A month ago, I began a series of posts based on the movie, McFarland, USA*. Here is the second post in this series.
In the movie, McFarland, USA, Jim White, a high school sports coach, arrives in the small town of McFarland, and immediately faces disappointment, discouragement, and frustration. He doesn’t want to be there. He feels like he’s let his family down, he hates his job, and he experiences severe culture shock. McFarland is 95% Latino. On his first evening, he enters a restaurant, and is greeted by a woman speaking Spanish. The foods—tacos, tortas, burritos—are unfamiliar. He may not even know what some of them are. He’s disorientated.
After he’s been there a few months, and after being fired from coaching the football team, he observes some of his students running to class from the fields. He sees something that no one else has seen. He sees potential. So he starts a cross-country running team.
Jim White doesn’t just see students running. He sees the gap between ‘what is’ and ‘what could be’. We see young people running. He sees athletes winning races. He sees potential. That’s vision (A previous post on this subject here). This is the definition given by Pastor Dave Ferguson, who writes,
Vision is the distance that exists between the reality of ‘what is’ and the possibility of ‘what could be.’
‘What could be’ is potential. And visionaries see this. But they don’t just see, they act to turn potential into reality. That’s the difference.
Jesus was a visionary. He saw the vision of a kingdom built for the glory of God in the lives of those who followed him. Then he acted to bring in this kingdom. What about you?
If we’re not careful, we can see leadership as simply the fulfilling of certain duties. Leading services and prayer meetings. Preaching sermons. Leading meetings and more meetings. But this isn’t leadership. Not really, even though all these activities are important.
Leadership requires vision. A church community looks to the leader to provide that vision.
Enter Jim White. How does he act to see his vision realised?
When Jim White gathers his team together, hardly any of the students buy into his vision. Indeed, they resist him, and give him every excuse under the sun why they will never succeed. They come from deprived, low-income families, sometimes with absent fathers, and all they see is a life in the fields. Yet in spite of this constant opposition and negativity, they do still turn up for practice. And as they do, Jim White communicates his belief in their ability. But it’s a tough sell. One of the Latina teachers in the school, Maria, lays out the brutal reality he’s facing.
You live in McFarland, right? Have you ever taken a look out there? This is one of the poorest towns in America. These kids are invisible. They’re expendable. They come from the fields and they go back to the fields, unless the prisons get them first.
This vision has been driven deep into the psyches of the students. Thomas Valles, the fastest in the team, confirms this when he loses his temper at practice. He says,
We’re not runners, we’re pickers and we’re always gonna be pickers. And every day we’re going to get up and do the same thing over and over again . . . it’s never gonna change.
Let me put this in your context.
See those church members out there? They’re never gonna change. See Gerald there, he’s been a Christian for 50 years and he’s still complaining about the music and the times of the services. And Gloria? She arrived 25 years ago, and started as a gossip. Thing is, she’s still gossiping. They’ve heard the gospel hundreds of times, and they still don’t understand grace. They still hold grudges, and they’re not growing. Not really.
If that chimes with how you see your church community, then something has to change. Because believers possess tremendous potential. Indeed, the Bible seems to speak about believers as people who already have ‘this treasure in jars of clay.’ We are ‘risen with Christ,’ not just awaiting the last day. The problem is that just repeating these truths—as helpful as that may be—doesn’t produce perfection overnight. The Christian life is a journey of faith, and because many still struggle with their sin, they become stuck in a rut, with low expectations and the same struggles they’ve always had.
So how did Jim White turn a bunch of discouraged, angry runners into an elite team of winners?
He started by helping them catch a vision of their potential. This isn’t about self-esteem. It’s about self-belief. They are NOT the same. Self-belief is based upon the idea that I can achieve my potential, if I put in the necessary work. The potential is there. But I must discipline myself to realise it. Sadly, many church members have an unclear idea of their own potential. And they’re not sure what the vision is. Sure, they understand the grand vision like ‘making disciples’ or ‘sharing the gospel’ but beyond that, they don’t know what they are specifically expected to do to be a part of the project. Just turn up on Sunday? Surely it must require more than that.
So visionary leaders don’t just announce the vision on a Sunday, they personalise the vision for each member. Essentially, they set about the work of Ephesians 4.12—equipping the saints for works of service. They recognise the many talents available as described by Romans 12, and then they create a church culture which releases the potential of each member to develop their gifts.
But vision isn’t just about words.
It’s about deeds.
Jim White makes real sacrifices when it comes to training his team. He stays late and he takes their insults and abuse on the chin, but he keeps coming back. He is relentless. And it’s his tireless devotion to them, which ultimately wins them over. They have never met a person who is so committed to helping them realise their potential.
For a church leader, I think this is about relationship. Indeed, almost everything about church leadership is about relationship. Does Mrs. Jones feel appreciated as she puts the coffee things away? Does the new student, Jack, feel welcome? Does every home group leader know their job, receive training and support, because the church vision is for flourishing small groups?
A vision isn’t just about preaching sermons that contain the great truths of the faith. It’s about applying these truths to the individual lives arrayed before you. It becomes realised when you stay late with Mr. Johnson, and encourage him in his role as a home group leader, checking in with him personally, and assuring him that you’ll send that study to him, or visit his group as he requested.
Vision communicated becomes vision realised when the gossips stop gossiping and start supporting. It becomes realised when grace is practised more, when love and self-sacrifice increases, when gifts are developed, and when the potential you see in your people to become more like Jesus . . . actually happens.
We are supposed to grow. We are supposed to become more like Jesus. Visionary leaders see Jesus in people, and help them grow to be more like him. They see potential and reality (Christ in us) displayed each Sunday and by the work of the Spirit, draw those two together. Because visionary leaders don’t just spout nice words, they care deeply about the growth of each and every church member.
And perhaps most importantly, each church member knows this, feels this. Each person starts responding to the vision that ‘Christ in me’ is not just a biblical idea, but a fully realised truth to be embraced.
As the credits roll, the most significant impact of Jim White’s vision is revealed. We learn that these students didn’t just become great runners. They became people who caught a vision of who they might become. Their self-belief transformed their futures. Many went to college; some entered the police or became teachers. The discipline they learned from their running coach completely changed how they saw themselves.
They came to believe that they were more than pickers.
That’s how important vision is. It has the potential to change lives.
And each Sunday, you are in a position to communicate the most powerful vision that exists in this world.
Your people are listening.
With the help of your God, over to you.
*It is not essential to have watched the film, but it will help. You can find it on Rakuten, Amazon Prime, and Sky movies.