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Mind your language!

Mind your language!

Mind your language!

1 August 2018

Photo: Jason Betz

By Mal Davies

In the aftermath of the cultural explosion of the 1960s and ’70s, Salvation Army corps discovered that the old “franchise” idea of what a corps looks like had gone out the window.

Institutions were breaking down; traditions were being challenged and initiative and innovation were made welcome.

Suddenly there was room for some creative freedom, not only in style of worship but also in what activities were provided – if you didn’t want to have a Home League or timbrel brigade or hold kneedrill, you didn’t have to!

Corps began to experiment with things like different times for meetings (rather than the standard 11am and 7pm), different forms of leadership (corps council versus leadership team), different expressions of worship (café church and youth crushes) and, maybe most alarmingly for some, different terminology began to creep in.

Even today at your corps, for example, do you talk about the Sunday meeting or the Sunday service? Do you tell someone to meet you at the hall or meet you at church? Do you have a Sunday School or a Kids Church?

Do you hold soldiership classes or membership sessions? Do you point out to visitors who the corps officer is or who the minister of the church is? Are you a corps, a church or a community centre?

A few years ago I recall seeing a corps advertising within The Salvation Army for a “youth pastor” and I thought: when did we start using “pastor”?

In my role as a corps officer I get to meet a lot of people and talk about the work of The Salvation Army. This includes talking to groups of school students, Rotary Clubs, community centres, business owners and social and welfare workers from non-Army agencies.

I confess that at times I feel awkward saying: “Hello, I’m Captain Mal Davies, I’m the Corps Officer from the South Barwon Corps.”

Generally, it comes out more like, “Hi, my name’s Mal Davies, I’m the officer, or minister, at the South Barwon Salvos church in Belmont.”

Rank doesn’t matter to non-Salvos, so no point saying “Captain”. “Corps officer” needs explaining, so I add “minister”. “Corps” means nothing to most people (apart from being the middle of an apple) so I say “church”.

And South Barwon isn’t even a suburb, so I add that the church is in Belmont. Sundays are another matter. If a visitor attends our meeting for the first time, should I say, “The CSM will bring the announcements”, or should I stick with my usual, “Ali is going to bring us a few announcements”?

When speaking about the theme for the morning, should I refer to what we’ll be focusing on in the address, the message or the sermon? And what would that visitor conclude when I announce that dear old Mrs Smith has been “promoted to glory”?

We’re a strange lot, we Salvos. Does our language make us appeal to visitors and non-Salvos or is it an exclusivist vocabulary aimed at upholding Army traditions and functioning as a “secret” language that only we know? Does our language help people in or keep them out?

Some will say that any updating or loss of Army terminology or vernacular is another nail in the coffin of The Salvation Army.

Lose our language and we lose our DNA, they say. Well, I don’t think it’s that scary. The international Salvation Army isn’t about to collapse if we update some terminology. The key question is possibly: do we exist for the good of the unsaved or for the good of the soldiers?

Former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple made the pertinent comment: “The Church is the only organisation that exists for the benefit of its non-members.”

The 2012 book Jim & Casper Go To Church told of how pastor Jim Henderson invited atheist Matt Casper to attend 12 different churches with him and offer honest feedback. They attended everything from a small-town church to a mega-church to a church for recovering addicts.

Among Casper’s astute observations was the question: “Where do you learn to talk like this?” When Jim asked him what he meant, Casper said that the language of most preachers he heard was not the sort of language real people use.

Who uses words like epistles, redeemer, fellowship, missional, sanctification, evangelist and being “saved” in everyday use?

I could say the same about a number of Salvo expressions, from “corps” and “corps officer” to “junior soldier” and “corps cadet”.

Apart from us and the military, who speaks like that? So, again I ask: does our language help people in or keep them out?


  1. I am the Family Pastor at a Corps and most of our congregation are all first generation attendees. I use Church language other than Salvo language as I find myself explaining too much of our language and jargon. Time to update. Military language is not suitable for this day and age as so many people come from countries where the military is seen as negative.

  2. As always, a well considered and thought-provoking article, Mal. Thanks!
    It could be said that our internal language has changed, evolved and adapted over the 150 + years of TSA. But are we still lagging a generation or two behind. I imagine so!
    Language and meaning is constantly changing, so we have an ongoing challenge to seek terminology that will resonate with current vocabulary and vernacular, but still retains sufficient internal depth of meaning for the ‘gathered community of The Salvation Army’ and others with an investment in supporting our work and purpose in the world.
    Added to all this is the problem of remaining culturally relevant as an organisation (or church). Younger generations are no longer embracing organisational membership in the same way as society once did. And of course, the Church has a diminishing esteem in a society that increasingly dismisses religious faith and practice, or has been disconnected, battered and bruised by perceptions of institutional church behaviour, hypocrisy, corruption, abuse, etc., etc.
    We live in challenging times to call yourself a ‘follower of Jesus’, but we can only effectively meet the challenge by learning to speak the same language as the society and culture that we supposedly exist for!

  3. Hi Mal
    Thank you for your well thought out article. Please find below an article I wrote in 2010 which was published in the AUE Pipeline magazine which speaks into some of your concepts.

    The Salvation Army, as its name indicates, operates within a framework heavily influenced by military terminology. Words like soldier, officer, corps, division, headquarters, continue to be used extensively which highlights the extent of the military metaphor.

    The question I wish to address in this article is this: When it comes to communicating the good news of the gospel in society, in 2010, are military metaphors positive and helpful, or are they negative and unhelpful?

    Well, I think it all depends on how people interpret or understand the military terminology. If people attach the same kind of meaning as does The Salvation Army, that we are engaged in a war against all that is evil, discriminating, marginalising, destructive, and the like, in society. Or, as the Australian Warcry so helpfully puts it (in relation to the name of the magazine), “The name refers to our ‘war’ against evil forces and influences in the world; we raise a ‘war cry’ in opposition to anything that crushes the human spirit.” If this is how people interpret the military metaphor, then that can only be a positive and helpful understanding.

    However, if people do not attach the same meaning as does The Salvation Army, then this could easily bring about a negative and unhelpful experience. For instance, how good is the good news if the cultural forms (military metaphors) it is delivered through invoke in some people meanings associated with hurt, fear, violence, war, or terror?

    Now the problem is not with the metaphor itself, because metaphors are basically neutral. The problem lies with the fact that meaning cannot be communicated, only messages can be communicated. Meaning is built, developed, in the head, the mind, the cognitive processes, of individuals. This means that while we, The Salvation Army, may attach certain meanings to the military metaphors, if that is not the same meaning that those to whom we are communicating the gospel attach to them, then we have not communicated anything. More to the point we may have communicated something entirely different, even worse, perhaps something offensive.

    So at the end of the day it does not matter what meaning we, The Salvation Army, attach to the metaphor, it is the meaning that other people attach to it that will make or break what has been communicated. It is what people think, and the meaning they build in their head, when they see the uniforms, the buildings, the branding, and when they hear the words, that really matters. If this aligns with what The Salvation Army thinks about the military metaphors then that is helpful, if not, then I think you know what the answer is.

    So the question remains: In a society that is largely post-lineal, post-literate, post-logical, post-liberal, post-modern, post-Christendom, and post-military: How much can we sell the metaphor?

    It appears that the leadership of The Salvation Army do recognise that there are issues relating to the interpretation of some of the military metaphors. This is indicated in a November 2008 Officer to Officer letter which states that the word ‘Corps’, “…is not generally understood by the community.”

    It seems to me though, from thirty plus years of observation, that it is highly unlikely that The Salvation Army will decommission (another military metaphor), all of its military terminology. This may well be a shame because the way I see it is like this. If The Salvation Army simply continues to communicate the good news of the gospel to those who already think like we do, then I think that that resource will become decreasingly smaller till perhaps there is no one left to hear us, and that would be a tragedy.

    There will, no doubt, be those who dismiss this article as the un-informed ramblings of a misguided officer. That is fine, everyone has the right to reject or accept any particular concept or idea. There is something though which no one can deny, and that is that for many people in society today anything to do with war, the armed forces, the military, and the like, is an anathema. Yet are not these people among those to whom Christ calls us to share the good news of the gospel? How then will they hear?

    Perhaps what is needed is the contextualisation of the military metaphors into forms that make sense to the community each expression of The Salvation Army is engaged with?

    It’s all about making sense to those we are trying to communicate the gospel to. As a letter to the editor of the United Kingdom ‘Salvationist’ (24 January 2009) asks: “….I wonder about retaining the traditional title The War Cry. Does this symbolism still make sense to the wider public?”

    I wonder as well?

    Bruce Domrow (April 2009, revised February 2010)

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