More Disciples, Fewer Volunteers, Please

kinnon —  January 3, 2011 — 9 Comments

One of the more popular posts from this tiny corner of the interwebs was one I wrote in September of 2005, A Better Word than Volunteer. In that post, I wrote this:

The American Heritage Dictionary definition for volunteer is "To perform or offer to perform a service of one's own free will." [Emphasis added]

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.


January, 2011

In October of 2010, Jamie Arpin Ricci wrote a post called Disciples, Not Volunteers. Jamie speaks more powerfully to the impact of the word "volunteer" on how we function (or don't function) as the Body of Christ.

Volunteering has become the primary way in which Christians are invited to participate in the work and mission of God & His Church in the world. While much good has come of this (and I am not suggesting the eradication of Christian volunteerism), I truly believe that we have crippled and compromised our missional capacity by making it so central and foundational to our approach to mission/ministry.

It has been since planting a church that I have seen it most clearly. Initially, the passion and vision for a new missional community in our inner city context was received with great enthusiasm and participation. However, as the initial fervour cooled, as it inevitably must, we realized that discipline and commitment were then necessary to keep the community healthy and growing in maturity. Again, all of this is expected and natural. However, despite how many affirm that we want to be a community of leaders who share the responsibility of the work of mission equally, functionally people still assume hierarchical leadership, leaving it to the few (or the one) to get things done when they are not able.

As I’ve dug deeper, I began to see a common thread: we all too often view our involvement in missional church community through the lens of volunteerism. In other words, we love the vision and reality of ministry and want to be involved, as long as it fits. We have discipled entire generations of Christians to see missional engagement as a voluntary opportunity they can add to their lives when it works or isn’t too demanding. This isn’t to say that many people don’t live sacrificially, but rather that the general trend reflects an attitude of optionality. [Emphasis added]

Let me unpack my thoughts further with a family example.

One of our three adult children is considering "volunteering" for the kids ministry in the church we attend. He is particularly gifted with kids – he loves them and they love him back. He has had this gift for as long as I can remember.

This church loves its kids and does a good job with them on Sunday mornings. And I know they could use the assistance my son would willingly provide.


I also wonder whether the need for making disciples of the childrens' workers ever enters into the equation. Is part of the focus of the ministry leader(s) on discipling the ministry workers – or is that seen as a responsibility of the ministry that is focused on adults. (And when, how and where does that take place? I don't ask this in accusation – I have great love and respect for the leadership team at this church. )

I could have used the example of another one of our children who works with the teens ministry at another church in town. And I can guarantee that there is little to no focus on discipling the ministry workers in that example.

In a volunteer culture, I would strongly suggest that making disciples of those engaged in whatever ministry of the church is not even on the radar. Most volunteer-driven church ministries are happy with warm bodies. And those warm bodies are committed to "that ministry" for as long as it is convenient.

With Jamie, I believe we need to move away from asking for volunteers and move towards calling people to be the part of the body that they have been designed to be – and then to intentionally disciple them as they function in their calling, by walking with them in the manner that Jesus walked and taught his disciples.

As Eugene Petersen paraphrased Paul,

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.

The call to discipleship is a recognition that we have been God-designed to be a functioning and fruitful part of the Body of Christ – and we must be discipled into that fruitfulness.


More of my posts that work their way into this discipleship discussion:
Confronting Idols and Making Disciples – Chris Wright interview excerpt
More Disciples, Fewer Leaders, Please
Diss-Missional Discipline or Missional Discipleship
Sermons Don't Make Disciples – Missional Discipleship Part 2



A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

9 responses to More Disciples, Fewer Volunteers, Please

  1. Great thoughts, Bill. This topic is so deeply important, it deserves so much more attention. Thanks for the shout out.

  2. Jamie,
    I think there's a book in this. Maybe it's something you, me and Fitch need to consider writing, eh!

  3. It deserves a full treatment.

  4. Bill – get to writing.

  5. Thanks for this, Bill and, by extension, Jamie. These are important points. Glad to see this discussion tied in with the ongoing and overarching issue about leaders “versus” disciples. From my experiences, I sense this concern about the volunteer model has a lot of implications for whether our ministry systems survive or not.

    A few years ago when I worked with my friend Jay on producing tools for spiritual gift assessment and new ministry development. Jay constantly stressed the difference between a “program slot” (a role that only required anyone willing in order to fill it) and a “passion-based ministry” (a role where you truly function in the realm of your spiritual gifting plus among the specific people groups and/or cultures you’ve got a providential passion for reaching – so you just can’t NOT do it).

    Jay suggested that an 80/20 rule ought to apply here: 80% of our personal ministry should be passion-and-gift-based, and 20% should be program-based as just a general spiritual discipline. The problem occurs when the reverse or worse is in force: 80% or more of our service is in filling ministry slots regardless of our gifts, and 20% or less doing what God really designed us for.

    All this is especially a problem in sustainability, cuz we can only reproduce what we have/are. If a church just slots volunteers in free-willy-nilly, does anyone ever get trained by principle or by example that we should be focusing on ministry based on what part in the Body God made us to be? Which means that eventually, either volunteers burn out because it takes a toll on us to work cross-culturally outside our giftings, or staff burn out because the recruiting and fill-in work falls back on them. Also, many churches seem to block any “laypeople” from starting up new ministries, whether because of policies or lack of a process in place. Is it any wonder that people with a passion-and-gift-based ministry in mind often have to go outside the church in order to do what God designed them for and the Spirit calls them to? The Kingdom may gain, but the churches do lose out.

    Anyway, I’d suggest that all of this has nothing to do with ill will or insincerity, but with (as you affirmed) free will and systems. Hope we’ll see some movement back in the right direction of discipleship over time …

  6. Brad,
    Thanks for this, as always, gifted response.

  7. Loathe the term volunteer in most contexts (sorry Tennessee!). In contemporary usage it suggests an auxiliary function — something less than a true calling — kind’a helping out — filling in.

  8. Bill,

    All of this is theoretical for those people who are over the age of 27 or so and who have families. The fact is that everything in our culture/society works to destroy any sense of mission because one mission ends up trumping all: making money.

    Until we find a way to develop a healthy work/life mix, we’re increasingly going to punt mission for money. I may have a burning passion, but if I’m putting in 10-hour days, commuting 45 minutes to work each way, slamming down a late dinner at 7 PM, attempting to squeeze in some family quality time, and showing my wife some attention, all the talk of doing ANYTHING for the Lord with that passion becomes moot.

    We’re just not getting this, but it is most people’s reality. Until we fix this underlying problem, talk of passion vs. duty remains just talk.

    I know so many peers who have great passion for ministry, but they’re slogging half-awake through airports day after day, putting in long hours because their department is running half-staffed, and on an on. I hear them talk about what they’d really like to do, but they can never see a way out from under their job burden.

    Nothing will get better until we find some way of addressing that problem.

  9. Peter Pastorelli July 31, 2013 at 3:28 am

    from a Bible dictionary:
    STEWARDSHIP — the management of another person’s property, finances, or household affairs. As far as Christians are concerned, stewardship involves the responsibility of managing God’s work through the church. God has appointed all Christians to be His stewards on earth. Stewardship is not an option, as Paul points out about his own call. Being a steward is a necessary part of believing the gospel, even if it involves sacrificing personal rewards (1 Cor. 9:17).
    As the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14–30) shows, Christians will be held accountable for the way in which they manage God’s affairs as stewards. These matters include extending the church’s ministry through the preaching of the gospel (Col. 1:24–28), supporting the church financially (Acts 4:32–37), and ministering to the sick and needy (Matt. 25:31–46).


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