An honest reflection is that the picture of discipleship that I was taught and trained in growing up as a Salvationist was considerably more radical than anything I’ve found in practical experience outside that movement. I’m not saying everyone was 100% in line with this teaching, that this always remained a priority, or that I was always meeting the mark, but it was consitently out there (at least in my settings) It was radical in several ways:
- Giving up my life – I was in no doubt as to who my life belonged to, and I was invited to submit my life to the purposes of God at every turn. That environment taught me to consider his purposes over and above any decision I might make, and that my life decisions should reflect his heart. I was regularly reminded that I was dead to myself and wholly given over to Christ. This shaped so many life-choices in so many significant ways. For example, when considering marriage, close to the first questions was ‘is this someone equally committed to the cause of Christ and the salvation of the world’ and our marriage vows reflected it! How many other marriage vows include a dedication to ‘salvation warfare’?! You were aware of the limits on people’s time, but there was an understanding that we were working under the same premise of seeking to be available to Christ. Someone of us even operated under the premise of being willing to ‘preach, pray or die at a moments notice’! Crazy, huh?
- Are you called…? – there was a huge emphasis on the question as to whether you were called to be a Salvation Army officer (minister). Not everyone was, of course, but everyone had at least considered it! The SA has a radical history of taking people, training them up, and sending them out to do stuff, especially younger people like myself I suppose, who learned to ‘cut his teeth’ in ministry from the age of 20, but long before that from the age of 15. Even friends who wouldn’t end up in full-time ministry in the church were at least given regular opportunities to preach, lead ministries, lead worship, speak, sing….etc etc. Of course, other callings are available – but giving up your life to officership in particular was a strong option.
- Expressive multi-voiced worship – always space to pray, testify, shout an ‘amen’ or a ‘hallelujah’, but more than that, a sense that we were all involved. Another huge part of this was the culture of response – preaching was ‘preaching for a verdict’ – that is, I was invited to make a response to whatever was preached and live it out, and express that through a culture of receiving prayer from others as part of the worship setting at ‘the Mercy Seat’ – a dedicated place of prayer and response. We were ready to respond to what God was saying.
- ‘Means of Grace’ – the building blocks of discipleship, such as prayer, reading the bible, worship, reading, etc were non-negotiables. If these weren’t happening, my Commanding Officer (minister) would probably want to explore why and help me get going with it.
- Sacrifical Lifestyle – not quite a vow of poverty, but a strong commitment to invest in the mission of God with all I had through careful consideration of my resources, even as a ‘poor teenager’. I was invited to have a sacrificial perspective on personal possessions (houses, cars, goods and gadgets etc) in order to release as much finance for the ‘salvation war’ as possible. Annually, there was a serious period of ‘self-denial’, the finance of which was given to mission. As a Salvation Army officer, one part of our ‘ordination vows’ were‘to care for the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, love the unlovable, and befriend those who have no friends’. The Treasurer in one place once challenged me on my financial giving as a teen, but when I showed her the receipts for the tins of soup I’d been buying to prepare for local homeless people, she let me off.
- Holy Living – not much wriggle room on sin. More than that, the belief that the Holy Spirit is powerful enough to keep us pure, either preventatively or retrospectively. This wasn’t an unrealistic ‘Christian perfection’, but a gritty down-to-earth awareness that a reliance on the Spirit would do more than save us from temptation, but break powerful patterns of sin, addiction and strongholds. This did lead to a teetering on the brink of legalism in some departments, but on the whole, it was about much more than that, rightly understood.
- There’s a war on – I learned that the Kingdom of God was to advance, and that this would take some fighting both in terms of people finding Jesus and in terms of injustice locally, nationally and international. And this was not about ‘playing soliders’, we were to arm up and go to war with love, grace, mercy and hope. Prayer was the foundation of the warfare, but that was always accompanied with action on many fronts. This had a huge impact on our attitude to service and engagement in mission. There were so many great opportunities for very practical mission and engagement locally – street evangelism, open air worship, prayer walks, homeless work, detached youth/children’s work – you name it! It make everything I’ve done since feel very safe and tame! In many ways, it feels like we’re operating on ‘peace time’ principles, when, in fact, there is ground to be taken.
- Activism – the Army ‘system’ was geared towards getting things done. The layering of committee wasn’t there, the relative autonomy of Salvation Army officers as leaders, and the mission framework for ministry gave considerable freedom and worked well if used rightly. The pace of other church systems in comparison is woefully slow.
- Internationalism – we were very much aware of, and felt connected with, the world-wide work of the movement and many of us had direct or indirect opportunity to get involved. I very much enjoyed interaction with Salvationist brothers and sisters around the world, and especially opportunity to visit the Army in Russia, Romania, Belgium and Italy and find friends in every corner of the world with whom you already shared so much even although you’d never met before.
Those are just the few things that spring to mind. As I said, it’s not that this was fully expressed everywhere or, indeed, expressed healthily. However, when people ask me if I miss The Salvation Army, these are some of the things I do miss which I’ve yet to find replicated to any similar degree.
I guess I’m reflecting on these things that were the ‘staples’ in my early discipleship diet as I continue toreflect on what the discipleship invitation looks like today in my current context and church sub-culture. I guess I’m exploring the question of what, really, is the base-line for our life of discipleship…and, to be honest, have we all just gone a bit soft? Jury is out!