Saturday, January 1, 2011

Organised Religion and The Salvation Army in Australia

When leading a Children’s Church years ago, I had the opportunity to speak with parents during the week, who were connected to specific programs within the local corps. I asked one lady whether her children might want to come along to ‘Kid’s Church’ one week. She replied, “Oh, sorry, I’m not in to organised religion’. I quipped, ‘Well, if you come half an hour early, you’ll realize, we’re not really that organised.’ Seriously though, I think she was unpacking something relevant to the mindset of many un-churched Aussies.

Australians are open to expressions of spirituality, and sympathetic at times to the stories and themes found around the person of Jesus. Though, we know categorically that most Australians would much prefer their own choice of spirituality/philosophy, than any religion that attempts to place boundaries and expectations around their life.

So how does the local Salvation Army corps reconcile the idea of committed discipleship in a culture that disregards organised religion?

Firstly, I believe that we must not lower the bar of discipleship. Jesus seemed to be fine with sharing a controversial theological thought, then watching a whole heap of followers turn away from him. The point being, that Jesus was not concerned with numbers per se, but with committed followership. (We could say, that in the future, committed followership brought on a great number of converts to the Christian faith). Jesus was not insecure and did not merely pamper to everyone’s wants. In our local corps, when someone cries out that they don’t like tithing or generous giving, for example, we don’t then alter the expectations clearly highlighted in the Old and New Testaments respectively. When someone attempts to justify their erratic behavior as a new Christian, we don’t lower the expectation of a Christian, rather we, in love, challenge the person to continue to change and become more like Christ.

As followers of Christ connect with unbelieving Aussies we must ensure we don’t complicate the gospel with ‘churchy’ communication or foreign church practices that continue to foster any hatred of organised religion.

When it comes to communication, how often do we present a gospel to people that is laden with theological language that is almost impossible to understand? ‘Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb’ would be a phrase that made sense to new Jewish followers of Jesus in the first and second century, but requires much explanation today. ‘Come to the mercy seat’ makes sense to many of us, but needs clarifying for an un-churched Australian. ‘Fire-a-volley…’ – I don’t think I even remember what this actually means! But Hallelujah anyway. While the message of the gospel remains the same, let’s not complicate the message to Australians who are already wary of any scent of religiosity. The challenge is to really decode our Christianised ways of presenting the good news of God, to ways that impact upon the lives of un-churched Australians.

Speaking of foreign church practices is a difficult one. We cannot throw out everything that makes us unique as a Salvation Army simply because they don’t connect with the average Australian. Or can we? It’s a controversial topic. If something we hold dear to, like our pseudo-military emphasis empowers us to be effective as a Salvation Army, though some Australians, interpret it to be anti-pacifist ideals, we are left hung out to dry. We must be willing to continue to have the internal debate about methodology, so as to discern a leading from God as to the future of our ministry in an Australian context. I could imagine it to be no different to William and Catherine Booth debating about how they would deal with the issue of the many converts in England who were unwilling to attend the established churches of their time. We need to embrace a methodology that balances three outlooks; one that is clearly in line with biblical teachings, one that is true to the essence of The Salvation Army, and one that connects well with a post-Christian Australian culture. It will only be through the guidance of the Holy Spirit that we could ever balance those three notions!

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