Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Volunteering is the main mode by which religious and service agencies in pluralistic societies staff the so-called independent, voluntary sector and implement its basic programs and goals with a maximum of part-time, unpaid, nonprofessional "volunteers" (even though many might be former, retired professionals). Tocqueville noted that the "New World" adopted a pattern of denominational pluralism with the "voluntary church" as its mode of organizing. This mode inspired the historic development of a gamut of voluntary and service agencies (Wuthnow's "special purpose groups") as adjuncts of denominations and congregations as well as community organizations parallel to the churches. The growth of religious and community volunteering has been assisted by the development of interest groups based upon the lines of gender, age, ethnicity, class, political identification, feelings of "relative deprivation" and discrimination, as well as by greater leisure and longevity in retirement, greater affluence, and government support and programming.

Recent national polls reveal that over 60% of Americans "volunteer," with the most active ones in middle age; 40% of the "young-old" (aged 65-75) and 29% of those beyond 75 report an overall average of six hours weekly. Much of volunteering is informal and probably underreported.

Recent religious history has been studded with religious special purpose groups. These are involved in providing services to the needy, evangelization, advocacy for "causes" (e.g., women's ordination, curbing abortions or teenage sexuality). But since World War II, many more have become interdenominational or "secular" in orientation. Often such groups have redirected or revitalized denominational policy. On the other hand, associated with the proliferation of volunteerism can be faction formation, community cleavage, the development of oligarchy, and the phenomenon of the "professional layperson" career.

See also Organization Theory

Ross P. Scherer


D. E. Driver, The Good Heart Book (Chicago: Noble, 1989)

M. K. Kouri, Volunteerism and Older Adults (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1990)

R. Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988).

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