Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Wanted: Conmen for the Salvation Army

The Salvation Army in the UK is facing huge challenges. Numbers are down, Corps are closing – I am just a new boy and I have already become accustomed to the litany of gloom. Thankfully there are many pockets of hope, with some great examples of church plants and re-plants that should encourage anyone who loves this quirky and lovely denomination. 

What is the need of the hour, though? For me, it is more Conmen, and Conwomen, for that matter. Specifically, practitioners of the Double Con. Unless we get them, I can see no cause for generalised encouragement. In fact, so far as I can see, the pockets of hope are precisely where the Conmen and women are doing their stuff. 

For the first Con we need Conservatives. And I absolutely don’t mean Tories. We need people – adherents, soldiers and officers – who understand, believe and know how to communicate the old gospel. If the Sally Army is seen by many members of the public as simply “a charity” that is not only due to the profile of our social work, it is because there is a significant tendency to communicate a vague and socially acceptable message. We haven’t been good at conserving the faith. A gospel of watery niceness, of interfaith cuddliness, of absolutized inclusiveness, is not the message of our Founders; it is not the message of the church down the centuries, nor of the apostles and prophets, nor of Jesus himself. We need to recover our confidence in the authority of Scripture, in the message of the Cross, in the power of the Spirit to change lives. 

But it has to be a double Con. Because we need Conservatives who are also Contemporary. It's all there in the phrase “know how to communicate the old gospel”. There is value in believing the old gospel for yourself, of course, but getting it out and into the minds, hearts and lives of the people around us – that is quite another thing. We need to know how to reframe, or rephrase, old truths in ways that resonate in our own generation. We need to find new metaphors, new illustrations, and new arguments. We need to be able to deal with new objections… and new sources of spiritual apathy.

And more: preservation of the doctrinal tradition of TSA is of no use if it is shackled by an unthinking preservation of every other tradition that comes from the 19th century. All of us tend to find a certain security in the outward trappings of our religion, of course, and we become very easily blind to the impact of those trappings on the outside world. But we need to question hard. What does a timbrel display actually say in the age of Diversity?? Did William Booth really expect and desire the maintenance of brass bands for ever, even as tastes changed? He actually said the opposite! 

There is a tendency to see the preservation of TSA as consisting precisely in the preservation of such traditions. But without the Double Con this would be embalming a corpse! We don't want to go Army Barmy (or Balmy!) in that sense. Seeing what should be altered or dropped is as much a part of the preservation of the church as is holding on to the good. 

Actually, the most fatal of conditions for a church is where the preservation of tradition and its imposition in diverse contexts has taken precedence over the maintenance of doctrine. A friend recently wrote that the “recipe for good denominational health ... is cultural diversity centred around confessional unity.” So often the opposite situation pertains – maintenance of an imposed or dated culture takes priority over unity in the truth, with sad consequences. Such a situation is the precise inversion of the Double Con. You know the kind of thing: Where a totally vague or erroneous sermon is hardly commented on, but woe betide the bass player if his buttons aren't polished... Where you would be pulled up for sitting on the mercy seat but not for querying the Deity of Christ. Where denying Doctrine 11 is a far greater possibility than drinking a pint of bitter. When that kind of illogic has crept in, a cancer, sprung from the church's own subculture, has started to eat away at its heart, and death cannot be far away. 

We need to be Conservative and Contemporary. Holding to the gospel, and getting it across, today. And doing so with love. For love to broken people around us, for love of the Salvation Army, above all, for love of God, Father, Son and Spirit, we need to be Conmen and Conwomen. 

Double Conners all.


No comments:

Post a Comment