Free! fans were all a-flutter (and a bit concerned) when last week’s episode ended with a preview which intimated that Rei was going to quit the swim team. But when episode three rolled around, the circumstances were, of course, not quite what they seemed. Though he was approached by the track captain about returning to his former sport, Rei never seriously considers the entreaty. It’s less than a side note to him, because instead of being discouraged by being unable to do any stroke other than the butterfly, Rei is instead motivated to get even better. It’s really an unusual move for Rei, who sometimes become discouraged and is quite emotional. But it makes perfect sense in terms of the series, because as we know, his swim team is something quite special.
The idea of “team” works well in all sorts of analogies. We certainly call for the closeness of a sports team when we team up at work or at play. And we all get it – there’s something magical and powerful about the way people can come together and work for each other. There’s almost nothing like it.
One place that the team concept is sometimes often an awkward fit, though, is with church. Sometimes the analogy is weird (we’re a team and Jesus is the quarterback!). And sometimes we can’t seem to muster the same feelings as with sport (I’ve read or heard the lament of “Why can’t we get as excited about church and for a football game?” many times in my life, including today).
Yet, the comparison is apt, I think, and particularly in terms of what we can learn from the Iwatobi High School Swimming Club:
Team and Church Demonstrate Accountability
One of my favorite scenes in episode three of Free! Eternal Summer is when Makoto declares that he won’t let Rei quit, and the others support his assertion. Makoto is sensitive to his teammates’ needs and is mild mannered, so the declaration is particularly emphasized and rings true – he won’t let Rei get away.
A church should likewise be a body of accountability. Jesus teaches that the world will know His followers by how they love one another; if a church lets it’s members drift away without a fight, how is that expressing the love that Jesus shared with his disciples? Accountability speaks to the heart of the church and how much love its members genuinely have.
Team and Church Grow Toward a Goal
Swimming is fun for the Iwatobi swimmers, but it isn’t playtime. It’s serious business. My guess is that Rei would have quit long ago if the club wasn’t singularly focused on getting better and meeting goals.
A healthy church, too, should be focused on goals that encourage the body to grow in each member’s relationship with Christ. If we’re struggling in our walk, the answer isn’t pulling away from church; the answer is more Jesus (and thus it takes accountability, as mentioned above, to sometimes keep members from drifting away).
But what is the goal of the church? Very simply put, it’s to do God’s work on earth in making new disciples. The end goal is to teach others about the gospel, and what a church does should be centered around that. Just as the swim team encourages each of its members to do their best in their races, the church should function as a team to pray for, encourage, and help it’s members reach others for Christ.
Ultimately, churches are body of believers that encourage each other to love God and to love others, and this most of all by spreading the good news. And though it’s an odd day where a fanservice-filled anime about swim boys can teach us lessons about that, perhaps we should pay attention to Rei and the others, with perhaps the most important lesson from Free for churches being this: if a church team isn’t making the cut in terms of accountability and emphasis on evangelism, maybe that’s an indicator that instead of playing as a team, we’re merely playing church.
And if that’s all we’re doing, we’ve already lost the race.