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How the Word ‘Volunteer’ Doesn’t Help

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.
– Galatians 4:4-5

Volunteers. It’s a word I hear used in churches around the nation, including mine. For example, my church website reads: Almost everything that happens at Clear Creek Community Church is done through volunteers who invest time and energy to make our services and ministries possible. We make it clear that we are a “Volunteer Operated” congregation. I love the spirit of what we say. I think it’s right on. We want to communicate it isn’t just a bunch of staff guys who do everything, on the contrary, it takes all of us serving for us to be what we need to be. However, I’m just not sure I like the word “volunteer” anymore.

It hit me today when I saw a group of men and women who both lead and serve in various ministries on Sunday gathered in the lobby casting vision with each other and sharing how they were going to serve the Lord by serving others that morning. Not a paid staff around. It was humbling and inspiring. I took a quick pic to share on Instagram. But as I was writing the caption I simply couldn’t bring myself to call them volunteers. It didn’t fit. Here’s why.

Volunteers are people who pick something they want to contribute to and when they’re done contributing they cease to be volunteers. In other words, service is optional. Want to serve at Special Olympics or the United Way? Well, you sign up, give your time and talents, while you wear the shirt of the organization as a volunteer for the duration of an event or season. When you finish your commitment you’re no longer a volunteer. You refer to yourself as someone who used to be a part of the Special Olympics or the United Way organizations. You volunteered. And while you likely feel great affinity with those organizations, you aren’t technically a part of them anymore. You can move on. Serve in other places. Get a new shirt.

The problem is that idea shouldn’t translate to serving in the local church. 1 Cor. 12:12 says, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” As a follower of Jesus, my attachment to the church isn’t something I get to decide. It’s been established through the work of the gospel. I am united with the church much like I’m united to my family. It isn’t something I get to pick, it’s something I was birthed (and re-birthed) into. And, since it is a family, I’ve got responsibilities and actions to which I’m called as a family member. For example, if my wife needs to be away from the house, I don’t volunteer to watch over my three boys. I just watch them. That’s my responsibility. The same is true for being a member of the Body of Christ. Thus, we serve not because we are called to volunteer for service but because service is implicit in the call to be gospel family. It’s the shirt we always wear.

That’s why when I saw these circled adults speaking vision, mission, and grace to each other, only to break huddle to serve the Lord and his church that day with clear eyes and eager hearts, it actually felt like a disservice to call them volunteers. The term is too short-sighted. It doesn’t speak deeply enough. It’s revolves around the mere activity of serving (as well-intentioned as it may be) while, biblically speaking, Christian service is actually rooted in our identity which Christ purchased with his blood. It’s the shirt we can’t remove. I mean, you can stop being a volunteer. You cannot stop being a son or daughter of the King. Indeed, I wonder if the term volunteer actually creates a barrier for greater service because it disconnects us from our responsibility as family members and replaces it with lesser, non-grace-bought motivations?

The areas in which we serve each other in the local church aren’t just empty seats needing to be filled by those with hearts big enough to serve, they are family responsibilities to which every follower of Jesus is called. We serve because of who we are. Again, it’s the shirt we always wear. In listening to the words shared in that circle, I got the feeling those men and women were functioning more as family on mission than volunteers merely giving of their time and talents for a season to an organization they can as easily opt out of as remain committed to. That’s why the word volunteer didn’t stick today.

So, is the word volunteer evil? No. Is it the term which best communicates to our culture? Maybe. However, I do know if the church doesn’t redefine it in a biblical light, we may only reinforce it’s weaknesses instead of its strengths. And that would do a disservice to us all – laypersons, leaders, and, most of all, Christ.


Picture of Yancey Arrington
Dr. Yancey C. Arrington is an eighth generation Texan, Acts 29 Network and Houston Church Planting Network fan, and Teaching Pastor at Clear Creek Community Church in the Bay Area of Houston. He is also author of Preaching That Moves People and TAP: Defeating the Sins That Defeat You, and periodically writes for Acts 29 and The Gospel Coalition.

2 thoughts on “How the Word ‘Volunteer’ Doesn’t Help”

  1. Powerful. Another solid example that His church (people, not building or institution) is unlike ANYthing else in existence. Thanks!

  2. Great post. We should talk. Got an idea on this subject you might enjoy. Plus it is just cool to visit with you and pick your brain on church leadership ideas.

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