Localizing the Army

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by Colonel Phil NeedhamA few years ago, when we were living in London, we had some contact with a new corps in another part of the city with a Generation X constituency. The corps had successfully evangelized and were discipling some new people. They were conducting a membership class to prepare them to become soldiers. When it came time to sign on the dotted line of soldiership, however, most of these new people were not interested. They were interested in becoming full members of that particular corps, not of a large international denomination. They did not identify with ‘The Salvation Army,’ only one single localized expression of it. This particular corps was their church home, not a whole army.

I wonder if this is a trend we simply must take seriously. I wonder if fewer and fewer of our converts and soldiers care about ‘the bigger Army.’ I wonder if what they care about mostly is being part of a corps family where there is significant spiritual growth and opportunity for local involvement in ministry.

One of the justifications for large divisional and territorial events I have heard over the years is that they give a bigger identity to the many Salvationists who are part of relatively small corps. But I suspect that we are coming to a place where fewer and fewer Salvationists are satisfied with big exciting events and small unexciting corps. I think soldiers are demanding more front-line action in vital growth at home.

A recent article in L. A. Times (February 18, 2001) carried the intriguing title, “Los Angeles is Dead; Neighborhoods Rule.” The writer, Gregory Rodriguez, claims that L. A. residents are more interested in their own neighborhoods than in the city at large–and vote accordingly. He gives Mayor Richard Riordan high marks for nurturing this sense of neighborhood pride and place. During the years when it was expanding at breakneck speed, the city became a place with no places–“For a time, we all just lived in Los Angeles.”

But when expansion was geographically exhausted, “the city began to collapse back into itself. Feeling adrift in an overextended, crowded and increasingly ominous metropolis, Angelenos began to draw tighter lines around themselves… The city with no neighborhoods suddenly became a collection of neighborhoods with no city.”

Rodriguez goes on to say that this emerging reality means that Angelenos don’t feel obliged or compelled to be a part of, or buy into, the larger L. A. picture. “Our civic vision does not flow from the top down, but from the bottom up.” City Hall should keep order, build roads, and maintain the infrastructure, so that neighborhoods can nurture community, identity, and human development.

Perhaps the movement toward localizations called neighborhoods will be paralleled in our Army by movement toward localizations called corps. Will more and more of us care more about the corps than about the Army, more care about the concrete community of faith than an abstraction called the organization? I think so. And where our local congregations are not providing strong discipleing, meaningful worship, and caring, fewer and fewer people will be held to the corps by their identification with a larger Army.

Some may be concerned about the loss of the big Army picture. This is understandable. One of our greatest strengths has been our internationalism, and this has also been our witness to a gospel that breaks down and crosses national, social, and cultural barriers.

Let me suggest that the movement toward localization will not weaken our international perspective but rather strengthen it. In the past, for example, our World Services giving has been to a broad international missions cause (which, in my view, has limited the effectiveness of the annual effort). A localized World Services project would, in my view, greatly enhance the success of the project. If a corps in Utah linked with a corps in Uganda for the purpose of reciprocal intercessory prayer, information sharing, and mutual support, the Army’s internationalism would be enhanced far more than it was when that Utah corps was supporting only a non-people-or-place-specific World Services effort. Consciousness of our international family and mission would be raised far higher.

The local congregation is the place of spiritual power in the Church. If I were to ask you who the spiritual leaders are in America’s Protestant denominations, you would probably mention mostly pastors of local congregations, not denominational heads (Can you even name one?).

The corps is our Army neighborhood. As the health and vitality of its neighborhoods make the city more viable, so the health and vitality of our corps make our Army viable. It is an opportune time to rebuild healthy corps: our people, especially the younger ones, are thinking locally. Let’s localize our Army.

Our country has been traumatized once again by a high school shooting, this time in Santee, California. I was particularly struck by what Kevin Wilson, a friend of “Andy” Williams, said in an interview. Kevin lives in Brunswick, Maryland, where Andy grew up before moving to California with his father a year ago. From what we have learned so far, Andy had a fairly normal life and was surrounded by friends. In Santee, he never found his place at school ­ and was cruelly ostracized by some. Kevin of Brunswick said, “This was his home.”

We’re all looking for a home, the place where we’re accepted and loved for who we are ­ the place, in fact, that helps us discover who we are. Andy lost that. Millions are losing it.

A real corps is where the best family of all is offered the world: the family of God. It is the place specific where people are loved into the Kingdom. For Salvationists present and future, it is a neighborhood of the Eternal City on earth.

Frontlines — News Briefs of the West

Frontlines — News Briefs of the West

The recent shooting at Santana High School, in Santee, Calif

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