Engaging Needham: Smashing the idol of cultural salvationism
by Major Danielle
Needham makes a strong argument on the
idolization of cultural salvationism. I've said many times,
even recently, that when process (systems and structures) get
in the way of mission (what we are called to do) it is
idolatry. And it is not submission or obedience to that system
that is required - it is a radical dis-obedience that is
needed. There must be a smashing of the idolization of a
status-quo culture that insists on itself first. What Needham
has beautifully defined as 'cultural salvationism' is perhaps
the greatest enemy of our current Salvation Army. I see it
Here are some signs that I've learned are
indicators of entrenchment in our movement:
a defensive posture about new things. Leadership having trouble even
having a conversation that challenges the way things are
done or suggests some new things.
a superior attitude. People who find themselves living in defense of
the 'old ways' are often very quick to assume a superior
attitude about what they currently do. This arrogance is
often not even rooted in fact - just fancy. Check your
highly critical of others. Looking for fault in other systems is a
wonderful way to make yourself feel better about your own.
using your authority as a stick. Rather than engage in meaningful
dialogue or debate about current systems and structures it
is a top down attitude that perpetuates things that don't
actually work in the field. This is when 'orders' trump
using fear as a motivator. This is the oldest trick in the book for
people who don't want to change. "What will happen if?" In
the process of writing a new book on the Exodus I
discovered that if you are using fear as a main motivator
you will either be oppressed or be an oppressor. There is
no other option. Fear is the currency of oppression.
big celebrations repeating the 'old story'. Russia was filled with
these ceremonies and celebrations right up until the
eventual collapse of it's infrastructure. They failed to
engage in 'reality' so they started to use public rituals
as a way to 'prop up' the failing system. It's important
to pay attention to that tendency in all failed systems.
rewarding the status quo and punishing risk takers. Any thriving and
changing organization will tell you that one of the
secrets of their success is rewarding the risk takers and
not accepting the status quo. When systems get this wrong
they do the exact opposite - they reward those who 'don't
rock the boat' and punish those who do. This is a personel
disaster and a sure way to cultivate a cultural
salvationism that lacks real life missional power.
using statistics poorly. What I mean is that the things we measure
are different than our outcomes. Even at a corps level we
measure attendance over missional impact. We measure
finance over transformation. And at social levels we
measure people fed instead of people who don't need to be
fed anymore. This is a sure way of getting confused over
what our mission actually is because what we say we value
we don't even measure.
conformity. behaving matters more than believing or belonging.
Keeping an externally based set of regulations in order to
belong to a people is not a kingdom community. Belonging
is at the heart of the gospel.
major on minor things. An emphasis on the details and specifics of
systems and structures while ignoring the major emphasis
of mission and outcomes of the gospel.
So, if we accept that cultural salvationism
is a threat to the missional outcomes of The Salvation Army -
what do we do??
What if we just reversed the signs? It's an
an open posture of learning engagement. Creating a culture that is
not only open to change but wants it. what is the best way
forward - is there a better way - how do we create better
systems that serve the mission.
a humble attitude. let's adjust our posture. God gives grace to the
humble - let's be honest and humble and find some grace to
lead us forward.
look at what's working. I've spent a lot of years being told that no
other church cares for the poor like The Salvation Army.
And part of the last ten years of my life has been
discovering how wrong that statement is. Not only do other
churches care for the poor they have designed new ways of
doing so! It would be so worth our time to look at what is
actually working to bring about transformation in our
world right now.
use your authority as a doorway to change. Authority can be an
amazing way to allow others to make a difference. Take a
look at how Jesus spent His authority on empowering others
instead of punishing them and you'll get what I mean.
use FAITH as a motivator. This would be manifested in moves towards
prayer and spiritual impact. Lose the fear. Seriously. If
there are decisions being made that are based on fear stop
making them. Learn to make faith filled decisions in LOVE.
This is the great Kingdom way.
celebrate the new stories. If your testimony is still 25 years old
it's time to challenge your own spiritual life. This is
true personally and corporately. God is constantly doing
new things and in new ways - He is the Creator God.
Celebrate the NEW THINGS that God is doing... it will help
to shift our culture.
reward the risk takers. This will require much courage. Celebrate
failures because they were people who TRIED and RISKED and
that is how FAITH works. Promote risk-taking people to
authority and leadership and give them permission to fail.
This will release the creative energy of so many people in
measure what you REALLY value. Measure transformation. Measure
people's living standards in your community and try to
change that! Measure people sent into mission. Measure
spiritual transformations. Measure prayer meeting
belonging trumps everything. Recently my friend recounted a moment
in William Booth's early life where he was at an
ecumenical gathering. And they were getting into groups.
The Anglicans stood up and said 'if you are Anglican come
with us' the Methodists did the same and everyone else
gathered with whomever they belonged. Booth stood up and
said 'anyone who doesn't belong or isn't welcome can come
find your place with us!'. The other fascinating outcome
of this central gospel understanding is that once we are
sure we all belong together we can celebrate our
differences in the safety of loving covenant. It unifies
our diversity with celebration. There is no other way to
do this apart from a belonging community of love.
make the main thing the thing. This will require the system to
sacrifice anything that isn't the main thing. It may need
to be ruthless but it will be incredibly fruitful to focus
on mission outcomes and lose the baggage of traditional