It won’t be surprising to anyone that my Salvationist roots remain highly influential in many aspects of my current and hopefully future ministry. Whilst there is no real prospect of a return to the Army for us, I guess there are some things that you don’t shake off quite possibly because they are missional dynamite. I am still inspired by Salvation Army ministry at its best, particularly with its more historical ministry before things settled a bit in many communities.
What do I mean?
Firstly, I mean the early understanding of a Salvation Army corps as a unit engaged in active mission. They expressed it in 19th century ways, but express it they did. A fusion of evangelistic witness, practical social engagement combined with a radical discipleship and prayer-fuelled passion spread The Salvation Army from the East End of London all around the world. As General John Gowans, international leader of the Salvation Army in the late 1990s-early 2000s said, ‘A Salvation Army corps is a mission team, and its officer is a mission team leader.’ In other words, the prevalent mode of pastor-congregation shepherd was not the sole function of Salvation Army ministers. I said a lot about this back in the day, and I’m not in the Army now so my views on it don’t matter in that context, but I still believe they matter in the mission context of the early 21st century.
I read an article today by Carey Nieuwhoff (here), and he said:
the church today is filled with shepherds, to the point where shepherds are perhaps over-represented in church leadership. What we need most as we navigate new waters in a post-Christian culture is not more shepherds, but spiritual entrepreneurs.
Whether you call it spiritual entrepreneurship or the gift of apostleship, what we need is a new generation of Apostle Pauls who forge out in new directions. Who experiment boldly. Who dare greatly.
So, I guess I’m not alone. There are many other mkissiologists who make the same observation. The urge to push out in new innovative directions isn’t something everyone possesses, but it is such a key part of my experience and calling. The church needs shepherds, but you only need pastors if there are actually any people to care for, and so the activation of a spiritual entrepreneurship and culturally savvy evangelistic ministry alongside a Kingdom shaped over-all mandate may well just recapture the heart of the mission of the church in our day.
Secondly, I mean a particular commitment to the poor. Today its not all that common that every day Salvationists will actually have much contact with those who experience poverty. In the earlier days of the movement, there was a firm commitment to social transformation, not only at a local level, but nationally and internationally. Booth gradually developed a wholistic approach to the ‘saving of souls’ to embrace every part of the human person, not just their eternal furture. Many Salvationists, including myself, experienced what might be called the ‘elevator effect’ in that getting helped, cleaned up, and spiritually renewed lifted people out of their circumstance. However, one former Salvation Army officer, Chick Yuill, comments that what started to happen is that those who were lifted up forgot what it was like to go back to help others. We need folks who will commit to mission in urban settings today, so badly.
There is a cost to it, though, one I know personally. There is nothing glamorous about working in poorer communities. In fact, its very hard work. As well as encountering poverty and all sorts of human brokenness, you often experiences several generations of people with no real church connections, in combination with very different styles of learning. That, however, can be an exciting opportunity. This work involves a life of downward mobility if it is to be anything close to authentic. Whilst recognising that I, as a white, almost middle-aged, educated male will always have trouble in being 100% integrated into a community where as many as 40% are unemployed, on sick benefits or not possession more than a standard education, missional engagement implies incarnation engagement. It is the Jesus way. “Go out, and go deep” says Alan Hirsch.
It is also slow work. Transformation happens over generations. Whilst Salvation Army officers were peripatetic, the strength of the local work was always the local people who were and are the consistency, and who were in a culture where all were expected to engage missionally in their community.
Thirdly, I want to pick up on discipleship. I’ve said this before too, but being a member of The Salvation Army is not equivalent to being a member of a church, no matter how often its equated with that. The Salvation Army is a ‘second decision’ community in that, upon confessing faith in Christ (becoming a part of his body), the individual is then invited to make a second decision to express that discipleship under a covenant agreement…in essence, living a monastic rule of life. The comparison isn’t straight forward, but the bar of discipleship was raised high.
For me, what I’ve found as I’ve moved from a Salvation Army context to other contexts, is that there is, in many individual Salvationists, a base level of discipleship that means that folks could speak, pray, share faith, or engage in some sort of ministry as standard. Passivity, whilst existing, was not the norm. The church has so much to learn from that.
As an example, I became a Christian in the Salvation Army at the age of 15. The following week I was invited to speak of my experience in public. I was discipled in understanding scripture, taught how to pray, not only privately, but to pray with others. By the time I was 16 I was preaching, leading meetings (services) both indoors and outdoors. I was engaged in evangelistic work and in meeting the needs of the community. Yes, by the age of 16. This was normal, many of my friends did the same. Likewise, this is similar to Tracy’s experience although we initially lived 60 miles apart when we met.
In many ways, this ‘second decision’ shouldn’t be needed. However, down through the entire history of the church, the church has often been renewed through monastic ‘second decision’ communities quite simply because they highlight a new vision of what it means to follow Jesus.
Finally, please don’t hear my say that The Salvation Army was perfect. It is far from it, it is a human organisation at the end of the day. However, in the same way that the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the Benedictines, the Franciscans, the Moravians and others gave a counter cultural discipleship witness and restored many skewered notions of church, so The Salvation Army, has done similar, all with limits (and even slightly guilty of creating its own skewers). But, these are the things you learn on the way and there is so much to be learned by the Army’s witness when at its best and purest.
I carry, I suppose, Salvationist DNA that will always find expression in what I do and the work I engage in. I’m convinced that, even outside its cultural settings of the organisation, that there are principles that can be carried to the benefit of Kingdom mission without even closely ending up with a clone or poor imitation.
Missional communities. Wholistic ministry. Radically active discipleship. I’ll take that.