Volunteers and (not or) Discipleship

Each week church leaders feel the weight of responsibility for two important facets of their ministry roles. First, they desire to disciple people in the church, to develop people the Lord has called them to serve. Second, they have the responsibility of  “pulling off church” this week. The kid’s ministry, student program, weekend services, and mission activity won’t happen without the help of others, without volunteers engaged in the ministry.

Sometimes these two responsibilities are viewed as polarizing opposites, as if we are confronted with the choice of either (a) discipling someone or (b) recruiting a volunteer to serve. Viewing “discipleship” and “volunteer engagement” as completely distinct from one another, however, is an unhelpful false dichotomy. People can be discipled through volunteer engagement. 

In the research behind Transformational Discipleship, we discovered that people are most likely to grow spiritually when godly leaders apply the truth of God to their hearts while they are in a teachable posture. Growth takes place when there is a holy intersection of truth, posture, and leaders.

When someone volunteers for a ministry, the person is placed in a teachable posture. He is given the opportunity to experience God working through him to serve others and to develop an external vantage point. The overwhelming moments of leading a group for the first time, of attempting to connect with a group of kids or students, or of engaging in a mission project can place a person in a dependent posture – where he senses his need for the Lord.

In other words, inviting someone to volunteer is inviting that person into a teachable posture. But the teachable posture must be accompanied with a godly leader applying the truth of God to the heart. Without the truth and godly leaders reproducing themselves in others, all the church has is volunteers accomplishing tasks. But when godly leaders apply the truth to the hearts of volunteers, discipleship is occurring.

Instead of viewing discipleship and recruiting/working with volunteers as two disparate roles, understand that you can simultaneously disciple and engage volunteers. For church leadership teams, here are three practical applications:

1)    Make the “ask.”

Instead of relying solely on announcements from the stage or in the bulletin, form relationships with people in the church and invite them to serve. Do so with a holy confidence that you are inviting people into a posture that the Lord will use to bring about transformation.

2)    Apply the truth of the gospel to your teams.

Remind the people that they are serving because He has first served us, not because we are attempting to earn His love or even pay Him back for His love (there is no way to pay back). If you lead a team of volunteers in the hospitality ministry, remind them that Christ first welcomed us. If you lead a team in the worship ministry, remind them of the joy of celebrating who He is and what He has done for us through Christ. If you lead a team in the kid’s ministry, remind them God’s kingdom is ultimately for children, for those of us who trust Him as our Father. And so on …

3)    Place the volunteers under healthy leaders.

Your role as a church leader is not to do all the ministry but to train God’s people to do ministry (Ephesians 4:11-13). As people are invited into ministry, they must be placed under the care of healthy leaders. If you are directly leading the volunteers, ensure that you are healthy as people reproduce their leaders. If you have built layers of leadership in your ministry department or church, by God’s grace, do all you can to place volunteers under healthy leaders.


  1. Alex says

    I do agree that both can and should happen. But I would argue that in many church contexts, “volunteering” for predetermined roles overshadows and replaces the more holistic discipleship relationship (giving and receiving). I think it’s a problem when the needs of making the weekly thing run prevent the discipleship process of a leader helping a disciple discover their passions and gifting from the Lord. You mention needing a leader for the volunteers, but there’s a big difference between the leader that makes sure the ushers show up and the leader that disciples people. So again, in principle, I agree. But I think many churches may need to cut some “volunteer roles” to disciple people and free them up to chase what they’re really wired for.

  2. Pat says

    Erik I enjoy reading your stuff makes for a nice quick afternoon read. Funny often in our churches we say that someone must be discipled before they can be used of God. While there is a definite need for some maturity in certain roles in ministry, obviously.

    The majority of the NT was not written to those who had their senses matured and were deep craftsmen of his word. Christ sent out the disciples two by two, the ones he sent out would not be considered mature believers in most churches today.

    Perhaps as we move this way we will also move in another direction and begin looking at the aspect that calling those who serve in the kingdom voluneers, may bring another set of issues that may hinder the discipleship process. Perhaps we can try reffering to them and challenging them as Paul and Peter did to live, serve and worship as servants of the Most High God.

    Thanks Erik

  3. eric says

    Mike — thanks brother. I think it is really wise (and biblical) to articulate serving as part of a church’s discipleship process. Good stuff.

    Pat — thank you for the encouragement.

    Alex — I think this is a strong point. And I agree. If a church continues to run a bunch of pointless or fruitless programs, and those programs require volunteer engagement to pull off — the church could be stewarding energy (and the time of people) in much more healthy ways.

  4. says

    Feels like it has overtones of your other post recently on volunteers.

    Again- if were the church, and were church leaders, it would seem like an obvious point that people aren’t simply doing a job- but no matter their role of greeting or leading children or students we are encouraging them to take the people they interact with from one place to another. To disciple them if you will.

    And then we are discipling the people we are interacting with. Not simply as part of a structure but a hope that as a result of being with us they are seeing a little more of Jesus and loving Jesus a little more.

    If this is a revolutionary point for our church leaders it may be a reminder why we look around at a greater church culture that seems to believe Jesus just isn’t that valuable. And we get wrapped up in the stuff we do at church, and even church itself then Jesus himself.

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