At my church, probably like many others, we have a vision/mission statement: Connect, Grow, Serve. That’s what we’re on about. People to connect with Christ and his people, to grow in their love of Christ, and to serve Christ. Yet over the past few years I’ve been struck by the use of “volunteer” as an alternative word to “serve”, to the point where the mission statement could read Connect, Grow, Volunteer.

Connect, Grow, Volunteer? 

Now that doesn’t sound quite right does it? But am I just being pedantic, or is there a problem with the growing reference to church members as volunteers?

I suspect volunteer is being used with good intentions as ministers are keen to find helpful terms to describe those in their church community who contribute to ministry and the general running of the church. Yet even with the best of intentions I fear using “volunteer” has some unintended, unhelpful consequences.

It’s true that when we belong to a church we volunteer for things involved in running church. People volunteer to be on the welcoming team, to help with morning tea or church dinners and be on the cleaning roster. When I began at a new church a few years ago it was exciting to consider how I might use my gifts and time to serve and contribute to the work of the gospel in my local community. I joined the welcoming roster and helped with kids’ church during the holidays. I’ve enjoyed leading Christianity Explained and attending working bees.

People are seeking to serve God in ways that are sacrificial and yet sustainable

It’s also true that in the life of a church community some people volunteer in lots of ways, others in one or two, while some simply come on Sundays and perhaps to a mid-week group. Then there are some who lead Bible study groups, meet with others to read the Bible, visit and care for the sick. Non-rostered work, but still volunteering. This is life in church. People considering their circumstances and seeking to serve God and one another in ways that are sacrificial and yet sustainable.

"It changes the way I think of Church and the way i think of myself" 

However, not only do we now speak of people volunteering for various activities around church, more recently the term volunteer move from a verb to a noun. People no longer simply volunteer for this or that, but are themselves given the title “volunteer”’. That’s the description I hear ministers using: “I’m keen to encourage my volunteers”, or “I want to train our volunteers”. Yet, as I said, does this really matter? I believe it does, because it changes the way I think of church, and the way I think of myself.

The metaphors for the people of God

Without getting into an extensive discussion on the theology of Church, in the New Testament we see several descriptions and metaphors: the people of God (1 Peter 2:9), a gathering (Acts 8:1), the body of Christ (Romans 12:5f) and family or household (Ephesians 2:19; 1 TImothy 3:15), among others.

Romans and 1 Corinthians describe how those who belong to the body of Christ are to serve the body using the various gifts that God gives them (Rom.12:5f; 1 Cor.12:12f). So as I belong to a local gathering I serve as a member of that expression of Christ’s body, for the good of that body.

I serve for the good of the body

There is a reason I am on the welcoming roster and not the music team! As I volunteer for various ministries I do so as a servant of Christ, a member of the body of Christ, for the glory of Christ. As Romans 12:1-2 says, in view of God’s mercies I offer myself as a living sacrifice to him.

Finally, 1 Peter 2:4-5 gives us a vision of the priesthood of all believers. That is, in the economy of salvation I am no more or no less than the “priest”, but through Christ have the same access to God.

The danger of describing people as volunteers

The danger of describing people in church as volunteers is that we begin to obscure or even deny these realities. By adding the category of volunteer into community, the church is now an organisation and brothers and sisters become volunteers. The paid staff are the professionals, leading and running an organisation that I help out with in my spare time – not unlike friends who volunteer to manage their kid’s soccer team, or volunteer to be the class mum.

Of course, volunteers can be highly committed and highly invested in the organisation with which they’re involved. But, unlike the soccer club, when I come to church I am not coming to this “thing”, this event put on by a bunch of paid professionals.

Church is not an event put on by a bunch of professionals

When I give money in the plate or via direct debit I am not paying my dues to belong to the club. When I turn up on Sunday morning I am not attending an event, called church, put on by the paid professional. When I sign up for welcoming I am not volunteering in his organisation. I volunteer for the welcoming first and foremost because of my relationship with God and my commitment to offer myself as a living sacrifice to him.

“Volunteers” might be a neat, shorthand way of referring to the unpaid non-staff in our churches but I find it unsatisfactory. I am a servant, a member of Christ’s body, part of God’s family, his household. So: Connect, Grow, Volunteer? I hope it doesn’t catch on.

I am a member of Christ's body

Photos from St Luke's Clovelly