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Missional Salvationists - Cultural Salvationism?
by Commissioner Phil Needham


I was born into the culture of Salvationism.  My earliest memories flow with images of uniformed preachers, spirited choruses, testimonies, open airs, Sunday meetings, and weeknight prayer meetings.  I attended the meetings and ‘fired the cartridge.’  I’ve lived through the stages of a Salvationist life: cradle roll member, jr. soldier, corps cadet. sr. soldier, and then officer, now retired officer.  I absorbed the culture, and the culture absorbed me.  


I treasure the blessings of this culture of Salvationism.  It schooled me in doctrine, shepherded me in holiness.  It gave me a certain Christian identity, and there’s a good measure of security in that. 


I have been a witness to expressions of authentic Salvationism.  I’ve seen the calling of this Salvation Army lived out in compelling ways.  I’ve seen Salvationists serving incarnationally (by embedding themselves) in broken communities, building relationships, and sharing the gospel and the compassion of Christ.  As often as not, I hope I have been faithful to this calling myself.


I must confess, however, that sometimes (often?) we Salvationists have gotten ourselves too absorbed in the culture of Salvationism.  And when this happens, I’ve observed, our mission suffers.  Ironically, our practices evolve into a closed culture isolating us from the very world to which God calls us.  They actually undermine our missional calling.


I think the worst threat to the future of a missionally transformative Salvation Army may well be an increasingly isolationist, self-protected Salvationism.  Let’s call it ‘cultural Salvationism.’ 


Let me explain more fully what I mean by ‘cultural Salvationism.’  What often (perhaps inevitably) happens when a vital movement becomes an institution is that creative, often bold, initiatives that shaped the mission and grew the movement become standardized programs and practices.  They were so effective for the movement in its early days it is assumed they must be preserved to ensure present and future success.  Some of them may, indeed, still be effective.  Open airs, for example, are still missionally successful in some countries or locales; and a top-down hierarchical structure may still serve our mission well in some parts of the world.  But to assume they must be retained everywhere simply because they served the Army’s mission well at one time is to assume falsely. 


In the big picture, programs and procedures are secondary matters, means to an end.  They came into being as effective ways to facilitate our mission in certain cultures, eras, and circumstances.  But cultures and conditions change over time, and previously effective methods and programs may still not serve the mission well.  When this is so, to continue them is to sacrifice missional effectiveness for the preservation of practices because we have become accustomed to them and comfortable with them.  It is then to make what is secondary (and therefore expendable) primary (and therefore permanent and indispensable).  To continue to do things the same way when they are no longer serving our mission is indefensible.  Mission cannot be ritualized and survive. 


When blind continuation of inherited customs prevails, the mission is in serious danger.  Increasingly programs, or the way we do programs, no longer serve the mission.  Procedures no longer facilitate missional effectiveness.  And to the extent this happens, The Salvation Army becomes a culture to preserve rather than a mission to perpetuate.  We may be doing many good deeds, serving some people in helpful ways.  We may have happy, spirited gatherings of Salvationists and blessed worship.  But we are not The Salvation Army fulfilling its mission. 


What is our mission?  Let’s look at our International Mission Statement:

The Salvation Amy, founded in 1865, is an international religious and charitable movement organized and operated on a quasi-military pattern and is a branch of the Christian church.  Its membership includes officers (clergy), soldiers/adherents (laity), members of varied activity groups and volunteers that serve as advisors, associates and committed participants in its service functions.


The motivation of the organization is love of God and a practical concern for the needs of humanity.  This is expressed by the spiritual ministry, the purposes of which are to preach the Gospel, disseminate Christian truths, supply basic human necessities, provide personal counseling and undertake the spiritual and moral regeneration and physical rehabilitation of all persons in need who come within its sphere of influence regardless of race, creed, sex or age. (The Song Book, p. 351)   


I would describe this statement as a comprehensive summation of what we do, as well as what personally motivates us.  It is not, however, a mission statement for Salvationists.  It’s an organizational mission statement, and a very long one at that.  (Good mission statements are brief and easily recite-able.)  A Salvationist finds nothing in this statement that clearly defines his or her role in the enterprise. 


Furthermore, the statement doesn’t really define the bottom line, the ultimate outcome sought.  It describes various means but not the prize.  If I read Booth and the early Army correctly, the prize is to bring people, especially the marginalized, first to faith and then to holiness.  I personally like to call that making radical followers of Jesus Christ. 


Such a mission would be the mission of every Salvationist.  It would be the covenant all Salvationists are held accountable to uphold.  The standard of their Salvationism would not be how well they observe the inherited rituals and customs of a Salvationist culture, but how passionately they follow Jesus, live the life of Jesus in the world, and engage people in ways that open them to the gospel. 


What we need is not the preserved culture of Salvationism but the practical calling of missional Salvationists.  Let’s learn from our past, but not worship it.   What our Salvationist forebears did was nothing less than radical.  We best honor it, not by preserving the programs and products of their creativity, but by imitating the wild spirit that dared to engage people, cross barriers, and risk radically holy living. 


I am convinced that the culturalizing of Salvationism will spell our demise as an effective missional force in the world.  The DNA of a true Salvationist cannot be limited to traditional Salvationist practices.  What it does do when given a chance is to release such a passion to live the transformative life of Jesus in the world that its bearer will do just about anything beyond or within current Salvationist practices to live and witness to the kingdom of God in today’s world. 


How, then, do we allow this missional DNA to shape us?  I think we must begin with clarity about our mission, the mission of every Salvationist.  Such a mission must meet three criteria.  It must:

1) apply to all Salvationists (no exceptions);

2) clearly state the bottom line (the ultimate outcome sought); and

3) be easily recite-able (memorable). 


Here is an attempt at one such statement.  It is the fruit of a territory-wide process that garnered considerable reflection and input in its formation:


We Salvationists are called to make radical followers of Jesus Christ

who love inclusively, serve helpfully, and disciple effectively

in all the communities where we live.


Based on this mission statement, it is clear that every Salvationist is called to be both a serious disciple (a radical follower) of Jesus Christ and also a disciple who is making disciples.  (Note: ‘Evangelism’ is not named here because it should not stand on its own.  It is the first and crucial step in becoming a disciple and should not be disconnected from it.  Jesus’ ultimate purpose, as the Gospels make clear, is not to save us [just barely get us into his kingdom] but to make us his disciples, to change our whole life, to make us holy.) 


The loving, the serving, and the discipling in the statement describe the threefold calling of all who then become disciples.  The closing phrase identifies the locales of this mission: everywhere the Salvationist lives, moves, and has his being (not just the few hours of the week a typical Salvationist is involved in corps outreach programs).


Such a mission then requires an accountability on the part of each Salvationist.  He must ask and answer three questions:

1) How am I growing as a radical follower, disciple, imitator of Jesus Christ? 

2) How am I currently fulfilling the mission of a Salvationist (as defined by the Mission Statement)? 

3) What steps will I take better to fulfill this mission? 


This begins, of course, with the officer, the spiritual and missional leader.  So, how are you, and how am I, doing?  And where do you and I go from here?









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