Engaging Needham: The view from Romania
by Major Leanne
Needham’s corporate challenge to The Salvation Army,
‘Missional Salvationists – or Cultural Salvationism?’ reminds
me of British theologian Derek Tidball’s description of the
church which, he suggests, ‘sometimes…looks like a battleship
with the guns trained on herself; a cruise ship, affording
comfortable leisure opportunities; or a galleon, living in the
served and soldiered in many places, I have seen these various
incarnations of cultural Salvationism at work. I have
experienced a corps tearing itself apart over the matter of
speaking in tongues. I have known places where the main aim is
to provide comfortable, interesting activities for those
already on board. And I have attended corps where people are
happy when Sunday worship is ‘traditional Army’, despite the
world buzzing literally outside their closed doors.
However, Tidball continues, rather than
being a battleship, cruise liner or galleon, the church should
be like a fishing boat: ‘The kingdom is about fishing for
people, capturing them for God’s service.'2
I’m sure Commissioner Needham would agree.
I am currently the regional leader in
Romania, a country that has over the centuries been ruled by
various empires and is now emerging from its recent communist
past. The Salvation Army has been here for less than 20 years,
yet the various characteristics of battleship, cruise ship and
galleon are all evident. Like everywhere else in the world, we
battle both organisational and human nature. But thankfully we
also see traits of the fishing boat, with Salvationists who
get what it really means to be radical followers of Jesus.
Let me tell you about our newest opening,
Bacau. This commenced in March 2016, but as of July 2017 the
outpost still has no meeting place to call its own. However,
most Thursdays the lieutenant and his volunteers set out
chairs at the local library, ready for up to 60 young people
aged between 17 and 30 who come to play games, learn about
developing their potential, and explore what it means to lead
a successful life. It’s not an overtly religious program. If
it was, they would be kicked out of the venue. Instead, it is
tapping into where the young people are in life and slowly
broadening their horizons.
Then there are the Bible studies held in
the lieutenant’s apartment. A smaller group meets, but in May this year Bacau's first two soldiers
were enrolled – praise God. Cultural Salvationism might have
stressed the importance of Sunday meetings and evangelistic
campaigns, but things have still been happening without these
activities. While worship of God and engagement with people
are vital, the forms they take in Bacau are different. At the
moment, it’s a small fishing boat with a young crew who are
putting out some nets.
* * * * * * * * *
As well as a corporate challenge, Needham’s
article also poses a personal one, and I base my response to
this on the standard of Salvationism he proposes. This, he
says, should not be ‘how well we observe the inherited rituals
and customs of a Salvationist culture, but how passionately we
follow Jesus, live the life of Jesus in the world, and engage
people in ways that open them to the gospel’. So how am I
How passionately am I following Jesus?
I love the Lord and am trying to follow him
with all my heart. I am 15,000 km from family and friends in
Australia. It’s not easy being so far from home, but I’m here
because I believe this is where God has placed me. Despite the
difficulties, God has blessed us and our ministry. If I hadn’t
said yes to this opportunity I wouldn’t have been truly
However, I leave Romania at the end of the
year and at the time of writing don’t know what 2018 looks
like. So at the moment, passionately following Jesus means
waiting for his direction about the next step. This is both
exciting and unsettling. Cultural Salvationism would say I
should automatically take any appointment from the Army as
being ‘from God’, but more than once I have rocked that boat.
If an appointment proposal doesn’t ‘sit’ with where I believe
God is leading me I will say so. I need to pay attention to
what God is saying, even if that differs from what the Army
wants. I want to stay in the centre of his will and be the
person he has called me to be.
How am I living the Jesus life in this
By trying with God’s help to be humble,
confident, loving, courageous, compassionate, firm and
down-to-earth. By taking a stand against unjust, unethical and
unhelpful attitudes whether they’re expressed by the world or
the church. Living the Jesus life means trying to see all
people through his eyes. It means treating the cleaning lady
the same way I would the chief accountant.
Out walking a few weeks ago along the
uneven footpaths that are common in Romania, an unkempt,
elderly man stumbled and collapsed in front of me. I went to
his aid but he was too heavy to lift. A young couple nearby
did not make a move to help until they saw I couldn’t manage.
Together we helped the man up, after which he looked at me in
amazement, as if puzzled that someone would assist him in the
first place. Small things.
How am I engaging people in ways that open
them to the gospel?
By paying attention to the opportunities
God gives for witness, whatever form they might take. This
means keeping up-to-date about what’s going on in the world in
order to find common ground with people. It doesn’t mean
turning every conversation into a discussion about Jesus –
unlike the manager of a Christian radio station who, when
interviewed by one of my editorial colleagues, answered every
question with, ‘Jesus. It’s about Jesus.’ True, his work was
about proclaiming the gospel, but there were no thoughtful
opinions, helpful insights or admission of difficulties. The
answer was literally always ‘Jesus’.
I won’t be able to engage with people if
don’t think for myself. Cultural Salvationism has the
potential to discourage honest questioning and make those who
express doubt feel less than spiritual. People will be open to
the gospel when I take the time to listen without judging,
accept them as they are and then, when the time is right,
point them in the direction of Jesus.
* * * * * * * * *
The Army will always need to guard against
cultural Salvationism. The battleship, cruise liner and
galleon will always be afloat somewhere. The mission statement
proposed by Needham and his thoughts about what it means to be
a radical Salvationist make me all the more determined to be
in the fishing boat rather than fighting, lounging around or
reminiscing. The boat might be small and it might be rickety.
But its purpose will always be to catch fish.
Tidball, D. ‘The Kingdom of God’, Guidelines, Bible Reading
Fellowship, Jan-Aug 2015, p71