TELL ME WHY
There’s a story of a newly married couple who were preparing their first Sunday lunch, a traditional roast dinner, after church. The husband took the beef, chopped its ends off, and placed the now three pieces of meat in a roasting tin inside the oven. His wife was a little perplexed. She had never seen this
technique before and asked, “Why did you chop the ends of the beef?” Her husband replied that he didn’t really know but that, “It’s just what my Mum always did.” A few weeks later, they went to the husband’s parents for Sunday lunch. They watched as the man’s mother dutifully chopped the ends of the beef and placed all three pieces in the oven. When they asked her, “Why do you chop the ends off the beef?” The mother’s reply was that she wasn’t too sure but that it’s what her father had always done.
A little while later, both couples went over to the grandparent’s house for Sunday lunch. They watched Grandpa take the beef and place the whole thing in the oven without making any cuts. Perplexed, they exclaimed, “Why didn’t you cut the ends off the beef?” to which he replied, “I haven’t done that since I got my new oven, which is big enough to take the whole joint of meat in one!”
The passing of generations means that it can become easy to fall into the habit of doing things without really understanding why and, as this apocryphal tale illustrates, when we lose sight of why, our actions perhaps lose some of their meaning. In this instalment of the Worship Theology series, we’re going to reflect on the origins of why three particular practices of Salvationist worship emerged and consider ways in which our contemporary actions might re-capture something of their original intention.
Theatres, Skating Rinks and Drinking Songs - Connecting with Culture
Upon his, perhaps reluctant, arrival in London in 1865, The Salvation Army’s founder William Booth was moved by two plights he encountered. The first was abject poverty as thousands crammed into the East End’s slum dwellings in dire living conditions. The second was that for these masses, Christianity appeared to make absolutely no difference to their lives. In 1868, William published a piece of research in which he argued that in Bethnal Green (an East London suburb with a population of 180,000), only 2,000 people attended churches on a Sunday morning whilst around 20,000 attended public houses. 1 This reality incensed him, and Booth was scathing of the churches of the day for practicing their worship in ways that failed to connect with working class culture. Booth’s overwhelming theological conviction was that salvation was boundless and that as such, the church urgently needed to find ways to relate to those who were not engaging with its established means and methods.
In other words, for Booth, the priority was usually for missional effectiveness over maintaining established practices. If the “Smells and Bells” of middle-class Anglicanism didn’t float the boats of the masses who were drowning in a sea of poverty, vice, and ignorance, then Booth was all for dispensing with them. This is partly why early Salvationists held worship in skating rinks, dance halls, theatres – sites of working-class culture – instead of churches and chapels. It’s why they ditched hymns and organs and replaced them with popular instruments and songs set to the tunes of secular music (try singing, “Here’s to rum and whisky drink them down, drink them down” to the tune we associate with Storm the Forts of Darkness and you’ll know what I mean).
This principle of adapting methods and means to communicate effectively in different cultural settings is a New Testament missional principle. All throughout the book of Acts, we see the first Apostles learning to speak new languages, both linguistically and culturally, in order to express the Gospel. The challenge for the contemporary Salvation Army comes, I think, as we consider the question, “In what ways does our worshipping life today connect with those in our surrounding communities?” It’s easy, with the passing of time for the “stuff” of our worship (songs, instruments, style) to become the thing that we hold onto tightly without realising it’s no longer connecting with the people we’re trying to reach. The principle of early Salvationism is that “mission matters most” and, whilst we could discuss this statement much further, it gives us a nudge to be prepared to let go of our own preferences in worship for the greater missional good.
Reflection Question: Thinking back to our church service last Sunday, what aspects might have connected well (or not so well) with people for whom Christianity currently makes no sense to?
Testifying to What God Has Done - The Power of Participation
A powerful aspect of early Salvationist worship was the inclusion of testimony, both in song and spoken word, as a means of expressing God’s transformative work in the life of one individual to inspire and challenge others. It’s said that Richard Slater, a prolific Salvationist musician and songwriter sometimes known as “The Father of Salvation Army music,” was converted at the Regent Hall Salvation Army on Oxford Street following the testimony of Harriet Craddock, a young maid. Slater, a highly educated Philosophy lecturer who had been a nominal Christian but had lost his faith during his teenage years, heard the young, uneducated teenage servant testify to the difference Christ had made in her life in a direct and profound way. The story goes that she stood up and testified, “I used to sweep the dust under the carpet until I got saved…now I even sweep under the carpet.” The power of her testimony given in worship made a significant impact on Richard Slater and our worship (sung and spoken) should give people the opportunity to express what a difference God has made in their lives.
The why which underpins this aspect of Salvationist worship is that we believe that God is at work in the lives of ordinary people and thus ordinary people have something worth saying. I’m a big fan of learning theology, biblical studies, and doctrine, and I currently spend a significant part of my life helping to teach and encourage those on the journey to full-time Salvation Army leadership. At the same time, our tradition is one of participation in worship from the whole body regardless of their education, their rank, or their position. Salvation Army worship, at its best, is inclusive and participatory, not being led by an exclusive few or professionalized pastors but gives the opportunity for all kinds of people to be involved. The testimony of a young, uneducated house-maid changed the course of Salvation Army music. What other things might we be missing out on if we don’t maximize the opportunity for the widest group possible to participate in worship.
Reflection Question: How many people had the opportunity to participate in worship last week? Which voices might be missing from our worship?
Marching as to War - The Jukebox of Justice
As we use instruments in worship on a Sunday, it might raise an eyebrow (or a smile!) when we consider why brass instruments first made an appearance in Salvationist worship. In Salisbury (UK) in 1878, an appeal was made for some bodyguards to protect the Salvationists gathering to preach and worship in the open-air marketplace who were attracting opposition. This call was answered by four members of the Fry family who pitched up with their brass instruments and offered security to the gathered group as they preached a somewhat unpopular message against the injustices of evil. Salvation Army music has always had a sense of protest about it and has provided a soundtrack for the Army’s war against all that stops people from experiencing life in all its fullness in Christ. This is quite a unique aspect of our hymnody. If you flick through a Salvation Army Song Book and compare it with the hymnbooks of other traditions, you will find a much greater proportion of songs which speak about fighting battles against evil, storming forts of darkness, and turning the world upside down. Within our tradition, music is both a motivator and a means of Kingdom action within the world.
I was completely inspired a few years ago when, in 2016, Europe was in the thick of a migration crisis as refugees fled Syria. Captain John Clifton and Major Nick Coke organised a carol service, complete with brass band, outside the UK Houses of Parliament. The service was entitled More Room at the Inn and was dedicated to refugee children stranded away from their families. The words of popular carols were altered to help people think about a great injustice and evil in the world (“In the bleak midwinter/Far away from home/Children sleep as refugees/Scared and alone”). This is Salvation Army worship music at its finest and true to its roots: the jukebox of injustice fuelling the fight against wrong.
Last autumn, an article appeared in Christianity Today magazine which studied how the 25 most used worship songs reported to the CCLI Copyright database compared to the Psalms. 2 It reported that the word justice appeared once in passing in the top 25, whilst it appeared 65 times in the Psalms, and that there are zero references to the poor or poverty in the top 25 whilst victims of injustice are frequently mentioned in the Psalms. Whilst this might be a lamentable omission, the same isn’t historically true for Salvationist music. In my opinion, contemporary worship leaders should find ways to write and lead songs which inspire and fuel the battles against evil and injustice.
Reflection Question: How could I use music in the fight for social justice?
I’m sure that this list isn’t exhaustive but, in considering the whys of just three aspects of our worship, hopefully it has provided a starting point for reimagining and motivating innovation and creativity for the future.
Written By Capt. Callum McKenna
1 Booth, William, ‘The East London Christian Mission Under the Superintendence of William Booth’, Revival Magazine, 6 February 1868, p.1