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.
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