Put Me In, Coach

He’s known at Greece Athena High School in Rochester, New York, as Jay Mac. His full name is Jason McKelway, and he has autism. 

Jason loves basketball, and during his four years of high school, he relished being the team’s assistant. The guys loved him, and even though it’s common for kids with autism to be distressed by noise, Jason handled it well. There was no one more committed to the team’s success than this enthusiastic student.

Coach Jim Johnson honored Jason’s endearing zeal by telling him to suit up for the last game of his high school career. Word traveled, and students arrived at the game carrying signs bearing Jason’s picture. Then, in the game’s final minutes, Coach Johnson put him in, and the crowd cheered wildly. “I started to tear up,” says the coach. “I said, ‘Oh please Lord, just get him a basket.'”           

Jason missed his first shot, but the crowd didn’t care. Both the home and visiting teams shouted encouragement. A moment later, he shot a three-pointer. The crowd went crazy. When the game was over, Jay Mac had tied a team record, hitting six three-pointers. The crowd exploded onto the court and put Jason on their shoulders.

His victory was their victory. His coach knew he had done the right thing.

Gold Digging
My job as the leader of artists in my church is like that of Jason’s coach. Sure, I train and teach, minister and direct. But more basic than those obvious duties are the vital moments when I help bring out the best in people. To do that, I must get to know the people God has placed in the ministry, understanding their strengths and weaknesses. It’s my job to know when to put them in the game.

At times, I’ve been tempted to give roles to performers with great talent, yet who I know struggle with spiritual immaturity, pride, wrong motives, or jealousy. It’s my duty to watch their responses when they are not put in the game. Then, it’s my job to shepherd these sheep in a way that offers them a clear path to maturity, lovingly helping them identify and evict the idols of performance and pride they may have never recognized but that can be seen through the spiritual eyes of believers. It can be done.

Redemptive Act
Often, experienced performers come to ministry with baggage from their lives in the theatre-a place where pride is admired, temperamental behavior is considered delightfully colorful, and self-absorption is the norm. And just as often, new folks with no experience, lots of insecurity but great potential also join the team. In order to level the playing field and create a safe, accepting environment, we spend plenty of time together in God’s presence. In preparation for those times, I pray for specific people on the team, asking God to talk with them about the issues they face. All my wisdom and experience can’t hold a candle to the Spirit’s power as the primary agent of change in a person’s life. 

It’s my responsibility to disciple artists through the very act of creating art. And there is no better place to do that than within a biblical community. Happily, it’s that very kind of loving, honest, Christ-centered community that artists crave and in which they thrive. As a leader, creating and maintaining biblical community is the foundation, requirement, and remedy for a healthy arts ministry.

Everyone Plays           
Finally, to produce art of great quality as an offering to our Lord may include putting our Jasons in the game. I recall putting a girl with Down syndrome in an elegant, precisely choreographed, highly complex Christmas show. Diane simply pushed a bright red passenger sleigh across the stage and down a ramp through the audience. Luminous in her Victorian costume, this was her moment. She captured the hearts of the audience all ten nights of the run. One night, students from her special education class came to the show. Seeing Diane filled them with wonder, and they gave her a standing ovation-cheering for her as passionately as audiences cheer for opera stars. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, and no theatrical quality was lost by this brief Christmas miracle.

We leaders mentor, encourage, and push for excellence. But excellence may not always be perfection. Leaders of artists have a great opportunity to help people of all levels of talent experience victory. Their victories belong to all of us.

Apply It:

  • Create an opportunity for your team to explore their motivations for participating in the arts ministry, and then spend time as a team debriefing.
  • In your next presentation, create a role for a person with a disability from your church and invite them to take part.