Sacred and Secular Volunteering

In the United States, 26% of the population volunteers.* More people (36%**) volunteer through faith-based organizations (churches, synagogues and mosques) than any other type of organization. The remaining 64% of volunteers work for a variety of community organizations: schools and hospitals, the local food pantry and historical society, zoos and museums, animal shelters and shelters for abused women, the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, any many more. Even the IRS has volunteers!

More people volunteer for faith-based organizations than any other type of organization.

Generally, sacred (faith-based) and secular (everything else) volunteering are seen as either/or. We in the church are happy when more people volunteer at church. We often figure that those who don’t have a church are the ones who volunteer in other places.

But it really isn’t either/or.

  • Many active church members volunteer for secular organizations. Some do it along with volunteering at their church; some do it in place of volunteering at church.
  • Secular non-profits, particularly those who assist people in need, are beginning to partner with churches. Many do it as a means of gaining volunteers, particularly in this time of increasing need and dwindling resources.

Are these two facts/trends good or bad from the perspective of the church? Do they help or hinder the church? Our attitudes and values follow the way we think, so let’s first look at some sources of the barriers between sacred and secular volunteering.


Institutional loyalty is one reason we have an either/or barrier between sacred and secular volunteering. Until about the 1970’s, loyalty to institutions was an accepted part of American culture. When you joined a group, you supported it with your time and talent, and with money. Most families had little money for entertainment, so the groups we joined, whether a church or community group, were also our center for socializing, entertainment, and support as well as something we believed in. Families, even extended families, tended to be loyal to one particular institution. Today, institutional loyalty is rare. Many people shop for what they want, and move from one group or institution to another as needs and desires change. This movement includes moving between sacred and secular institutions.

For many, the church is a different and unknown world.

Until even more recent times, American society was a “churched” society. Everyone knew what churches taught and the vast majority of people supported them. Even those who were not regular participants were still often found in churches for births, weddings and burials. Today, America is an “unchurched” society. A good percentage of people in their 30’s and younger are unfamiliar with basic Bible stories, and church hymns, terms and practices. For many, the church is a different and unknown world, a fact which creates a barrier between secular and sacred.

Churches sometimes create barriers. Just as God commanded the Old Testament Israelites to avoid the peoples around them, so they would not be tempted to worship their false gods, so churches often protect their people from the temptations of the world by erecting barriers between the church and ‘the world.’ Parochial schools were one way churches protected their children from the world. Followers of Jesus Christ most definitely do need to guard their hearts and minds from all that would pull us away from our Lord, and the world around us certainly can and does do that. But we do not need to leave the world, as did many monks and nuns in the past, nor should we. Jesus intentionally engaged with everyday people. He was condemned for associating with outcasts and ‘sinners,’ people who were more worldly than religious. In a society that no longer automatically comes to church, our barriers contribute to a sacred/secular divide, and can prevent us from sharing the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ.

Isn’t the wall between church and state a good barrier?

What about the “wall between church and state”? Isn’t that a natural and good barrier? The phrase+ refers to the 1791 First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This protection of freedom of religion is highly, and rightly, valued in the U.S. Over time, though, we’ve extended that wall so that it often separates all aspects of faith and spirituality from other aspects of community life. Faith becomes a private issue and many have become uncomfortable dealing with it outside the church.

Benefits from breaking down barriers

There will always be natural differences between sacred and secular volunteering. But there are benefits to breaking down the either/or assumptions, and benefits to doing some intentional bridge-building from one to the other. The fact that Christians do volunteer for secular organizations, and that some secular organizations are looking to build volunteering partnerships with churches, can be a blessing to churches.

For Christians, volunteering is part of a much bigger picture, the serving in Jesus’ name and for Jesus’ sake that encompasses all our life, including our church, home, employment and community. When we recognize and encourage people in our church family who give time and talents to other organizations, we have a golden opportunity to stress the 24/7 aspect of serving. A Christian is serving Jesus when she does disaster relief through the Red Cross as well as when she prepares the communion trays.

Partnering can help us do deeds that demonstrate our beliefs and can open ears to our beliefs.

Most churches can use some help getting out into, and involved in, the community. Currently, most church volunteering is done within the church’s walls. Moving more of our volunteering into the community shows the unchurched people around us who we are and what we believe. It gives us opportunities to meet and talk to people and to do deeds that demonstrate our beliefs. Our deeds can open ears to our beliefs.

Community organizations have years of experience and personal contacts in the community. Partnering with them, therefore, can be more efficient and effective than going it alone. The Red Cross has more capability than the average congregation to do disaster relief, so working with them enables a church to serve more people. In addition, partnerships are invaluable at times of immediate crisis, such as flooding or a tornado, when our service must be immediate to be effective.

The challenges

Shared work does not equal shared beliefs. Whenever a church is partnering with a secular organization on community needs, the role of faith and religion must be addressed. On the one hand, Christians can not partner with a group that insists that faith must be hidden or denied. We do not deny our faith. On the other hand, we can avoid some practices that offend, “being all things to all men in order that by all possible means I might save some” (I Cor. 9:22), while still being true to our faith and God’s purposes.. When my adult sibling insists I not “try to convert him,” I will agree to avoid certain practices that antagonize. Yet I will still maintain a relationship with him, do things with him and seek opportunities bring spiritual matters into conversations as God opens doors.

Walking this balance is not easy. True partnerships would be rare.

Walking this balance is not easy. It is more than challenging to build a true partnership between a faith-based organization and a secular organization, especially in today’s climate of mutual anger and antagonism between conservative religions and the more liberal attitudes in society in general. True partnerships of respect and cooperation would be rare. But our Christian faith is so precious and life-changing, we are compelled to bring it to as people as possible. And we are compelled to serve. Just maybe, partnerships with community organizations can increase opportunities both to serve and to share. Perhaps our common devotion to serving the less fortunate can be a connection to building those partnerships. And maybe also, through building those partnerships, we can learn how to break down, or move around, the barriers that often separate the sacred and the secular.

The first challenge is finding a community organization with leaders willing to have the detailed and difficult conversations necessary to create a true partnership. Ideally, they themselves would be people of faith who have learned to put their faith into practice in a secular organization, who see their job as their vocation, and have personally wrestled with the challenges of faith-sharing in the work environment.

When considering a partnership between church and the community organization, first have detailed discussions about how faith talk can or can’t work when serving together. Can a volunteer say, “Jesus be with you”? “May I pray for you?” May I pray with you?” Find out what would be considered offensive. Look for natural conversation on spiritual issues that is acceptable. Formal proselytizing (“If you died tonight…”) is less likely to be accepted.

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These conversations about spiritual conversations have a number of benefits. First and foremost, it simply helps the church decide whether or not a partnership would work. But even if the partnership does not pan out, these conversations about faith conversations help us learn more about our unchurched neighbors and about the methods of faith-sharing that are most likely to be listened to. If guidelines for a partnership are agreed upon, they of course will be written and shared with church volunteers, providing another opportunity for growth in evangelism skills.

Despite the challenges, despite the difficulties of finding a community organization with whom a church can build a true partnership in serving the community, such a partnership would bring advantages to both partners.

What the community organization can receive from the church

  • Additional volunteers
  • “Quality” volunteers: “Volunteer who serve through faith-based organizations are the most likely to continue serving.”**
  • Opportunities for unchurched people to get to know church people as they really are, rather than as depicted by stereotypes.

What the church can receive from the community organization

  • Opportunities to build relationships with non-believing volunteers who share a desire to meet a community need
  • Growth in effective faith-sharing skills.
  • Techniques of volunteer management that can be applied to the church. Community organizations often use good volunteer recruitment, training and support techniques.
  • Multiplication of their efforts to feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, etc.
  • Community visibility

Community organizations are beginning to partner with some churches. Churches are looking to get more involved in the community. Christians have always volunteered in community organizations. Despite the challenges and the delicate road that must be walked, perhaps God can be praised through intentional partnerships.


Note: This article was written for church audiences. I approached the same subject to an audience of volunteer administrators in the broader non-profit world in “The Wall Between Faith-Based and Secular Volunteering,” reprinted with permission by e-Volunteerism.


* from the July 2009 Volunteering in America Research Highlights by the Corporation of National and Community Service.

** Volunteering in American’s Faith-Based Organizations, July 2009

+ Attributed to Thomas Jefferson in an 1802 letter. Source.

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