On the Corner
This Army–what label(s) fit us?
by Bob Docter –
What are we? This is not an easy question to answer. It’ll take a short and easy lesson.
Bear with me.
Who we are – what we are has to do with our identity – how we and others form descriptions in our minds that explain how we remain the same.
We select labels to communicate our understanding of these descriptions and thus describe our identity. These labels are called concepts – a general category of ideas or objects that share certain attributes or characteristics.
Additionally, when someone uses a concept like car, he or she has a prototype image of a car that allows a listener to know what they are talking about.
So, what are some labels (concepts) that fit our identity (how we stay the same), have common attributes (characteristics) with a prototype image (a typical example) held by large numbers of people?
An immediate answer might be: “We’re a church.”
Certainly, we share many attributes with the common image of the concept church. We meet as a congregation on Sunday in a building to worship God. Someone leads us from a platform or other high location. We sing and pray and read the Bible. A lesson is taught concerning our relationship with God and his Word. We have fellowship and leave.
Church – that’s a good place to start. However, even though we have many attributes common to the prototype of church, most people would not use that term to describe us. Many people are aware of our thrift stores. Them, The Salvation Army is a thrift store operation. Some even know about our addictions programs, our shelters and senior housing and possibly our meals and other food distribution activities. Some might even know about our camping programs and other youth services. People with this awareness know us as a “charity” and give to us primarily at Christmas. They need to know why we engage in these kinds of activities. The idea we’re also a church is new to most, and this provides an entry point for our dual commitments to both spiritual and social redemption.
I’d be disappointed if you stopped with that one word answer. Of course we’re a church. But is that all you want someone to know about this Army? If so, you’re leaving out our uniqueness, that which makes us different, that which truly defines us. There’s no one-word answer to the question – What is The Salvation Army?
It’s an important question, but very complicated!
I’ve read enough, pondered enough, discussed enough, served enough to have a pretty good idea about what we are. You, probably have an answer to that question as well. Putting that into words often depends on the listener. If I want to invite someone to worship with me, I invite them to church. I will explain in more detail all about this Army after the service. I’ll avoid loaded liturgical terms and explain in down to earth language our role in society – probably using John Gowans’ brilliant synthesis of our mission statement:
The Salvation Army was invented to
Serve suffering humanity
Figuring us out isn’t easy.
Many words describe us. We’re an Army. We like to say we’re at war with the evil and darkness of this world. Our members are soldiers –who are active in service to a suffering humanity. Many of these soldiers wear uniforms as symbols of their commitment as they go into battle seeking the lost with weapons of kindness and care. Our leaders are officers and have ranks – one even a General, and others are sergeant majors. We have bands and brigades and company guards as well as various leagues and legions.
We have run wild embracing this military metaphor and seem to insist on adopting informal non-liturgical language in all we do.
We don’t have hymnals, we have a song book. We don’t have a choir, we have a songster brigade. We don’t have deacons, we have members of a corps council. We don’t have a Board of Elders, we have an Advisory Board comprised of community members. Our worship style is less formal. We have eliminated any code that forbids women in the ministry.
In our history, there seems to have been a conscious effort not to use labels that would cause the public to perceive us as a church. I believe this was because of the snobbish attitude of the church of the 19th century toward the poor. It seems to me we’re still working pretty hard not to be too “churchy.” Some endorse this less formal structure. Others do not.
Commissioner Andy Miller used to define us as “a church and more.” The founder called us “a movement.” I’ve heard some describe us as an “integrated ministry.” Our formal mission statement describes us as part of the universal Christian church.
When I’m trying to communicate to someone about the Army, I seek to use language for which they have prototype images – something they will understand. Therefore, I use the term “church.”