Cheering for the Thunder, or Year Six

Anyone who knows me knows that two of my favorite things in life are the rural church and the Oklahoma City Thunder.  These two have been major parts of my life for as long as they possibly could.

I first attended a rural church when I was one week old.  I don’t remember much about that first Sunday, of course, but within a few years I was learning the Bible according to flannel-graph and jamming out to “It’s Bubbling” with the children’s choir.

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I was a Thunder fan from the moment the move from Seattle to OKC was announced.  My college friends bought me an OKC t-shirt before anyone even knew that the team would be named the Thunder.  The shirt simply said, “OKC Basketball”, and it had an NBA logo underneath. It was the coolest thing ever for an Oklahoma kid who’d never had a team to call my own.

For most of my life the Thunder and the rural church have remained two completely separate passions. However, as I’ve watched the Thunder dismantle and prepare for a long rebuild over the last few weeks, I’ve begun to realize that being a Thunder fan has an awful lot in common with attending (and pastoring) a rural church.

The Thunder are what is known as a ‘small market’ team, meaning that OKC is not one of the big cities with money and glamour to attract the stars of the NBA.  OKC is not LA or Houston or Chicago or New York or Boston. Small market teams struggle to compete financially against teams from larger markets, and they are often outbid in the competition for top talents.

Even when leagues enact salary caps and luxury taxes, the small market teams still struggle to keep up. It’s what we’ve seen all summer with Anthony Davis, Paul George, and Kawhi Leonard ending up in LA or Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving going to Brooklyn.  There is a sort of gravitational pull towards the big markets that small market teams simply can’t compete with.

If I know anything about rural churches, it’s that rural churches are ‘small market’ churches, and many of the things that can be said about small market teams can be said about rural churches as well.  They struggle to compete financially with big churches in larger, more attractive cities. There is a gravitational pull to the big churches that leads to a talent drain out of the small ones.  If you’ve spent much time in small or rural churches, you are very familiar with these challenges.

Of course, my Thunder and my church were supposed to be different.  And for a little bit it seemed that both were different, that both could somehow, slowly, steadily, break that gravitational pull and succeed.

The Thunder went from worst team in the league to NBA Finals runners up in 4 seasons.  We didn’t know how lucky we were those first 4-5 years. We drafted three future MVPs—Durant, Westbrook, and Harden—in three consecutive drafts.  That may be the greatest draft streak in the history of the NBA draft. The first couple years were rough, but that didn’t last long.  By 2012 we were in the NBA championship, one of the fastest climbs in NBA history.

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I thought we were going to just go on winning forever.  But of course we didn’t.  We traded Harden to avoid the luxury tax (because of the small-market).  Durant chose to play for the Warriors.  And no matter how many triple doubles Russell Westbrook posted, we never could make it back to the finals.

My first experience pastoring a small rural church was not nearly as meteoric as the Thunder’s rise, but it trended positive for five straight years (if you measure success by numbers).  Little by little, we grew.  It’s not like we were doubling in size or building a new sanctuary or anything like that. But it was easy to feel like we were moving the right direction, like we’d just go on having small victories forever.

But sooner or later, the reality of the small market sets in.

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On the day three years ago that Kevin Durant announced he was leaving the Thunder to go to the Warriors, a cornerstone member of my church lay in the hospital dying.  I remember thinking that it was over for the Thunder when I heard Durant’s choice.  Would we ever win again?  I remember thinking it was over for my church three weeks later when our member finally passed.  Would we even be able to pay our bills?

Thankfully, in neither case were my worries correct.  It wasn’t over, not for the Thunder and not for my little church.  But it did get harder for both.  The small-market realities and pressures became much more glaringly evident.

There are all sorts of parallels that I could point to from the last few years of struggle as a Thunder fan and rural church pastor.  But all of it came crashing home to me a couple weeks ago when Paul George asked to be traded.  There was nothing left for the Thunder to do but to trade Russell Westbrook a week later, officially ending the Thunder’s decade of beating the odds.

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It was then that I realized: remaining a Thunder fan is going to be like staying in a rural church.

Now the Thunder have entered a rebuild.  As a sports fan, I know rebuilds have to happen from time to time (unless you are the Spurs). What scares me is that many small market teams, especially in the NBA, go into ‘rebuilds’ that stretch for years, decades even.  I’m barely old enough to remember a time when the Kings weren’t ‘rebuilding’.

Sure, the Thunder have set themselves up as well as they could for this rebuild.  We have something like 15 first round picks in the next 8 years, so that’s got to be good for something.  But will we draft the likes of Durant, Westbrook, and Harden again?  It’s unlikely.  Will the talent that we do draft stick around?  Probably not.  Will we make it back to the playoffs in the next 10 years?  I want to say yes, but history says it’s unlikely.

And that’s the fear, isn’t it, for rural churches?  Once we enter a rebuilding phase, we will never come out of it.  We will never get pastors at the peaks of their careers. We only get young talent who will leave for bigger markets at the first opportunity, or old veterans who are preaching out their remaining days just to earn a paycheck.  Meanwhile the real talent continues to be funneled elsewhere.

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I pastor one of those small rural churches that feels like it is stuck in a perpetual rebuild.  And that isn’t an insult to my congregation; we all know it.  We live it every Sunday.  We know that by all appearances we are more the Kings than the Thunder.  But that doesn’t stop us from striving to share Jesus with our community.

As I look at the challenges facing the Thunder in this rebuild, I realize that rural churches like mine face many of the same challenges, just in slightly different forms.

The first challenge comes from the draft and developing young talent.  No matter how good the Thunder does in the draft over the next few years, most of the young talent we acquire and develop will leave, just like our last bunch did.  Just because we have youth right know doesn’t mean it’s a long-term guarantee of health and success.

The rural church isn’t much different.  All churches want to grow young.  All churches want to attract families and have youth groups.  This is seen as a great indicator of church health today.  Even as my rural church has developed a healthy youth group over the past few years, this doesn’t really put us in a secure position.  It doesn’t bring us out of perpetual rebuild.

If we are doing our jobs well, we will develop young leaders in our churches and youth groups who have promising futures in the church, whether as pastors or lay leaders.  But even as we do this, we know that much of this ‘young talent’ we are developing will not stay.  They will go to college elsewhere.  They will find jobs and start families and attend churches elsewhere. And the rural church rebuild continues on.

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This isn’t to say we should give up on youth.  Quite the opposite, actually.  We are privileged to nurture and train the youth God entrusts to us, whether they stay or go.  In my experience, rural churches are uniquely positioned to develop young leaders who have been included in the life of the Church, worshiped alongside other generations, and participated in ministry from an early age.

Another challenge facing the Thunder is free agency.  It is unlikely that OKC ever becomes a destination where sought after players come or stay. And that’s why loosing a Durant or a George hurts so badly.  Thunder fans don’t know when we will see that level of talent again, if ever.  Panic and fear and despair are real.

Again, the rural church isn’t much different.  It is probably crass to call visitors ‘free agents’, but you can’t deny that every visit from a new family carries much higher stakes for the small church than for the big church.  When one of those families comes back, it can feel too good to be true (just like Paul George signing a four-year deal to stay in OKC felt too good to be true… which it was).

Similarly, losing a family is a lot scarier to a small rural church than it is to churches in other environments.  We don’t know when we will get that ‘level of talent’ again, if ever.  It’s easy to feel panic and fear and despair.  And this is more and more the reality for rural churches, because rural communities are shrinking and becoming more and more transient-based.  People who do move to town stay for shorter periods, adding to the difficulty of the rebuild.

Just like the Thunder, the average rural church is stuck trying to rebuild through two avenues that actually work against us.  It’s no wonder many rural congregations are tired of fighting, tired of trying new things, tired of starting new outreaches.  But God never asked us to be faithful to the mission just when everything goes great.

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Here’s the thing: I’m not bitter about any of this.  Really, I’m not.  (Ok, maybe I’m still bitter about Durant, but that’s it.)  These are not facts to be angry about.  It is simply reality.  I love the rural church even when it is difficult to love.  I love the rural church even when it feels impossible to gain momentum.  At the end of the day, who am I?  I’m a rural church pastor, and I’m a Thunder fan.  I won’t give up on either just because the future holds many challenges.

I also know there is a third challenge: myself.  Leadership matters.  Healthy churches and healthy teams alike are blessed with good leadership.  There is a reason the Thunder have been better than the Kings for the last decade, just as there is a reason the Warriors have been better than the Knicks for the last decade.  Leadership makes a difference in small and big markets, just as it does in small and big churches.

19f63b64401969cef54a5c7a121ceb2bAs much as we loved Westbrook, we also knew he was part of the problem, part of the reason we couldn’t win.  He turned the ball over too much.  He shot too many bad threes.  He didn’t pass when he should have, especially at the end of games.  Sure, he averaged a triple-double three straight seasons, but no matter how much he did, the team didn’t get better.  He played with the mentality that he ‘had to’ do all of that to keep the Thunder competitive, but maybe doing all that made us worse.

I know I can play like Westbrook sometimes.  I take too many shots.  I averaged a pastoral triple-double a couple years ago, but it was only because I ‘had to’. (The pastoral triple double measures sermons preached, youth lessons taught, and Bible studies lead.  Also it is a statistic I just made up, and therefore I get to make the rules.)

The Thunder have been better as a team when Westbrook does less.  I have a feeling that the same can be said about my church.  When I equip instead of just doing, when I actually do the job Ephesians 4 says I have been called to do… everyone in my church can build the Kingdom and live the mission together.

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Why do teams like the Thunder exist, if the odds are stacked against them and they probably will never win? Because small town Oklahoma kids need a team to call their own.  Whether we make it to the finals or spend the next ten years mired in the lottery, that is MY team, from MY place, for MY people.  Whether good or bad, no one can take that away (unless Seattle steals them back).

And why do rural churches exist?  Because small town people need a place to worship.  Rural people matter just as much to God as big city people do, and vice versa.  I remember sitting on my porch my first year here in Argonia, watching the cars drive by on the highway and wishing I could go with them.  I felt that to be something, to do ministry that matters, to WIN, I needed to move on.

In that moment, God stopped me and reminded me that he loves the people of Argonia.  That he died for them.  That the small market matters, because the people there matter. The Thunder exists for the fans, and the rural church exists for the community.  The rural church exists because rural people need a place to call MY church, from MY place, for MY people.  Good or bad, big or small, healthy or weak, that is a beautiful thing.

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