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Building a Team in the Fields of California


A couple of months ago, I began a series of posts based on the movie, McFarland, USA*.

Here is the third post in this series. (Read my first post, including synopsis. My second post.)


The movie, McFarland, USA, contains many themes. It’s especially strong on leadership, but at its heart, it’s a movie about sports. It’s about team, and how a team is built. Church leaders have no trouble talking about teams, but sport? Well, there’s a conundrum. If I mention football again, half the congregation will sigh and switch off. But if I don’t mention our city’s triumph yesterday, I will be out of touch. Which half should I offend?

At this point, it’s worth a reminder of why sport is so important, whether you like it or not. Sport is important in our culture, because in many ways, it has replaced religion. It therefore sets out to satisfy many of the longings of the human heart previously associated with religion. As a character in a book I wrote recently said,

“Sports . . . Aidan. The gathering of the faithful . . . arms aloft . . . communal singing . . . salvation figures . . . the outpouring of devotion. Modern-day worship.”

House of Souls, p.219

Cross-country running doesn’t immediately make most people think of teams. But it should. At least, it should when you understand that, as a high school sport in the USA, each runner competes for points that add up to a team score. You run on your own, but you run for your team. Sounds a lot like church. In fact, it sounds a lot like this verse from the letter to the Hebrews.

And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.

Heb 12.1b-2a

In McFarland, USA, the individual effort to reach the winning post is submitted to the team goal. No one runs to win alone. They all run for each other. So when they win, they win together. Team first, individual glory second. What, then, can we learn from Jim White’s example as the man who builds this team?


What did Jim White do to unlock the potential in these young men? Essentially, he called them into relationship. He saw them. He valued them. And he made sacrifices to spend time with them. That’s a lot like Jesus. Jim White also understood the power that comes from belonging. At the beginning of the film, they resist almost all the demands he makes. They argue and occasionally storm off. But they keep coming back. They could quit, but they don’t. That’s because Jim White has unlocked a basic human need. To belong. And he does this by giving them a shared goal that undergirds belonging. That goal starts to give them value and purpose in a way they have never experienced before.

As a leader, this is all about relationship. Why do people attend your church? The music? The preaching? The theology? May I submit that the principal reason your church members attend your particular church is community? It’s the people. It’s always about the people. It’s ALWAYS about relationship. Because through relationship, we belong.

Ask, therefore . . .

  • Am I effectively identifying isolated people in my community, and helping them belong?

  • Am I engaging in activities that enhance good relationships in church, or am I myself rather isolated from the group?

  • Do I properly understand the relationships between my church members? Do I help those relationships deepen and stimulate spiritual growth?

  • When relationship sour, do I set out to reconcile people? Do I make the necessary sacrifices to tackle conflict when it arises?

  • Is my church a place where everyone feels they belong? If not, why not?


Building a team is hard, because leadership is hard. It requires perseverance, strength of purpose, and a sure conviction that the culture you’re aiming for is one that gives glory to God. That means you’ll face opposition. It’s part of the job. Jim White faces constant cynicism and complaining from his team. Especially from his team leader. The one he had hoped would inspire the others, Thomas Valles, is the one who moans the most, and then quits the team. (Later, he returns.) He’s the one who needs to be saved (see a later post on this). It reminds me of Simon Peter, who quit, and needed to be restored. Thomas is surly and negative, but in many ways, he undergoes the greatest transformation. Rather like Simon Peter.

So, every time you face opposition, remember who you are, where you’re heading, and who is on your side. Opposition is a sign that you’re dealing with people who don’t want change. Nor did Jim White’s running team. But they still followed their leader. So as long as the whining, complaining church members are still there, there is still hope for the future. Be gracious towards those who don’t like change but remember that if the Lord is calling you to build a team, and change is essential, then he will be with you as you implement those changes.


In a later post, I will write about gifts, based on 1 Corinthians 12. Suffice to say here that we build a team most effectively when we help our people find their joy. So let’s widen this a little. What makes Mrs. Jones feel that she belongs? Remembering her son who’s serving in the army? See Jerry over there? He’s just been made redundant. What could you do to involve him more at church? Does he need a mentor or counsellor? Are the musical ones using their musical gifts? Are the evangelists equipped to evangelise? Are the carers equipped to care for the needy? As you look around at your congregation, do you see a group of people who have found their joy? Because when a person finds their joy, they so often feel that they belong. That’s why it’s so important for people to discover their role, their place, in a community. Millions upon millions of people attend football matches, seeking a place to belong. Yet in church, we have a ready-made loving community where anyone can serve and discover how much they are loved.

So help people find their joy by finding their place.


Winning takes sacrifice. Real effort. Sadly, we sometimes get our theology in a tangle. You don’t have to do anything, we say, to receive the grace of God. All you need is faith. Spot on. Absolutely right. But oh, the unfortunate consequences of this truth when mis-applied. The free grace of God does not mean that the Christian life is absent of the need to discipline oneself. To quote the apostle Paul,

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.

1 Cor 9.24-25

Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. Effort. Discipline. Jim White makes his team do yet another lap, jog up yet another hill. He demands discipline, and by doing so, he finds a team that responds. Find a way, therefore, to overcome your politeness, if that’s an issue for you. Challenge your people to grow. Don’t just shake their hands as they leave. Consider how you can encourage each person to grow. If that entails a little ‘pushing’, then take that risk. If that means overcoming your fear, then so be it. I think you’ll be surprised by the response you get. A leader who truly desires that I grow? And calls me out, encouraging me (and sometimes challenging me) in my faith? That’s a leader I’ll follow.


Who matters most in the stadium? The fans. Without fans, there is no sport. Without fans, what’s the point? So if you want to build a team, start to think like a fan. Fans love their teams. I mean, really love their teams. They come out in all weathers, drive hundreds of miles, to support their team. You must show the same dedication. Because people crave encouragement, even if they don’t vocalise it. Listen to Jim White, encouraging his team before the state championship race. It’s enough to bring a tear to the eye.

Every team here deserves to be. Including you. But they haven’t got what you’ve got. They don’t get up at dawn and go to work in the fields. They don’t go to school all day and go back to work in those same fields. They can’t even imagine it. And then you come out and you run 8 miles, 10 miles and you take on even more pain. These kids don’t do what you do. They can’t even imagine it . . . You guys are super-human. What you endure just to be here, to get a shot at this, the kind of privilege someone like me takes for granted, there’s nothing you can’t do with that kind of strength, that kind of heart. You kids have the biggest hearts I’ve ever seen.

It’s little surprise that these kids ran with hearts like lions after listening to that. Self-belief surged through their bodies, because their leader supported and loved them. He believed in them.

So he encouraged them by speaking truth into their hearts.

That’s leadership.


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