JAC Online

Engaging Needham: Smashing the idol of cultural salvationism
by Major Danielle Strickland


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 everywhere.


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 attitude.

  • 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 'logic'.

  • 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 idea.


  • 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 our movement.

  • 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 attendance. :-)

  • 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 forms.











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