A Force For Good

End ItThe fight against modern day slavery took a step forward today as Senators Corker and Menendez introduced the bipartisan End Modern Slavery Initiative Act of 2015.  I love seeing both leaders standing next to the red X that has come to symbolize the End It Movement.  Like so many others, I’m grateful these men are willing to raise their voice and lead the government to commit more resources to the abolition of slavery.  There’s no doubt about it, today is a good day in the fight for freedom.

I also hope today was a good day for all of my friends who work in government.  So often, the story of Washington is told in terms of gridlock, corruption, scandal and incompetence.  As a result, so many of my friends who work in politics give in to the belief that what they do doesn’t matter.  As the pastor of a church in Washington, DC, I talk with so many good public servants who just want to throw in the towel.  I understand why they feel the way they do and I think we can all agree that Washington can and should do better.  But I hate seeing people who do a fundamentally good thing feel like failures.  Today was a wonderful reminder that public service is noble, that Washington isn’t all bad and that those who serve in government have an incredible opportunity to be a force for good.

So, to all of my friends in government, I hope you are encouraged.  I hope you hold your head a little bit higher, work a little harder and are a little more confident that what you do matters.  You have the opportunity to do tremendous good and all of us are counting on you to give it your best, lead with integrity and fight for what really matters.

Snow & Restoration City

I don’t know which varied IMG_2016more yesterday – my emotions or the temperatures in DC!

All week long, I had been hoping the forecast for Saturday would change.  I guess, in a way, it did – it kept getting worse.  All Saturday afternoon I kept watching the snow and checking the forecast while things deteriorated.  Then it switched to rain around 6PM and I had hope that we were going to meet on Sunday morning.  Turns out the rain was freezing but I really didn’t want to focus on that part of the story.  Dan and I kept texting all evening and we went to sleep on Saturday hopeful that we could meet on Sunday morning.  By 6am on Sunday, it seemed clear that we needed to cancel our weekly gathering.

You have no idea how hard it is for a guy from Minnesota and a guy from Syracuse to cancel due to weather.  Let’s face it, Dan and I were traitors to our northern roots.  But we were confident we made the right call for our church and especially for the production team that starts serving at 7.30am on a Sunday.  Then it started to get warmer.  And sunnier.  And warmer and sunnier.  By 3PM, I told Laura I felt like the sun was mocking me.

All of that to say three things:

1.  I absolutely hate not meeting as a church.  I love what God is doing at Restoration City and there is no place I would rather be on a Sunday morning than with all of you.  So, yes, we waited until Sunday morning to make a call but that’s because we want to be the church that’s looking for a way to meet, not an excuse to sleep in.

2.  When deciding whether or not to meet, we consider not only what the roads will be like at 10am when we start but several hours earlier when our volunteers are traveling and serving.  A lot of the decision we made on Sunday was about the people that would have hit the road at 6.45, not those who would hit the road at 9.45.

3.  If you’re not on our email list, please sign up.  We always communicate closing information by email, social media and our website.

I still can’t believe we cancelled our gathering due to snow and ice in the morning and I grilled out last night…I guess that’s life in DC!  Here’s what I do know – I can’t wait to have our whole church family together this coming Sunday.

See you then,

John

21 Heroes & My Ordinary Life

None of us really know what to do with the image of 21 men about to be slaughtered because of their faith in Jesus.  We’re in awe that they knelt on a beach and accepted death rather than renounce the One who made them alive forever.  We’re horrified to see the full perversion of sin and evil in those who would make heroes of the executioners too cowardly to show their faces.  We search for ways to honor the sacrifice and memory of the real heroes in orange who now see the face of God.

Even if we can explain what’s happening, we don’t know what to do with it.

Perhaps no one feels this uncertainty more than young, American followers of Jesus.  We’re quick to call these men our brothers in Christ, and they are, but our lives look nothing like theirs.  People died for Jesus this weekend.  And I’m writing about it from a trendy coffeeshop.  What do you do with that?

So much of our theology is inadequate when confronted with questions like this.  There are those that tell us Jesus’ main goal is to give us an awesome life with plenty of money, great friends, cool music, exotic travel and a hot spouse.  Such claims seem so silly and offensive in light of 21 heroes kneeling on a beach.  On the other hand, there are those that seem to look with scorn on any Christian not suffering persecution in our world.  I sometimes feel badly that I haven’t been beaten for Christ this week, to say nothing of the latte I’m enjoying.  This line of thinking always leaves me feeling vaguely inferior, guilty and spoiled.

Yet, the fact remains.  21 people died for Jesus this weekend.  And I need to figure what to do with that in my life.  As I’ve been thinking through all of this, I’ve had three thoughts.  Maybe they’ll be helpful to you:

Suffer Well

Life isn’t easy and following Jesus is not a guarantee that everything will always turn out the way we want.  No, we may not be martyred but our kids get sick, bills pile up, jobs are unsatisfying, people hurt us, we get tired, despair is easy to find and some days we would just rather stay in bed.  None of that is a sign that God doesn’t love us or isn’t keeping up His part of the bargain.

Suffering is an opportunity to demonstrate that our hope as followers of Jesus isn’t in our circumstances but in God Himself.  James exhorts us to, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4)

God is using our suffering to make us stronger.  He’s using our response to show the world that He’s beautiful.  Grumbling and complaining belittle a God who promises to be strong in our weakness.  Faithful, courageous endurance shows those around us the hope of Christ.

Odds are good we’ll never need to display the particular form of courage shown by those men on that beach.  Our beach may be called cancer, or divorce, or unemployment or loneliness.  Whatever the beach is called, it will be the place where we are most able to glorify Christ.

Be Grateful

It’s okay to have good days as a Christian.

God gives good gifts to His children.  In fact, Jesus is offended by the suggestion that God would do anything less, “What father among you, if his son asks fora fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?  If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11-13)  Granted, Luke is speaking specifically about the gift of the Spirit and not all of the Father’s good gifts are material things, vacations or promotions.  But some are and we need to stop apologizing for our Father’s generosity.

What we need to do is cultivate a grateful heart.  When we believe that everything we enjoy is grace, our lives overflow with gratitude.  And make no mistake about it, God is honored by our thanksgiving, “The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me.” (Ps. 50:23(a)) Our lack of gratitude belittles God’s grace and magnifies our prideful self reliance.

The biggest indictment against our faith isn’t going to be that we weren’t martyred but it may well be that we weren’t grateful.

Rely On The Spirit’s Power

All of that is well and good: suffer well and be grateful.  But what I think a lot of us really want to know is where did those men get that kind of courage?  I’m tempted to have a meltdown when the car gets a flat tire.  I cringe when people give me a condescending look when they find out I’m a pastor.  I get all testy when my needs aren’t met.  They knelt there and died.

This past summer, our church walked through 1 Peter.  I was stunned by what I read in verse 14 of chapter 4, “ If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.”  In the moment when we are tested, the Spirit of God gives us the power to endure.  John Piper preached a whole sermon around this passage entitled “The Holy Spirit Will Help You Die.”  That sermon title is the answer to my question.  What we saw on that beach wasn’t the courage of 21 men but the power of God working in their lives.

That’s where all of this comes together for us.  We can’t suffer or be grateful apart from the power of God in our lives.  They couldn’t be strong in martyrdom and we can’t honor God in our ordinary lives in our own strength.  Both require the power of God.  Lean into that power today and watch how God sustains you on your beach.

God uses the lives of martyrs not to produce guilt in us but to inspire fresh faith, fresh belief, fresh gratitude and fresh dependency.  Those 21 men died for the fame of Christ.  May we live for the same in our day, in our world, in our circle of influence.

Thinking Of Planting A Church? Check This Out.

Church Planting Network from The Summit Church on Vimeo.

The 10 months Laura and I spent in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina with The Summit Church were some of the most significant of our lives.  We had space for God to work in our hearts, to learn, to dream and to prepare for planting Restoration City Church.  Those months were invaluable for us!

If you’re interested in planting a balanced, gospel-centered church that will plant other churches, you really need to consider working with The Summit Network.  You don’t even need to move to Raleigh for a residency – we’ve decentralized the whole process!   If you would like to talk more, let me know…especially if you’re interested in planting in or around DC.

There isn’t a city in America, DC included, that doesn’t need more churches.  If you’re interested in stepping up to meet this need, I would love to walk alongside you.

Open Space

architect open spaceIn planting Restoration City Church, we are deliberately designing a community of faith that allows and encourages each of us to have open space in our lives.  We’re architecting a simple church.  Our goal is not to fill every available moment with a program, ministry or event.  Our goal is to do a few things well and create space for you to love and follow Jesus.

Confession time: Open space doesn’t come easy to me.  I love the idea and I know it’s where God is leading us but there are moments when I’m tempted to freak out and throw a bunch of events on a calendar.  Last Friday was one of those freak out moments for me.  As Dan and I were preparing to meet with our Operation Team (the volunteer leads for each of our ministry areas) we reviewed the church calendar for March – May.  As we were moving through the weeks, I felt this tension and panic rising in my heart.  It was the panic of “we need to be doing more!!!”  After all, we’re a growing church with a vision to reach our city and beyond; we’re aiming too high to allow open space.  It’s just part of the messed up way I’m wired.  Have a blank space?  Fill it!  Schedule an outreach.  Host a seminar.  Attend a conference.  Plan a church wide picnic.  Enroll the whole church in a 5k race.  Who cares….just do something!!

The more I think about it, the more I realize my obsession with activity comes from a lack of trust in the Holy Spirit.  It comes from a belief that if we aren’t programming ministry, no one in the church is doing anything to advance the Kingdom.  And that’s just flat wrong.  In fact, I believe the most significant ministry activity of Restoration City Church happens in the open spaces.  Here’s why:

  • It’s in the open spaces that we get to meet, enjoy and develop relationships with our neighbors.
  • It’s in the open spaces that we have time for a friend in crisis.
  • It’s in the open spaces that we get alone with God and allow Him to speak vision into our lives through His Word.
  • It’s in the open spaces that we serve through one of our ministry partners.
  • It’s in the open spaces that we wrestle with our fears, doubts and dreams.
  • It’s in the open spaces that we love people.
  • It’s in the open spaces that we engage our world.

So, Restoration City, don’t freak out about open space.  In fact, get comfortable with it.  We already have the capacity to schedule more as a church but we won’t because I believe deeply in the power of God working in your life.  You are light of the world and the carriers of hope for our city.  Live your life for the good of others and the glory of Christ.  I’m sure the Spirit will show you how to best leverage your open space for His purposes.

Enjoy the open space!

One Of Our Best Sundays Yet

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Yesterday I learned there is a unique joy in seeing the church I pastor thrive when I’m not able to be with them on a Sunday.  I honestly believe yesterday was one of our best Sundays yet at Restoration City and it was made all the sweeter by the fact that I wasn’t there.

It had always been the plan for Dan to preach this weekend.  But I woke up on Saturday morning with every expectation that I was going to be at our weekly gathering the next day.  Unfortunately, Jack got the flu.  While the flu is never fun, it takes on a new level of complication when the patient is 2 years old and he has a 2 week old brother at home.  So, Team McGowan went into full quarantine and triage mode over the weekend.  While Laura and I were stocking up on hand sanitizer and trying to coax Jack into staying hydrated, it became clear I wasn’t going to be going anywhere on Sunday morning.

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Love how God speaks through Dan Iten!

Our team literally didn’t miss a beat.  Tim Elzea stepped up in a huge way to provide leadership and direction for our Sunday morning teams.  Tyler and Steph did an amazing job with production on a Sunday when we weren’t even in our normal venue!!  The band, RCC Kids, Connect and Prayer were all amazing.  And my friend Dan Iten killed it with his sermon.

I loved getting texts and pictures all morning about how well things were going…and, no, they weren’t just from Dan!  People kept telling me how good the room felt, how much energy people had, how well things were going and how well Dan was doing.

I hated not being there and I loved not being there all at the same time.  We aren’t trying to build an event.  We aren’t trying to build a cult of personality.  We’re asking the Spirit of God to breathe life into a church.  Yesterday was a beautiful reminder that God is answering that prayer.

Restoration City, I love you!  I’m so honored to be your pastor, to serve with an amazing team and to live life with you.

For the record, don’t think I’m getting too attached to not being with you on a Sunday…I can’t wait to see you this week!

Dying, Not Trying

The natural order of our world teaches us that life always precedes death.  It’s a simple, familiar rhythm: You’re born, you live and then you die.  Maybe that’s why we find Jesus’ inversion of this order so hard to grasp.  The gospel introduces a spiritual order in which death always precedes life.  Jesus had to die so that we could be born again.  We’re born spiritually dead and receive a life that will never be extinguished.  Something new always requires the death of something old.

This inverted rhythm doesn’t just define our salvation.  It’s also the roadmap for our growth in Christlikeness.  Here’s how Jesus says it in John’s gospel, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.” (John 12:24-26)  It’s an amazing principle – in order to bear much fruit, we need to die to ourselves.  The path to greatness in the Kingdom of God is marked by service, surrender and sacrifice.

Fruitfulness increases through more dying not more trying.

What in you needs to die so that your life can bear even more fruit?  Maybe it’s the need for approval.  Maybe it’s the amount of time you waste on video games.  Maybe it’s the relationship that is pulling you away from Jesus and leading you into sin.  Maybe it’s the hobby that’s become an obsession.  Maybe it’s the fear of rejection in sharing the gospel.  I don’t know what it is for you.  But I do know this – more of God always means less of us. (John 3:30)

Dying to self is hard, painful, gut wrenching work.  Only those convinced it’s worth it will endure it.  So, be encouraged by the stunning promise in verse 26, “If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.”  I’m pretty sure none of us fully understand the enormity of this promise – the King of Glory will honor us?!!!?!  I’ll be honest, I don’t need to fully understand that to want it!

Are you willing to ask God to show you what needs to die in you so that you can know Him more?  Are you willing to die to self so you can be even more useful to God?  It’s scary and it’s worth it.