how “ministry” is different to “volunteering”

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Disciples at WFPC
Disciples at WFPC

For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him. – Philippians 2:13

Typically I’m more of a question guy than an answer guru. I do get a lot of questions (mostly via email) but – even though I seriously value positive dialogue – you won’t see much of an advice-column style “Q-and-A” in this space.

But today’s post is different. Everything you read over the next few paragraphs (and this is a longer post than usual – by necessity) will be my direct response to a query I fielded this morning from a friend I admire greatly. This friend serves as an elder, in a Presbyterian Church, in another state.

  • “I need to make the shift from ‘volunteer,'” my friend wrote, “to ‘one who is in a ministry;’ and I am not quite sure how to do that. I would love to see it in your blog because maybe there are some others who are struggling with this as well….

It was a much longer communique. But that was how my friend concluded.

ANSWER: My first thought was this: I really wish you could have been with me at the retreat I led a couple of weeks ago. The entire weekend was a conversation about the difference between being a church member and living as a disciple of Jesus; membership versus discipleship; your question about the difference between being “a volunteer” and “in ministry” is exactly the same.

Okay, enough with the italics. I’m writing now, not thinking (but hopefully they’re related!).

talking about being a disciple
talking about being a disciple

SEMANTICS: At face value it sounds as if this is nothing more than a question of semantics. Well, truth be known, the words we use – especially what we understand as “self-talk” – are the building blocks of our thought structure, and the way we think about who we are is foundational to our identity, which in turn has a profound effect on our actions; not only our actions, but how we are perceived by those around us.

How we define ourselves is the foundational self-talk out of which we live. We live into either church membership (volunteer)… or we live into passionate discipleship (ministry).

This is one reason we don’t have “committees” at our church. We have “Ministry Teams.” The implications of that shift in understanding make a profound difference in everything from purpose to participation to practice.

DISCIPLESHIP: Here are a few (very elementary) thoughts about the difference between living as a disciple of Jesus and being the member of a church:

  1. Church membership is counted in terms of raw numbers – church role, baptisms, attendance, budget, special offerings – Whereas Discipleship is measured in terms of transformed lives.
  2. Members “sit in the premises” – Disciples “stand on the promises.”
  3. Membership is inwardly focused – Discipleship looks out.
  4. Membership boosts our roles – Discipleship grows God’s Kingdom.
  5. To maintain membership in most churches, a person must attend a minimum of one service in the previous year, make a financial contribution to the church, or (not and) participate in some church related activity – To be a Disciple, we need to walk so closely to Jesus that we are “covered in the dust of our rabbi.”
  6. Membership is only concerned with you as a “number” – Discipleship requires both being a disciple and discipling another. So Discipleship begs the question, who are you (who am I? Who are we?) bringing along in faith?

ORGANIZATIONAL DNA: My awesome amazing wife Rebekah – who also happens to be the one of the best preachers and most effective church leaders that I know – often throws out an answer that makes more traditional preachers and elders extremely nervous. “I’m not that interested in numbers,” she says. “My passion is to make disciples. When people make the shift from church membership to discipleship, then the numbers take care of themselves.”

“I’m not that interested in numbers. My passion is to make disciples. When people make the shift from church membership to discipleship, then the numbers take care of themselves.”

Back in Florida, Rebekah invested 17-years engineering a cultural shift at FPCBrandon that re-built the work of the church around “Ministry” and “Discipleship.” She trained elders to live as Disciples and to invite people into shared ministry rather than volunteering. We didn’t build a new education wing, we built the “Campbell DISCIPLESHIP Center.”

Here in Wake Forest WFPC is responding – joyfully – to the same initiative.

I remember Rebekah saying things like, “If all we do is invite people to volunteer, to serve on committees, to ‘donate’ money, and to be good-deed-doers, then we’re just one more social club. It’s about following Jesus, it’s about being disciples, and it’s about joyfully living our faith out loud.”

Each one of us – and most especially the dear friend who threw out this morning’s question – have been called by God to partner with Jesus in exciting ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit .

“Ministry” is the intentional practice of discipleship in the context of the local church.

don't just take our word for it...
don’t just take our word for it…

We don’t look for volunteers to get stuff done; we invite people to share in transformational ministry initiatives that grow God’s Kingdom!

How to accomplish this? Well, I think that question is the undercurrent of everything that I write. But the short answer is this: “Tell the truth about the love of God via a relationship with Jesus that animates your day-to-day life with purpose, with passion, and with joy.”

For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him. Do everything without complaining and arguing, so that no one can criticize you. Live clean, innocent lives as children of God, shining like bright lights (like stars in the world, NRSV) in a world full of crooked and perverse people. Hold firmly to the word of life; then, on the day of Christ’s return, I will be proud that I did not run the race in vain and that my work was not useless. – Philippians 2:13-16


  1. I would get frustrated with our associate Pastor for always turning down my ideas to get more “volunteers” through some way or another. He would always want to think of someone whose gifts might better lie with what we needed. I never understood why, but I’m beginning to now. Some are not called to that ministry area and therefore God will not necessarily equip them with the talent or finesse that is needed to do His work through them. But then how do you get people to recognize God’s call and step up to help? Afterall, even those who answer the call can’t do it all and all of the time. They can get burned out and therefore not be as effective.


  2. But we speak the wisdom of GOD in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which GOD ordained before the ages for our glory, ( 1 Corinthians 2:7 ).


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