According to a USA Today article from earlier this year (2005), volunteerism is up across the board. Gallup's surveys are showing an increase in social activism and volunteering. This is consistent with the generational move from the idealist culture of the Boomers to the civic culture of the Emerging Generation. (Check out Roy Williams take on this.)
The American Heritage Dictionary definition for volunteer is "To perform or offer to perform a service of one's own free will." That sounds noble and selfless, doesn't it. So why does the word "volunteer" bother me as much as it does when it comes to the church.
At a very basic level, those of us who profess to be believers in and followers of Jesus are called the Body of Christ. The Apostle Paul uses this imagery to explain how we function.
A body isn't just a single part blown up into something huge. It's all the different-but-similar parts arranged and functioning together. If Foot said, "I'm not elegant like Hand, embellished with rings; I guess I don't belong to this body," would that make it so? If Ear said, "I'm not beautiful like Eye, limpid and expressive; I don't deserve a place on the head," would you want to remove it from the body? If the body was all eye, how could it hear? If all ear, how could it smell? As it is, we see that God has carefully placed each part of the body right where he wanted it. (The Message)
If our understanding of who we are is that we are all a part of (rather than a part from) a single living entity, how do we invite different parts to volunteer to be involved. Shouldn't the expectation be that each one of us has an important role and function in whatever expression of the Body we belong to. We figure out what our role and function is within the life of that expression.
The Bible also refers to us as being part of one family. I don't know about you, but I haven't found that the call for volunteers has been all that successful in my immediate family. "OK, kids, who's going to volunteer to do dishes tonight? Any volunteers for bathing the dog? We're all filled up for volunteers for relaxing at the lake – who wants to volunteer to take the dock out of the freezing water?" There is both a taught expectation and a built-in understanding that in a family we all have responsibilities and callings. We are all expected to pull our own weight – and help the others pull theirs.
The word "volunteer" works well in a culture that celebrates the individual. "I" decide of my own "free will" that I will help. But in a culture that celebrates community and communion, we are really called to be "conspirators". People who breath together. (Conspire, Latin root – to breath together)
I guess some of the critics were right, the church really is a great conspiracy.
Mildly edited in January, 2011. And please note this 2011 post – More Disciples, Fewer Volunteers, Please