Volunteerism in My Community, Then and Now

Volunteering in various ways has always been important to my wife and me, so when we moved our young family to our current location back in the mid-1990s, we immediately started looking for ways to volunteer. We hosted a Vacation Bible School in our backyard a few weeks after we moved, and the following year, our son started kindergarten, so we took turns volunteering in his classroom. That same year, we were excited to hear that our city had a coalition of ~70 pastors who had begun meeting together regularly to pray for their congregations, each other, and our city. This was clearly the Lord’s timing because the following winter, the southern part of our city was inundated by a flood; a large number of the volunteers who went to help, including me and my young son, were from those churches. The fact that the informal coalition already existed made organizing the volunteers a very quick process. The following year, the coalition organized another work day with various projects around the city. The day began with a gathering of the volunteers, and we sang a Christian contemporary song and/or hymn a before heading out to the various projects; if memory serves, we sang “Amazing Grace,” and we did it a cappella. There was also a short prayer.

Another aspect of the church coalition was that the pastors agreed, among other things, that they would officiate and host weddings only for couples who had gone through pre-marital counseling. My own church, in fact, had a strong pre-marital program, and a few years later, my wife and I found another way to volunteer: we met (two-on-two) over the years with engaged couples and took them through a curriculum put together by one of our pastors. Our leadership also encouraged us to “prayer-walk” in our neighborhoods. This was really a time of blessing for our city! However, the devil was at work; the pastor who was the leader of the church coalition became involved in sexual immorality. He stepped down from his position as pastor; in addition, the church coalition fell apart because none of the other pastors stepped up to take leadership of it.

Fast-forward a few years, and a new organization of volunteers emerged; in fact, it originated in the church where the sexually-immoral pastor had stepped down. My son and I (and then also my wife and daughter) continued to volunteer at the annual work days. We began to notice some changes; for example, instead of singing “Amazing Grace” a cappella in our gathering at the beginning of the day, we heard the chorus of Journey’s iconic “Don’t Stop Believin'” pounding over loudspeakers. The next words of the chorus are “Hold on to that feelin’, streetlight people.” There are differing interpretations of its meaning, but if you listen to the whole song, let’s just say that “streetlight people” doesn’t exactly refer to people of wholesome character. On the positive side, another difference I have noticed is that this movement has spread to nine additional cities, and the number of volunteers has grown astronomically. So has the number of sponsors, which has grown from zero to more than one hundred; a few of them are churches, while the vast majority of them are local businesses.

On this year’s flyer, I have noticed some free giveaways (by drawing), including four tickets to one concert and two to another; a large-screen TV; two tickets to the Broadway national tour of Anastasia; and just added this week, four tickets to Six Flags! Oh, and if you pay $10 for a full pancake breakfast, your name will be entered into a drawing for a Yogurt Mill Gift Basket worth $150! (I should add that there are also free refreshments and snacks for everyone, which is as it should be.)

The sponsorships and giveaways prompted me to read the home page of the organization’s website; no mention is made of Jesus Christ or even of God. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with this in and of itself; certainly, both believers and unbelievers can volunteer together! My main question for God’s people is this: if you’re volunteering for an event like this, that’s great, but would you be doing it even if there were no free stuff? Here’s what Proverbs 16:21 says: “All a man’s ways seem innocent to him, but motives are weighed by the Lord.” A companion verse is Proverbs 21:2, which says, “All a man’s ways seem right to him, but the Lord weighs the heart.”

A lot has been gained in my community in terms of volunteerism since the 1990s; this is particularly true when you look at the huge increase in the number of volunteers on our annual work days. At the same time, I think that something has been lost as well. My wife and I have gotten to that age and stage of life where physical labor is more difficult than it used to be; may the Lord continue to guide our youth and their parents in their volunteering in our community–and indeed every community–as we move forward.

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