By Annika Bittinger –
and Josh Cowing
“What does it mean to have an extreme commitment to God?” That’s what 162 young Salvationists recently gathered in Pasadena, California to find out. They were there as delegates to the Extreme: Beyond the Call weekend, hosted by the Pasadena Tabernacle Corps, and led by Phil Wall and members of his UK Mission Team.
“We live in a world of extremes. Extreme poverty, extreme hunger…” Phil Wall said in the opening session. “The only thing that’s going to meet the needs of an extreme world is extreme Christianity. The Salvation Army was born for the extreme; born in the extreme.”
Delegates from every U.S. territory were challenged to make a commitment for just such a lifestyle change. Christy Hoffman came from Omaha, Nebraska: “The way the Spirit spoke through all the speakers and the performers…just totally blew me away and it really made me realize that the commitments that I have made to Christ have not been as strong as they should be and need to be and are going to be now.”
Extreme: Beyond the Call was a three-day event, beginning on the evening of Friday, Oct. 24th, and concluding on Sunday, Oct. 26th. Meetings during the day included general sessions, as well as smaller seminars. The various seminars were conducted by members of the UK Mission Team, along with Majors Chick and Margaret Yuill. Some of the topics included A Life Less Ordinary, which offered practical suggestions for living a distinctive life for God, The Creative Arts, Sex The Final Frontier, and Market Place Mission, dealing with evangelism in the workplace. Other events included a concert by local Christian band Plaid Halibut, times of fellowship, and meals.
Four members of the UK Mission Team traveled with Phil Wall to the conference. Russell Rook, assistant team leader, led several of the main sessions. Music was provided by Sara Nordenberg, accompanied by Tustin Ranch Corps’ superb worship band Praiseworks. Sarah Grace added a dramatic element as well, teaching through dramatic presentations and Jani Rubery conducted a seminar. The conference was presented in a cutting-edge fashion, incorporating several multi-media elements, such as computer animation, lighting effects and two 20-foot rear projection video screens.
The climax of the weekend came on Saturday evening, when Phil Wall challenged the delegates to step forward and make a public commitment to building a stronger Army. Martin Hunt, a member of the steering committee for the weekend, from the Pasadena Tabernacle, said, “One of the most awesome things that happened this weekend was when, at the end of Saturday night’s session, Phil said, ‘If you want the Army to be different and to be better than what it is, come kneel at the front.’ And with no exception, and without hesitation, every single person got out of their chairs and literally ran forward and knelt, showing that they want it be better and bigger, and to be what God wants it to be.”
There are several reasons why this event was unique. First, although supported by territorial headquarters and divisional headquarters, the event was organized and hosted by the Pasadena Tabernacle Corps. “I think that we are demonstrating that things happen from the local church with the support of the structure,” Yuill said.
Second, the event was organized by young adults from Pasadena Tabernacle. “I think that’s been very important. I think that it has demonstrated that [the Army has] as much potential leadership as any denomination,” Yuill added.
Third, this is the only Salvation Army event intended specifically for the 18- to 35-year-old age group. This is an age when individuals decide for themselves whether and where to attend church. Yet the Army has no specific programs aimed at developing and nurturing commitments within this age group. Captain Don Gilger, divisional youth secretary for Southern California Division, agrees. “We need something more than a Youth Councils type of experience for young adults. I think that this Extreme is meeting the needs of young people of our traditional corps that haven’t been impacted by Youth Councils. They need something more. They need something that calls them higher.”
Even the funding of this event was non-traditional. Although much-needed funding was voluntarily contributed by territorial and divisional headquarters and the Adult Rehabilitation Centers Command, substantial amounts were raised by the young people themselves. There was a $40 registration fee, a retiring offering at Pasadena Tabernacle Corps, a private donor, and a sacrificial offering from 24 young adults from Pasadena, who donated $3,500 in one afternoon. Travel expenses for those from other regions were provided either by their home corps through fundraising, or by the delegates themselves.
Much of the emphasis of the weekend was on returning to the founding principles of The Salvation Army, specifically focusing on the calling of “Heart to God, Hand to Man.” “One of our primary roles is to include the excluded, those on the margins, those on the extremes of society,” Wall said. “Their story must be our story; if we don’t do this, we deny our heritage and betray our founding dream.”
Additionally, he showed how The Salvation Army is poised to grow, perhaps more than any other organization, in the near future. He reminded us that today many are cynical about religious institutions, but emphasized that people also trust those who are 1: spiritual, and 2: have their sleeves rolled up. The question he asked was, “Will the good people still be here [within The Salvation Army] to make the most of it?”
But as is often the case, this kind of event can result in a kind of “mountain-top” spiritual experience. Wall addressed this directly, and warned against it, saying, “We are on the mountain top, but we can’t stay there. We need to work it out in the valley.”
Rook also emphasized this, explaining that he wanted people to be fundamentally changed, committed to living out their faith in new ways. His hope is that 20 to 30 years from now, much more will have been achieved for God because of commitments made at the Extreme: Beyond the Call weekend.
To achieve this, a covenant service was held on Sunday morning, in which delegates were challenged to determine for themselves one area of their life which they would change as a result of this weekend, and to find someone to hold them personally accountable for that commitment. Keith Spencer, a member of the steering committee, said, “I think the memory of this weekend is going to carry on for quite a long time. I know it will, through some of the decisions that were made, both in my heart and in the hearts of so many others.”
With the overwhelming success of Extreme: Beyond the Call, plans are already in the works for making this an annual event, hosted by Pasadena Tabernacle. Major Rudy Hedgren, territorial youth secretary, said, “This has to be an event that continues, and I want it to continue under the leadership of the fine young adults of our territory.”
Additionally, delegates from other territories expressed the need for similar events within their own territories. Josh Lyle, delegate from Montclair, N.J., said, “We definitely need to get something like this going in our territory. We have the people; we just need to get it going. I think the fire was started with us here. It’s something that not just the Western Territory needs to hear, but the whole Army needs to hear.”
Even the UK Mission Team members themselves were impressed by the powerful responses by everyone involved. As Rook explained, “Before I came, I was told you guys were up for this…so we put together what we thought was a particularly hard and challenging package. But I have been surprised how up for it the people are. People [here] are desperately hungering after good teaching, good worship, being challenged; but most importantly desperately hungering after a greater level of commitment to Jesus and new levels of sacrifice and discipleship. And that surprised me. Beyond many places I’ve been in the past, that has definitely surprised me.”
Perhaps Gilger expressed best what many delegates felt at the conclusion of this uniquely powerful and moving event: “I think that before I came I thought that it would be a conference where young adults would make a commitment to bettering themselves. So what they need to take now is the responsibility of leadership…in their Corps, work, wherever it is…that’s the higher calling, that’s what’s going to change the world.”