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.

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