Rethinking Volunteerism in the Church

A Pastoral Leadership Challenge

One of the primary challenges that leaders in the church is staffing ministries with volunteers.

When each believer exercises his or her unique gifts, the church works like a body , with hands, feet, eyes, ears functioning together as one unit to accomplish a goal.

When those with gifts decline to use them, the church becomes disabled and starts to struggle.

An analysis of the problem often reveals that 10–20% of the body is doing 80–90% of the work to overcompensate for those parts that are not willing to contribute.

Eventually, people who are serving in ministry burn out and church leaders much continually plead for more volunteers.

That might be the problem. Not letting folks know what ministry opportunities are available… but calling those who serve, volunteers.

The Problem of Volunteerism

By definition, a volunteer has the option to serve or not to serve. That is how things work in a volunteer organization.

But the church is not a volunteer organization governed by staff.

The church is a missional community governed by a King. Those called out from the world into the community are not asked be part-time participants in the King’s kingdom but are expected to be full-time laborers in the Kingdom, representing the King in the church and in the world — full-time — regardless of vocation.

My vocation is a teaching pastor. Yours may be as a mother or an accountant or small business owner. Your vocational focus may be in nursing or physical therapy. You may be an Army Ranger, a teacher, an artist, or a musician.

Whatever your vocation, you live and breath as a representative of the King. Our Sunday ministry teams are just a small part of the overall role you play in the Kingdom.

When a King calls someone into his service, that someone serves. The King does not plead for volunteers. He gives the called their marching orders and expects them to take up their positions.

This is why Christians are not to see ourselves as merely volunteers in ministry. We are ambassadors of the King.

The Volunteer to Ambassador Promotion

It may be you are a teacher who serves on the Greeter Team. Then you are an ambassador in the public schools and an ambassador to welcome new folks on Sunday mornings. Both are ways you serve the King.

Not as a volunteer but as an ambassador.

If you have previously considered yourself merely a ministry volunteer, get ready for a promotion!

In 2 Corinthians 5:16–21, Paul equips us for this promotion by showing us how to move from volunteerism to ambassadorship.

We Need a New Lens

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.

A worldly view does not take into account the spiritual nature of the human person but just looks at the external, evaluating people based on where they went to school (or didn’t), how much money they make, the color of their skin, where they live, etc.

That is a worldly lens.

The lens we need in order to become Kingdom ambassadors is one that sees all of life from a spiritual perspective, where the internal and fundamental need of every human is essentially the same.

We are not merely physical creatures; we are spiritual creatures whose fundamental need is regeneration and reconciliation.

Whoa. That sounds complicated.

It’s really not. Let me show you.

The Believer is a New Creation

17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.

Although the word regeneration is not used here, the concept is. In his letter to the Ephesian church, Paul describes the experience of regeneration in the first part of chapter 2, saying,

1 Previously, you were dead in your sins… 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved.

Regeneration is when someone who is physically alive but spiritual dead is made spiritually alive. Jesus called it being “born again.”

This new birth of regeneration is a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, which is the emphasis in 2 Corinthians 5:18, where Paul writes, “All this is from God.” Or as he says in Ephesians, “It is by grace you have been saved.”

Here is what has happened.

The old, spiritually dead, unresponsive, condemned sinner has effectively been crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20).

The new, spiritually alive believer has been raised with Christ to newness of life (Romans 6:4). Now that we are spiritually responsive, we are able to receive the promises of grace by faith. The result is that we are reconciled as adopted and beloved children, fully forgiven, justified, and unreservedly accepted.

In the old, our sins were counted against us. In the new, our sins are not counted against us because they have been counted against Jesus for us through the cross.

In the old, we lived according to our sinful passions. In the new, we live according to God’s Fatherly wisdom.

In the old, we lived for ourselves, but in the new we live for the King who has saved us and called us to be his ambassadors.

We Are Given a New Calling

20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.

Paul, as an Apostle, was an ambassador with a capital A. He served in a unique apostolic capacity.

Nevertheless, the concept of ambassadorship applied to his associates, who were not apostles. Like them, we may not be Apostles but we are ambassadors, called to represent Jesus the King to the world.

Regardless of vocation or what team we serve on in the local church, what we are called to represent as ambassadors of the King is the message of the King.

We are to be a people of grace, reflecting God’s grace to the world, to each other, and to our children.

The Message of Jesus is Reconciliation through Substitution

21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Martin Luther called this verse the Great Exchange, where on a cross, Jesus, as a substitute, takes the penalty for my sin and gives me the record of his perfect righteousness. Thus, the great exchange.

Reconciliation through substitution.

This is the very heart of the Christian message.

This means that when I am called into the community of the church, I do not come to volunteer as if my participation is optional. No, my contribution is integral to the advance of the Kingdom here in Dahlonega and among the nations.

You not a volunteer. You are an ambassador endowed with spiritual gifts that you are to employ, working with other gifts in the body, to enable the church to make a difference in this world, helping more and more people come alive to the wonder of reconciliation through substitution.

  • If you are a Greeter, you are an ambassador of the King.
  • If you serve in the Nursery, you are an ambassador of the King.
  • If you play in the band, you are an ambassador of the King.
  • If you have a job in the workplace, you are an ambassador of the King.
  • If you play sports, live in a dorm, are in middle school… whether you are at the grocery store, in traffic, or walking in the park. You are an ambassador of Jesus representing the King to the world.

Consider yourself promoted!

Being Church

One of my favorite statements about what it looks like to live on mission as a called community of ambassadors is by Marva Dawn in her book, A Royal Waste of Time.

She writes,

“Being Church means following a way of life… as we go about our daily lives — to work, to the grocery store, to school, to the neighbor’s house for tea — we live the gospel. We speak it freely… We incarnate it. We display a joy in following Jesus and his Way that invites our neighbors to consider the truth of his life in us.”

I love that!

We live the gospel… as ambassadors. Not just part-time volunteers. But as full-time ambassadors of the King of Kings, Jesus — who lived, died and rose again.

For Discussion

  1. In your own words, what is the difference between a ministry volunteer and King’s ambassador?
  2. Why is it necessary to see all of life as an ambassador rather than just church activities?
  3. What does it mean for the church to be a “people of grace?”
  4. How would you explain “reconcilitation through substitution?”
  5. Why is “reconciliation through substitution” such a radical message?