But there has been something good about forcing myself to do something that has been incredibly challenging. It’s also been really good to have my thinking challenged. That’s why I went to Fuller – it’s a truly interdenominational seminary. It’s made of Calvinists and Arminians, Baptists and Pentecostals, Complementarians and Egalitarians, and so many other groups that rarely talk, yet alone learn together. It’s also a school that does a lot of work at the intersection of theology and psychology (a passion of mine). Finally, it brings together students from so many different racial, ethnic, and national backgrounds. That has been invaluable to me over the last year and a half as our country and church have navigated questions of race, racism, and justice.

It’s good to push yourself and it’s good to allow your thinking to be challenged. It will make you a stronger and better leader.

Vulnerability Is Always Risky

I remember the first time I told RCC that I was a seminary drop out in a sermon. I was terrified that people would leave and I hated confessing what felt like an area of deep inadequacy, failure, and shame. But I got through it and the church was so gracious to me. Yet, I’ve been a little apprehensive about this post and have kept this 3rd round of grad school quiet. Maybe I was afraid I would drop out again. But I also hated the thought of calling attention to my failings one more time.

Here’s the point: vulnerability is not a one time, check the box and move on kind of thing. It’s a daily choice to tell our story honestly and courageously with those around us. It’s a choice I want to continue making.

I’m hoping to post more regularly over the next six months (twice a month is the goal) and then consider something even more regular as we head into 2022. By then, I will finally have that elusive degree.

Thanks for your grace and patience with me!

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

A New Season For Restoration City, Part 2

The closer we get to August 29th, the more excited I am about the new season we are stepping into as a church. Last week, I wrote about what isn’t changing in the new season and why this such a pivotal time for us as a community. If you didn’t catch that post, please check it out so you will have some context for what I want to share today as I describe some of the other changes we envision for the new season.

Empower Lay Leadership

In order for the church to function the way God intended, we need to lean into two foundational texts from the New Testament. Ephesians 2:10 tells us that we are all created by God and that every Christ follower has been given specific work to do to contribute to the advance of the gospel. Moreover, 1 Corinthians 12:7 tells us that every Christ follower has been given a specific gift to be used for “the common good.” That means you are empowered by God to do something in this city and in this church that no one else can do as well as you. And we need you to step into whatever role God is asking you to play in this season.

I find that vision utterly thrilling and deeply challenging because it means the staff has to relinquish control. Nothing will kill God’s vision for His church quite like a staff team that needs to make every decision and micro-manage every detail. So many of you are wired to do so much more than run a play designed by someone else. You have vision, knowledge, ability and gifting. More than anything, I want to release you and empower you to run after the dream God has placed in your heart as we pursue our shared calling as a church.

Allow Pastors to Pastor

In order for this redistribution of leadership to go well, three things need to happen. The fist is very practical: the staff and elders need to ensure that everything we’re doing as a church is aligned with our calling, our strategic distinctives, and our culture. The church can’t become a big ball of tape rolling around and picking up every good idea it bumps into – that’s a recipe for chaos. So, our staff and elders need to reprioritize this aligning work. The next two come straight from the New Testament. So much of a pastor’s job description is contained in Ephesians 4:12 – “equip the saints for the work of ministry.” That means a renewed focus on leadership development, training, and coaching. In other words, pastors and elders are called to help you live out Ephesians 2:10. They are also called to “present everyone mature in Christ.” (Colossians 1:28) Spiritual formation is the foundation of leadership development and the primary calling of every pastor. In other words, would you allow us the privilege of caring for your soul as you pursue the life God has called you to?

Emphasize Formation & Mission

We did not plant Restoration City Church because we thought the Christians of DC needed another option on the Sunday morning worship buffet. We planted Restoration City because the non-Christians of DC need more Christ followers committed to living on mission. Jesus’ plan for the church is clear – make disciples of all nations. (Mt. 28:19) That’s why we exist; to see people cross from death to life.

At the same time, the gospel calls us to so much more than simply receiving forgiveness for our sins. 2 Corinthians 3:18 reminds us that we are being increasingly transformed into the image and likeness of Jesus. That’s the work of spiritual formation and it is essential to our lives as Christ followers.

Formation without mission turns the church into a support group. Mission without formation offers a hallow vision for life. But when mission and formation collide, we feel the full power of the gospel.

Make Space For Relationships

Church isn’t an event you attend, it’s a community you join. We say that all the time at Restoration City. Yet, the pandemic revealed how fragile some of our relationships really were. We were in the same places at the same times but we weren’t really in each other’s lives.

Spiritual formation happens in the context of relationships. That’s why small groups are so important to us. Not because you need something else on your calendar and not to check the “weekly Bible study” box but to create a space that allows for real, deep, authentic relationships. Yes, our groups engage with God’s Word and, yes, they pray. But they are also a place to be known, to be heard, to be loved, to grow with others, to share your story, and to be real.

I truly love where we’re going as a church in this next season and I really want you to be a part of it. I would also love to have you inviting others to be a part of this new season with us. Who could you invite to come with you to RCC this weekend? Who do you know who would love to be a part of a church that’s moving in this direction? Reach out to them, tell them you would like to take this journey with them and then dive in!

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

A New Season for Restoration City, Part 1

Starting on Sunday, August 29th, Restoration City Church will once again meet in Gunston Middle School for our Sunday gatherings. By the time we go back to Gunston, it will have been over 17 months since we were last there on a Sunday morning. Not only is that a stunning amount of time but it is also stunning to think about just how much has changed for all of us since March of 2020. That’s true for me personally and it is certainly true for us as a church – so many have moved out of the DC area, so many have gotten connected to RCC online, we’ve mourned the loss of family members, and we’ve welcomed many babies. So much life has happened.

To capture the significance of this moment, I’m thinking about August 29th as a whole new season for us as a church. We’re asking God for so much more than a return to a familiar venue at the end of the summer. We’re asking Him for a fresh start and a new beginning. Less a resumption and more a relaunch.

As we start to think about a new season as a church, I want to be clear about what is changing and what isn’t changing for us as a church.

What Stays The Same

  • Our theology and doctrine. I hope we are continually growing in our understanding of the gospel and its implications for every area of life but we haven’t changed our basic theology one bit.
  • Our mission. Restoration City Church exists to glorify God by making disciples. That’s the mission Jesus gave His church and I don’t see any reason to rethink that one.
  • Our calling as a church. Restoration City Church exists to glorify God by making disciples who are being restored by Jesus, in community, and for mission. This is where we get a little more specific about why our church exists – a community where people experience not only the redeeming love of God but also the restoring love of God. The God who forgives also makes whole.
  • Our strategic distinctives. We’re still radically focused on spiritual formation, neighborhood transformation, and developing the next generation.
  • Our connection with the Summit Collaborative. This is the family of churches we most naturally connect with and our most immediate partner in planting new churches.
  • Our affiliation and partnership with the SEND Network and SBC.

So, why call this a new season?

Great question. I promise it’s not just a PR stunt to get people to come back to church in person! We’re using this language because it accurately reflects where we are as a church in a number of ways:

  • Transition. A new season accurately reflects the amount of transition we’ve seen since the start of the pandemic. To be blunt: we’ve lost a lot of people since March of 2020. Most of them have moved out of the area and some have found other churches here in DC but we have said goodbye to a lot of folks. At the same time, God has brought a healthy number of new people to RCC over the course of the pandemic. In order to avoid any sense that there’s an old guard and a new crew, we’re going to create a “we’re all new here” culture over the summer and into the fall.
  • Leadership. A new season accurately reflects the amount of transition we’ve seen in our elders, staff, small group leaders, and ministry team leaders. Three of our five elders have started serving in this capacity during the pandemic. Other than me, we have a totally different staff team in 2021 than we did in 2020. Our production, kids, and outreach ministries will all have different leaders when we step into this new season. As you can imagine, we’re essentially rebuilding all of our teams right now.

But we also see this as a fantastic moment to clarify and reinvigorate certain aspects of our calling and culture as a church. There’s a lot to say about that so I’m going to devote next week’s blog to those shifts. But, for now, circle August 29th on your calendar. It’s about more than a new location, it’s about a whole new season!

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

My Prayer On The Inauguration of President Biden

First of all, then, I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all those who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.

1 Timothy 2:1-2
Photo by Joshua Sukoff on Unsplash

In just a few minutes, Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States. As our country marks this historic moment, I’m hopeful that followers of Jesus will listen to the urging of the Apostle Paul and pray for our new President. As followers of Christ, we’re called to pray for our leaders – at all levels of government and from both parties.

My guess is that most of us know that. I know that at our church, we have prayed regularly for our local, state, and federal leaders as we’ve navigated a pandemic, racial injustice, and the recent violence on Capitol Hill. But I think we often lose sight of the purposes that should shape how we pray for our leaders. Notice, Paul urges us to pray “so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.” He has three specific purposes in mind:

  • A tranquil and quiet life. Paul prays that political leaders will work together to allow our national life to be peaceful and well-ordered. He doesn’t want government to be a source of chaos in our lives and division in our communities. I’m sure Paul would be all for thoughtful, robust political debate. But we should be able to do that in a way that contributes to a tranquil and well-ordered community.
  • Godliness. Paul prays that Christians will be able to live with our highest loyalty and deepest devotion to God. Our ultimate allegiance isn’t to a political leader but to the One who reigns on a throne that will have no end. We’re to represent that King and be ambassadors of His Kingdom as we engage in our civic life. So, Paul prays that our government would never come between us and our God.
  • Dignity. The word Paul uses here is interesting – it’s about the church behaving in a way “that indicates one is above what is ordinary and therefore worthy of special respect.” (BDAG, 919) Wouldn’t it be great if that word characterized followers of Jesus?

Paul essentially turns prayer for our leaders into a prayer for the church. So, as we pray for President Biden today, let’s do it with a resolve to exemplify the purposes that Paul highlights for us as the church.

What Brings You Life?

Calvert Cliffs State Park, January 2, 2021

Wouldn’t it be great if turning the calendar to 2021 enabled us to leave all of the challenges of 2020 in the past? But, at least so far, that doesn’t seem to be working. Covid is still very much a thing, our politics are still very much a mess, and life is still very far from normal. Turning the calendar doesn’t seem to have magically revolutionized the culture in our home nor has it rocketed me to new intimacy with God. If anything, life seems pretty much the same. In other words, life is still hard.

Which is why I’m trying to be as intentional as possible about prioritizing the things that bring me life. I’ve noticed that I never need to go looking for the things that drain me – they have a way of finding me all by themselves. They don’t need my help. But the things that bring me life are different. They’re never urgent, nobody ever demands that I do them, nobody ever gets angry if I don’t do them (with the exception of myself!), and they all require some effort. I rarely stumble into the things that bring me life. I have to plan for them, protect them, and even fight for them. And that’s the big insight for me. The path of least resistance never brings life. It leads to a Netflix binge or mindlessly surfing the internet or one last check of my email before I go to bed.

And I want more for 2021. I want to live with passion, with vigor, with joy. I don’t want to muddle through my days in the vain hope that tomorrow will be better. I want to work really hard on things that really matter with people I really love. And I want to fight for the things that bring me life.

If you’re wanting to walk a similar path, the first step involves determining what actually brings you life. Crafting this list might end up being harder than you think but you owe it to yourself to know what truly replenishes you. For what it’s worth, here’s my list:

  • Hiking…hence the photo and how we spend just about every Sabbath as a family.
  • Long walks with Laura…it’s where we have our best conversations.
  • Travel…at least I remember it fondly!
  • Fire…fire pits, fire places, candles. Really fire in all its forms.
  • Good conversations with good friends….preferably near a fire!
  • Swimming…for fun and for exercise.
  • Reading….theology, leadership, spiritual formation, novels, biographies, and books about politics.
  • Coffee…probably should have been first.
  • Watching movies…we do this about 3 times a year but I always enjoy it.
  • Lake Ontario…DC is home but the Great Lakes are the best!

Obviously, I believe all of those activities need to be built on the foundation of a vibrant relationship with Christ.

When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you will also appear with him in glory.

Colossians 3:4 (CSB)

Christ, who is your life. Jesus doesn’t just bring life. He is life. And no list of life giving activities can ever take the place of the life of Christ in us. But you also can’t bury the life of Christ under a relentless pile of things that drain you and expect to live with joy. We’ve got to fight for the things that bring us life.

So, what’s on your list? Are there any that you can build into the ordinary routines of your life? How can you build more life into your calendar this year? However you do it, fight for the things that bring you life!

Year End Giving

Photo by David Everett Strickler on Unsplash

Early in November, God started to stir in me a determination to approach year end giving differently this year than we ever have before as a church. Like many churches and nonprofits, we build our annual budget with the hope of increased giving in the month of December. To be specific, this year we are trusting God for $70,000 in December giving to fund our normal operating expenses. But I also felt like God had given me a desire to see our church give $25,000 to ministry partners in this city and around the world. So, I asked our directional elders if they would agree to a new approach to December giving: as soon as we hit our $70,000 goal, we commit to giving away the next $25,000 in December giving. They were totally on board and we’ve been sharing this vision with the people of Restoration City all month long.

Specifically, we’re praying for the opportunity to partner with five different ministries and be a part of five specific projects:

  • Casa Chirilagua: Provide food assistance to the Chirilagua community that has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic.
  • Redeemer Queen’s Park: Help this London church plant print and distribute 20,000 copies of the Gospel of Mark in 2021.
  • Three Roots International: Help start a new kindergarten in a rural Ethiopian village.
  • New Hope Initiative: Provide new desks for students at the school New Hope created in Kibera, a massive slum outside of Nairobi.
  • The Summit Collaborative: Invest in North American church planting through our family of churches.

In all of this, my most consistent prayer has been one that I’m borrowing from Moses:

Let your work be seen by your servants, and your splendor by their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be on us; establish for us the work of our hands—establish the work of our hands!

Psalm 90:16-17 (CSB)

To be clear, the idea of giving away $25,000 is not a show of financial strength for us as a church. It’s an act of faith and dependance. It’s a way of fighting against fear, scarcity, complacency, and selfishness. It’s about opening up an opportunity for God to show His power to His children by doing something that seems next to impossible amidst the uncertainty and turmoil of 2020.

If you would like to join us in blessing these ministries, head over to rcc.church/give.

Happy New Year, friends. Praying we will all walk together in humility, trust, and faith in 2021.