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.)