If you've even spent time at a local branch of the Red Cross, tutored a child at a local elementary school, pounded nails at a Habitat For Humanity build, or picked up trash at a local nature preserve, you've probably done so as a volunteer. According to the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 26.8 percent of the population volunteered in their communities at least once between September 2008 and September 2009. The percentage ticked upward from previous years. Even with the economic recession, the group Volunteering in America reports, 2009 saw the biggest increase in the number of volunteers since 2003. A majority of volunteers served as religious organizations.

But does the language of volunteerism apply to the church?

I recently sat through weeks of church staff meetings. The primary item on the agenda was crafting a congregational organizational chart. Our church has grown rapidly in recent years, and as a result, klutzy collisions between ministry heads unsure of who was in charge of this program or that task had shown a need to formalize lines of communication and responsibility.

The chart helped with some of these issues, but it provided a snapshot of another issue we were facing: There were all sorts of empty slots. As in many growing churches, we were always searching for more children's ministry workers, janitors, and sound tech assistants. Those of us on staff dedicated ourselves to find ways to recruit and retain people to fill those slots on the org chart. We held volunteer fairs. We regularly encouraged volunteers to share their stories of spiritual growth as a result of serving the church. We committed ourselves to honoring hard-working volunteers with small gestures of staff appreciation throughout the year.

But our approach to filling those empty slots left me uncomfortable. It seemed to be something sour and a little cynical about our underlying assumptions. We had appropriated the paradigm of a nonprofit organization in order to find a way to function as a growing church. And when we viewed fellow congregants as volunteers, we subtly emphasized what they could do over against who they were as members of the body of Christ. I wondered if we were unintentionally building a culture where "our volunteers" were our blue-collar laborers, doing tasks assigned by us, the white-collar staff.

Paul describes the church as designed to function in radically different terms (Rom. 12:4-8; 1 Cor. 12)—and "volunteering" is not part of the equation. We are the body. The idea of a volunteer kidney or tibia in a functioning body is nonsensical.

True, some of those who volunteer in their congregations are sharing their spiritual gifts. Some give of their time because they want to be good team players; others have tapped into the reality that service is an act of worship. Unfortunately, many assist in their local church because they have been guilted by an overzealous staffer with an org chart to fill. And, frankly, being motivated primarily by guilt doesn't even fit the definition of volunteer.

We who follow Christ are identified as servants (Matt. 20:25-28), priests (1 Pet. 2:4-9), and friends (John 15:14-15). Each of these identifiers is wrapped around a core of voluntary, grateful response to God. And none carries the task-orientation embedded in way we typically use the word volunteer. Calling members of the body of Christ "volunteers" communicates a 100-calorie snack-pack version of the all-encompassing call to discipleship Jesus described.

Jesus himself communicated this call from the posture of the Model Volunteer, one who volunteered his life on our behalf:

"Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!" (Phil. 2:6-8)

He volunteered so that each us could be free to serve him and each other in ways that would woo instead of echo the world. That freedom is meant to change everything—including the way we talk about those empty slots on our org charts.