Conference held in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district focuses on aggressively learning and loving.
by Christin Davis –
Delegates pray with a passerby;General John Gowans (Ret.) speaks with a delegate.
Demonstrating initiative, assertion, and active love in a number of different locations, Salvationists confronted the streets of San Francisco’s Tenderloin in a march of “aggressive” Christianity during the last weekend of October.
“Aggressive Christianity can also be defined as a way to grow saints, to serve suffering humanity and to have passion to save souls,” said special guest General John Gowans (Ret.).
The Aggressive Christianity Conference focused on encouraging and equipping the more than 350 attendees to live out the Great Commission every day, forcing a reconsideration of our view of evangelism.
The weekend-long conference was held in the Tenderloin area, which covers roughly 56 blocks and has the highest rate of drug crime and prostitution in the city of San Francisco. It received its nickname from the days when policemen were paid more to work its mean streets, thereby affording the officers better cuts of meat—and is a perfect location to serve the suffering.
“Do not be content with gentle invitations and then prayerfully leaving them alone. Jesus wasn’t! He ran after them and pulled them out of the hell to which they were heading,” wrote Catherine Booth, founder of The Salvation Army with her husband William Booth, in her most famous book, Papers on Aggressive Christianity. Cory Harrison translated the book into modern language in 2005.
“People in this world are so busy with needless stuff that they do not realize the need for Jesus. It is our job to go and bring it to their attention,” she wrote.
Day 1 – Call to obedience
The weekend began on Friday evening with a powerful call by Gowans to live in obedience with God.
“To obey is better than sacrifice. To obey is better than service. Obedience is what God wants,” Gowans said.
“We’d have all the people we need and all the money we need and all the resources we need if half The Salvation Army would say ‘yes’….What we need is more obedience.”
In closing, Gowans said, “Aggressive Christianity in my point of view is obedience. It means whatever it costs, the will of God shall be done by his people, and they won’t be afraid of anything. I have been totally liberated since I have done his work. There is freedom in Jesus.”
Territorial Youth Secretary Captain Kyle Smith, organizer of the weekend, said, “It is criminal—wrong—not to share the message of God. The only one stopping God from doing what he wants to do in the work is you.”
Throughout the weekend a canteen was available on the street outside the Red Ink Studios, the central location for the conference, offering food and drinks to anyone passing by. Delegates could sign up for two-hour shifts of service.
Delegate Michael Moore spoke of his canteen experience: “Being out in the cold at 2:00 a.m. with the canteen gave me an appreciation for what homeless people go through….I decided to stop pre-judging them before I knew their stories and decided to look at them the way Jesus does—as worthy, important beings who he wants in his kingdom.”
Day 2 – A fighting army
Michael Collins, associate pastor at Cariboo Hill Temple, Vancouver, British Columbia, who opened Saturday morning by speaking on the practical ways to do evangelism, said he never wants to go to a Christian retreat, but rather on an attack.
“Aggressive Christianity? Yes—first be aggressive on yourself,” Collins said. “Consider the thing God has told you to do and go and do it.”
Wearing gym shorts and a “Jesus is Lord” t-shirt, he said the best practice for evangelism is simply to talk about Jesus. The fact that “Jesus died for your sins” often sounds like nothing more than a catchphrase in the Christian world, but “we’re not selling snake-oil,” Collins said, “Jesus really is the good news.” The good news must be translated to the specific needs of each person and to do so, Collins suggested we follow James’s example—be quick to listen and slow to speak.
“Jesus is relevant to everybody. The church loses relevance when it loses Jesus. Stay with Jesus,” Collins said.
“An army that doesn’t fight is not an army at all. This army does not take life, it gives life —it gives blood and fire,” Collins said. “Fight or turn in your tunic.”
In a session on modern day Salvation Army heroes, Alice Bratton, social justice advocate and founder of A Woman’s Voice, told stories of smuggling Bibles into Communist Czechoslovakia. “Faith is not the absence of fear but the pressing on in spite of it,” she said.
Another hero, Aaron White, War College staff member and leader of the 24/7 prayer movement in Vancouver, told a story about praying consistently for a drug dealer while watching him with binoculars, a practice he called “sniper prayer.” The dealer did not make one sale that day.
In the afternoon, delegates could choose an outreach activity including a children’s sidewalk Sunday school, a VA (Veterans Administration) hospital visitation, a street open air, two “bucket brigades,” and multiple prayer walks.
In the “29:11 homeless ministry” option, which is based on sharing with the homeless the plans God has for them according to Jeremiah 29:11, we met a man who went by the name of Spider. At age 63, Spider lives beneath a freeway underpass in a blue tarp tent covering the dirt ground, where he often shares his space with rats. He welcomed us into his home and we sat on the ground as he told us the story of losing his wife years ago, subsequently giving up everything in the process of becoming a heroin addict. After joining The Salvation Army church nearly four months ago, Spider is now on his way to recovery and plans to be a minister to other homeless people like himself. He now chooses to live on the street to get away from the world and to be a part of the lives of those who he feels need him.
Captain Phil Smith, leader of the 29:11 homeless ministry who spends a great deal of time with Spider and others in similar situations, said, “Who cares if they come in the front door? They are still a part of our church.”
Chris Golden was one of 10 individuals on a “bucket brigade” team, cleaning some of San Francisco’s public bathrooms. “I cleaned city toilets to make sure at least one person is able to sit on a clean Pine-Sol wiped toilet seat,” he said.
Wearing a Salvation Army shield on his chest, a tasseled hat, shin-high yellow boots and maroon, blue and yellow striped parachute pants, Major Eddie Hobgood paraded onstage on Saturday evening presenting in song, dance and drama the life of Joe the Turk. This daring, extraordinary Salvationist was a fighter for the ideals of The Salvation Army and an evangelist with bizarre and effective methods.
Day 3 – A blessing outside the camp
Over 50 people, many off the Tenderloin streets, attended the Sunday morning service held at Red Ink Studios, one of seven locations available for morning worship.
“I’ve been blessed by you guys this week,” said Ricky, a homeless man sharing his testimony. “I hope the Lord always blesses you and keeps his hand upon you.” He returned to the microphone to ask for blessing on Lt. Roger McCort, Tenderloin Central corps officer.
Another homeless man, Tony, said in his testimony, “Friends give me reasons to try every day. You don’t know how much you mean to us when you come out to talk to us, pray for us, and help us out with coffee, doughnuts and sandwiches.” Tony will have been drug free for six months on Thanksgiving Day.
“I was amazed to see how the setting drew people to us to be able to talk to them. Not just in our outreach to the community, but also during our meetings, the homeless came in and participated. They wanted to help us find other places in the community that they felt needed to hear what they had heard,” said delegate Carmen Magdaleno.
Harrison, mission specialist and translator of Catherine Booth’s sermons on aggressive Christianity, presented a sermon that focused on returning to the passionate roots of The Salvation Army.
We are a “revolutionary movement of covenanted warriors exercising passion toward winning the world for Jesus,” Harrison said.
Harrison himself gave up a great job offer with a car and a house to move with his wife and kids into a homeless shelter in Tennessee.
In the closing service, Gowans spoke about fighting our own battles first. “If we’re going to have war with the evils of the world, we have to fight the battle inside,” he said.
Gowans said the challenge is to listen to God’s instruction and go to him outside the “camp of normalcy,” referencing Hebrews 13:13. Jesus was outside the camp and we should meet him there.
“My testimony is that Christ shall rise and live again,” Gowans said.
So moved by his words, a woman approached Gowans during the altar call and handed over her crack pipe.
“I hope and pray that we can take what we’ve learned this weekend and make a difference in our own communities,” said Mike O’Brien, youth director at Torrance Corps.