I’m currently reading The General Next To God: The Story of William Booth and the Salvation Army by Richard Collier. Don’t go looking for this, I’m reading a used copy of the book published in 1965 by Collins Publishing that was left unsold at a recent fundraising event.
Although I’m only at the half-way mark, I am amazed at the degree to which William Booth carved entirely new ministry territory. I am now convinced that if anyone wants to understand the missional ministry philosophy that rose to prominence on a parallel track with the emerging church or Emergent Church movements of the last decade, they really need to begin by reading a history of the Salvation Army.
The thing that is most striking in what I’ve read so far is the contrast between what William Booth created and the revivalist movement of the day. While Wesleyan and Methodist meetings encouraged personal repentance and turning from sin, it was generally among the church people that such penitence took place. When it came to world at large, nobody wanted to get their hands dirty. Or their church building dirty, for that matter.
Booth was forced to go it alone. Here are some of the things that made what became known as The Salvation Army stand out:
- Street Theater — The street preachers did whatever it took to draw a crowd: Counting on the curiosity of onlookers, outrageous stunts and costumes, the use of signs and banners, etc.
- Connecting With Popular Culture — The early history of the Salvation Army — though the book doesn’t use this term — really defines what it means to be “in but not of.” Army volunteers stood apart and yet dwelt among.
- Use of Secular Spaces — The book credits Booth with being the first to rent space in public and private buildings for his meetings, transforming those secular spaces into sacred spaces. Heretofore, in order to hear the gospel, you had to “come inside our church.” (I’ve phrased it that way because it should sound all too familiar.)
- Celebrity Fascination — Booth’s meetings would include conversion testimonies by both the famous and the infamous.
- Music — The brass band had never been part of the sacred music genre; it was therefore distinctive among religious sects, it was bright and lively, it worked well in outdoor settings. Salvationists also adapted popular pub tunes, giving them Christian lyrics; Booth originated the phrase, “Why should the Devil have all the music?”
- Press and Publicity — Booth’s edict was that the emerging organization should get as much space in the pages of the newspapers as often as possible to keep awareness high.
- Uniforms — While undergoing re-examination constantly in today’s environment, theirs was a culture of uniforms, so it simply made sense. One officer slept with his “S” pinned on his nightclothes to indicate that he was on call 24/7. Today, identification in the larger community remains a key value.
- Attitude — Booth’s followers believed that as an army, they were triumphant. To the date the book was written, the Salvation Army flag had never been flown at half mast, because Christ was ever victorious.
- Partnerships — From the outset, Booth was never trying to form another sect, but originally envisioned a ministry that work in tandem with existing denominations; and although he did in fact create a new church, his ethic of parallel ministry continues to this day.
- Women in Ministry — From the first Sunday that Catherine Booth made her way to the pulpit and told her surprised husband that she had something God had given her to share, The Salvation Army has celebrated the role of women, and elevated women to the place where they can enjoy any rank in the organization available to a man.
- Patronage — Booth realized from the outset that the very people he was reaching would not be able to financially support the ministry, so he sought to enlist from among the wealthy, people who would be patrons of the new work, not all of whom were necessarily believers.
- Meeting Needs — Of course, the list would be incomplete without mention of the social services ministry which earned the street preachers the right to be heard. Food, clothing, shelter and health care (and health education) were all provided.
This list is far from complete; just a few things I scribbled before sitting at the computer to prepare this. But I have to ask myself and my readers:
- How close does our/my church come to reaching out to “the least of these” in our community and our world?
- What are we/What am I doing to be part of taking the gospel beyond the church walls?
- Money talks. What is my church doing with our budget to reach out? What am I doing with my personal giving that goes beyond benefit to other Christians, or merely pays for the programs our family utilizes?
Again, for those who believe in missional community, for those who strive for social justice, for those who prioritize world evangelization; a history of The Salvation Army is must reading.
And nearly 150 years later, the story of the Salvation Army is still being told.
Update: More on this book published on June 8th here at Thinking Out Loud.
Related post at Christianity 201: William Booth Quotations