Engaging Needham: The view from Australia Southern
Phil Needham’s article refers to the
absorption of Salvationists into a culture which can lead to
inward thinking rather than an outward focus, thus weakening
the missional focus of the movement and of individuals. It
wasn’t until I moved away from home as a young adult to attend
University that I became aware of this ‘cultural Salvationism’
referred to by Phil Needham. I would not have articulated it
as succinctly as Needham has at that time, but I knew
something was missing in the community of faith where I
started to attend worship during this time of my life.
I was the daughter of officer parents who
had been privileged to commence a corps in an isolated
community in Australia. As a child, I had seen lives radically
transformed by an encounter with Jesus and a church develop
from a family of six to a growing, worshipping community of 70
or more. By the
time I was 12, my expectation of a Salvation Army corps was
one of life and vitality and evidence of the power of Christ
to transform people’s lives. My parents following appointment
took us to a location where a local revival was occurring.
My understanding of what it meant to be The Salvation
Army and a Salvationist was confirmed. Salvation Army
gatherings continued to be places where planned worship often
looked different because God’s Spirit brought newcomers and
conviction of their need of a Saviour. Salvation Army
gatherings were places where prayers were made and God
answered. They were places where God’s people were mobilised
to share their faith and see others find hope in Christ.
Belonging to The Salvation Army was not about predictability
in the worship service.
It was about
living out our faith every day,
and responding to the community in which we lived in
ways that made Jesus real and helped others to experience his
love. While this was led by the corps officer, there was a
part for everyone to play, including youth and children.
But when I moved city to undertake tertiary
education, I discovered a different Salvation Army. The form
was similar, but the power and reality of the Holy Spirit’s
presence seemed diminished. It was ‘muffled’ by the noise of
the form. The form itself, (programme and some ‘tradition’)
had taken precedence over the purpose of the form. I
understood that purpose was to assist Salvationists to engage
with those who do not know Christ, to grow disciples and along
the way to find ways to relieve the suffering of others.
It seemed that the practices of Salvationism assumed
greater importance than the kingdom impact of those practices.
The corps functioned smoothly,
people turned up for worship, sections operated
regularly, fellowship was enjoyed. While I recall some godly
people in this community of faith, I do not recall anyone
getting saved during my few years there. The call to a radical
life of discipleship with which I had been familiar was not
front and centre anymore. Another culture than that with which
I was familiar took precedence. This culture was attractive to
many. It enabled people to remain comfortable and engaged with
what was familiar and safe.
However, I believe perpetuation of this eventually
leads to lifelessness, and the form or the culture can itself
become the object of our worship.
So I have no disagreement with Phil
Needham’s statement that “what we need is not the preserved
culture of Salvationism, but the practical calling of
missional Salvationists”. It is disappointing that there is a
need to differentiate between missional Salvationist or
cultural salvationism. The term missional Salvationist should
be able to simply read Salvationist, with the latter always
implying the former. While the world is a better place because
The Salvation Army exists, what the world really needs is
Salvationists committed to this radical call of discipleship,
committed to live out this life-changing message and
demonstration of the gospel in the places where we live and
work and play.
Needham’s mission statement is potentially a
mission statement for each individual Salvationist. Imagine
how radical this movement called The Salvation Army would
become if every Salvationist took up the challenge of this
mission statement for themselves, and the impact that would
have in the streets where we live, the places where we work
and the nations in which we live. How many relationships would
be restored, how many more broken people would find wholeness
in Christ, how many more Christ-followers would develop and
use their gifts for God’s kingdom purposes and then teach and
mentor others to do the same.
I am called
to make radical followers of Jesus Christ, to love inclusively, serve
helpfully and disciple effectively in the communities where I
live and work. I can only do this effectively in
proportion to my willingness to follow Jesus closely myself,
to put his agenda before my own and seek to allow the Spirit
of God reign in my life.
This mission is a challenge, it often
unsettles and takes me out of my comfort zone. It stretches my
faith and my dependence on God. It brings fulfilment and life
and divine purpose. It supersedes any absorption into cultural
Salvationism, breaking out of that which can seduce the
Salvationist into believing the form is what accomplishes the
mission when it is an individual radically following the
It begins with the individual - it begins
with me. It's a mission. It's a calling. It’s only attainable
by the power of the Spirit.
My prayer is that I would increasingly reflect this
mission in my living.