Every Wednesday night at 9 p.m., nine college guys, ranging from 18 to 25 years old, would amble into an urban Louisville garage. We called ourselves the “band of brothers.”
These meetings started several months earlier when we were crammed into a 15-passenger van on a church trip. We began confessing how we wish we could know more “man skills”: how to change the oil in our car, fix spark plugs, replace a light socket, start a fire without matches, and tie a Windsor Knot.
We were thrilled when the man driving the car quietly said, “I can teach you how to do all of that.”
That man was John Powell.
We all admired John. He was a confident leader and a biblical thinker. He was kind, gentle, and convictional. He loved his family. He treated us like we were men. He challenged us to be men. So, we committed. John made a syllabus and emailed it to us. He expected us to be there. We were thrilled this was really going to happen. So, week after week—on Wednesdays at 9 p.m.—we’d show up to that garage, and John would teach us something new.
I’ll confess (and I know John would be disappointed): I don’t remember how to change a socket, and I don’t change my own oil. Those lessons didn’t quite stick. But some lessons did. Lessons that matter so much more.
John died unexpectedly and tragically last Sunday while trying to help a stranded motorist, leaving behind a wife and four children. His influence went far beyond his own immediate circle.
I reached out to several among those “band of brothers,” and we reflected on John’s example, his words, and his life. Patterns emerged. Principles appeared. John was an imperfect man—he would be the first to tell you. But in those formative years, he embodied a Christlike brand of manhood that won our admiration.
Here are a few lessons he taught us.
1. Lovingly Pursue Your Wife
John loved his wife, Katherine. He told us the story of him leaving Thanksgiving dinner at a professor’s house to drive to Missouri to propose to her. Scripture calls men to “nourish and cherish” their wives (Eph. 5:29), John cherished his wife in front of us. John showed us the way to love your wife is to pursue her.
John showed us the way to love your wife is to pursue her.
2. Delightfully Train Your Children
John had one son when we spent time together. He trained him. His son said, “Yes, sir,” and “No, ma’am.” John had expectations for him, but he didn’t crush him. He delighted in him. He laughed with him. John’s love for his son was palpable.
Even as a 2-year-old, his son seemed like his friend. He let him stay up late with the college guys in the garage. John’s kids weren’t just present in his life, they were included. John wouldn’t have it any other way. He showed us parenting marked by discipline and delight.
3. Faithfully Grind at Work
John hired me to work as a part-time “student ambassador” in the admissions department he led. I watched him work. He cared about details and excellence, but he also let me mess up and learn from mistakes.
John kept our gaze on “working heartily as for the Lord and not men” (Col. 3:23). He showed me to care more about how I worked than what I did for work.
4. Creatively Invest in Others
John did crazy things to invest in us. He attached a 55-gallon drum barrel to bungee cords in his garage to teach us how to bull ride. He took some guys to a ranch hundreds of miles away to learn how to farm and brand animals.
That may not seem like an obvious avenue to discipleship, but these creative investments taught us that discipleship doesn’t just happen at coffee shops and in crisis situations. Sometimes they happen—when you’re with a guy like John, at least—while changing oil.
5. Consistently Serve the Church
John was an extraordinary preacher. He had a dynamic personality. He was a good writer. He was connected to influential people. But he didn’t clamor for attention. Instead, he faithfully led discipleship at a small-church revitalization.
John preached God’s Word in season and out of season (2 Tim. 4:2). We learned that the best ministry is one of consistency and presence, rather than recognition and fame.
6. Regularly Express Gratitude
All the guys have notes from John. He would tell us he’s proud of us. He would tell us how grateful he was to know us. He would share Scripture with us. None of us wondered what he thought of us.
He abounded with thanksgiving (Col. 2:7). He told us so regularly. John taught us that when you are grateful for someone you should tell them—regularly.
7. Focus Deeply on Character
During my first pastorate, John came to town and took me to lunch. He didn’t urge me to grow in skills. He didn’t ask me how many people were at my church. He didn’t ask about our budget. He didn’t even ask what I was reading.
Instead, he looked at me with that piercing John Powell stare and asked me about my integrity, my purity, my prayer life, and if I had other men holding me accountable. He knew that I was young, that my call was to set an example in “speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12).
John was proud of what all the guys in our discipleship group were doing in work or ministry (and he wrote letters to tell us!), but he cared more about who we were. We learned that character matters most.
8. Sacrificially Lead by Example
Since John’s death I’ve wondered, How can one 38-year-old man have such a massive influence on so many lives? John didn’t write any books. He didn’t podcast. He wasn’t famous.
How does this happen?
It happens when your leadership is marked by sacrificial example. We followed him as he followed Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). John didn’t just tell us how to be men; he showed us—even when it cost him.
Influencing others happens when your leadership is marked by sacrificial example.
Shocked, Not Surprised
He kept doing that, even in his death.
As I talk with guys in that group from years ago, we all say the same thing: we are shocked but not surprised by how John died. We aren’t surprised that he got out of the car to help a stranded motorist. We aren’t surprised that he gave his life for the sake of another.
But the main reason we aren’t surprised is because the primary Powell Principle, the one undergirding all the others, is the gospel. John believed that the point of his life, his family, his pastorate, and his investment in guys like us was to push us to the gospel: the stunning news that Jesus Christ died in our place and rose from the dead so that we might live:
[Christ] died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. (2 Cor. 5:15)
John did what he always did: he didn’t just tell us that principle; he showed us.
I don’t remember everything John said to us in that garage almost 10 years ago. But I won’t forget what he showed me, because it looks so similar to my Savior.
Written by: SPENCER HARMON
First published 24.07.20: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/lessons-mentor/