Christianity, The Salvation Army, and Europe today

From a New Frontier interview with Commissioner Paul du Plessis, commissioner for World Evangelism, IHQ.


Commissioner du Plessis’s position was created two and a half years ago by (then) General John Larsson to: “help the Army’s leadership not to get too bogged down in the nuts and bolts of running an Army, but to think about its prime purpose, which is stated in the Salvation Army Act as advancing the Christian mission…to look at those parts of the world which have been more neglected than other…and to see the church as an instrument within God’s purposes for bringing a better world—a peaceful world—a developing world—an economically prosperous world.”

When General Larsson announced his particular emphasis on spiritual renewal—I said a quiet amen within myself. I was prepared to accept the challenge he presented to me, to say once we’ve got this stirring within us, where are we going to go? How are we going to do it? So I saw myself as quietly complementing what the General was trying to do; recognizing that it must emerge from spiritual renewal. We become mobilized for mission by the process of spiritual renewal, and [then] God will take us into places we normally didn’t expect to be. I don’t necessarily mean that in terms of countries but I think here, with my neighbor—when I’m a transformed, renewed person.

Open to new ideas

Do we know how God works? I think we’ve wanted him to work, and we prayed that he would. I am encouraged by the vibrancy of an openness to fresh ideas, a willingness to go back to basics, and a confession that perhaps our emphases haven’t been quite what they should have been. And for the determination [for the Army] to say Europe’s not dead.

I was promoting the idea of going to places where people have never heard the gospel, and Commissioner Thorleif Gulliksen [international secretary for Europe] said he thought there were opportunities in Europe. I replied, “Well, I’ll go with you in that, and we can do both.”

You see, international leadership can say: “Yes, we know there’s an open door, but we don’t want you to walk through it.” But now, suddenly there is a different message coming from the center, which says, “Okay, if you see an open door, and you feel the Spirit is leading you through, you can go…and let us know.” That’s a new freedom for the Army, and I think it’s great.

A post Christian Europe?

Europe is not one continent—it’s not a homogenous continent. And we’re presumptuous to even talk about it. In religious terms, I see at least three, probably four different areas. They are to some extent geographic:
1. Orthodox Europe: Russian, Greek, Armenian, Syrian orthodox tradition—basically Constantinople oriented.
2. Catholic Europe
3. Protestant Europe: within the reformed tradition in particular, you’ve got post Christian Europe. Western Europe in particular has become very post modern, post Christian in its thinking. I don’t think that’s particularly true for parts of Catholic or Orthodox Europe.
4. There’s also a toehold of Islamic Europe—parts of the Balkans, Bosnia.

Europe has been a continent plagued by various things—I think in the last 100 years, the two major wars between Christian nations has led to a huge amount of disillusionment on the part of the population. How can we fight each other with the gospels we believe?

I think the academic study of scripture, the mythologizing of scripture, of reducing the authority of scripture—a lot of that has happened in Europe the past 300 years. The enlightenment dawned in Europe. So, liberal thinking and post modernism is very much the case.

The interesting thing to me is that it’s led to an anti-religious posture, but not necessarily an anti-spiritual posture. The search for alternatives to religion to fulfill a spiritual vacuum is part of the European experience, and I’m speaking of the western European experience—now that basically leads us to new ageism and modern spirituality, and an eclectic spirituality, where you draw a little bit of this, and a little bit of that, and make it your own: That’s very much the modern European view.

I think in terms of evangelization, we have to understand that process in western Europe—that is the challenge, and we’ve got to think of ways to break through that.

Religion and spirituality

And here, I come to another of my hobbyhorses: that in an organization such as our own, in my own view, we have not plumbed the full depth of what may be called spiritual. Our failure to define that—our failure to explore it fully, has impoverished us—has left us somewhat bewildered as to how to approach those people who are exploring new forms of spirituality, which are not necessarily religious.

I see overlaps between religion and spirituality, and I think what we’ve got to do within the Army is to find—within the church—the areas of opportunity which exist at the interface or the overlap between spirituality and religion. I think there are opportunities and I think they should be explored.

The question then becomes: what is the place of the congregation in all this? My own view within this post Christian era is that we have to see ourselves as a church, motivating people for mission in the world, where they’ll be engaged at the interface [as individuals]; gathering together gives them skills, strength, grace, whatever it is, to enable them to do it. But the real work is done out there, but not necessarily under a red shield or flag.
So, be less worried about the programs—corps Salvation Army programs—regard all of your members as missioners—and concentrate on enabling them to be able to do that in a better way. And, recognize them as missioners without having to have a badge on Monday morning.

William Booth’s East End

History tells me the East End of London that William Booth entered was filled with migrants. They weren’t actually British people; they were Irish. I’m a great believer in looking at a careful re-analysis of our history to find opportunities for the future—not only in this country—but worldwide. Really sitting down and saying what actually happened? So, in 2006 we’ve still got migrants to this country. Sometimes they’re called asylum seekers and we lock them up in prisons and then send them off elsewhere. The world is coming to this country. It’s got one of the highest [immigration] rates in any part of Europe—in fact of the world. I think there’s a great opportunity for evangelism with the newcomers, and I think that’s true in certain parts of Europe.

If you look at France—The Salvation Army—I think the greater proportion of membership will be of migrants. I can take you to corps in Switzerland—sophisticated Switzerland—where there are Spanish migrants who come in, who are seen, and opportunities arise for ministry to them. I think if William Booth were here today, he would be saying—“Where are your opportunities? I found them in the migrant Irish of the East End of London—I suggest we try the same again.”

I think there’s great opportunity. It wouldn’t necessarily create the traditional corps that we think of, but it may be the way we have to go for the future.

I think we have to ask what’s happened to the many people who have left us. I think in Britain, and in Europe, it’s the kind of feeling that this traditional form has to a large extent become irrelevant to them, within their world of today, so they’ve left. Now I know there are other reasons—but the heart of it is irrelevance, is the judgment most people made, to their needs and the world that we’re in today.

What it’s all about

I think it’s got to come back to the process of spiritual renewal and the rediscovery of who Jesus is and say: that’s the essence, that’s the focus of what it’s all about. It’s not the Army structure; that’s subsidiary. It’s the rediscovery of Jesus! It’s got to be a renewal, always renewing the church. I think that’s the process, and it’s why renewal is so important. I’m sure it won’t stop because John Larsson’s going to retire next week. And I pray it’s just going to continue on. While it could be quite unsettling, change is what’s going to have to happen.

God is in control

Maybe we use systems to control people, and what they really need is freedom to work under the Spirit—it’s a systemic issue for The Salvation Army: how we control—should we control—to what extent are we the leaders the only people who understand the Spirit’s moving or do we allow that freedom to the whole people of God, and say it is within the whole laity that we discover this together.

And that relates to authority, to power—how we exercise that—we have benefited in recent years from a willingness to hold back the exercise of the power of saying “no.” It’s one of the greatest powers within the Army. I have been encouraged by people who are willing to say: “I don’t have to say no all the time, I can stand back and say yes.” And I think that’s what’s happening in Europe.

Poland is an example

Nobody thought we should go into Poland. It took one person’s “yes” to allow the door to open, and we have to recognize where that “yes” has to come from at the moment—within the structures of the Army. Because if one person says “no,” the door stays shut. I’m not sure if it was the General or the IS for Europe who said let’s go…but between them somehow, because that’s how it works…and the Chief of the Staff probably involved in discussion…there was an urging within saying, “we’ve heard about Poland for a long time, and the answer has always been no, and someone said, let’s change that.”

Christ centered mission

I think we’ve become so social oriented, we’ve tended to feel that’s the way we should go, because that’s what the need is. I call The Salvation Army a network of Christ centered mission bases. The social programs—the Kroc center—that’s a Christ centered mission base. It’s a base from which Christ works in the world around. And we share in that.

I think we’ve got to rediscover that, because my impression from widespread travel is that there are many centers with a Salvation Army sign—and they’ve lost touch with Jesus. Some of them know it, some of them don’t. And I think a rediscovery of who Jesus is and what he does—and what we need to do with him—is what needs to happen.

Sharing is caring!