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The lessons of history

The lessons of history

The lessons of history

24 May 2018

The megachurch was framed as the model of the future church in the 1990s. Photo: Joshua Sorenson

By David Woodbury

“Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it,” said Winston Churchill.

In the late 1970s, The Salvation Army began to explore and embrace the emerging church-growth philosophy. We were persuaded that we were a dying organisation and unless we adopted some extraordinary growth measures we would soon cease to exist.

It would seem that such a philosophy may well have been erroneous, since we were still a growing organisation right though until the late 1980s. Official statistics for NSW, Queensland and the ACT reveal the number of soldiers at the start of each decade: 1950 (10,257 soldiers); 1960 (11,200); 1970 (11,595); 1980 (12,271); Late 1980s (13,257).

From somewhere in the 1980s, officers were increasingly exposed to purportedly church-growth experts, more often than not from American, personality-centred mega-churches. Inordinate funds were spent on sending officers to some of these centres, mostly in the United States, to learn church-growth principles which would, we hoped, reverse the perceived decline in our organisation; a practice that continued for some decades. No doubt some officers benefited personally from the strategy; however, there was no measurable impact on the territory.

If this philosophy had been correct, then our soldiers roll would have continued to grow, however, quite the reverse is true. From around that time the soldiers roll went into freefall. From 13,257 soldiers in the late 1980s we have declined to 7880 by 2016 (around a 41 per cent decrease). Now while there may be some cultural issues present and given the fact that Papua New Guinea was separated from the Australia Eastern Territory in this period, the decline is still quite dramatic. Like any army around the world, be it military, secular or spiritual, our strength is measured in our enlisted personnel.

Some of the personality-centred church leaders we have extolled have turned out to be disappointing. One of the protagonists held up as an example of this successful growth movement was Robert Schuller. He was vaunted as a living example of how we might resurrect the perceived decline in The Salvation Army. His TV ministry, The Hour of Power, along with his opulent Crystal Cathedral, marked his philosophy out with all the characterisations of American excesses and consumerism. However, like many organisations based on a personality, the whole empire crumbled amidst bitter family squabbling, his church filed for bankruptcy in 2010 and his Crystal Cathedral was sold off to the Roman Catholic Church.

In 1980, personally committed to church-growth principles, along with other officers from this territory I attended a self-funded church-growth seminar at Paul Yongi Cho’s church, the Yoido Full Gospel Church, in Seoul, Korea, then the largest church in the world. The most crucial lesson I learned from this is that not all concepts are transferable between church and/or national cultures.

There has been a predominant influence exerted on us from the American megachurch movement that needs to be challenged. American and Australian cultures may look the same on the surface, but there are signicant and crucial differences between them. The words of the two national anthems highlight our cultural differences. The Star Spangled Bannerwith its “bombs bursting in the air”; and Advance Australia Fair with its “golden soil and wealth for toil”. Not only are our national cultures different, but also our church cultures. Not all concepts are transferable.

Perhaps the time has come for some painful and candid self-examination and an admission that in pursuing American mega-church philosophy, we simply got it wrong, in spite of our best intentions. It may well be that we were mesmerised by the spectacle of the immense. Numbers and size do not necessarily demonstrate God’s blessing on a spiritual organisation.

As we seek to unite the two Australian territories and reposition The Salvation Army for the future, what is needed is that we are true to our roots and our calling. It is unlikely we can go past General John Gowans’ triad; The Salvation Army was created to achieve three very definite things. It was created to save souls, to grow saints, and to serve suffering humanity, and Gowans was to add: “If we stop doing any one of those three The Salvation Army will cease to be ThSalvation Army.”

Perhaps it is time that we stopped looking to other denominations and perceived experts, mimicking their philosophies and their practices, and started looking to the history and the essence of our own movement and our own people, if we are to be true to our God-ordained mission.

*This article reflects dynamics found in NSW, Queensland and the ACT. Statistics in Australia's other states have been diffcult to locate, as the The Salvation Army Year Book does nor record soldiership statistics in these states until around 2000.

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


  1.  Colin Brownhill
    Colin Brownhill

    Someone said "you've got permission to make mistakes" It was prophetic advice in ministry. Kind Regards...Colin

  2. Ashlee Metcher
    Ashlee Metcher

    It may well be that we were mesmerised by the spectacle of the immense. Numbers and size do not necessarily demonstrate God's blessing on a spiritual organisation.
    Is there a possibility that the second sentence in this quote also related to the Salvation Army in the earlier decades that was mentioned? Maybe many people became soldiers just to join the band and songsters?
    I don't think there has ever been a better mission statement for TSA than what Gowans came up with, that I believe is what we still need to live if we want to see our Army again become what it was raised to to be.

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