Doing Something or Anything?
‘Go and do something’ is often cited as the founding mandate for The Salvation Army’s social and community work. Denominational history books report that, having been disturbed by swathes of rough sleepers throughout his ‘preaching patch,’ William Booth ordered his son, Bramwell to ‘go and do something.’ Bramwell initially protested, worrying that The Salvation Army would be drawn into trying to solve all the world’s social problems with indiscriminate charity. William reportedly replied, ‘Oh I don’t care about all that stuff. I’ve heard it all before. Go and do something.’
These four words capture TSA’s activist tendencies. Each day, tens of thousands of people will sleep in Salvation Army accommodation, receive healthcare in Salvation Army clinics and eat meals cooked in Salvation Army kitchens. In addition to professional and specialist social-service centres local Salvation Army corps around the globe find creative and innovative ways to serve their communities. Practical theologian Pete Ward observes, from the outside, that, ‘Few communities roll up their sleeves […] like the Sally Army. Even fewer […] maintain a vigorous commitment to an Evangelical gospel whilst being so deeply involved in working for the poor’. Ward observes that Salvationists understand their ‘doing something’ as intrinsically linked to their commitment to the gospel. Yet, is doing ‘anything’ that is charitable the ‘something’ that Booth had in mind?
Becoming culturally established
Unlike the Church of England, The Salvation Army is not ‘officially established’ as a state church, but we believe it has become ‘culturally established.’ A lot could be said about what ‘cultural establishment’ is, but in essence it is a status a body of people, organisation, charity or church can have in relation to the wider society. Being culturally established often means that an organisation needs or desires the financial and general support of wider society for its own survival. This is not always a bad thing. There are some wonderful things about Western society which the church should uphold and affirm, and it should partner with other groups to work towards these ends. We are worried, however, that over time The Salvation Army (in the West at least) has allowed itself to be aligned with the overarching narrative of Western societies in its desire to stay relevant and ‘do the most good,’ and has often fallen into the trap of wanting to do the ‘anything’ rather than the ‘something.’
Whilst it would be untrue to suggest there was some ‘pure’ early phase of the Army, followed neatly by a more ‘compromised’ phase which stretches to today, a shift can be seen towards the end of the nineteenth century towards cultural establishment. Commissioner Ann Woodall notes how that, with the death of Catherine and the side-lining of George Scott Railton, William Booth allowed the Army’s social work to start taking precedence when it came to publicity, and more time was being spent on internal processes than outward mission. If bad publicity was the Army’s PR machine of its beginnings, something much more palatable emerged at the turn of the century and through the Darkest England scheme, Booth began to call upon the public to help the Army fulfil the aims which, broadly, the public already held.
A theological shift can also arguably be seen with the launch of the Darkest England scheme and book, with William moving away from a strong and explicit focus on Christ to an urgency about the task at hand. Lt-Col. Dean Pallant, for instance suggests that while Booth’s overall vision was in line with revivalist theology, ‘there are few explicit references to theological resources shaping [Booth’s] arguments’, and that he ‘fails to clearly articulate the role of faith in the transformation of the character of the individual. While he identifies “character change” as the first of the seven “essentials to success,” he does not specifically link it a Christological soteriology.’ Here, we see that parts of TSA start to be seen, by William Booth at least, as something of a social services agency.
Movement on this trajectory would accelerate in future decades as the Army’s popularity soared. Pamela Walker sums up what this shift entailed, where the early Christian Mission and Army had, ‘moved from being a sensational, revivalist sect at odds with the Church, police, and local governments to being a religious organization with a social service wing that was often the more prominent part and with strong ties to other Christian and state-run agencies.’ The situation in the UK became such that there were several Salvation Army ‘territories’ within the UK, with ‘Social’ and ‘Field’ Work having completely parallel chains of command, where rarely the twain would meet.
Why is this a problem theologically?
The danger faced by Christians when it comes to cultural establishment and wanting or needing general public support to keep going is that they often find themselves in a ceaseless crisis of legitimation where they find justification for their existence in terms of the wider social order. Nowhere is this more obvious in TSA than the generally agreed upon idea that good people ‘help others.’ You don’t need Jesus to tell you that, you can just watch Children in Need! This is also the source of our embarrassment whenever anyone is surprised when we tell them The Salvation Army is a church not just a charity.
This isn’t just a problem of TSA’s making though. Trying to make Christianity intelligible within the philosophical and sociological terms of Western liberalism has been disastrous, as Alasdair MacIntyre comments – we end up giving atheists less and less in which to disbelieve. We turn Christianity into one lifestyle choice among many and stop trying to be a concrete, embodied alternative to all forms of life which do not give glory to the God revealed in Jesus Christ. It is but a short step from this to downplaying the importance of distinctive and particular Christian worship as a key part of following the ways of Jesus. This is particularly true when it comes to public relations, when we do not want to discourage potential donors by muddying the waters with much that might be particular to Christians.
We’re not suggesting that the church needs to become triumphalist, arrogant or aloof within society, nor that we need to become some kind of ‘Holy Huddle’; a super spiritual agency planted firmly atop a moral high-ground. Many Christians, indeed many Salvationists, would rightly baulk at this idea. But you can go too far the other way too – downplaying any distinctiveness following the God revealed in Jesus might make. The ways of Jesus are particular. They’re not a vague ‘anything’ that is a nice, palatable value. They’re grounded in an objective story: God’s story for the world, centring on the sending of his Son, Jesus. This isn’t just an anything: it’s a something.
Keeping the Something: TSA as a Movement
The question of identity for The Salvation Army has sometimes been framed as ‘are we a church or movement?’ When Salvationists feel uncomfortable at being called ‘a church’, the uncomfortableness they’re often expressing is that they don’t want to be seen as a ‘pious party’ of religious people, caught up in maintaining its own existence. They want to be seen as missionary; moving out into the world, dynamically proclaiming and demonstrating the gospel in the broadest sense, engaging with the ‘whosoever’. This is the kind of movement that is in Salvationist DNA but really, it’s what the church was always meant to be.
Someone that we could possibly learn from in this regard is the legendary twentieth century missionary-theologian: Lesslie Newbigin. Newbigin wasn’t a Salvationist (he was a Presbyterian who became a bishop in South India and ended up as the moderator of the United Reformed Church in the UK) but we think he’d have been comfortable in our ranks. He, rightly, understands the church as being, by its nature, a missionary movement gathering momentum towards the glorious future God has promised. Newbigin describes the church as a movement which is the ‘sign, foretaste and instrument’ of the reign of the Kingdom of God. The church, as a sign, points to the redemptive reign of God in history. As a forestate, it is an actual down-payment that the eschatological Kingdom of God has already begun. As an instrument, the church is the means by which God’s redemption bears on every aspect of human life. It rubs up against the surrounding culture. It creates tensions with the world that is around us. Yet, it’s powerful and it’s exciting. It’s the ’something’ TSA is called to.
Newbigin’s work is, for Salvationists, a treasure-chest of golden insights that speak into our context. He worked in social-justice work in Glasgow, before training for formal ministry and then spending many of his formative years in India. Returning to the UK in the late 1970’s he was dismayed at the rapid cultural changes he observed in Britain in the 30 years he’d been away. He saw England as a ‘pagan society’ and was worried that the church was having something of an identity crisis, lacking the know-how to engage with an increasingly hostile culture. His solutions?
“I am suggesting that the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the gospel, is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it”
“When the message of the Kingdom is divorced from the person of Jesus, it becomes a programme or ideology, but not a gospel”.
Newbigin is suggesting that we make the gospel intelligible by our actions, but that these actions only really make sense in the light of a community of people, a band of warriors, who have been shaped and formed by the gospel story in a way that it spills out into their locality.
When you put it like this, any conception of ‘the something’ TSA is called to do as ‘just doing nice things’ seems like a remarkably puny vision for all that Salvationism is called by God to be. Having encountered God’s kingdom for ourselves, having been assured of our salvation and sanctification, we’re called to march out into the world, into our communities, into our neighbourhoods with our sleeves rolled up as an overflow of God’s boundless salvation and his deep ocean of love in our lives. Nothing less captures the mission of TSA. We aren’t just the YMCA with hymns.
What can or should be done about this, then? We do not claim to have all the answers and are inspired by the practical responses of so many of our brothers and sisters within the Army resisting the forces of ‘vague charity.’ Remembering who we are, like Simba, however, will need significant and radical changes, we believe, and we suggest five recommendations below which might help on the journey to re-focus our eyes upon Jesus as a movement once again:
1) Make the main thing the main thing
If the only hermeneutic of the gospel is a congregation that believes it, the key question that should guide all decision making from a local corps level right to senior leadership is this: ‘what will build up the worshipping community of Salvationists to witness to the gospel in word & deed?’ This question should also be applied to our current work, and if it is judged that an aspect of our work has little or nothing to do with building up worshipping Salvationist communities for this task, then we should seriously consider its continuance.
2) Remind ourselves of a time when we didn’t mind being unpopular
If we are right, ridicule and scorn should not be sought for their own sakes but will be an inevitable consequence of faithfulness to the gospel. Jesus and the New Testament writers seem to suggest a degree of rejection or persecution is inevitable (John 15.20, 1 Pet. 4.12, 2 Tim. 3.12, 1 John 3.13). Nigel Bovey’s book Blood on the Flag is a well-documented account of the Army’s period of oppression by the Skeleton Army in the late 1800s. This is a great example of the Army not being afraid of being hated and rejected for assuming Jesus’ ways will be different from much of the world.
3) Re-configuring officership
An inevitable consequence of the above points would be a reduction in income. We are not naïve about this. This would be a shame in many ways, but if it helps the Army be more faithful to the particular narrative of the gospel, it would be worth it. The challenge then, of course, would be how to fund corps and social service centres.
While not doing away with the calling of officership as a distinct aspect of ministry beyond soldiership/adherency, might officers be encouraged to consider more tent-making endeavours (e.g. part-time work) to lessen the burden especially on small corps to raise funds to pay for the cost of officers? We need to find new ways of thinking about, and responding to, these old problems.
4) Keep our Mission Worshipful
Salvationists have a heritage of not limiting God’s activity to certain places or times; we’ve expected to find Christ whilst sat in disused skating rinks and when kneeling at drums in the street. We’ve encountered him whilst serving in shelters and soup-kitchens. As Newbigin reminds us, though, we need to ensure that the ‘somethings’ we do aren’t divorced from the ’someone’ who calls and sustains us. The Salvation Army’s missional activities should lead people (especially those facilitating the activity!) to worship God in deeper and more explicit ways. That’s one of the things that distinguishes Salvationist activity from vague charity.
5) Keep our Worship Missional.
As Salvationists meet for worship, we gather to give God glory. As we do, we encounter a missional God who is reconciling the whole world to himself. It’s big stuff! Our Worship isn’t a social club meeting, It’s not entertainment. It helps us to encounter a God who, having met, we can’t help but follow into the world. As the Cliftons and the Cokes remind us in their report Marching towards Justice, Salvationists should ‘take every opportunity to preach boldly the saving power of Jesus Christ and the coming Kingdom of God, by raising the flags, marching the bands and singing the songs of justice out in the public square’.
We would love to hear what you think about what we have written. Please do respond in the comments section or on social media. We desperately need mutually challenging and encouraging debate and discussion if we are the face the significant challenges facing us as an Army.