By Bill Easum

The words we use denote who we are and how we view the world. Change some of the words you use and you’re on the way to changing the system.

That’s why I hate the word “volunteer.”  To me the word has come to mean “I’ll give you what I want to give you; when I want to give it; and how I want to give it.” The word “volunteer” divides the church into two classes of people – those who do big things and those who do little things. In our contemporary context the word has come to mean a person who can do a task which is not as important as other tasks. In church language we call this person a “slot-filler”, or “warm body.” In many churches these people are seen as the ones who do “the little things.”

Instead, I prefer to use the word “servant.” A servant gives based on their master’s wishes, which in our terminology means serving at God’s pleasure rather than our own.”

When I work in thriving independent churches, I seldom hear the word ‘volunteer’.  It simply isn’t part of their culture. Instead, I hear them using terms like servant, team member, team-mate, worker, and leader. Churches that stay away from the “V” word have a better chance of developing leaders at a more rapid pace. The church doesn’t consist of a class of people to serve and others to be served. We are not servants and seekers. We are all servants who sometimes serve and other times are served.

I prefer the word “servant” to “volunteer” because it usage sets the church up to have the kind of leadership development that is biblical.  By that I mean the number one measure of any Christian leader is not their individual performance, their commitment, their knowledge, or their personal leadership but rather their effectiveness in serving others. When we serve others we actually demonstrate what it means to be a leader and a Christian. The key measure of servanthood is: How effective are we in reproducing ourselves into others?  The key role of every leader is to equip others to lead. This is true of pastors, of governing board leaders, of all the servants of the church. Servants are about their master’s business.  They aren’t simply filling slots that churches think they need filling. They are living out their God-given gifts and talents.

So How Do You Train Servants?

So the question becomes “How do we train people to be servants?” You don’t train them as much as you show them.  Demonstrations are more powerful than training courses or programs. Perhaps some examples will help

I’ve been privileged to be at New Hope Christian Fellowship on several occasions.  My first time there I had an eye opener when talking with Dan Shima, one of the Senior Pastors. During that conversation Dan told me the “pick up buckets” story.

I had taken a group of church planters to spend some time with Wayne Cordeiro, the lead pastor.  During the time together Dan asked the group “What’s the most important thing in the church service?” The group responded with things like “the message, the music, or the welcome.” Dan’s response to each of these was “No.” Then with a laugh he said, “The offering is the most important- that’s one of the easiest ways to involve new people in service. We ask first time guests to help with the offering. Like most things we do, it’s not hard. I say to a friend that I’ve brought to church” I need you to help me today with my ministry here.” They will say that they don’t know how to do anything or I don’t think I am qualified.  But I tell them it’s easy. All you have to do is pick up buckets.”

During the offering there are two jobs – pass out buckets – pick up buckets.”

One Sunday morning we watched two people carrying paper buckets down the side aisles of the auditorium while one of the pastors was talking about the offering. One person was holding the buckets while the other person was giving hand signals about where to walk, how to take the top bucket and pass it to the first person. A hand waved across their mouth followed with a smile to remind the person to smile.

A few seconds later buckets were passed down to the end of the row where the new person, and when I checked, a first time guest was picking them up, stacking them inside each other and carrying to the back of the auditorium to hand to another person.

Later in the week we asked Dan if what we had seen was an application of his story. “Oh yes, I know her, Dan replied. That was one of our newest members that got her friend to help. The person was reached through that ministry. She brought her friend to the church for the first time that morning. She asked her to help her with her ministry, so she did. It’s not hard to pick up buckets.”

“How long has the new member been attending?” we ask. “I don’t know, maybe a month. She came with another friend that asked her to help with the offering her first visit and she trained her to do it. Now her first friend serves in another one of our frontlines ministries. The offering is one of our initial types of ministries. Most people move on to more challenging things fairly quickly. Oh, by the way, I think that friend that helped the new member on Sunday prayed to receive Christ on Sunday.”

What I Learned about Servanthood from New Hope

  • Keep the leadership track simple at the beginning. Pick up buckets, wave cars this way, and smile. They can be easily explained to another person and can easily be attempted with little or no training. Everyone needs a simple place to begin serving. Christ himself showed by his examples of simple servanthood the character of his followers.
  • The servants are recruited by other servants personally and quickly and the tasks are accomplished with a friend close by. It is friends involving other friends.
  • “Come help me” rather than “come help ‘the church’” or “be a servant”. The invitation to service often precedes the invitation to a relationship to Christ, and often is given on or before a visit to the church.
  • The roles are visible and therefore important.  Others, who did not come with a friend, see everyday people serving. Do the servants, especially first timers, sometimes mess up? Sure, but these things can be corrected quickly when a friend is close by to help. Better to build a heart for service and servanthood than let the quest for quality inhibit people in developing their servant hearts.
  • The roles make simple tasks fun. Service should not be drudgery, no matter how hard the task. Part of the fun is doing the tasks with a team. Part of it is providing an atmosphere that encourages the servants to enjoy their tasks in the midst of accomplishing them.
  • The behavior is modeled not “taught. This form of equipping doesn’t require curriculum or classes to attend.  It requires leaders who live what they teach. It is the Jesus way of equipping.

An Example from World Outreach

Another example of servanthood  can be found at World Outreach Church in Murfeesboro, Tennessee. When asked to share some of the measures they used to evaluate their success, Alan Jackson, the lead pastor answered: “How many service roles in our church and community have we created for day-old Christians?” His observation was that in many churches new believers were not adequately discipled because they were not serving. So World Outreach made a strong effort in the past year to identify places to involve brand new followers of Christ into ministry

Alan continued: “We learned a lot from Steve Sjogren’s ideas on servant evangelism With very little instruction and direction, people can create great service ministries to share the love of Christ with non-believers and develop servant hearts at the same time.

The key to Training Servants          

Behavior is modeled not taught.  You and I are the curriculum.  Modeling is much more powerful than cognitive approaches that focus on education and understanding.  Of course training courses don’t hurt, but they aren’t as powerful as seeing servanthood in action and being part of the action.

Modeling goes like this: I do; you watch; and we talk.  You do; I watch; and we talk. You do with another and they watch; and you talk.  And so on and on.

Moving On

How good are you in involving others in the joy of being a servant rather than a volunteer?  Try it; I guarantee you you’ll like it.