The danger of our success

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by Colonel Phil Needham –

I was reading in the fifth chapter of the book of Joshua recently and was struck by the similarity between the Hebrew people and the people called Salvationists. The Jordan had been crossed and God’s people were in the process of claiming the land promised. The days of suffering and public scorn were largely behind them: ‘Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.’ (5:9) Now they were strong enough, and positioned strategically enough, to ensure their survival: ‘The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.’ (5:12)


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It seems to me that we Salvationists are in a similar position. First, our reproach has also largely been ‘rolled away.’ We’ve come through ‘many dangers, toils, and snares,’ quieted our detractors, and built an incredibly broad base of good will and support. While it is true that most of the American public know and support us as a community service agency and have little understanding of our faith base, much less our identity as a church, I wonder if this reality is as much a liability to our evangelical and ecclesiastical work as we sometimes claim: ‘If only the general public knew us as a church, it would be much easier for our corps to grow.’ I doubt it. Our failure at significant corps growth has little to do with our public image and more to do with our own lack of sustained, strategic initiative and commitment in this area. If anything, a highly respected church consultant tells me, our image as an organization of people who help others is a strong asset for growth.

Our good reputation, based on our past and present successes, is not a liability. But it does expose us to danger. The danger lies in the second way in which we are similar to the conquering Hebrews: we have learned to live off the land. You will remember that when they faced the prospect of starvation in the wilderness, the Israelites received the miracle of a divine manna that sustained them. But now that they were entering the Promised Land, they no longer needed the divine miracle for survival: they could get by, and even prosper, with the ample resources now available. So ‘the manna ceased.’

We’re not exactly sure what this manna was, but we do know what it means. It means God’s sufficiency in the face of our insufficiency. Now that the Israelites were in the Promised Land, their insufficiency would probably not very often be the food supply. It would lie elsewhere, hidden by the cleverness of new social and political orders and the presumption that Israel could now make it on its own. They could not, but the taste of power had whetted their appetites for building a kingdom along the lines of other empires.

Something insidious often happens when palpable prosperity comes: our sense of the need for total reliance on God diminishes. With our Army’s survival well in hand, our good reputation firmly established, our market share strong, we are tempted, like Israel, to disparage manna and forge ahead on our own.

The inevitable outcome of such a mindset is the insidious habit of referring less and less of our lives to God and assuming, without checking it out, that God is endorsing what we are doing. The remainder of the Old Testament is replete with evidence that God did not, in fact, endorse most of the ensuing idolatries of his people. In fact, he often opposed them outright and let them face the consequences of their actions. Perhaps our own more recent history also carries evidence that God has some quarrels with us, and perhaps they center primarily on the third way we seem to be in a very similar position to Israel at this time in our history: like Israel, we rely less on prayer.

Am I overstating the case? I think not. My reading of our earlier history reveals long prayer meetings (sometimes all night) and profound belief that prayer would make the difference and shape the mission; Salvationists made private prayer a regular part of their day. I know enough about what is going on around me to know that, generally speaking, prayer is nowhere near as central to our life as it once was.

But don’t tell that to Capts. Michael and Sun-Hui Chang, corps officers of the Atlanta International Corps. As Georgia divisional commander I was fortunate enough to have them assigned to Atlanta right out of training. Atlanta had a rapidly growing Korean population; it seemed the right time to open a Korean corps. I quickly learned the Changs spent a lot of time praying. They visited, and people started coming. Within a few months Michael came to me and said that they felt God was leading them to start an Asian, rather than a Korean corps. I knew better–church growth principles had taught me that you just can’t mix cultures. But I knew the Changs prayed a lot, so I said to go ahead. When I visited the corps a few weeks later on a Sunday morning, I found a Vietnamese congregation. Michael preached in his second language (English) and was translated into Vietnamese. After the meeting I asked him where the Korean congregation was. He said they met in the afternoon.

Today, they call themselves an ‘international corps.’ On a Sunday morning, the different cultural groupings meet separately for instruction and prayer, then come together for a worshiping version of the Rainbow Coalition. Those who need translations into their own language have it available. The corps is growing, and just recently moved into a larger church facility seating up to 800.

Please don’t tell the Changs this isn’t supposed to work. Don’t tell them this doesn’t fit any of the accepted profiles for congregational growth. You see, they pray. They pray a lot. Their corps meets early every morning for prayer. They would rather trust God’s adequacy than their own. They believe God hears their prayers and acts on them. They believe that if what they are praying for is on target, God will bring it to pass. And low and behold, they find manna the next day.

It is so tempting to try to build this Army on our cleverness and on the considerable resources at our disposal. Captains Chang are teaching us the power of our powerlessness bathed in prayer.

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