JAC Online

Engaging Needham: The view from Romania
by Major Leanne Ruthven

  

Commissioner Phil 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 past’.1

 

Having 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.

 

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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 doing?

 

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 following Jesus.

 

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 world?

 

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.   

 

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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.

 

 

Footnotes

 

1 Tidball, D. ‘The Kingdom of God’, Guidelines, Bible Reading Fellowship, Jan-Aug 2015, p71

 

2 ibid.

 

 

  

 

 

   

 

 

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