On Tuesday, the 2023-24 NBA kicked off its new season. For those who don’t follow sports or care for basketball, I promise this story isn’t really about the game. Still, I think the NBA and its players may have something to teach us.
During the summer, the San Antonio Spurs drafted 19-year-old Victor Wembanyama, a 7’4” French center with long gangly limbs and an 8 foot wingspan who looks like a stiff breeze could blow him over. I’ve followed the NBA long enough to have experienced the hype around similar players, projects that have rarely panned out as they struggled to develop the skills and strength to succeed in the league.
Still, the hype machine got me curious. Affectionately known as Wemby, the NBA preseason quickly revealed that this young man is remarkable. Not only has he produced blocks like the one of 6’7” Golden State guard Andrew Wiggins near the perimeter, but he has also displayed ball handling and shooting skills that aren’t fair for one person to have. He’ll be fun to watch this year, but if the Spurs are patient and Wemby can avoid injury, he may develop into a singular talent for years to come.
Wemby’s story got me thinking about some of the churches I have been a part of and interacted with. Many have had a distinctive program or element that members would often identify as the reason they joined the church. Sometimes, this was the(a) pastor’s preaching, but more often, it was the church’s hospitality, music program, outreach efforts, or family ministries. While there are always different opinions, it can be surprising how often members in some churches offer the same reason.
Churches I’ve experienced as vital can still have distinctive features but, like Wemby, do not rest on a singular strength or program. Instead, they invest in other skills to complement their natural strengths, providing various onramps for people with diverse passions, interests and experiences. I suspect that such communities are more challenging to form at first but also prove more resilient as time passes.
The NBA can be a brutal league where one injury can seriously disrupt or even end a career. Those fortunate enough to experience longevity often develop new skills to disrupt expectations and adapt to how their bodies have aged. After all, few players fortunate enough to play in their mid to late 30s can rely on the speed and agility they had in their youth.
It has been noted that no single church exists today that was around during the time of Jesus and his disciples. I’ve long thought that the church can benefit greatly from understanding that institutions, like people, are all subject to lifecycles. When we live in denial of this truth, we miss opportunities to focus energy on starting new ministries for new people, to the detriment of our shared mission.
Perhaps the NBA offers a softer version of this same truth. After all, NBA players typically end their careers long before they die. While some retire to play in smaller leagues or to enjoy the riches they have earned, others become promoters, coaches and commentators on the sport they love. Would it be easier for congregations to let go if early retirement was the metaphor instead of death? Perhaps.
So, unexpectedly, I will be following the budding career of Victor Wembanyama this season. While I am not a fan of the Spurs, it is easy to watch a player with such a unique set of skills. May we all, as individuals and as communities of faith, grow in the knowledge of the gifts God has given us, be inspired to explore and develop complementary skills, and be blessed with the wisdom to know when our careers are over.