Disciples, Not Volunteers

Previous Post – Living Mission

Over the last couple of years I have been noticing a pattern in church/ministry/missions engagement among Christian that has left me somewhat unsettled.  At first I could not put my finger on it, but I began to see that it was linked to the culture of volunteerism that has developed in our Christian sub-culture.  Volunteering has become the primary way in which Christians are invited to participate in the work and mission of God & His Church in the world.  While much good has come of this (and I am not suggesting the eradication of Christian volunteerism), I truly believe that we have crippled and compromised our missional capacity by making it so central and foundational to our approach to mission/ministry.

It has been since planting a church that I have seen it most clearly.  Initially, the passion and vision for a new missional community in our inner city context was received with great enthusiasm and participation.  However, as the initial fervour cooled, as it inevitably must, we realized that discipline and commitment were then necessary to keep the community healthy and growing in maturity.  Again, all of this is expected and natural.  However, despite how many affirm that we want to be a community of leaders who share the responsibility of the work of mission equally, functionally people still assume hierarchical leadership, leaving it to the few (or the one) to get things done when they are not able.

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.

What will change this?  How can we get from a place where the intellectual conviction about the nature of  missional-incarnational communities of faith translates into our instinctual default in every day choice (and perhaps especially in times of stress)?  In many ways, trying to make it work without that shift of worldview feels like taking my dog to the auto mechanic for surgery!  How to bring about that change of understanding- a change that gives rise to a shift in action, a true praxis- is something that has become the focus of my energies lately.

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.

When Jesus said that the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few, He was not suggesting that there were few Christians and many needing to be saved.  Rather, He was exposing the reality that, in the face of all who call claim to be people of God, very few have proven willing to pay the price and live the lives of service and mission in the context of His community, the Church.  We need to see a shift if our worldview (and thus in our approach to spiritual and missional formation) if we are going to address this problem.

What can be done?  What have you seen that works? I am not asking this question out of some academic curiosity, but as someone who feels the threat of burn out at the peripheral of my life.  Let me know what you think.

(What does a disciple look like?  Check out my series on the Sermon on the Mount here.)


  1. Jamie, I’ve been pondering this post for a bit and the only response I can come up with is “you got me!” Ha! Sorry man but this is our problem too. I think we who work in (and alongside) the church can be a bit enabling. The fist step with so many churches is to just get them to show up and that’s where we stay, creating more and more enticing programs and “opportunities” to take advantage of and we get what we ask for…people taking advantage.

    Our other organization that we both work with (wink wink) has helped to foster this idea…the dawn of the short term mission trip has really helped people (mainly young people in formative years of discipleship) put their service in a box that fits neatly into a summer’s week. Sure we always say “you can do this at home” but do they?

    For out lot, we have stopped making it so easy for teams. Their first day with us, we give them nothing to do but walk around and talk to people…they aren’t giving food away. In fact, we make them go eat with people at a soup kitchen instead of volunteering at it. Sit with the people, talk to them. This has often been our most “raved” about day as it so different than what they are used to.

    Scripture instructs us that it is the job of church leadership to equip the church to do good works. So our role has to become a step back from doing the stuff…it becomes making a way for the church to do the stuff and in the doing and living life together, discipleship happens.

    Again, for me, that means taking steps to release the life of the church to the church. To shoulder the burden of the church in prayer more than anything (I don’t do this, I’m saying what I should do…I have seen this happen in small ways in my life) and to watch for signs that others are wanting to step up. Then provide the space for them to fail, talk it through and try again. This means letting go and is so hard for me to do.

    And as much as it is frustrating, hammering away by saying the same things again and again does bear fruit (working together with God’s Spirit of course). Saying things like “this is not the church, this is a gathering time, you are the church” can help over the long term. It seems like such a slooooooooooooow process. Thank you for putting your tired shoulders to the plow. It’s so worth it. Something beautiful is happening there.

    And I will sign definitely sign up to buy the book about all this when it emerges. I just finished reading “The Irresistible Revolution” for the first time and walked away happy I had read it…it’s good but also a bit frustrating. Books like this rarely let you in on the messy process of birth. Like there was a chapter that included the phrase “and we got a house” Well, I’m sure there’s lots more to that story that I want to know.

    How the heck do you just “get a house”?! Tell us someday Jamie and in the meantime, get some rest. Don’t forget to retreat, see movies and get away with your lovely wife now and again. It’s important work but not so important. I’ll be there in a couple…maybe we can go see a dumb zombie movie or something.


  2. Micheal

    What do I think? I think you are on the right track. Treating others as we would be treated ourselves means that we have to put a challenge out there every once in a while. Christ did it, Paul did it, you’re doing it. I pray it pays dividends for you.

    On a side note – this could be just the chutzpah that I need to get off my keester and do what I have in mind. Thanks, brother. God bless.

  3. My gut instinct is that this is a natural product of what’s been made of evangelicalism. If you reduce life with Christ to ‘buying get out of Hell fire insurance’, then everything after related to faith becomes a matter of convenience.

    If people were introduced to a life with Christ that involved laying down their life, being community, living Kingdom, radical loving… well maybe it would play out differently.

  4. Excellent post! You’ve got me thinking here.

  5. Hey Chris,

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I think I agree with you more than not. I was just saying how, as a part of YWAM, we have contributed to this problem as an organization. However, I also realize that aspect is a product of the deeper cultural root that is at the heart of this issue. This is why I believe that short-term missions is critical and necessary IF it is done well. It often is not. As true as that challenge is for organizations like YWAM, I still believe that it is the product, not the source, of the problem.

    Looking forward to hanging out, bro. Thanks for the wisdom & encouragement.


  6. Thanks Michael. Love to hear what you “have in mind”!


  7. Well said, Erin. Very true. Thanks!


  8. This is interesting. I know we chatted about this a bit yesterday, but I think you’re onto something when you point to volunteerism. I guess I’m wondering if this is peculiarly a N. American problem, since volunteerism seems to be related to individualism (at least in my mind they are related).

    It reminds me of what one of my prof’s in seminary said all the time: “All too often, people understand the church as a voluntary association of individuals whose true allegiance lies to the market, family or political affiliation.” And I think it stands that the voluntary part is something that needs to be killed, but how we do it is going to have to be really subversive discipleship, if we’re just upfront about it, I think people will run, but slowly and surely we keep presenting to ourselves and to others in discipleship that Jesus seems to not really care about us getting ahead and is much more interested in whether we’re willing to do God’s will. Seems part of that to me is an allegiance to our churches and to mission.

    Anyway, those are a couple first thoughts that I have.

  9. Hey Bryan,

    I think the North American context exacerbates the problem, but I suspect it shares deeper roots in the historic traditions of Christendom (not to use that as an instant “bad guy” reference). When the clergy & monastics were seen as those who had the special vocation to full obedience to Christ, the nominal Christian community was able to perform acts of charity or righteousness only when necessary to receive a blessing, indulgence, favour, etc. We’ve carried that down to today as well.

    Great thoughts, thanks!


  10. Was talking with a friend this morning. He works at a large company and was telling me how things there will never change. “They talk about Achieving Excellence, Improving Morale, and Employee Improvement, but it’s all just lip service,” he said.

    Sometimes it can seem the same way within the body of Christ too. Like Chris said above, change oftentimes comes slooooooowly. I would say that was true for me: it took several years to have a true paradigm shift in priorities and commitment. Like the metamorphasizing of a caterpillar into a butterfly.

    Salvation may come in a flash, but sanctification comes through a long, grueling process.

    Seeing lukewarm believers is discouraging, but thankfully it’s God who works the change in people’s hearts, not us. We can encourage, exhort, be understanding, help carry their burdens, and consistently model servant leadership.

  11. Nick, I agree. However, I wonder if, implicit to the statement that “the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few” is the urgent reality that crops will be lost due to our “slowness”. Yes, sanctification takes time, but I feel like that is often the luxury of those who bear their faith in security and comfort. Just a thought.

  12. Yeah, I agree that luxury is a slowing factor to sanctification. Unfortunately, that has translated into negative spiritual consequences here in the U.S. especially.

    Regarding how to help people come to a point of increased seriousness though, I have a question:

    what level of confrontation do you feel is appropriate? In looking at Jesus’ example, I see he had some harsh critiques for the Pharisees. To what level should we follow this example? When we see hypocrisy (let’s say gross materialism) in the lives of those Christians around us, should we confront? Or ignore? Or let our own lifestyle speak for us?

    What do you think?

  13. Nick,

    Those are hard questions. I tend to believe that, unless there is adequate relationship, our best rebuke comes from living differently. There is a place for prophetic correction, but I suspect we are all too often at risk of casting judgment and proving ourselves hypocrites. Within the intimate community of faith- people genuinely in relationships defined by Christ- such correction & confession is much more critical.

    So I see it through that dual lens- be the living alternative to the world & hold ourselves & our intimate community to a higher standard.


  14. Thanks for your thoughts. I agree, especially the bit about how we are at risk of “casting judgement and proving ourselves hypocrites.” Jesus was perfect, I am not! Very far from it… Any thought of rebuking must be done with a great deal of humility.

  15. Nick,

    The real emphasis should be put on the nature of the communities we participate in. If we resist judgment, we can start with mutual confession. It reminds me of something Stanley Hauerwas said:

    “The disciples are not to judge because any judgment that needs to be made has been made. For those who follow Jesus as if they can, on their own, determine what is good and what is evil is to betray the work of Christ. Therefore, the appropriate stance for the acknowledgment of evil is the confession of sin. We quite literally cannot see clearly unless we have been trained to see ‘the log that is in [our] eye’. But it is not possible for us to see what is in our eye because the eye cannot see itself. That is why we are able to see ourselves only through the vision made possible by Jesus- a vision made possible by our participation in a community of forgiveness that allows us to name our sins.”


  16. Thanks Matt!

  17. Read this today…

    “Alas, what about you poor children! Being your spiritual father, I give you this advice: When you see your parents, who miss religious services, who work on Sunday, who eat meat on forbidden days, who do not go to the Sacraments anymore, who do not improve their minds on religious matters–do the very opposite before them, so that your good example may save them, and if you are wise and good enough to do this, you will have gained everything. That is what I most desire for you.”

    — St. John Vianney

  18. Great quote, Chris. Thanks!

  19. “Volunteerism” is at the heart of the American cultural/historical tradition. In “Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America,” Darrel Guder writes in some detail about the reality of “voluntary association.” Intrinsic to our “individual freedoms” is the ability to choose when and with whom/what the individual chooses to associate. This also involves the freedom to disassociate or, in many situations, associate at arm’s length or sporadically. This reality has been exacerbated by the fact that the church is a “vendor of religious goods and services.” Thus, in true market/consumer terms, the church is greatly concerned with how to gain and maintain the loyalty of its customer base. When it fails, it loses that freely associating volunteer to some other institution. Somehow we must rid ourselves of this cultural DNA which defines “church as institution” and “member as volunteer.” Guder writes, “In such an institutional configuration, the individual is both manipulable part and capable master and managing the the organization became equivalent to being the church” (84). See

  20. Excellently put, Rick. Thanks for sharing this.


  21. This is an interesting article in this weekend’s NYT Magazine in light of the current conversation:

  22. A great story, thanks Rick.

  23. Jamie,

    You nailed it. I have been wrestling with this a lot lately and never realized that by using words like “volunteer opportunities” I am feeding that mentality. In the early days of our ministry we used the words “Blessing Opportunities” but got lazy or corrupted by the culture. Now that you named the issue, I will be more intentional about how we speak of our opportunities to be Christ and see Christ in the world.

    I think the key to getting people to move beyond “volunteerism” mentality is to create opportunities and expectations for on-going relationships that are spirit led and not “program defined.” I will give you a few examples.

    We do monthly short-term missions experiences which are largely attended by youth. We have a High school that comes twice a year. The high-schoolers served at a local elementary school in an under-resourced part community where we minister. The high school youth were so moved by the experience that they started a “pen pal” project with the kids from the school. The students are now forming a student leadership team that is looking at helping to start an after school creative arts program with the students of the elementary school. Everything beyond the initial event was led by the students with us acting as connectors and facilitators.

    Another group we partnered with felt called to become friends with one of our key community leaders and has teamed up with her to help them learn how to be better neighbors to her community. They have a church member who teaches piano and our key leader has a 12 year old son. They are working on starting piano lessons with the youth in the community as a way of building relationships. Again, all we did was introduce and encourage ongoing relationships.

    Sadly these stories are the exception and not the rule but I think the key was relational experiences that had the potential of continuing beyond the day of the event. In most cases we have to continue to hold hands with the groups for a while but if we are faithful in doing that, it generally pays off.

    One thing we learned over the past year is that we need to go deep with a few instead of wide with many. We have looked at all our potential partnering congregations and key leaders and identified a small number that we want to really invest our time in. I think people want to invest in opportunities that are unique to their call and that takes a lot of time to discern. At least this is my theory for this year. Hoping it is more effective than our last “theory” which was build it and they will come…they never came!

  24. Thanks Wendy. It is great to hear both your commitment to see change, as well as these great stories of people doing things differently.

    A couple of things came to mind while reading your comment. First, I wonder how we can nurture the conviction that service with & for others is something WE need as much (and often more) than those we are serving with/for. I am not suggesting we make it about selfish motivations, but rather show that such service is not about being a good person who does exceptional good deeds, but rather that it is the inevitable and essential response to the grace of Christ in our own brokenness.

    Second, I wonder how much this volunteerism mentality contributes to commitments in marriage and other relationships. That makes the implications of our discipleship even more critical, I would say.

    Thanks again!

  25. Are the volunteers the only ones at fault here? Churches (like all nonprofits) treat their members the same way–they want them to help, as long as they fit. We don’t have a sense that the members of a body are all important and necessary; we have a sense that some people are useful and some aren’t.

    If churches treat their members’ contributions as optional, how can they fault their members for acting the same way?

  26. Jamie,

    I was reading through some resources from Jay Von Groningan from Communities First and they recommend using a covenantal approach when seeking to engage people in this kind of relational ministry. He includes a great chart that shares the benefits to the Christian who is willing to enter into a covenant with the people in a community that I think gets to the heart of our own need and it includes these items:

    1.) Deepening of ones own commitment and service to Christ
    2.) Experience God’s power and provision in new ways
    3.) Meet new people (some very interesting – my addition)
    4.) Gain new friendships
    5.) Make an eternal difference in someone’s life
    6.) Develop leadership and other skills

    I continually tell people that the church needs my friends in the inner city more than they need the church and I believe this with all my heart. I hear pastors complain about consumerism and materialism corrupting their churches and I offer them the cure for that disease: spend time with the poor. Few are willing to accept this truth.

    I also think we have to spend time working on those paradigm shifts through some form of missional formation. This is hard when you have folks coming in for short periods of time or showing up to “volunteer.” The way we have done this is through a workshop series we offer called “Unity Works.” However, it is a relatively small number of folks who participate compared to the number who “volunteer.”

    As a team we start each day with prayer and meditation to remind us that this is not about us and end each day. We end each day with theological reflection on the days activities which helps my core team remember that we are entering in to a mystery and that God is there with or without us. We also bath everything we do in continual prayer so those who are there to “volunteer” remember that God is the active one.

    While we do a lot to try to set the table for a spiritual encounter for all who connect, the reality is that only a small number of folks really experience the growth and maturity that this kind of ministry provides. Perhaps that is the nature of man. I rejoice over the few and pray God show us how to do this better in the future.

  27. Hey Katz,

    If you read the post again, you will see that I clearly state that it is the churches responsibility (in part) for teaching people the model. We are reaping what we have sown, indeed.


  28. Again, well said, Wendy. Thanks for the helpful insights.


  29. this is a very timely topic for us as well. I need to give some more thought to what was brought up here, so I don’t have anything to really add to the conversations at this point except my gratitude for starting it.

  30. Thanks Pete!

  31. rev rick gariepy

    Hi Jamie,

    I too remember reading this post a couple of months ago, while researching new monastic communities in Canada. And my question in the larger context was why are there so few intentional Christian communities, let alone nm examples in Canada–north of the US border? Maybe there’s something about our post-colonial mindset and new country secularism that is manifest here…But I like the volunteerism and church dialectic analogy too. There’s something as well about human nature captured by Jesus in the ‘harvest is ripe but the labourers are few’ paradigm as well…Hartgrove’s new book on the monastic sense of ‘stability’ is a welcome corrective for human nature in the modern individualistic materialistic quise of selfishness (sin) as it is enfleshed today…Thanks fo sharing the struggles…in Christ

  32. Hey Rick,

    So true. “Missions” language has so long been attached to concepts of “go” that we fail to see the powerfully missional nature of stability. This does not negate “going”, but frames it differently within the wider missional perspective. Thanks!


  33. Simon F

    Coming a bit late to the party… but can I suggest that an understanding of discipleship that doesn’t speak of Christian growth alongside service is incomplete? The original Greek word for disciple (mathetes) means something like apprentice or student, and the Latin discuplus is in the same area.

    Discipleship is a full-on way of learning as the story of the first disciples demonstrates. Jesus mixes up a learning journey with missional activity for them. They serve as they learn, and learn as they serve.

    I’m looking for evidence that mission and learning discipleship can be one and the same thing. Any thoughts gratefully received.

    • Jamie

      I agree, Simon. That’s very much what I hoped this post would express. I believe that discipleship happens in the context of mission rather than something that happens before mission (though that can be a part of it). Learning as we live- head, hearts & hands together- is always best.

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