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Peace, Love, and Barbecue: A Conversation with John Rivers, Part One

In the south, barbecue is as common as take-out pizza in a college town. 4 Rivers Smokehouse is different—the barbecue is delicious; what makes it different is its mission and the man who founded it as his “barbecue ministry” in 2004, when he hosted a cookout fundraiser to support a local family whose young daughter was battling cancer.

John says, “This was never supposed to be a restaurant. My definition of helping meant doing what felt most natural when comfort was in order—feed those in need.”

We've been asking colleagues and business leaders how their faith makes a difference to their work and the calling behind their careers. I sat down with John Rivers for a conversation about working with faith and the greater purpose behind what he does.

We met in John’s office in Winter Park, Florida, where John sat in a recliner and sipped a cup of coffee. John is soft-spoken. The windows were open; at times the commuter rail line filled the room with the sound of steel wheels on rails and the rumble of diesel engines.

EntreWorship: How critical is faith in Christ to your journey as an entrepreneur?

John: “Quite honestly, you almost pity the entrepreneur who doesn't (have faith in Christ) because there's so much risk that's involved. There's so much unknown. I think it would be very had to go about it without having the faith element. If it were easy (being an entrepreneur), everybody would be doing it.”

On entrepreneurship: “It’s like you're walking into a buzzsaw on purpose because there's a reward on the other side of it. I think it's when you start getting into it and you take those steps, that's when you find out why so few people are doing it.”

EW: Why is faith so important to you as an entrepreneur?

John: “Faith is important when the tough times come. I miss those days to a degree because that was the time when we had many perils, and we didn't know how to fix it.”

“We didn't know the answers. At one point we were literally down to 60 days of cash between my wife and I before we opened.  That was the time I was closer to God than I ever had been in my whole life. It reminds me of that old saying that ‘sometimes it takes getting to a point where all you have is Jesus until you realize all you need is Jesus.’

Joking aside, I think there’s a reason for that.”

EW: What did those early days when you were closest to God teach you?

John: “I think God brings you there because he's preparing you. He'll give you all this greatness but says, ‘I have to teach you first. It's through Me, and it's by Me, and quite frankly, you're only going to get there with Me.’

The story that I keep sharing with people is about when David was anointed to be king. People don't realize it was 12 years later that he was called to be the king. It was during those 12 years he was in the desert running for his life.”

Bill Johnson wrote an excellent book about it, and he talks about how God uses those turmoil times in our lives to strengthen our relationship with Him. When you do face other challenges later, then you know that you're going be able to turn to Him—it's called strengthening yourself in the Lord. Absent of that turmoil time, you would never have developed the strength and perseverance that's necessary.”

EW: I recall the story in 2 Chronicles 26, the story of Uzziah, and its two key lessons. First, as long as Uzziah sought the Lord's guidance, the Lord gave him success in everything he did. God enabled him to build a massive army and reign for 52 years.

Secondly, at the end of his life, he burned incense in the temple, and 80 priests came in and confronted him. “What are you doing? Burning incense is the work of the priests!” they said. Josiah became outraged with them for their rebuke. The Lord made him prosperous; he became strong; he became powerful—yet his pride brought him down.

At that point when the priests charged in, that's where it says, "He broke out with a skin disease, like leprosy or something, and they rushed him out of there. He spent the remainder of his days ruling in exile, basically in a house across grounds from his palace. His son took care of the day-to-day work of the kingdom.  

John: “Pride is a terrible, terrible sin.”

Interviewer: Do you fight with pride?

John: “Oh, yes, especially in the early years. Success is a double-edged sword, especially in a new endeavor when you pour your heart and soul into it. It’s just like when you have a child; you’re very proud. The more successful that child becomes, comes the pride with it. Hence the challenges, and trying to talk about how God prepares you for challenges later. It wasn’t business or financial. It was the tests of your heart, your soul, and pride.

With success comes temptations, and with success also comes laziness. There’s a lot of things with which you wrestle. And I’m convinced that with getting the business started are a unique set of challenges, but it’s the latter ones that you get when you’re successful that are greater personal challenges to you.”

EW: Do you have a board of directors that help you?

John: “I’ve got a group of advisors, and most of them are also investors in our business, but not all of them—from former restaurateurs to legal, to accounting, to pastors. I'll bring them together maybe once a year. I'll tap into each one as the need arises, to respect their time as well. They've been wonderful throughout the years.”

Learn more about John Rivers by watching his testimony. If you’re in one of the southern cities with a 4 Rivers Smokehouse location, be sure to visit. Order the brisket.

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