JAC Online

Engaging Needham: I hope I die before I get old
by Aaron White


Like Commissioner Needham, I was weaned on the structure, symbols and songs of The Salvation Army, and have in some ways continued in them until the present day. I imbibed these elements as a natural and inevitable part of my environment, never really questioning them until I began to extend my worldview beyond the traditional Corps where I was raised.


It did not require a long journey to expand my horizons, but I truly entered a whole new world: the world of the shelter, the homeless, the addict, the convict, the poor. Working the front desk of a shelter at the age of eighteen was a fiery baptism into the real world, the world in which the symbols and songs of The Salvation Army finally began to make sense. Spiritual Warfare was no longer a fantastical thing to sing and talk about. Prayer suddenly mattered. Holiness had a purpose beyond avoiding trouble and parental disappointment. Evangelism became a daily matter, and one that yielded surprising fruit. In other words, The Salvation Army finally came alive for me, outside of the insular setting in which it had been presented to me throughout my childhood.


This was only one piece of the puzzle. I had to encounter other missional and incarnational expressions of The Salvation Army before I could really grasp what the culture I grew up with was pointing to. In the end, it was only by getting out of an environment in which cultural Salvationism ruled that I could discover what The Salvation Army was for. For the last two decades I have found myself in incarnational communities that promotes holiness, mission, and radical hospitality in the midst of the poor and broken. We fly the Army flag, wear the colours, sing the songs, and it makes sense. Sort of.


But I have begun to see just how far removed this expression is from the modern, Western culture of Salvationism. It is considered aberrant, threatening, and dispensable.


It must be remembered that organisations tend over time to become conservative, in that they eventually exist to preserve themselves. This may be, as Commissioner Needham suggests, out of a reverence and familiarity for things that worked in the past. It may also be that as an organisation grows, gains reputation, and accrues more staff, structure and financing, these things begin to replace the mission of the organisation as top priority. Survival becomes more essential than mission, and those who are good at management and preservation rise to the top. Those who are good at the mission, but who take risks, tend to be kept far away from any real decision-making positions so as to minimise the damage they might do. Continuing to bang the drum of cultural Salvationism is one way to convince oneself and others that we are still all about the mission, the blood and the fire and the risk and the sacrifice, even if / when we are not.


It reminds me of the rock band The Who. They released the song “My Generation” in 1965, a rebellious teenage anthem that contains the lyric, “I hope I die before I get old.” The Who are still touring fifty years later, and they still play that song, and still sing that lyric. But they obviously don’t mean it. It’s just words, reminding them and their audience of a time long ago when they were relevant and risky. Now the edge is gone, the purpose, the hope, the fight. They have become an institution, with their lifelong culture and fans, and are about as risky and dangerous as elevator music. It might still be nice to see them in concert, for old time’s sake, but they aren’t going to change the world.


Is The Salvation Army there? Anecdotally, I can say that almost every instance of bold, innovative, risk-taking, sin-fighting, devil-defying Salvationism I have witnessed has taken place outside of the system, or on the marginalised edge of the system, often without official knowledge, and frequently punished when discovered. This is not to say that good things aren’t happening throughout the Army world; they certainly are. But the culture of Salvationism is not contributing to that, and more surely seems to be pulling back the reins on anything that remotely resembles the “red-hot religion” described by Catherine Booth.


Commissioner Needham proposes that our real mission, not the official mission statement but the real call on the hearts and lives of Salvationists, is “making radical followers of Jesus Christ who love inclusively, serve helpfully, and disciple effectively in all the communities where we live.” I like this statement because it includes radical mission, holiness, hospitality, service and love. These seem to be the point and purpose of The Salvation Army. If this is true, then everything within the organisation should be subjected towards these ends. I would find it very difficult to argue that this is the case currently. I agree with the Commissioner when he suggests that “the mission is in serious danger,” and that “we are not The Salvation Army fulfilling its mission. “


I can see why some might criticize his proposed mission statement, however. Not that they would take issue with what is included, but that there is no obvious Salvation Army reference or distinctive to be found. It could be argued that this statement does not tell us the mission of The Salvation Army, but simply of the Christian. A former General once wrote that if a Corps was saving souls, growing saints, and serving suffering humanity, yet it looked “too alien to the Army ideal and image”, he might have a problem with it.1  This seems to be exactly the cultural Salvationism that Commissioner Needham is warning against in his article. When the ideal or image of the Army takes precedence over the mission and purpose of the Army, then all we have left is a PR machine that speaks and sings fondly of the good old days.


Lord, preserve us from such a fate, even if it means that cultural Salvationism must die.





1  General Paul Rader, Vision Splendid: Intercultural Ministry, The Army Perspective, 33.









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