Portraits is an occasional series that captures stories across our community, one photo at a time.
“Remember who you are and who you represent.”
Jon’s mom always said the same thing to him as he headed out the door to hang out with friends, and the words trailed after him and echoed in his head.
“Remember who you are and who you represent.”
“She meant for those words to keep me grounded and focused on what was really important,” said Jon. “But every time I heard them, I piled a little more pressure on myself to live up to what I thought was expected of me.”
Those expectations were never actually spelled out, but they didn’t have to be. Growing up as a pastor’s kid, Jon knew that he was being watched, or at least seen, by… well… everyone — even people he didn’t know.
“As a PK you grow up with this spotlight on you,“ explained Jon. “Everyone knows who you are and who your family is, and even if you’re just a little kid, it’s like you’re supposed to be an example. And there are these expectations about how you should look and act that you can just feel.”
Jon didn’t just grow up in the church; he grew up at church. Every Sunday morning, Sunday night, Friday night and Wednesday evening, Jon was at church. Of course he was — he was the pastor’s kid.
“I had a few years in high school when I was totally sold-out for God,” said Jon. “But mostly I was just bored. I was there all the time.”
The other complication of having a dad who was also a pastor was that Jon couldn’t tell his dad anything he didn’t want his pastor to know, and he couldn’t tell his pastor anything he didn’t want his dad to know. And so, there was a lot that just didn’t get said.
After high school, Jon spent one year at the same Bible college where his parents met before deciding it was time to find a secular school.
“For the first time in my life, nobody knew who I was, or who my dad was,” said Jon. “And if anyone asked me what my dad did, I changed the subject. After 21 years of trying to be who I was supposed to be, I could finally just do whatever and be whoever I wanted. To be honest, it was awesome.”
He was old enough to buy beer for his friends’ parties, no one was there telling him he should only date Christian girls, and if he skipped church, so what? Who would notice now? Jon didn’t lose sleep over the repercussions of his choices; he was too busy enjoying making choices.
“As a kid, I understood that I was so blessed to know Jesus,” said Jon. “But that blessing felt really heavy. I was supposed to be Christ’s ambassador. But I had never asked for that responsibility and a part of me resented it.”
Jon never stopped believing in God, but for years when he knew he wasn’t living in a way that represented Christ, he kept his distance. Even as he tried to keep away, though, Jon felt God reaching out for him, especially through music. Every time Hillsong came out with a new album, Jon would listen to it all at once, have a God moment, get freaked out and then never listen to it again.
“I knew God was calling me back, but how could I go to church when I was getting drunk and trying to pick up girls?” said Jon. “I kept on telling myself that as soon as I got those things under control I would find Christian friends and go to church. But until then it felt like I would just be pretending to be a Christian. I didn’t want to be a hypocrite. I didn’t want other people to be turned off of God because of me.”
Then, after a particularly rough night at a friend’s bachelor party in Atlantic City, Jon woke up in a hotel room full of passed-out guys snoring. He was hungover, and there had been way too much pizza and too many hoagies on the way home from the strip club.
“I felt gross. I felt lonely,” said Jon. “And I put in my headphones and just lay in bed listening to this song by Hillsong United about being found in the ashes and knowing that God is with you. I would have been so embarrassed if any of the guys had known I was listening to a Jesus song, but that morning I decided to stop putting distance between God and me.”
There were a lot of ups and downs over the next year. Jon got laid off, and again and again tried pursuing relationships that went nowhere and ended in heartache. He was going to church, though, and after an especially painful breakup he went to Dinner Group for the first time.
“Even after I joined a Dinner Group and surrounded myself by people who loved God, I was still making pretty terrible decisions,” said Jon. “But something was different. Even if I had had too much to drink Saturday night, I still went to church in the morning. I wasn’t running away from God when I messed up. I was running to Him. And again and again I was finding that the condemnation I expected just wasn’t there. Finding that love taught me so much about who God is and made me love Him — really love Him.”
It wasn’t long before Jon was asked to lead his own Dinner Group. In many ways that was exactly the sort of thing he had been running away from for years. He would be in a leadership role at church, and there was even a conduct covenant he would have to sign.
“I waited till the last minute possible to sign that covenant,” said Jon. “But God was saying this is what I’m calling you to do. Stop running. Just accept the calling in this small way. I’m not asking you to be perfect. It’s not really about you at all. It’s about loving these people I’ve put in your life.”
Jon doesn’t live under the weight of expectations anymore. And he knows he doesn’t have to be a great Christian. He has a great God.
“Don’t worry about all of the things you’re trying to fix,” he said. “God doesn’t need you to fix yourself. He loves you as you are. Follow Him first and then watch as He takes care of all that you need.”