JAC Online

Engaging Needham: Military Reformation
by Phil Wall


Once again Commissioner Phil Needham has hit the proverbial nail on the head. Way back in the 1980’s he wrote his ground-breaking book ‘Community in Mission’ that sought to explore an authentic Salvationist ecclesiology. It was one of those books that as I read it along with my newly converted Salvationist friends we were left thinking ‘how on earth did he get permission to publish that?’  If you took seriously what he was saying and dealt appropriately with what he labelled ‘ecclesiastical clutter’, it demanded quite significant change. Having had the privilege of getting to know him and the honour of being mentored/guided by him over the years I am once again inspired by the fresh challenge of this article (it is also a little spooky that he appears to still have the same haircut!).


As I read it I was disturbed to realize that so many of the prophetic challenges he was raising back in the 1980’s, are still present and I would suggest even more deeply embedded as we as a movement have insecurely responded to critical decline through reactionary conservatism. What it also did for me was raise questions about what we needed to once again do to become an effective missional force in the Western world capable of both effective evangelism and self-replicating discipleship. As I thought about this, a slightly different question occurred to me that I have not seriously addressed before. Whilst agreeing wholeheartedly with Needham’s assertion about the negative impact of being trapped is a sub-culture of Salvationism, I came to the issue from a different place. Some would argue that our great challenge is that we are ‘too Army’ and that is what needs to change, but I wonder if the more relevant question is ‘Are we Army enough?’. Have we taken the military metaphor (and let us remind ourselves it is only a metaphor) far enough and does our current dominant ‘parade ground’ expression of it require Reformation.


The disaster of the millions of young men who lost their lives during the first world war is well documented. The upper-class general’s, stuck in a previous era, shaped by their experiences of the Boer War, applied 19th Century military tactics to a war being fought with 20th Century technology. The strategy of charging across the battle-field to attack the enemy lines was no longer fit for purpose in the age of the Gatling gun. Thousands upon thousands mown down as they went ‘over the top’ of the trenches to charge across the battlefield. The average life expectancy of a young lieutenant who led that charge was two weeks. Eventually military doctrine / culture had to change.


Then along came the 2nd World War where many battles began to become stalemates with two large armys with similar technology throwing ordinance & soldiers at each other. Once again to break the deadlock it had to change, and along came the ‘eccentric misfit’ Colonel Sir Archibald David Sterling. Though the vast majority of senior military leaders felt it would fail, he went on to invent the SAS whose focus was to get behind enemy lines and undermine their capacity to fight by blowing up lots of things like infrastructure, planes, bridges etc. They also demonstrated extreme bravery in attacking armies from behind their own lines with the element of stealth and surprise. To this day they are the most feared soldiers on the planet, continuing to reshape military dogma and doctrine.


After the Cold War ended, military doctrine and dogma changed once again. The former American Army Chief of Staff, Gordon Sullivan recorded the story of the transformation of the post-cold war US military in his book ‘Hope is Not a Method’. He said, ‘It was possible to create your own future – to break down outmoded structures and create organisations that can thrive in tomorrow’s uncertainty. It is a process grounded in values, shaped by vision and guided by a strategy… our task was to transform a successful organization, to take the best army in the world and make it the best Army in a different world.’  From this change came the strategies that were taken into future hotspots like Bosnia and Somalia & later Afghanistan and Iraq.


Up to the modern day, whereby the degrading of military capability of terrorists via Special forces, dressed and enmeshed in the culture of the local people, and digital, cyber warfare and drone strikes, military dogma and doctrine continues to change. Even the chain of command is changing with the concept of ‘Ground truth’ informing how leadership is expressed. Recognizing that in a battle those closest to the action, who through technology have all the information they have at HQ, are delegated to make the most important decisions relating to the front line. It continues to change as both the nature of war and the terrain upon which it is fought on continues to mutate.


Is a similar process of reformation and transformation the answer to the concerns Commissioner Needham raises about us getting ‘stuck’ in a form of Salvationism unfit for modern warfare. Could it be we also need significant reflection about the nature of how we are structured, the dogma and fighting strategies we use that are most effective ‘behind enemy lines, what we train our leaders to do & how we train them, who does the fighting and who does the training, how the chain of command functions and how decision making happens, the culture (read spirituality) of our main forces and bases, and our ability to recruit & develop future soldiers (read evangelism and discipleship)?


What would we have the courage to let go of, for the sake of the war? How brave could we be in re-shaping an Army fit to fight in a very different world to the one in which we were born? What are the absolutes that should be held onto at all costs and what could be cast aside as mere ‘ecclesiastical clutter’ that hinders our fighting? It may be how we answer these questions that will determine what future use this particular part of the Armies of Heaven continue to be.


Of course it may be that ‘Reformation’ may not be enough, and what we actually need is Revival. Certainly I/we could do with this. A fresh baptism of the Spirit across all of our lives, compelling us through the doorway of repentance and more deeply embedding us in living faith, would profoundly re-shape and transform our futures. Chaotic, disturbing, often messy, ignoring all the rules of religious/military protocols, the history of revival is powerful. It gave birth to the Pentecostal/ Charismatic movements of the modern day which have spread the gospel powerfully across the Southern hemisphere and represent most if not all of the largest churches in the Northern. Revival shaped movements like the praying Moravians who had a profound effect on the Wesleys and thus shaped something of our own birth. Revival, though unpredictable, ignites fresh hunger for God, a renewed passion for the lost, purity of life and sets a platform for sacrificial living. It disturbs our too often comfortable middles class lives, the routine of our religious encounters and challenges our priorities, vocation and safe spiritualties. At the risk of disagreeing with General Booth, we don’t need ‘another’ Pentecost, the first one is all we need and we just need to become ‘An Army, marching on its knees’ and embrace the fullness of all God has gifted to us. Now that is the true Culture of Salvationism!










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