In the Australia Southern Territory of the Salvation Army, the beginning of the year is the time for field changes. Many officers are now settling into new corps and getting to know their new congregations. There are a number of questions they will no doubt be asking, including how will I cope in this new communal context? What is this corps like? What are the touchy issues that divide people? What has taken place in the past? What gifts has God given to the members of this corps? What does their mission to the people in this area involve?
In trying to understand your new corps, it is tremendously important to realise that no two corps are exactly alike. Corps are not like McDonalds franchises, each one virtually identical. Your corps and every other has its own distinctive personality. Just as our own personality is the product of many forces: genetics, home environment, life experiences, education, health, socio-economic standing and so on, so too is the personality of your corps. It has something distinctive about it, which despite the coming and going of officers and people, has a degree of continuity. Nevertheless, corps, like people can change. They can discover a new lease of life, overcome blockages and head off in new directions. What you will be doing in the next few months is getting to know the personality of your new corps.
A Collective Personality
The personality of any corps is the sum total of everyone and everything that constitutes it. It is made up of individuals, each with their own personality and concerns who somehow, Paul insists, are in God’s sight a single entity, the body of Christ. The fact that the local church is more than an aggregation of those who gather together on Sundays is also highlighted when Paul and other New Testament writers liken the local church to a family. In using this evocative communal language, the Bible anticipated modern day theorists who speak of families, churches and institutions as ‘systems’. Systems thinking is basically a way of seeing groups of people as all of one piece. It encourages reflection on how the various parts interact, and how the relationships between the parts produce a collective whole with a distinct character. A systems approach maintains that any one member or part of a family, congregation, or a secular institution, functions as they do because of the way the other parts function. Change in one part will impact on other parts and thus on the whole. Probably the best illustration of systems thinking is the finely balanced children’s mobile.
Thus whether we think of each corps as the body of Christ, or as like a family, or as a system, the conclusion is the same. A church is more than the sum of its parts. As an entity it has its own distinctive character and personality.
Many Salvation Army Officers and soldiers would like to think they are ‘just Christians’ but after two thousand years of church history this is not possible. Each denomination has distinctives and The Salvation Army is no exception. There should be full fellowship with other Christians but Salvation Army Christians also make a distinctive contribution to the rich tapestry that is the twenty first century world-wide Christian Church. Just as our personal history is part of what makes us who we are, so too Salvation Army history in important ways makes all Salvation Army corps what they are. Distinctively, under the guiding force of General Booth the Salvation Army insists that evangelism and social action, Word and deed, the love of God and the love of neighbour go together and can never be separated.
Social and Geographical Context
A corps in ‘the bush’, one in a new housing area, one in a socially deprived suburb and one in affluent middle class suburb will be very different from each other, simply because of where they are located. In seeking to understand your corps, the social context is very important. In the bush, one or more key families may run the corps and give it stability. Officers come and go but the corps continues as it is, basically unaltered by the impact of the Officers. From year to year, numbers probably remain about the same with a few people joining or leaving for one reason or another. Change is resisted strongly. The social and political ideas that prevail are often basically very conservative. In the new housing areas often mostly mothers and children attend, with a few fathers and teenagers. In this context, as in corps in older suburban economically deprived areas, the needs of the people are often very great. In both of these contexts money is scarce, as are people who can teach in the Sunday school, or play the piano, or read the Bible aloud in gatherings. Corps in older, poorer suburban locations often have declining numbers and an increasing average age. Very few, if any, young or younger families are involved. People tend to think that their corps has a limited life span. Maintenance rather than mission is the main agenda. In affluent middle class suburbia things are different again. For many Corps members in this context, church is only one aspect of a very busy and full life. They may come with high expectations and with little inclination to become involved in any costly way. They expect their Officers to run things well, while a few very committed soldiers do most of the work. Money to run the corps is no great problem although what is given each year is invariably just a little less than what is asked for in the budget. What is of huge concern in many middle class suburban corps is that so few are involved in costly mission.
Some people seem naturally welcoming and warm and we find them likeable because they are always pleased to see us and affirm us by what they say. They are interested in us and in what we are doing, support us in hard times, and always speak well of us to others. Others are just the opposite or between the two extremes. It is the same with corps. Some are unfriendly to visitors and little love appears to prevail among members or between the Officers and the people. Hopefully such examples are rare but they do exist. Most corps are welcoming. Members care for one another, and there is a sense that the Officers and the people value and respect each other. Such corps could be described as having a warm, sunny, welcoming personality. Most Officers want to see their corps become more welcoming and on arriving set this as a goal.
The Interpersonal Climate
How the people relate to one another within the corps and how they relate to their Officers is hugely important. A corps where people speak negatively of one another and constantly criticise their Officers is not a very positive social environment for regulars or visitors. The way criticism and conflict are dealt with is a profound personality characteristic of any corps. In no corps is everyone equally enthusiastic about the music played, the time of the meetings, the length of the sermons, and the mission work undertaken. From time to time there will be criticisms voiced on such matters and conflict will arise when change is on the agenda. How these things are dealt with generates a distinctive emotional and spiritual climate. Where on a regular basis criticism is rejected and dissenting views are ignored or attacked, the emotional and spiritual climate soon becomes very negative. People say things like, ‘No one ever listens to me’, or, ‘Nothing is ever resolved in this corps, or, ‘Our Officers only like people who agree with them’. In contrast, corps where criticism and conflict are accepted as a fact of life and dealt with well, develop a positive climate. They come to have an integrated personality where openness and good will prevail.
The word ‘happy’ needs to be used with caution in relation to congregations, yet it is hard to avoid. In some, people feel really positive about their corporate life while in others the feelings are just the opposite. The first are accurately called ‘happy corps’, the latter, ‘unhappy corps’. More than any other factor the way conflict is handled determines this. The congregations where as a general rule conflict is not faced, upsets not dealt with, criticisms met by hostility, soon become seedbeds of discontent. People feel frustrated and angry. Conversely, corps where these things are faced and dealt with maturely seem to blossom. Goodwill flowers.
In human beings, size bears on personality only marginally; with corps it is very significant. Some think this is the most important factor in determining the personality of any corps. A small corps is a very different phenomenon to that of a medium sized one, or a large one, possibly with several officers. Quite a lot has been written on the different characteristics of different sized churches, and this makes interesting and informative reading.
To Sum Up
Your new corps is more than an aggregation of those who attend. It is the body of Christ, a corporate entity with its own distinctive personality. A number of elements which go to make the personality of any congregation have been discussed. You may think your corps is much like any other. Be assured it is not. There is no other corps anywhere in the world the same as yours. The God of the Bible seems to like variation. He makes no two persons exactly alike and no two congregations exactly alike. It is important to know the individual strengths and weaknesses of your unique personality and it is important to know the strengths and weaknesses of the unique personality of your corps.