Tuesday, June 26, 2007

dear matt

As a member of the Salvation Army who grew up in another denomination and has quite a few ties in other denominations, I get asked a lot about the Salvation Army’s stance on the sacraments. We don’t practice them. Officially the Army doesn’t have a stance on the sacraments, but unofficially many take a very strict and hard to understand stance against them.

I understand their excuse. The Salvation Army did not start as a church. We were a missionary movement reaching out to the neglected and unwanted and our hope, after reaching them, was to plant them in other local churches. As the question of sacraments came up, debates began to take place over how we would practice them. Would we baptize infants, for instance, and would we fully submerse adults or simply sprinkle? Would we, like the Catholics, teach that the wine (or grape juice if you’re a Baptist) and bread actually became the body of Christ, or like Protestants, would we teach that it was merely a representation. It, apparently, was a pretty big debate and the founder of the Army, William Booth, felt like it was distracting people from the mission. So, in his infinite wisdom, Booth decided to table the discussion and revisit it at a later time. For now their mission was to send people to other churches anyway, so maybe it was a question that we would never have to get around to answering.

Problem is, a hundred and odd some years later, and we clearly are a church. In fact, about twenty years ago we officially declared that fact and so, for many people within the Salvation Army, it is quite clearly time to revisit that topic.

A lot has been said, even in the comment sections of this blog, about the Army not having a problem with the sacraments, but many of us know otherwise. I hesitate to share the experiences of others (Officers) who have been disciplined by the Army for sharing in communion, or for asking for permission to baptize somebody in their Corps who have asked to take part in the experience, so I’ll share my own much less extreme example.

When I first began working with the Army, I was still very much identified as a Baptist. I held both a license and ordination certificate through the Baptist church and had spent nine years serving as a minister in Baptist churches across the state of Oklahoma. My first experience working with the Army was through one of their summer camps. After getting to know some of the staff at that camp, a young Christian from New Zealand who was not a Salvationist (member of the Salvation Army) found out that I was ordained and asked me if I could baptize him in the creek that ran through our camp ground. Though he had been a Christian for a few years, he had never actually experienced the act of baptism. I told him that I didn’t have any problem with it, but just wanted to run it by the camp director (who was a Salvation Army officer that held a divisional role) to make sure that I was not stepping on his toes. Upon sharing the news with the camp director, however, I was asked to please do it off of camp grounds.

It’s hard to know exactly how to respond to that. I can remember reaching a point where I wanted to preach on evangelism but wasn’t sure about using Matthew 28:19 because in it Jesus commands us to baptize people. I eventually went to my divisional commander about it who encouraged me that we couldn’t leave out verses of the Bible.

I think, in the end, I do understand our excuse for not participating in the sacraments. But I can’t understand our justification for it. And so I send the question out to you all. Our excuse is wrapped up in our history. The history that I’ve already shared above. But does anybody know or understand our justification for it? Our justification would have to be wrapped up in our theology and I just don’t see it there anywhere.

Are we being disobedient by not practicing the sacraments and are we, further more, being bullies by punishing those who do?

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

follow the leader

“You’re the leader”, she said, “you should be the one inviting folks to come”, and thus summed up one of the points on my top five list of the fatal flaws facing our church at this time.

I’ve heard those words before, this time from an older woman, but I’ve also heard them from people in their 20’s, waiting around for their pastor (Officer) to start something new, and pinning the blame on him as their church (Corps) continues to lay stagnant. It is partly our fault. It is we who have managed to rear several generations of Christians (Salvationists) who take and take, but give nothing back. It was mainly our ego that did it, in more ways than one, insisting that our Pastors (Officers) hold the majority of power in our churches (mistake), and also refusing to change (in so many ways) when it became so clear that we needed to. This last thing contributed to our dying attendance which made our pool to draw leaders from, that much smaller. So small, in fact, that we began to send people, without the gifts of pastoring or leadership, to our seminaries (training colleges) and then out into cruel congregations where their souls were left to die and whither away, and left to believe that they had failed in their calling when, in all actuality, the calling had never been theirs in the first place.

What makes your church, The Salvation Army? I visited a Corps (Salvation Army Church) a few Sundays ago, looked around, and realized that while this “Corps” had Sunday programming, a band, plenty of people in uniform, and several traditional SA programmes (like Home League), they had no programmes that reached out and helped their local community and I found myself wondering how they were The Salvation Army? What set them apart from any other church besides their strange and eccentric traditions? Surely, if asked, they would have had the sense not to list their band and uniforms as the things that made them “Army”, yet there didn’t seem to be anything else to distinguish them by, and thus summed up another point on my top five list of the fatal flaws facing our church at this time. If it is simply our strange and eccentric traditions that distinguish us from any other church, or any other Christian, then we are a waste of God’s resources.

In the Army, on average, we move our Officers (ordained ministers) about every five years. For some reason we believe that upheaval and instability is a good church growth plan. This absolutely baffles me and, in today’s day and age, with the fragility of our local churches, this one definitely makes my top five. I’ve never heard a sensible argument for this strategy, nor for the process that makes up this strategy. I’ve seen families of four (including one teenage boy, and one teenage girl) moved to a Corps (church) who’s quarters (parsonage) only had two bedrooms. The teenage boy was forced to sleep in the living room. Yeah, good call. And you prayed about that one? Were you listening? And yes, I know that that one will be extremely controversial, but it also leads me to my next point.

In the Army, we have a top down approach to the church. As already referenced above, we’re currently dealing with a situation in which very few of our Corps (relatively speaking) have local leaders, prepared to take on significant leadership. In fact, in many divisions, if local CO’s (pastors) go on holiday, or are out of commission for a while, Divisional Headquarter staff are signed up to lead the Sunday morning services. Now, before I’m misunderstood on this one, let me be clear that I’m happy and willing to teach or even lead worship on a Sunday morning, but I find it alarming that so few of our local Corps have local leaders who can even cover a simple Sunday morning worship service, especially when, so often, we’re dealing with congregations of fifty or less. I know teenagers who lead youth groups of fifty or more. There’s just something not right.

We’re dealing with a vicious cycle here. On one hand, we have few local leaders who are willing and able to take on any significant leadership at their Corps. On the other, we have no strategy for enabling local leadership and, in my opinion, a reluctance to do so even if we could. There’s no doubt that strong local leaders can sometimes be hard to work with. God knows I’ve had my share of struggles in that department. But the alternative is a retarded church.

Re-tard – adjective
1. A slowing down or hindering of progress; a delay
Synonyms – backward, disabled, handicapped

A few years ago we were asked by the UK territory to develop a strategy for each of our divisions. Our own division worked on ours for months. We would meet in board rooms, desperate to hash out a strategy that would make sense for our division. But, during the process, I always kept coming back to the same thing; if we are unable to raise up and equip local leaders, no amount of “strategery” is going to make any difference. In my mind, our strategy needed to simply consist of finding a way to teach our local officers (pastors) how to identify and then equip local leaders. Upon presenting this to the group, it was embraced and adopted as our divisional strategy. Less than six months later we had a new Territorial Commander with a completely different opinion on strategy and the document was scrapped all together. Have I mentioned how little sense it makes to me to move officers around so much? Upheaval and instability. Not a good church growth plan. On a personal note, in eight and a half years, I’ve had eleven different supervisors in The Salvation Army, and each one of them had their own completely different strategy on how things (including my job) should be done. We are a gypsy church and, let me tell you, the gypsies aren’t living too well nor are many people rushing to become one of them.

The above points of view are listed in no particular order and, as I’ve already been spoken to about my fifth and final concern, I’ll leave it off this public forum. But let me just say that our church is only in a hopeless situation as long as we continue down the path that we’re currently trudging. And, have no doubt, many people are happy to do just that. I mentioned on a friend’s blog recently that I often feel like a man with his arm overboard, paddling with all his might, as the ship goes down and the captain stands behind the wheel swearing that there is no problem. We must address these problems. We must quit discussing them and address them. Wishing your Corps had a cell group? Then start one. Wishing you were more involved in social action, then get involved. Gather some friends, make some sandwiches, and go and feed and pray for the homeless (incidentally, socks and underwear will be greatly appreciated as well). Or find a family and buy them some groceries anonymously. Or purchase some school supplies for some kids. Those are really easy things to do and, I promise, very addictive.

It may take us stepping outside the four walls of our church, and starting something fresh, to get the rest of our church on board. There is no excuse for our unwillingness to contribute a verse. It is our choice to do so or not to do so. Shake the dust off if you must and step out in faith.