The Perils of Caged and Free Range Christians – Brad Jersak

Top news in American Christianity
The top news item in American
Christianity over the past few years continues to be the ‘nones’
(non-affiliated) phenomenon. Is the exodus of churchgoers a blessed deliverance
from bondage or a cursed wandering in the wilderness? How we see it depends on
one’s perspective, experience and observations … and it’s going to warrant
ongoing examination. But there’s no skirting the stubborn fact that tens of
millions no longer and likely will never return to the institutional church as
they knew it.
For my part, I note that both
churchgoers and nones can get pretty
defensive and contemptuous of the other. That’s an instinctive response when we
feel judged, however unproductive. Perhaps a better starting point would be an
examination and admission that both paths have their challenges, and most
especially when judging another’s journey obscures one’s own blind spots. So
let’s take Paul’s words to heart:
“Who are you to pass judgment
on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls.
And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand”
(Romans 14:4
Indeed, I propose that
passing judgment on others rather than being mindful of my own steps creates
conditions as perilous to faith as the life of a chicken, whether caged or free

The Peril of Caged Christians

Some churchgoers assume that
all nones and dones are simply backsliders who have drifted away from faith in
Christ into the darkness of the world. Aside from being wrong to generalize
such a judgment—negating testimonies of flight from justified disillusionment,
religious bondage and spiritual abuse—we are in danger of blinding ourselves to
how Jesus’ sheepfolds have often morphed into commercial chicken barns.
Many churchgoers happily
enjoy their experience as sheep in the flock of the Good Shepherd who leads
them in and out of the sheepfold (John 10). As
long as that’s what’s really happening
. The nones phenomenon should tell us that’s not all that’s happening.
Their escape suggests that for many, the institutional church had degraded
itself into an industry not unlike the chicken barns in our area.

Caged Chickens
My wife’s extended family has
had egg-laying chickens for many decades. I’ve even helped out a few times with
gathering eggs or moving chickens. This involves long barns full of 10’s of
thousands of chickens, housed in restrictive cages. The chickens live their
short lives confined with five or six other chickens, cramped enough such that they
can’t ever really spread their wings. They exist solely to produce offerings
onto a conveyor belt for the profits of the farmer.
This is a parable. Let the
reader understand.
I don’t say this to give ammo
to the nones. They don’t need any. I
mention it so that churchgoers and their leaders can discern where the Good
Shepherd’s flock of sheep has become some other farmer’s flock of caged birds. Churchgoers
might ask the metaphor whether they live as Christ-following sheep or someone
else’s caged chicken? And what are the cages? Who did this? How did this
happen? Can it be undone?  I promise: squeezing
the nones back into the cages is not the first order of business.
The Perils of Free Range Christians
Not that free range Christians
are without their own significant perils. All too many nones bask in their newfound freedom, easily condemning corrupt
institutions they’ve happily left behind. And this truly is something to thank
God for … if the Shepherd himself
called them out. Remember, Jesus did say,
“The sheep hear [the
Shepherd’s] voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for
they know his voice”
(John 10:3-4 NASB).
So it is very possible that
when the sheep leave the fold, they do so because they’ve followed Jesus out.
But lest the nones race prematurely
into self-congratulation, they too need to ensure they are Christ-following
sheep and not just free range chickens.

Marketers want us to imagine
free range chickens as a joyous little flock pecking away on natural foods in
the hobby farms of Portlandia. It’s a quaint utopian image. And also pretty much
a crock-a-doodle-doo.
The truth is that free range
chickens are typically confined in the same huge numbers to the same huge
barns. The only requirements are (1.) that a door is available to a small yard
… a door the chickens usually have no idea exists or how to exit or for what
purpose. They aren’t in cages but don’t imagine that they leave the barn.
Almost none ever do. And (2.) they are not confined to individual cages.
Rather, they wander in circles amongst the mindless masses, most fattened up on
hormones for inevitable slaughter. Most shocking, unlike the caged chickens,
whose dung falls through the cages into a drying pit, free range chickens walk
about on their own feces (and everyone else’s), pecking away at it.
Free Range Chickens
 This is a parable. Let the
reader understand.

It is not for churchgoers to
judge whether nones are faithful
sheep that followed Christ out of the pen or a free range chicken eating it’s
own doo-doo. But the nones might ask
themselves a few questions: in escaping the perils of their religious cages,
what kind of flock am I running with now? Sheep or just more chickens? And what
am I consuming? Am I feeding from the meadows of grace? Or pecking at
whatever’s coming out of the next chicken’s rear end? See most any Facebook
comments section for verification.
Two morals to this parable
Here are my own takeaways
1. Mine is not to judge
whether other churchgoers or nones
are sheep or chickens. But I feel that it is right to invite them to let go of
defensiveness or contempt and to really discern who or what they are for
But let me say it more
strongly and positively: Christ IS our shepherd and he’s good at it. We are his
sheep, even when we slip into chicken-mindedness. Wherever we are today—even in
peril—he is still with us and loves us. Every step of the road is important. This
was true even when the prodigal son found himself in the pigpen. Even that
experience was an essential step on his path of surrender towards real union
with his Father.
When I joined the Orthodox
Church and my wife did not, my godfather offered me these wise words: “Eden
must be completely convinced that you
are completely convinced that her way
is holy. That God has her exactly where he wants her on the path at this moment
in time.” It is not for either of us to judge the other’s faith, but to keep
directing each other to the voice of the Shepherd.
2. The great need of the hour
in American Christianity is not to bog down in arguments over our preferences
in chicken barns!
Rather, it is to ask ourselves what factors contribute to
sheep acting like chickens. Churchgoers must ask what conditions pervert open sheep
pens into confined cages. Nones must
examine what might cause some to follow any voice other than the Shepherd’s
into ‘freedom’—for Jesus warns of thieves and robbers (and some even infiltrate
the pen).
So whether we’re heading in
or out, let’s do so at the invitation of the Shepherd, understanding that
Christ calls and tends to every one of his sheep by name. And that may look
very different from one Christ-follower to the next.
For further reading on caged vs. free range chickens,
see this helpful article.
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