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Engaging Needham: The view from Australia Southern
by Lieut-Colonel Winsome Merrett


Phil Needham’s article refers to the absorption of Salvationists into a culture which can lead to inward thinking rather than an outward focus, thus weakening the missional focus of the movement and of individuals. It wasn’t until I moved away from home as a young adult to attend University that I became aware of this ‘cultural Salvationism’ referred to by Phil Needham. I would not have articulated it as succinctly as Needham has at that time, but I knew something was missing in the community of faith where I started to attend worship during this time of my life.


I was the daughter of officer parents who had been privileged to commence a corps in an isolated community in Australia. As a child, I had seen lives radically transformed by an encounter with Jesus and a church develop from a family of six to a growing, worshipping community of 70 or more.  By the time I was 12, my expectation of a Salvation Army corps was one of life and vitality and evidence of the power of Christ to transform people’s lives. My parents following appointment took us to a location where a local revival was occurring.  My understanding of what it meant to be The Salvation Army and a Salvationist was confirmed. Salvation Army gatherings continued to be places where planned worship often looked different because God’s Spirit brought newcomers and conviction of their need of a Saviour. Salvation Army gatherings were places where prayers were made and God answered. They were places where God’s people were mobilised to share their faith and see others find hope in Christ. Belonging to The Salvation Army was not about predictability in the worship service.  It was about  living out our faith every day,  and responding to the community in which we lived in ways that made Jesus real and helped others to experience his love. While this was led by the corps officer, there was a part for everyone to play, including youth and children.


But when I moved city to undertake tertiary education, I discovered a different Salvation Army. The form was similar, but the power and reality of the Holy Spirit’s presence seemed diminished. It was ‘muffled’ by the noise of the form. The form itself, (programme and some ‘tradition’) had taken precedence over the purpose of the form. I understood that purpose was to assist Salvationists to engage with those who do not know Christ, to grow disciples and along the way to find ways to relieve the suffering of others.   It seemed that the practices of Salvationism assumed greater importance than the kingdom impact of those practices.


The corps functioned smoothly,  people turned up for worship, sections operated regularly, fellowship was enjoyed. While I recall some godly people in this community of faith, I do not recall anyone getting saved during my few years there. The call to a radical life of discipleship with which I had been familiar was not front and centre anymore. Another culture than that with which I was familiar took precedence. This culture was attractive to many. It enabled people to remain comfortable and engaged with what was familiar and safe.   However, I believe perpetuation of this eventually leads to lifelessness, and the form or the culture can itself become the object of our worship.


So I have no disagreement with Phil Needham’s statement that “what we need is not the preserved culture of Salvationism, but the practical calling of missional Salvationists”. It is disappointing that there is a need to differentiate between missional Salvationist or cultural salvationism. The term missional Salvationist should be able to simply read Salvationist, with the latter always implying the former. While the world is a better place because The Salvation Army exists, what the world really needs is Salvationists committed to this radical call of discipleship, committed to live out this life-changing message and demonstration of the gospel in the places where we live and work and play.


Needham’s mission statement is potentially a mission statement for each individual Salvationist. Imagine how radical this movement called The Salvation Army would become if every Salvationist took up the challenge of this mission statement for themselves, and the impact that would have in the streets where we live, the places where we work and the nations in which we live. How many relationships would be restored, how many more broken people would find wholeness in Christ, how many more Christ-followers would develop and use their gifts for God’s kingdom purposes and then teach and mentor others to do the same.


I am called to make radical followers of Jesus Christ, to love inclusively, serve helpfully and disciple effectively in the communities where I live and work. I can only do this effectively in proportion to my willingness to follow Jesus closely myself, to put his agenda before my own and seek to allow the Spirit of God reign in my life.


This mission is a challenge, it often unsettles and takes me out of my comfort zone. It stretches my faith and my dependence on God. It brings fulfilment and life and divine purpose. It supersedes any absorption into cultural Salvationism, breaking out of that which can seduce the Salvationist into believing the form is what accomplishes the mission when it is an individual radically following the living Christ.


It begins with the individual - it begins with me. It's a mission. It's a calling. It’s only attainable by the power of the Spirit.  My prayer is that I would increasingly reflect this mission in my living.









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