Giving and the Rise of Volunteerism
Religion & Liberty Online

Giving and the Rise of Volunteerism

Whenever an ex-president releases a new book there is considerable buzz in the media. When Bill Clinton released a new book in Chicago this week the buzz was more than considerable. President Clinton’s new book, Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World (Knopf 2007), is sure to provoke good and important discussion. My hope is that those who love him, as well as those who despise him for whatever reason, will take a long look at his central argument (even it they refuse to buy his book). The argument he makes is simple and he uses stories to make it—each of us can make an important difference in the world, a much greater difference than we’ve ever imagined.
You can see the Clinton interview with Borders online. It is well worth watching. I found this immensely interesting. President Clinton argues, correctly of course, that there is pile of new wealth that has been made by younger and younger people in our American context. More and more of these new entrepreneurs want to give away more and more of their wealth before they die in order to get involved in how their giving can make a real difference in the world. This trend comes at the same time as the rise of Internet giving and the development of non-governmental organizations that want to help change people’s lives in very poor countries. The result of these three recent trends is “micro-credit.” You can invest $100 in a poor farmer or businessman in an impoverished country and this investment becomes a loan that will likely be paid back in time. (Clinton says 98% of those who get the money pay back the loan when it has been given through well-managed agencies.) The donor can then choose to reinvest his small loan or get the money back. It is a simple procedure that can make a world of difference by reaching one person at a time. Developments like these underscore the power of the Internet revolution.

For some years I have known people who were associated with Acton Institute, a work I strongly support, who have encouraged this kind of loan and taught Christians about the initiative that it creates in building sound economies and growing businesses. It makes sense if you think about it at all. You become, in effect, a micro-credit banker, working with an international agency to help someone located anywhere in the world. Clinton mentions one such lending agency, Kiva, which I have not had opportunity to investigate carefully. I would love to know more about Kiva if anyone has a response to share based on their experience. Maybe you’ve become a micro-credit banker yourself and have a story to share that would encourage others. I want to know more and I desire to get involved myself.

Clinton argues that volunteerism is on the rise in our society. He rightly argues that such a rise is vital to the health of democracies. He even suggests that volunteerism is the “imprint” of the youngest generation saying that there is more evidence for volunteerism among the young than among any previous group of adults in U.S. history. (I assume he means by this that the percentage of people actually involved is the largest, since the money itself could not have reached that point yet.) It seems that the emerging generation is clearly doing more to serve others than any generation since before the baby-boom generation stormed the scene in the 1960s and beyond.

Finally, a few personal observations. I am not generally a fan of Bill Clinton’s views on some issues. I also remain a political skeptic of sorts, especially when he promotes Hillary as a leading advocate of this kind of volunteerism. It “feels” political to me but then I could be way too cynical at this point. Second, Clinton is advocating something that Christians ought to care about deeply but my baby-boom generation does not, at least not in very large numbers. Third, I think one major reason for the rise of emergent Christian movements parallels what we see in Clinton’s book. This generation is fed up with constant arguments and the church conceived as winners and losers. It wants to get involved in community activities that make a difference in the lives of others. The Internet feeds this and allows it to develop in fresh ways. (The Internet also allows the angry polemicists to have their venue as well. The Internet is a true democracy, at least of ideas, at work.) 

I pray that God will use this movement and in the process build a new kind of Christianity in the West. I am personally fed up with the kind of Christianity that wants to stoke the fires of constant polemics. I embrace theology seriously and believe it is important for ecclesial health. The problem is that some in my generation have made the study of, and their arguments about, theology the whole ballgame. This is, simply put, idolatry. I call it the idolatry of concepts. If it takes Bill Clinton, and a host of others, to help us all rethink our role in the world as servants rather than mere consumers then I welcome it even though I did not vote for him.

John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening." His home blog is located here.

John Armstrong

John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."