By Major Gregory Morgan
Has The Salvation Army become like everybody’s favorite eccentric aunt—loved by all but emulated by no-one?
Sometimes, when I seek a visual illustration of what The Salvation Army has become, my mind turns to the image of a remarkable but eccentric great aunt.
She’s wonderful, would do anything for anyone, but is a bit outdated. And despite the fact we all love her there’s no way we want to be like her.
The Salvation Army in Australia occupies an unprecedented position in terms of public acceptance and popularity, but alongside is the stark reality that the church aspects of our movement, attendance and membership figures, have been in decline for many years. Everyone loves us, but nobody wants to join us.
There are many reasons for this decline but the key issue is the rise of postmodern thought and the need for a new missional approach to ‘church’.
John Cleary has written, ‘The Salvation Army’s practice and worship, as expressed over the past half-century, could be seen to represent all the worst aspects of the “modern”: imperialist, triumphalist, monocultural, inflexible and conformist. It could well stand condemned as…an organization doomed to irrelevance in the early 21st century.’
While the Army’s militaristic structure, colonial-like worldview and hierarchical bureaucracy served us well in the past it may condemn us in the future.
The biggest danger the Army faces today is to hold religiously to a modernist world view and ecclesiology. Instead we must interface historic Christian truth and, if we desire to survive as a distinct expression of church, historic Salvationist essence.
World view and structure are expendable. Modernist tendencies can be rethought. But the classic essence of what The Salvation Army is must be reclaimed and lived in a postmodern environment.
Let’s consider the emerging missional church (EMC) and look for connections with the Army’s original essence.
The emerging missional church
The EMC first appeared as a response to postmodern thinking but also as a result of the changing place of the church within Western society.
Since the fourth century the Western Christian church has occupied a central place in society—one of prestige, power and influence. But society has moved on and the church now exists on the margins, sometimes actively shunned and seen as irrelevant.
The difficulty is that the church still thinks it lives at the center of society. Australian EMC advocates Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch write, in The Shaping Of Things To Come: ‘The heart of the problem is that we have been planting churches that are (smaller) carbon copies of the already beleaguered, failing Christendom-style church.
‘An EMC on the other hand has abandoned the old Christendom assumptions and understands its role as an underground movement, subversive, celebratory, passionate, and communal.’
Hirsch and Frost articulate three modes for EMCs: incarnational, leaving its own culture and religious world to infiltrate and transform society; messianic spirituality, a spirituality of engagement with culture and the world; and apostolic leadership, an entrepreneurial, creative mode of leadership.
Consideration of these three modes may help The Salvation Army reconnect with its original essence and embrace the postmodern world of mission.
On the surface level The Salvation Army has become highly attractional in its focus, as opposed to incarnational in its mission.
Over the years our corps have become heavily program—and building—centered and our social welfare expression has become large, professional and program-based.
This is a far cry from the early Salvation Army, which passionately believed in, and practiced, incarnational mission.
Pioneer officers such as Frederick Booth-Tucker knew the necessity of such mission and when he led The Salvation Army into India encouraged his group of officers to embrace the local lifestyle.
Likewise the early social work of the Army was often a localized response to an obvious community need. Salvationists practiced incarnation, living with and aiding the people around them.
These early-day Salvationists set about transforming society from within rather than following a model that expected people to come to them. However, over time we have adopted the dominant attractional model of Christendom.
Derek Linsell writes, in Thank God For The Salvos: ‘Ministry in a postmodern society is no longer about the development of programs but living out the lifestyle so that people can see the relevance of Salvationists’ beliefs.’
The concept of messianic spirituality as a mode for EMC requires some explanation.
Frost and Hirsch use it to describe ‘the church’s spirituality and activity. It is messianic in that it acts in the same way Jesus acts, it is essentially structured around the person of Jesus, and our actions in some way extend the messianic kingdom.’
The origins of The Salvation Army are firmly Wesleyan and sit strongly in the holiness movement within 19th-century evangelicalism. Central to the Army’s faith and practice is the conviction that people are able, through the Holy Spirit, to be transformed and grow in their likeness to Christ.
Coupled with this, the Army at its inception carried a strong belief that this transformation must extend throughout society—bringing about the kingdom of God in the here and now.
As John Cleary recounts: ‘Booth declared that the Army was about “the reformation of human nature in every form”. The first requirement was “to change the man when it is his character and conduct which constitute the reasons for his failure in the battle of lice”. The second was: “a change [in] the circumstances of the individual when they are the cause of the critical condition and beyond his control”.’
The passing of generation and a growth in an internal church focus have distracted The Salvation Army from these passionate spiritual convictions; we need to rediscover practical holiness and commitment to kingdom transformation.
The third mode of EMC, apostolic leadership, also has strong correlations to the early days of our movement.
Linsell notes that, upon its arrival in Australia in 1880, The Salvation Army ‘was cheeky, daring and creative. [However] The Salvation Army in 1997 is a bureaucracy, made up of conservatives.’
Daring and innovation don’t sit well in a bureaucracy and the apostolic style of leadership which resulted in the missionary explosion of The Salvation Army during its first 20 years has been squashed or pushed to the margins.
Phil Needham, in Community In Mission, reminds the Army of the importance of adaptability in structure. ‘The church,’ he says, ‘is a people who are free to abandon structures that no longer hold promise for helping them to move decisively toward the future.
‘When a decision-making process is so cumbersome as to create missionary inertia and so ingrown as to create self-serving goals, it should be abandoned.’
In embracing the apostolic mode of EMC, the Army needs to harness God-inspired boldness to abandon those structures that inhibit incarnational mission.
Most challenging for a movement modeled on military lines is the need to move away from a hierarchical mentality to a networking mindset. This type of change will be costly and difficult, but ultimately necessary.
The world is changing at a rapid pace and a new form of leadership and ecclesiastical structure is required to engage with it.
Salvation Army emerging missional churches
If we were to adopt these EMC modes what would The Salvation Army look like?
It might look like ALOVE, a new sub-brand of The Salvation Army for young people and young adults, which expresses the heart and passion of the Army for a new generation.
ALOVE is part of the United Kingdom Territory’s response to the declining number of young people attending Army activities over the past 50 years. In establishing a sub-brand and promoting a new expression of church, ALOVE recognizes that young people don’t always identify with the military metaphor, which is often seen as old-fashioned.
ALOVE is a commitment to building on the essence of The Salvation Army and expressing it in the youth culture of the 21st century.
The 614 phenomenon—a series of Salvation Army church communities that began in Toronto, Canada in the late 1990s and which now find expression in Vancouver (Canada), Melbourne (Australia) and Manchester (England)—is evidence of the web-like networking of EMC’s.
Melbourne 614 engages in meaningful ministry among the most underprivileged people of the inner city while developing a relevant expression of church that is a mix of young and marginalized people.
In Melbourne’s north-eastern suburbs is the territory’s first official Salvation Army house church which seeks to be a new form of Salvation Army church, connecting in meaningful mission with its local community.
For this church there is no intention of ‘graduating’ into a corps with a building; instead, those involved see it as the beginning of a developing network of Salvo house churches engaged in local incarnational mission that will coexist alongside the existing Army.
So, what of that eccentric great aunt we all love but don’t want to be like? Do we care for her into old age and then bury her, along with the values and essence of a movement that has radically impacted millions of lives across the world?
Or do we dare to allow her essence to live on in a postmodern Salvation Army that has rediscovered its original essence?
Major Gregory Morgan is the training college’s field program officer for Australia’s Southern Territory. His article was originally published in the November 22nd edition of On Fire, an Australia’s Southern Territory publication.