Spiritual Free Agents

In the major professional sports, there is a magical phenomenon call “free agency.” This appeared on the scene when I was a young man. Up to that point, players were basically tied to their team for life (unless the team traded them).

unrestrictedThat kind of servitude doesn’t fly in our modern world. Some say it’s akin to slavery. While that’s probably a bit exaggerated, it is nevertheless on point.

Now, when a player’s contract is up, he gets to offer his services to the highest bidder—advantage; large market teams. But that’s the way the ball bounces (excuse the pun). Now (unlike the old days when a player often played for one team his entire career), it’s not uncommon for an athlete to play for half a dozen teams or more. Some guys change teams so often I can’t keep up.

“I was baptized Presbyterian.”

During the same time free agency began to take root in sports, it started to emerge in the life of the church. In the old days, it was not uncommon for someone to say, “I was baptized Presbyterian.” You don’t hear stuff like that much anymore because folks just don’t care where they were baptized, married, went to Sunday School, or took their first communion.

People nowadays flit from congregation to congregation on a whim—they’re free agents. The name on the sign seldom matters anymore. If you were raised Baptist, no problem… That was then, this is now. It’s a new day, and this group over here has something to offer that I happen to want at this moment–period.churchglasses

A lot of the old timers decry this sort of behavior. They used to call these kinds of folks all sorts of names like “lone ranger Christians” and “charismatic butterflies.” Let’s face it. They’re just free agents.

I always hated free agency in baseball. I hated it because my favorite team is from a small market and can’t afford to compete with the big boys. I can usually count on my favorite players leaving for greener pastures sooner or later.

There’s probably a similar sentiment underlying our disdain of spiritual free agency. If we don’t have what the congregation down the street has, we’re going to lose some of our best people sooner or later.

So let’s face it, folks. That’s just the way it is in twenty-first century America. We can either go with the flow or hang on to the old school way of doing things and get plowed under. Frankly, things like membership vows are now an exercise in futility (if you can even get people to take them).

“The Spirit is doing something new…”

freeagentI’m not whining about this overwhelming wave of spiritual free agents. That’s just how it is these days. Still, I’m at a loss to know exactly how to relate to people who are parishioners one day, gone the next, and back again a year later for another short stint with us.

The Spirit is doing something new. We’ve just got to figure out what it is.

[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently the pastor of Smith Chapel, in Great Falls, VA.]

2 thoughts on “Spiritual Free Agents”

  1. Food for thought, Pastor Dave: would the apostle Paul be viewed as a free agent, if he were alive and doing the same thing today?

    Over the years I’ve been a believer, I’ve worshipped in different congregations with different theological slants. When I was young, it was because I sincerely believed in the universal body of Christ and ultimately didn’t give a rip about labels. Now that I’m older, I recognize that there are believers out there who hop from one congregation to the next for a variety of reasons. Among those reasons might be proximity to home, or the need for a given type of support from the Church that is not offered by every congregation, such as a youth group, a support group for substance abuse, or a fellowship group for moms of young kids. It would be wonderful if folks could serve wherever; but we live in a fallen world and sometimes have legitimate needs that we need to get met, so that we can then get to the position that we can give back.

    Among other reasons people might bounce from one congregation to the next, might also be finding a safe haven after experience in an abusive church. (I can tell you from research and experience that many congregations are not safe environments for spiritual abuse survivors. The reason for this is often due to ignorance toward the unique spiritual / theological and other needs of survivors.) So, many survivors that would like to come back, bounce from one congregation to the next and back, because they cannot find a long-term “safe haven”, in which they can work on overcoming their old church fellowship-induced PTSD. Seriously: Sunday service / church involvement PTSD. I kid you not. For some people, it is that real. That’s why many of my colleagues and I in the survivors camp find terms like “Lone Ranger Christian”, “church hopping”, “free agent” unhelpful in the recovery process — and that’s why we continue to struggle to find a church home. The ignorant, insensitive comments of some Christians — often in particular, Evangelicals, Fundamentalists (and sometimes Apostolics) — can often be a lot to tune out and overcome. It’s sort-of like expecting someone with a broken leg to run hurdles, to use a “sports analogy”. 😉 I’m sorry, but that’s just not realistic. We need to be able to heal first.

    So, with all due respect, Pastor Dave, I would caution against terms like “free agent”, “Lone Ranger Christian” and the like, because they can sometimes come across as hurtful to fellow believers who are already trying their best.

    I believe the best course of action to be to welcome lovingly our brothers and sisters in fellowship, not look down on those who leave and come back or bounce among congregations, and entrust to the Lord the work of sanctification in each of our lives.

    Just my $0.02, fwiw. = )

    1. Linda–Thanks so much for your $0.02. It’s actually worth a lot more than that. It’s the kind of thought and dialogue I was hoping to evoke. The church needs to hear and attempt to understand why fully half of the Christians in the U.S. refrain from darkening the doors of any building called “church.” When I was a very young Christian, I was accused of church-hopping myself. I remember being quite annoyed by that comment because the person saying it had no idea of my particular circumstances. The purpose of my blog (as per usual) was not to denounce such individuals but to attempt to understand them. I would recommend an interesting Facebook page to you (or anyone for that matter). It’s called “Local Church Escapees.” Today’s church is undergoing a vast and tumultuous change. We need to get a grip on what’s happening and follow Jesus where he takes us, or most of what we call “the church” these days will vanish in the haze. That is not a particularly bad thing because I’m sure the Lord will replace her with a better model. Blessings–Dave

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