“This fall I’m going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.” Thus spoke LeBron James on July 8, 2010, before a live television audience of 13.1 million people, making ESPN’s “The Decision” the most watched cable show of the night. LeBron James was an unrestricted free agent, and the American public had been waiting all summer to find out where the greatest basketball player in the world would decide to play.
Free agency is a big deal for professional athletes. Upon initially being drafted onto a professional team, players are under that team’s control for a period of time and have a limited salary. The player must play well enough during that time period to earn a chance to play for the team of his or her choice and to earn a lucrative multi-year contract through free agency.
In 2010, LeBron James had earned the chance to play for virtually any team in the NBA who was willing to pay what he was worth. The Miami Heat won the bidding, and James went on to lead the franchise to two NBA championships.
The concept of free agency doesn’t just apply to professional athletes; it’s also a helpful descriptor for how many Christians view their relationship to the local church.
We live in an age of radical individualism. In American culture, individualism has plenty of perks. It’s the reason we have so many consumer options and so few obstacles in the way of living life pretty much how we want. We love feeling free and we view restraint with disdain. We generally abhor any form of authority.
When it comes to the church, we have a hard time checking our radical individualism at the door. In fact, the decision on church is made pretty much the same way every other decision is made in life. Which church offers us the most? Which one is most convenient? Which one has people we’d most like to hang out with? If we try one out and something goes wrong, there’s always another option down the street. If the one we’re currently at doesn’t meet our needs, there’s bound to be one that does somewhere close by.
In other words, followers of Christ in individualistic cultures tend to think of ourselves as ecclesiastical free agents. The only difference between us and LeBron James is that we never have to sign that contract. We are perpetual free agents—free to leave for any reason, free to try out any church we like, free to keep going or not.
Most pastors will tell you that they rarely face the issue not being able to get new people to come. The bigger issue is getting existing people to stay. We are conditioned by consumerism to fill our discontentment through shopping for something new. The way of escape is always alluring. The grass always seems greener on the other side. The people always seem happier at the church we’re not going to.
But when it comes to following Jesus, escape doesn’t engender growth; it stunts it. You don’t grow by running from your problems. How will you learn to love like Jesus if you never stick around difficult people? How will you learn the contentment of Jesus if you habitually try something new every time you get bored or dissatisfied? How will you learn the endurance of Jesus if you cut ties any time circumstances become unfavorable?
The metaphor the Bible uses more than any other to describe the local church is that of the family. Immediately upon becoming disciples of Jesus, Christians in the New Testament began referring to one another as “brother” and “sister.” The process of beginning this new life is compared to child birth (John 3:5). We are taught by Jesus to refer to God as “our Father” (Matt. 6:9).
We can learn a lot from this metaphor. We don’t choose our family; we just end up there. Once there, the option to leave is no longer on the table. My family is my family. I don’t leave my family. I must learn to love my family, especially when times get difficult. Just as I don’t expect my family to be perfect, I must realize that there’s no such thing as a perfect church. When you leave one church for another, you are merely leaving one church with problems for another with different, perhaps bigger, problems.
There are indeed legitimate reasons to leave a church. When the gospel isn’t preached, when the Bible isn’t trusted, and when the leaders are negligent and unChristlike, by all means find a faithful church. But those are rarely the reasons given.
The local church is the highest authority on earth (Matt. 16:18-19). We aren’t free agents. We’re family.