Volunteer is a word often associated with ministry. There are lots of articles about “mobilizing church volunteers” and such. If by volunteer we mean “unpaid”, I get that. However, I am afraid that volunteer is a term often used to mask an attitude which is roughly equivalent to “don’t bust my chops about how I do this ministry, you’re lucky to have someone filling this slot.” For instance, to emphasize showing up on time, being prepared, and giving your best energy to a ministry is often met with surprise. “I’m a busy person. Don’t you know I’m a volunteer?”
It struck me last week as I was studying Titus 1:1-4 how often Paul frames his life in terms that make us “volunteers” cringe. We read things like, “Paul, a bondslave of God…” The Greek term doulos is defined in one lexicon as follows:
a slave, bondman, man of servile condition
- a slave
- metaph., one who gives himself up to another’s will, those whose service is used by Christ in extending and advancing his cause among men
- devoted to another to the disregard of one’s own interests
A bondslave doesn’t set his own agenda. He or she serves at the pleasure of the master with the interests of the master as their primary focus. It is hard to imagine Paul opening one of his letters with, “Paul, a volunteer for God…” Whether he is tackling marriage, parenting, work, or ministry, Paul consistently frames the discussion in terms of the service of the believer to Christ. Christ is the Master, we are his servants.
I don’t think this is just quibbling over terminology. If I view my ministry in the church primarily in terms of volunteerism, it will affect the way I think about and practice ministry.
- Volunteers sometimes come across as though ministry is an imposition. Servants approach ministry as a privilege.
- Volunteers sometimes cut corners when it comes to the quality of preparation. Servants prepare to give their best to Christ.
- Volunteers will cut ministry if something else competes for their time. Servants prioritize ministry.
- Volunteers may be offended if they are not recognized for their contribution. Servants deflect the glory to Christ.
It is disappointing when Christians treat their ministry responsibilities in ways they would never dream of treating their secular responsibilities. They wouldn’t think of showing up late or not at all to work. They wouldn’t turn in a half-baked report to their boss. They wouldn’t “wing it” on an important presentation with little or no prep work. Yet, these kinds of things are all too common in local church life.
This kind of behavior betrays a volunteer mentality rather than a servant mentality. Let’s restore the biblical vocabulary of servanthood when it comes to the way we think about and practice ministry.