Missional Salvationists - Cultural Salvationism?
by Commissioner Phil
I was born into the culture of
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
But we are not The Salvation Army fulfilling its mission.
What is our mission?
Let’s look at our International Mission Statement:
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
1) apply to all Salvationists (no
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
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
3) What steps will I take better to fulfill
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?