Volunteers or Disciples?

Jesus traveled among all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, announcing the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness. Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The size of the harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers. Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for his harvest.”
—Matthew 9:35-38

One of the things that you will often see in our News for the Pews or on our website is the call for folks to volunteer for a variety of tasks. We will have a ministry need so we will put out a call for folks to help — only to have very few respond. While there are those who answer the call often, more often than not the response is very small, it at all.

Of course, there are all sorts of reasons that folks don’t step forward. For some, there is a worry that if we say yes we will be saddled with a task for the rest of our lives. Others are very busy with work or travel or other things in their lives which make volunteering difficult.

Others assume that someone else will do it . . . and for many years that WAS often the case as a large church staff stepped up to the plate to make things happen. However, as we have downsized our staff we no longer have those persons to pick up the slack when no one else seems willing to take on a task. The fact is that if people don’t step up to take on the tasks of ministry, those tasks simply won’t be happening.

Several years ago a pastor friend of mine in Canada wrote an article that resonated with me regarding how we approach needs in the church. He suggested that one of the things that churches today struggle with is the language of volunteerism as we talk about carrying out the work of the church:

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.

While volunteerism has great value, even in the Church, it cannot be allowed to remain as a central model for Christian life and service.  The individualism and consumerism that shapes how we participate in volunteering are incompatible with the selfless, all-demanding devotion that Christ calls for in participating in His mission.  I am not suggesting that such devotion is best expressed in programs or ministry events, but rather that work of the mission of God is immediate and demanding, requiring every believer to participate in the costly commitment of a mutually owned vocation and responsibility.

What Jaime is trying to say is that Jesus Christ didn’t envision the church as a gathering of volunteers picking and choosing how they will serve. No, the church is to be the “Body of Christ,” the means by which Christ’s work is carried out into the world. The Apostle Paul would go on to teach that using our gifts for building up the body is not optional, but rather an important part of Christian discipleship:

God has given his grace to each one of us measured out by the gift that is given by Christ. He gave some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers. His purpose was to equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ until we all reach the unity of faith and knowledge of God’s Son.
—Ephesians 4:7, 11-13

Over the past couple of years, I have tried to move us away from the language of volunteerism, believing that our calling is not to choose when and if we will serve, but rather to be obedient to the call from God when it is offered. Disciples (followers of Jesus) should be ready, willing, and able to exercise their gifts when needs are identified. Yes we have the free will to choose to be obedient or not, but those who have given their lives to the service of Christ must know that the question is never IF we’ll serve, but rather HOW and WHEN we will serve.

In the coming weeks as we go about how we will carry out ministry in the light of staff downsizing you will see calls for people to help in a variety of ways. While I always understand that “church work” is not necessarily “the work of the church” (think about that a minute…), the fact is that there are tasks that need to be done to ensure that God’s work is being done — and we can’t carry out these tasks without us ALL coming together to ensure they are done. There is no sitting back and coasting for disciples of Jesus. The harvest is plentiful, but we can gather it in if we all work together for the good of God’s church and kingdom.

The mission of the United Methodist Church is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

You see while volunteers are great, it is disciples who change the world. That was true for the early church after Christ’s resurrection, and it’s still true today.

May God raise up a church of disciples at City Road Chapel.

With Christ’s love,

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