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Soup, soap and salvation

July 12, 2008

In those golden days before we all had mission statements the Salvation Army summed up its Raison d’être as ‘soup, soap and salvation.’ The Army’s always preferred pragmatism to deep theology, and I think this is as good a summary of what it is we do as I’ve heard anywhere.

In fact, I’ve heard people expound on it too. Not only does it say what we do, but it gives us the right order in which we do it. First (soup) we look after a person’s immediate physical needs. Then (soap) we help restore their dignity and get them back into society. Then finally, we share the gospel with them and hope they’ll accept it and join us.

I’m glad we’ve always realised we can’t preach to people if they’re starving. Affirming their dignity as human beings is important too. And I’m glad we haven’t forgotten ‘salvation,’ which is, after all, what our movement’s named after.

I do have one problem with this little mission statement. It’s not wrong per se, but I think it has been misinterpreted to mean, ‘Soup and soap in order to procure salvation.’

This is a big problem in the Army. So many of us judge our social programmes not by the number of people living better lives, but the number of backsides on seats at the meeting on Sunday. Feeding people, housing people and helping them kick whatever bad habit they might have are fine, but there is a common perception that they’re not what we’re on about. Those things are secondary to our real job, which is to get souls into heaven.

To a point I agree. Some of the programmes we run could be better run by other organisations. But I don’t think we can judge what we do by the very narrow metric of church membership. And we shouldn’t do ‘welfare’ things simply as a hook to get people saved.

Skye Jethani writes about this in the context of church planting. The orthodox wisdom is that you survey the area you’re moving into to find out what the community needs, then you provide that service. This will give people a willingness to listen to you and they’ll be more likely to come to your church.

This idea seems fairly close to what Jesus did. He’d move into an area, perform a few miracles then teach the folk. The miracles would draw a crowd and prove that he came from God. Thus he could be trusted as a teacher. However, this seems to miss what Jesus was really doing.

In other words, the miracles played a secondary role to his teaching. They supported it, but they weren’t the main game.

Jethani quotes N.T. Wright, who pointed out that the miracles didn’t serve this function: they were important in and of themselves. In fact, they accomplished exactly the same thing: they served to admit the outcast back into full membership of Israelite society. More generally, they allowed people back into full communion with God. Says Jethani:

If theologians like Wright are correct, and Jesus didn’t address felt-needs to win a hearing or confirm his message, then how and why we address felt-needs in our present ministries needs to be reconsidered. For example, if Jesus’ healed blind Bartimaeus and the bleeding woman not to win their approval or validate his teaching, but rather to restore them to full communion with God and his people (something their handicaps prevented), then our good works need to be more than smart PR or marketing. They too must have some intrinsic gospel validity–a worthiness beyond validating our verbal proclamation.

To my mind, the soup and the soap are just as important as the salvation. They all say the same thing: God loves you and he wants you to be whole.

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