Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Open Thread: Primitive Salvationism

Several of my Canadian family members (you know who you are) are well acquainted with some of the movers and shakers of the Primitive Salvationism movement. The movement is not active in the DC area, so all I know about it is what I've read on various blogs, mostly Canadian ones. I've got some questions for you, and I hope we can get a discussion going here. The fact that you're located in different regions is great too, as I wonder if there are some differences in the way PS is expressed in different locales. Christian, if you've got anything to add from the New England and Eastern Territory perspectives, please share. To anyone else who may be reading, even if you're not a family member, feel free to join the discussion.

I know my regular readers know this, but, since this blog is open for anyone in the world to read, I want to state clearly that I'm not asking about the personalities, etc., of people involved in the movement. I don't want to gossip about people, as that will not serve any good purpose. With that caveat in mind, let's begin with three sets of questions:

  1. What do you make of this movement generally? Do you think it's inspiring? Why or why not?
  2. What do you think about the theological and philosophical underpinnings of the movement? Are they sound? Are there any pitfalls that should or could be corrected in the Primitive Salvationists' thinking?
  3. What do you think about their methods? What are some of their methods?

Feel free to add other information that may be helpful and to address other questions I haven't listed. As I noted before, please refrain from naming names if you have something critical to say. If you want to compliment someone by name, that's okay. But I really don't want this to become an analysis of people, their motives, etc., and I definitely don't want this to be a place where someone may be embarrassed.


Barbara said...

I can't speak on this matter at all. Quite frankly, I'm a little clueless with it. Can you direct me to somewhere that I can read up on it?

Stephen said...

Man Evie - that's a big one - it's can even polarizing!

From my readings and conversations with those who are found within the Primitive Salvationism movement it's the desire to get back to the very roots on which the SA was founded - to strict holiness, a gospel wrapped within the ministry to the poor - of seeing and living out one's life as if on the very battle field between heaven and hell.

My understanding is that it's roots can be traced to a set of Canadian SA officers whose life belief is that it's still possible to win the world for God.

I have connected with a number of people within the Primitive Salvationism movement - they are the most inspiration and passionate people I have ever met! It really does seem possible that perhaps within their corner of their world, the world could indeed be won for God.

The tension I find myself with this movement is its hard core - old order of adhering to the teaching of holiness. It harkens to a day and time when you always lived in fear of going to hell the moment you stepped out of line, when you sinned. They take the 9th doctrine of the SA which says, "our continuance in a state of salvation depends upon continued obedient faith in Christ" and applies it in the most legalistic way. That's the tension I have with this movement - its legalistic tendancies.

In saying that, this is what I believe to be a prophetic movement calling us back to our first love - away from an institutional Army to one that is freed up to go where no one dares to travel today.

I think about this further - discuss it with a few of my friends and perhaps respond again to this subject.

Evie said...

Barb - Here are some links:

The last one has a blogroll of people associated with the War College.

In keeping with Stephen's observation, most of the links are associated with a particular set of SA officers. I have come across other blogs (mostly on blogspot, I think) that have discussed PS, but I don't have any of their links handy right now.

Evie said...

The purpose of this movement to "get back to the very roots on which the SA was founded - to strict holiness, a gospel wrapped within the ministry to the poor..." is interesting.

Let me say, first of all, that both of those goals, 1) living holy lives and 2) ministry to the poor are admirable, as well as biblical. As you know, The Salvation Army's evangelistic/holiness ministry pre-dated its social ministry by approximately 25 years. I guess I'm just wondering what time frame counts as "SA roots." Is it the duration of William Booth's ministry? This seems plausible, as he lived long enough to, over time, incorporate both of these ministries into his vision of the SA's mission.

Evie said...

Stephen - Two questions:

1. I am intrigued by your perception that the holiness emphasis is possibly leading to renewed (perhaps more stringent is a more appropriate term) legalism. Based on your comment, I assume that you try to teach one, holiness, and minimize the other. Do the people in your corps seem to understand what (I presume) you're teaching: that they can have one without the other? How do you see people expressing holiness without being legalistic?

2. How realistic is the goal to move away from an "institutional Army?" The organization has been around for 143 years. The only way any organization expands around the globe while retaining coherence is to develop a bureaucratic, institutional structure. Is there any inherent reason why an institutional framework inhibits Salvationists from pursuing their "first love," as you put it? Are Salvationists actually inhibited by Salvation Army bureaucracy, or is it just a perception, or an easy excuse for not doing more?

Catharine said...

You sure have posed some interesting questions. I agree with Stephen that the dedication and passion these people have for salvation is admirable. So many corps are forgetting the past and so many newer Salvationists have no connection to the social needs of the community. When you see people saved through openairs and so on you realize that perhaps we are putting somehting vital by the wayside. Having said that, I also believe that we also need to be sensitive to the changing needs within society. I do believe that it is possible to have some of the old and still have some of the the new.

I need to read more about belief systems of the movement, though, before I can comment further.

Jenn said...

i think one big problem with all this is retention. i think that by going "old school", those who are already a part of the church are often forgotten and not fed spiritually like new members are. i really think this is something that continues today in some corps. the salvation army has always been great at social services and (sometimes) trying to recruit people into the church, but those who are already in the church who aren't as involved in the recruitment process are left hungry.

on the other hand, if this "primitive" way encourages people into the church and lets the public know that they ARE a church and NOT just a social services agency, than there is some benifit to that. i can't tell you how many people i've had to tell that the salvation army is a church. but that is the fault of the church. i can't tell you how many times i've seen someone representing the SA on tv and it is refered to as an "organization".

Evie said...

You mentioned open-airs. Do you think this is a form of ministry that the SA needs to dig out of the closet, dust off and start doing again? What formats do you think effective open-air services should take in the 21st century? Is the original model still workable or are there ways it can be tweaked? What are some venues in which you see open-air ministries being effective? Are there any venues that should be avoided?

I'm not knocking the idea of open-airs as "quaint," as I know some people do. I just wonder if you've given some thought, or would like to give some thought, to how such ministries could be re-vitalized and whether they should be.

Evie said...

One last question for Cathy before I move on to Jenn's comment: do you know if the PS movement emphasizes open-airs? If so, do you know what the services are like?

You mentioned the problem of retention. Your frustration that long-standing members of SA congregations frequently are not spiritually fed is an old complaint in the Army. A good friend of mine, who is currently the TC in Southern Australia, has encountered the same complaint there! Apparently, it's a problem that's endemic in the Army ethos or structure. You've hit on a significant dilemma: how can one congregation meet the needs of a) the unsaved, b) the newly saved, and c) the life-time and long-term members of the SA?

What I'm about to write may be considered blasphemy (perhaps especially by the PSers?): should every single corps be trying to meet all of these diverse needs? Or should corps develop "specialties;" i.e., some corps focus on evangelism and early nurture, and other corps focus on lifers? Does such specialization, or something like it, happen by default anyway? Specialization seems like a good idea in some ways, and yet it's easy to see how it can lead to elitism and lack of cohesion between corps. What's your take on this? What's Kevin's take?

Your frustration about the church/social service divide in the SA is also common among many in the USA and Canada. I think it's pretty common knowledge across the US and Canada that the SA is "a Christian organization." When people donate time, money and goods to us, they know that the SA will inject an unabashedly Christian emphasis in the delivery of its services. Yet, there are many who don't realize that we have church services and congregations just like the United and Anglican churches, etc.

When you've seen people representing the SA on TV, what has been their purpose? Are they trying to raise support for the social services? If so, then emphasizing the SA as an organization may be more appropriate than representing it as a church. After all, how often do the Anglicans - who are known primarily as a church - go on TV and ask the public to support their food banks, etc.? Members of the general public are not inclined to support the ministries of churches other than their own (and why should they be?), but they are willing to support a Christian organization that they don't see as competing or conflicting with their own church, synagogue, etc.

Many churches do social services, but they do them on a much smaller scale than the SA does. They also usually rely on resources that they can raise within their congregations, or maybe from townspeople who are friends of the congregation even if they are not members themselves. But their solicitations are generally private.

In contrast, the SA solicits resources from the public in a huge way. The scale of the SA's social work goes far beyond what its congregations can support on their own, or even what can be solicited in one-on-one solicitations with influential townspeople. Frankly, given the rapidly changing demographic and religious landscapes of Canada and the USA, I'm amazed that the general public continues to support us to the degree that they do. You and I, and the others who frequent this blog, know that the SA offers its services without discrimination and usually without pressure to come to our church services. But how are new Muslim immigrants supposed to know that? Or Jews? Or Buddhists? Or non-religious people? If we're going to ask all of them for resources, we need to emphasize the non-discriminating facet of our "organization." The word "church," unfortunately, raises very negative images in the minds of non-Christians. Changing demographics mean, among other things, that fewer people will be sympathetic to supporting the SA if we go on TV and appear to be soliciting aid for our churches.

To Jenn and anyone else: what do you think PSers would think about what I've said here, especially about the organization/church distinctions? As I understand it (and I may well be wrong), the PS emphasis is primarily on saving souls. In the long run, will the movement be able to integrate its soul-saving mission with a strong social service mission? What do the PSers know or do that will enable them to successfully bridge the historical gap between the SA's soul-saving ministries and its social ministries?

Evie said...

I may have been mistaken in the last paragraph of the previous comment. Stephen mentioned the PS emphasis on holiness, which is quite distinct from an emphasis on salvation. Does the PS movement emphasize one of these more than the other? Does it emphasize both, depending on contexts?

Joanne said...

One of the cornerstones of the "Primitive Salvationists" is the emphasis on service to mankind. For that reason, the War College was located in the poorest post code in Canada, downtown East Hastings in Vancouver. Those who run, work at, or attend the War College all live in the area where they serve. For me, this is truly Christlike, truly what Booth lived and preached. Many lives have literally been saved through this approach. The drug dealers clear out when they see the war college students and officers. Those in crisis know where to go and who to see for support and for safety. Many of the young people who have attended the war college have told me stories of how they have felt God's hand working as they sat in the street and spoon fed soup to a stoned crack addict. There truly is the philosophy soup, soap and salvation.

One of the passions of those who formed the primitive movement is the youth of our organization. Danielle, having experienced rebellious and difficult teen years, knows full well what youth encounter today, and there is a recognition that the youth are looking for true meaning in life. The approach of PS actually brings a new and exciting approach to salvationism, and a clearer understanding of their beliefs. Unfortunately, what we now call "traditional salvationism" is actually based in mid 1950's - 1970's conservative philosophies. Ironic that the approach taken in the founding days of the Army is now seen by our youth as new and refreshing.

My bone of contention with the approach taken by PS, as has already been outlined by Stephen, is the literal translation of some of the Army doctrines by some. There is also a literal translation of some biblical references. I do emphasis by some however, as in my experience, it is those who are still immature in their faith and/or understandings that are literal in their translation. A clear example of this was when James started to see the signs of depression setting in while he was at the war college (yes James suffers from the 'family curse'), he was told by someone assocaited with the college that he did not have enough faith, that if he did, he wouldn't struggle with depression. James left the college. This type of approach could turn someone away from God, not bring them towards salvation. I took this concern to Danielle, who stated that this would be addressed through the college curriculum. Now that Steve and Danielle have been moved to Australia, it would be interesting to find out if war college students are being coached around appropriate approaches.

Evie said...

Thanks for your detailed comment. I figured that, of all the family members, you're probably the most familiar with the PS movement and was hoping you'd join the conversation.

The ability to connect with youth in a meaningful way is a gift, one that Steve and Danielle obviously have in abundance. They've been able to motivate many young people and help them channel their energy and idealism in positive ways. The idea of "getting back to basics" is not a new one in the Army, but the PS movement is the first one in my lifetime that has successfully given some substance to the idea.

Your description of the War College ministry in Vancouver is riveting. My question to you is this: is the War College engaging in social service or street ministry?

As you know, William Booth's initial ministry in the London slums was an evangelical one: he was out to save souls. Period. It took him a couple of decades to expand that vision to include ministry to physical needs. Once he made that mental leap, however, there was no stopping him and the Army. Today's PS movement benefits from that heritage; they don't have to re-invent the wheel.

Since Booth's time, the Army's social service ministries have grown far beyond inner-city soup runs and such. You know that as well as anyone in the family. The War College folks are on front lines that many Salvationists never see. Is the Army in Vancouver successfully integrating these street people (for want of a better term; perhaps it's too narrow?) into the larger sphere of Army life and ministry? Are these people joining corps and getting thorough assistance from the Army's social service network? It seems to me these are vital connections to make if the movement's vision of holiness teaching is to be realized. As I see it, soup on the streets would be the first step in an integrated ministry that, over time, ministers deeply to the multiple needs of these people. If these deeper connections with corps life and complete social services are not being made, then I wonder if the movement is going to realize the second part of its dual vision: leading people to holy living.

Do you know if the PS movement's conception of social service is as all-encompassing as mine, or is it more focused at the street ministry level of service?

Your observations about legalism and the tendency of some to view many things as spiritual issues when they are actually something else, like issues of brain chemistry, etc., are interesting. Legalism is dangerous because it can lead to false guilt and, as Stephen noted, needless fear. Viewing everything as spiritually-based is dangerous because it ignores the complexity of the human being and it can lead to real damage.

Take James' example. Fortunately, he knew he had a clinical condition. He also knew that his family would support him as he worked through the issues surrounding his War College experience. When someone sincerely but incorrectly told him that his was a spiritual problem, he was able to see the error in that "diagnosis." Based on statistical probabilities alone, it's likely that the War College people are encountering people with psychological and mental problems. If these problems are not being recognized and addressed, if they are, in fact, being mis-diagnosed as spiritual problems, these beautiful, enthusiastic, sincere War College people could be unintentionally inflicting damage on those they seek to help. Obviously, they can't be expected to diagnose mental illnesses. They can at least be taught that not all problems are spiritually based. (I hope Danielle was able to revise the curriculum before she went to Australia, or at least ensure that the revision would happen.) That's one reason why I hope that the War College ministry is being integrated with the Army's larger sphere of services. Somewhere in the Army chain of corps and institutions, someone will be able to either help these people address their non-spiritual issues, or refer them to professionals who can help them.

This is not a put-down of street ministry. It's just a caution to make sure that those involved in the PS movement don't lose sight of the forest because they're focusing too intently on the trees. Ensuring this balance is not the responsibility of the young people at the college. It is the responsibility of the leaders of the PS movement and of the Army at large.

Jenn said...

your approach to "specialized" churches is an interesting one, but how would that work? you are new so you go to church A, and when you have some more spiritual and church knowledge you go to church B and for those who are "experts", you go to church C? i'm not so sure i like that. that would contradict everything that "the church" is supposed to be about - inclusivity, not exclusivity. well, i certainly don't have the answer - if i did i probably would still be attending the SA!

Evie said...

You make a very good point. Looking at matters practically, no church could be 100% specialized. When you and Kevin bring home your baby, you will want your child to be nurtured in your church. You won't want to send him/her to "Baby Church" or "New Christian Church" down the street while you and Kevin go to "Lifelong Believers" church. And you won't want your child to have to work through various congregations to get to yours, only to discover that you guys have moved into "Oldtimer's Church," which will be distinguished from the "Lifer's" church primarily by the style of music you sing (one day you'll be the one singing the old-timer hymns and choruses; isn't that a weird thought?). So, yeah, the "specialty" framework is limited.

Nevertheless, the broad outline of the idea is probably what actually happens in real-life. For example, as you well know, there are some corps in Toronto where fifth-generation Sally Anns feel very comfortable. Some of those same corps are places where newbies feel really out of place. Every congregation develops its own unique character. Obviously, some kind of sifting-sorting-specializing process is going on. Some corps are known for music ministries. Others are known for women's ministries. Others are known for youth ministries. The categories are as infinite as the variety of people and needs.

I think any congregation needs to do three things:
1. Evaluate its current needs and resources and operate accordingly.
2. Re-evaluate needs and resources frequently and have the courage to change operations to meet changing needs.
3. Recognize that one corps/congregation cannot possibly meet every identified need. Choices, usually tough ones, have to be made.

In the SA, corps frequently do #1 fairly well at some point, but very few do #2 at all, let alone well. The SA does not do well at #3 either. The prevailing SA ethos is to "do something, anything, whenever we see a need." The hearts are in the right places, but the heads are not always in the right gear to realistically evaluate corps or community needs and the Army's abilities to meet them. There simply are some tasks that the SA should leave to others.

Joanne said...

You are right in that the PS engage in street ministry, not so much what we now see as socail services per say. The model of social services we now practice is that the people come to us. The War College students go out to the people. They are the first point of contact and will personally bring the individual to some of our social services programs for assistnace. Without them, many would not come through our doors.

As for your question on whether there is connection to corps being made......there has been some. How much I don't know. I have met some young people who came to the church through the PS movement. For me, the qiuestion becomes whether when they are connected, or they move to an area where the church is not as dynamic, are we able to continue to nuture them, and do they continue to grow and flourish. In our "traditional approach", I would think that this is may not happen.

I completly concur that in "mis diagnosising" what are now known as physical issues (misfiring neurons, brain chemistry out of wack, brain damage, etc.....)as spiritual problems, we can unintentionally cause further damage. Living in conservative Alberta, where many of our staff come to us to "save" the world, I deal with this day in and day out. When you think about it, we are saying that if you don't get better, you are not good enough in God's eyes. Do we say that to someone who has cancer or heart disease? I tell our staff that when statements such as was made to James are made, we are inflicting "unintentional spirtitual abuse". I have seen the damage it has inflicted on people, and for that reason I ensured that it was an issue I did approach with Danielle. Society has come along way from leaching, blood letting, Freudian blaming of the mother, etc. In dealing with the spiritual individual, we should not step backward.

My concern in Canada now is that we have leadership in place that does not seem to see the value in the PS movement. Although it is not for everyone, there are great things that are happenning. Where we recently had leadership that was forward thinking, we now have leadership that is very 'traditional' and appears to be looking back to the 50's, 60's & 70's. My current experience is that the approach is very perscriptive and is not allowing for new and creative approaches. There may be no choice but to "integrate" the PS movement. Actually, I am concerned it will be swallowed up and the work they do disappear.

Stephen said...


When I speak about the teaching of holiness, it's a theology of Christlikeness - not in the tryanny of legalism. I remember in my youth being afraid of going to hell if I did not immediately seek God's forgiveness. It was a day and age where the does and don'ts ruled the roust - when the O&R was just one step down from the Bible. Primitive Salvationism can be extreme - a Brengle extreme to the extreme.
Even as recent as the early eighties when I was still attending university, a visiting American SA officer was the special guest for a holiness weekend of teaching. On the Friday night, he was invited to be the special guest for the young adults group where he began to say that the moment we sin we need to seek forgiveness because if you were to die at that moment, you would not be able to go to heaven - at that moment of sin, you had now lost your salvation!

In the twenty-first century, I'm afriad that we don't emphasize holiness teaching - Christlike living - striving to be like Jesus in every aspect of life. I'm afraid we don't teach the "second blessing" as often as we should - perhaps for fear of not being "seeker friendly." Under conviction, I took ten weeks this past fall to preach a series that took us to the roots of holiness - of being like Jesus, the hope that possesses all of us.
When all is said and done, PS is a reaction from our wanderings from our Whesleyan teaching when there was a deep passion and fire in the belly of the Salvationist.

Stephen said...

PS harkens to a day when the sole purpose of a salvationist's existence was to lift a man or woman up so that they can see Christ - and how Christ can live in them.
Man!!! Have we done a bang up job - of lifting people up on a massive institutional scale - to the point where I believe we have lost in far too many instances, the human scale of the personality. When I think of PS and what they passionately live out, it's the human touch, at a deep human level - where government policy, political correctness, public acceptablity, funder driven mandates do not drive forward policy - they do not rule the day. PS drives home the point that perhaps, just perhaps, we have got off the rails of our calling to be the simple personal presence of Christ and then responding in a non-institutional way to their needs. I'm not saying we should shutter all institutions for many do amazing work. I think of the much smaller institutions like Toronto's Homestead, the Peel family shelters and many of our smaller shelters that do not proudly proclaim how many hundreds of beds are available to wareshouse humanity. I think of the fantastic ministries of the many hospices scattered throughout the country. I think of the hundreds of small locally corps based family services that work one to one, who know each person not as a client number, but on a first name basis - freely praying with them, advocating on their behalf - extending the hand of friendship and even an invitation to sit with them in church. I know of smaller drug hab centres where the 12 step programme is not about finding your own higher power, but in understanding that it is Christ that is the higher power. I think of the amazing ministry of our prison chaplins - going where most would tremble to go. These all harken to the PS call to lift up the man or woman so that they can see that they are the beloved of a God who has a purpose for their lives - that life is not limited our human frailities, but lived within God's boundless possibilities.
I believe that the SA in North America has much to soul search in this regard. I am becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the massive institutional scale of the Army and how it has become the driving force - the $ - competing with the next organization for the same $ to do the same thing as we are doing. I am concerned that in the drive for professional excellence, we value professional skill sets to the point where it has been seen necessary to hire employees who do not hold to a passionate faith in Christ. They may sign a piece of paper saying that they will support the mission of the SA yet (and is this ever a judgemental statement) it is not lived out - those that are passionate are more often than not restricted from professing it - from even initiating prayer with a "client." I was speaking to a wonderful non-Salvationist Christian not too long ago and spoke of his frustration and disillusionment of working within the Army. I'm not poo-pooing the wonderful work that is being done in many of the large centres. I know a number of men and woman over the years who have come to benefit from these institutional programmes - a few even spiritually.
The PS prophetic voice in the desert is calling to us to examine what we are really doing as the SA. Are these massive multi-million dollar projects that become all consuming and that yes, are wonderful programmes, really our calling? After 140+ years - have we lost sight of what we really should be? Is it time to let go of these massive in scale projects? What about smaller grass root movements - that touch the human personality on a much more personal level - with a spiritual pulse at its centre?
I'm afraid that much of what the Army is doing in our cities can be done by any other social agency. Sure we say that there is a spiritual component - but is that really at the centre of many of these institution? PS asks these questions.

Catharine said...

I'm not sure a formal open air is necessary, although in some communities it might work. I guess part of what I am thinking and feeling is that the Army has lost its visibility and this point has already been covered in many of the above comments. When I mean "visibility" I don't mean waving a hand in the air and shouting "We're here...We're Salvationists...We need X amount of and damnation." Visibility on an on-going basis should be an honest expression of our beliefs - Christ first, salvationism and holiness. We are a church that believes you need to feed the soul by feeding the belly. The zeal or thirst for saving souls beyond the four walls is not as evident to me any more. It is sad when we are comfortable sitting in our pews and not feeling that we should do something when someone hungry is right outside our doors.

Many of our centres/social services do not have very much of an Army presence any more. I am not saying that Christians from other denominations are a negative influence either. What they often lack is a full understanding and zest for the Army vision (Peel FLRC has only a couple Army personal now).

Last comment - I think we need to be careful with watering down Christianity. Today, you see a lot of humanist Christianity in which we push the power of positive thinking without the message of salvation. Holiness is also an essential messaage. I we just preach the power of positive thinking we have church attenders not saved souls. If we just preach salvationism we have lost the holiness message for a deeper relationship with God. It can be a astruggle to find a balnce between it all and it requires an intimate knowledge of the people in the congregation. As a teacher if I teach a concept that my students already know I am not using my teaching time effectively. In order to know what to teach I need to conference and assess my students on an on-going basis to really know my students.

Does any of this makes sense? I am getting a headache since I think I am twisting my words...