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Out of tune

Out of tune

Out of tune

13 February 2018

The Salvation Army's music is multi-dimensional and missional.

By David Woodbury

As a mission-focused organisation, the early Salvation Army effectively utilised its own particular style of distinctive and unique music to drive its missional focus.

Perhaps of all our early mission officers, William Pearson stands out as one who had a clear and focused missional mindset, reflected in the words of the song he penned:

We’re an Army fighting for a glorious King; We will make the world with hallelujahs ring;

With victorious voices we will ever sing: There’s salvation for the world.

For the world, for the world, Jesus died, Jesus died,
For the world, for the world, there is room in Jesus’ side.

All the world to save, to battle we will go, 

And we ever will our colours boldly show, With a trumpet voice we’ll let the millions know

There’s salvation for the world.

(Song 940 – The Song Book of The Salvation Army)

During my active years as an officer I was required by the then-Territorial Commander, Commissioner John Gowans, to move throughout the Australia Eastern Territory reporting through our printed and electronic media, on corps activity, particularly in newer corps. I quickly became aware of a trend towards worship music, generally sourced from other contemporary churches. It was not unusual to hear the same worship music in a number of different corps.

Since my retirement, I have noticed this trend growing and becoming more entrenched to the point where, at times, the only music utilised is what is termed, worship songs. Such music has a legitimate place in Christian movements.

However, there is a sense in which an over-emphasis on it gives a one-dimensional aspect to our meetings. That emphasis not only narrows our focus but also impacts our mindset, turning us more and more inward in our thinking and our attitude.

I find a resonance with General André Cox’s words in an issue of The Officer magazine last year when he wrote: “I fear that The Salvation Army has become more of a worshipping community than a serving community.”

Worship music is what it says it is: simply music written to worship God.

Its one-directional influence tends to be inwardly focused, and an over-emphasis on it may well engender a more cloistered and narrow mindset.

Salvation Army music is multi-directional and in essence more missional than either the traditional or the contemporary church, and tends to broaden our mindset to include evangelism and compassionate action.

To sideline these aspects of our music is to disengage a crucial aspect of the Army’s calling.

Perhaps it is that our focus on worship music has heavily influenced our corporate mindset to the degree where mission is relegated to a lesser place.

If our worship of God does not result in service for God, then it may well be unbalanced. A quick perusal of the latest Song Book of The Salvation Army reveals that our music includes not only worship of God, but also a wide variety of other aspects of Salvation Army mission, theology and philosophy.

Perhaps in some way we have been seduced by the music philosophy from other apparently successful denominations. However, some of their music may well not fit the ethos or spiritual philosophy of The Salvation Army.

In many ways the significant focus in the earthly ministry of Jesus centred on the spiritual development and the equipping of his disciples for mission.

While there are a number of oblique references to worship, only on two occasions does he directly reference worship; his confrontation with Satan and his discussion with the Samaritan woman at the well.

The final words of Jesus were not about the Church, or worship of God, but about mission: “Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19 NLT).

As an organisation, we were, and should still be, a mobilised, serving Army, missional in our mindset and terminology and missional in our music. I suspect the churchification of The Salvation Army and the over-emphasis on a narrow style of music have tended to turn our focus and mindset inward.

If we continue down this path, the local Salvation Army centre will become indistinguishable from the contemporary church down the road; it will look and sound the same and much of that which is distinctive and unique about the Army will have disappeared.

Sadly, I see that in some places this is already happening. It is doubtful that a mission called by God for a unique ministry can survive as just another church in a setting that is already overcrowded with contemporary, fashionable churches. 

Major David Woodbury is a retired officer and former editor of Salvation Army publications. 


  1. Eleanor Shepherd
    Eleanor Shepherd

    I am writing in response to the article in February 2018 Others called Out of Tune by Major David Woodbury. I agree with him that some of the songs from the early Salvation Army do underline clearly our mission to reach the world for Jesus.

    I also think that Major Woodbury is astute in noting the danger of worship music becoming one-dimensional. If we were to categorize it according to the threefold purpose of The Salvation Army as articulated by General John Gowans, we would note that worship music contributes significantly to the growing of the saints, but less so to the saving of souls or serving suffering humanity.

    While this emphasis of worship music may have failed to support the total mission of The Salvation Army, I think that there may be another challenge that we need to consider - our failure to update the language that is used in the songs that are included in our Song Book that clearly articulate our mission.

    Having served as a Corps Officer for the last four years in one of our growing congregations, I was aware that much of our growth is from newcomers to our country. In our particular situation these people are learning to speak both French and English. To require them to learn an archaic form as English as a third language is more than I felt I could ask. For this reason, I only used these songs when I was able to find ways to translate into contemporary English. However, the urgent demands of ministry left little time and for the revision of old English of Army songs.

    What I experienced at Montreal Citadel is not all that unique. In many parts of the world, English-speaking congregations are growing because of the immigrants who are becoming part of those congregations, having arrived from parts of the world where the Army is growing rapidly in Asia, Africa and Latin America. We place obstacles in the way of their embracing of our mission, when we articulate it in the third language of archaic English rather than the everyday English they are learning.

    Not far from our International Headquarters in London, England is the well-known worshipping community of All Souls, Langham Place. Here, when I have visited, we have joined the widely diverse multi-cultural congregation in singing not only contemporary worship songs, but also the ancient hymns of the church. However these hymns have been slightly altered so that they are now not only in contemporary English but also in gender-neutral language. This creates the impression that all are welcome in this place.

    Perhaps we could take a page from their book and at least offer those marvellous Salvation Army songs that have stirred us to follow our mission in language that can be understood and savoured and passed on to another generation.

    Eleanor Shepherd

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