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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Are we on the verge of a crisis?

It was pointed out to me recently that there are fewer and fewer musicians in The Salvation Army than 15 - 20 years ago. It's a complicated scenario, but I would like to suggest one contributing factor to this. I suggest that this is the collateral damage of the Worship Wars. I don't need to describe to you what happened during the 90s in particular when whatever was "old" was considered "bad" and so abandoned for the "new and relevant" worship and mission tools. Part of what has been lost, or is being lost in the vast majority of corps is brass bands. Now, I don't want to open up old wounds, nor "take sides" in a dead debate from last century. That's not my agenda here. I just want to highlight what we lost when we abandoned banding on a large scale in The Army.

One thing that banding did very well for a very long period of time was train younger musicians. Once you hit about the age of 6 or 7 you were either handed a cornet (valued somewhere in the vicinity of $1000 each mind you) if you were a boy (generally) or a timbrel if you were a girl (generally). You joined the "Junior Band" or the "Junior Timbrels" and quite often there was someone to tutor you one on one, particularly in those early days. Is it any wonder when you consider the decades that this process continued for that we churned out some of the best brass musicians in the world (My own grandfather was Australian Champion on the Euphonium at one stage). 

When we decided that brass bands were no longer relevant, not only did we discard the band itself, we also discarded this process of developing the next generation. What do the replacements to banding (worship teams) do in its place? Nothing but hope that parents spend $40 - $50 a week for 10 years for their child to "maybe" become good enough on the piano, guitar or drums to get a go in the music team. I have not seen anywhere (yet) where young children are being giving the skills in music that will support worship in The Salvation Army into the future. 

This, I believe is just one example of a much bigger problem. You see, one of the fundamental philosophical shifts in the period surrounding the Worship Wars was the belief that if you "got the parents" you would "get the children". We got this dead wrong. Consider these raw statistics from The Salvation Army Year Books from 2000 and 2010 in the Australia Eastern Territory (the weak of stomach may want to turn away at this point).
                                2000              2010
Active Officers            603                520            (-17%)
Senior Soldiers            11,193            8,698          (-23%)
Junior Soldiers             1,397             490            (-65%)

What pool do our Officers come from? From Senior Soldiers of course. And what pool do we gain most of our Senior Soldiers from? From Junior Soldiers. Now if Whitney Houston was correct and the children are our future, it's looking pretty bleak. 

What are our options here? 
  1. We need to invest in developing good quality resources for children's ministry - Junior Soldiers, Corps Cadets, Sunday School, Music classes/lessons etc. Call it what you want, but we need these resources now. We need to expand the pool from which our future leaders are fished from. One of my lecturers once said that he thought every Sunday School teacher should have a PhD in theology. Probably a little bit of an overkill, but it does emphasise the importance of this point.
  2. In the mean time, we need to be taking some serious, albeit calculated, risks. The other reality of the stats above is that the Active Officers are mostly heading towards retirement. In the next 5 - 10 years most of those in senior leadership now will retire. We need to consider more seriously now who we appoint to some of those middle leadership positions in our territory. Years of service are a great addition to the resume but they will become a luxury that only few will have. We will need to look at other credentials when it comes to advancing leaders towards senior positions. They will need experience in those middle leadership positions, but they need to be given it now in order to be ready for when that large number of officers retire. 
  3. Investing in eduction in general will remain critical, and in fact should expand. The worst thing we can do is a knee-jerk, panic ridden reaction. Yes, these stats are scary, but we need to think long term. The 6 and 7 year-olds of today will be our cadets in 15 years time. We need to think of them in that way, and start teaching them accordingly (whilst still being age appropriate, of course). There is no quick fix here, and education must be a major part of the solution.
  4. Pray!
Again, I don't want to be the prophet of doom, but I also need to be realistic. We all need to start thinking differently about how we conceive ministry, including Officers and soldiers (junior and senior) and we need to start now and we particularly need to start young.

Clearly this is a complicated situation. I would love your comments on this.


  1. Well said Adam, it wasn't just about the band or the type of music, but it has left us with an identity crisis that few Christian and non Christian people understand. They are asking, why we would do such a thing to ourselves. I too, came to the Salvos because of the ministry of the band and I stayed because of many people who invested in me and the faith I found in Jesus.

  2. Thanks for your post Adam it is certainly food for thought.
    The statistics you present tell part of the picture. If we were to open them up to even greater detail (such as detailing the age of the senior soldiers) we would notice that we are missing people within a certain age bracket. A statistically significant number of those people would have young families now with children who would fall in the classification of 'junior'.

    I have for a long time believed that we understand the past so that we can change the future. If we acknowledge the reasons for the decline in a generation then we will be half way to finding the solution to our issue. This of course is complex and needs to be approached from various angles. I believe current leadership is addressing the issue and while change is slow, I believe it is happening.

    I strongly agree that we need to 'invest in developing good quality resources for children's ministry'. However I think the greatest resource in this area (and perhaps in all areas)is people.

    We need good people, dare I say holy people to love our children and spend time with them reading scripture, praying, talking, texting, blogging, jamming, surfing, dancing or hanging out, etc.

    I recently heard a young soldier (30+ yrs) speak about discipleship. He spoke with passion and commitment, and to pay him the highest compliment, I would love a guy like this to hang out with my son (AGED 9). Parents can do so much, programs and parties are important too, but I believe the greatest resource we still have is the people (as your mum said). Young men and young women who will lead our children into the future Army. And I believe if future leaders listen, respect and try to understand those younger than they are, giving them guidance & flexibility, choices & feedback then the Army will advance to be what God intends it to be.

  3. You have some very good points here, Adam. We have seen similar 'worship wars' in other denominations in the US and are still experiencing the fallout.

    One of the other things we have witnessed with this is a decline of hymn writing. While there are some fantastic worship leaders out there who also write great music (some of it theologically rich), the theological content of your average worship song doesn't come close to that carried by hymnody. As a result, music is serving less as a teaching/confessional tool and more as a method to evoke emotional response. I am afraid we are poorer for this.

    There is great value in contemporary worship, and its quite enjoyable, but there is also great value and enjoyment in traditional forms of worship. And as you have pointed out, sometimes there is more to it than just making music.

  4. There is much food for thought about our beloved Army, writing as a 71 year Bandsman who has been associated with Army bands since being a young teenager. The demise of Army bands reflects what I think is a fundamental shift in practical Army theology from being The Salvation Army to being The Worship Army, a separate but parallel shift to that of the style of music. The problem to me is not so much the style of muisc (the Army has always been contemporary) but its theological content. Bands and Songsters were all part of our salvation theology, to go out into the community to proclaim the saving news of Jesus Christ. Now if all I sing are praise and worship songs (even Praise My Soul or How Great Thou Art)it is only the first part of the story as it omits the holiness theology of our holiness songs, the salvation theology of our alvation songs, and the evangelical theology of our call to war songs. There is a full story to be told, not just a part. But with the part, we no longer need our bands and Songsters. We have retreated into our Citadels, refer to ourselves as a Church, not an Army, and we come out for lunch. Our welfare work is no longer an outcome of our salvation but something done by our dedicated officers and paid employees.
    As to our youth missing out. I have 3 grandchildren at one Army Corps. No problems with them learning an instrument and getting all their sharps and flats right and becoming good ensemble players - that is part of our family tradition. But there is no-one to teach them how to become Army bandsmen/women. There is no YP band and a struggling Corps band. Similarly at another Army Corps (which has a functioning bannd) , no-one is interested in teaching my 4 grandchildren an instrument or encouraging them to be interested in learning how to become an Army bandsmen/women. I well recall John Cleary at the Parramatta Celebration of Salvation Army Bands (packed hall of over 500 on a Sunday night)telling us that when he came to Brunswick Army as a local kid, the person who encouraged him was a bandsman who was extremely vague about the difference between a sharp and a flat. But he took an interest in John, encouraged him to learn an instrument, took him home for meals, and mentored John into becomong saved, and yes, joing Brunswick Band, and ultimately becoming Bandmaster, and laid a foundation for all John's wider work. That for me is what Army Banding is about.

    All I can do is pray and support my bandmaster and songster leader as we engage in our one meeting of the week with each other in our Citadel.

  5. Some really interesting comments here. Thanks. There's a lot to think about and a long way ahead, but it's good t at least talk openly and honestly about the problem in order to seek a solution.