The practical energy of the local church comes through the membership. Where else can one find a body of such committed, passionate and unified people who are willing to give of their time and energies so sacrificially for the sake of a cause they believe in? We are a privileged people when we are part of such a living vibrant community of focussed and purposeful individuals.
This passion is perhaps first felt in the early church where we see the way they lived together in Acts 2. Immediately after being filled with the Spirit at Pentecost, the church’s birth day, we find that the people ‘devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers’ (Acts 2:42). This sentence embodies the very essence of the church, the non-negotiable minima. These four elements – teaching, fellowship, remembering and celebrating the Lord’s death and resurrection, and direct communion with God our Father – in large measure define what a ‘church’ is and does. But who are the church?
We are a community of people, both local and worldwide, who have been created and chosen from before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4) ‘for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them’ (Eph 2:10). Paul goes on to teach us that we are all members of the body, each having a role to play, and as we do so, and work in harmony with others, the body grows healthily (Eph 4:16). He does not differentiate between paid and unpaid members of the church. He talks about every member having a place
Most people in the church are not paid by the church – they are, as the world would say, ‘volunteers’. But let’s unpack that word. ‘Volunteer’ carries implications which may be counter to some of the ways in which the Bible sees them. What are some of the words and phrases we would associate with ‘volunteer’? Here are a few: Charity, Unpaid, Good cause, Do good, Free labour, Spare time. However, in the UK, and I am sure elsewhere, it is not only the charity-type words that are associated with ‘volunteer’; it is also used for some ‘essential services’ eg Volunteer Reserves (a part of the armed services), The Lifeboat Institute, The Fire Service. These all rely heavily on volunteers to supplement their paid staff in front line roles, often facing danger and emotional challenges.
I feel it is these latter people who more closely equate with what Paul is teaching about how the church should function, people who are mobilised as a working force rather than the cosy words associated with charities. Such an environment carries other word associations – discipline, training, structure, clear lines of authority etc, in contrast to the ‘take it or leave it’ options often associated with charity volunteers demonstrated by those who may be on a rota and yet do not feel a great obligation to turn up if some alternative arises. There is probably real and substantial ‘middle ground’ between these two extreme models – ‘charity’ and ‘essential services’ – but I trust that highlighting these extremes will cause you to think in greater depth about how you view ‘volunteer’ in the context of the church.
Next time we will look to see what the Bible says about volunteers.