With her cheerful smile and simple attire, Danielle Strickland deceives. Nowhere in the encounter would there be a hint of the tattooed dropout and car thief she was before she encountered Jesus in a jail cell. That is until Strickland chose to mention how God has used her rebellious youth to prepare her for a lifelong fight against social injustice on behalf of the marginalized. Strickland has spoken around the world, befriended women in brothels, eaten with drug addicts and challenged power structures to make room for the powerless. She is a former church planter with her husband, Maj. Stephen Court, an officer in the Salvation Army. (Danielle recently left the organization after 22 years also serving as an officer.)
Her most recent books are The Ultimate Exodus: Finding Freedom From What Enslaves You (NavPress) and The Zombie Gospel: The Walking Dead and What it Means to Be Human (IVP).
Strickland is a humble provocateur, a spiritual entrepreneur and a persistent ray of bright light that reveals, inspires and yes, sometimes forces us to blink.
You grew up In Toronto in a Salvation Army family. How did that shape you?
My mom was a foster child. My dad was sort of sold illegally into a problematical home. They met in a Salvation Army camp and they decided to get married and break from the trajectory of where they would have ended up if they hadn’t met Jesus.
I was born when they were training to be Salvation Army officers. I grew up with this really great sense that all the things we have are for others who don’t have them. Like, a sense of paying it forward. To pass it on.
And also this fantastic idea of the gospel, that it’s never too late. That we’re on the side of the underdog.
In Canada everybody has a hockey team they’re cheering for, except in our house. I’d ask my dad whom were we cheering for, and my dad would tell me who was the underdog. We always cheered for the underdog.
Yet you rebelled early, dropping out of school, running away from home, stealing, doing drugs, living on the streets. What happened?
I had enormous misconceptions about God and authority. I really thought that God was keeping track of my wrongs, and was perpetually disappointed in me. I seem to be naturally not able to keep the rules. My mom calls it “a gift—on occasion,” this ability to abandon all rules.
The misconception about God being authoritative and disappointed—that most likely came from my tense and difficult relationship with my father. I was naturally rebellious, and his answer to rebellion was to crack down.
Did the institutional structure and culture of the Salvation Army come into play there?
Yeah. It’s kind of this dysfunctional mixture of both grace—we’re always celebrating people getting off the street or beating addiction or whatever, and coming to faith, so there’s this real celebration that’s grace-filled.
But then if you’re in it and you’ve been a part of it, there’s this frustrating part. I think there’s an easily misunderstood idea of behavior equating belonging. That’s such an easy distortion, isn’t it? You just change that two degrees and you’re off, right?
A lot of traditions equate proper behavior with true holiness.
Yeah, and as the leader’s kid, the pastor’s kid, there were certain expectations—and I wasn’t into it. I gave up early. I gave up trying to live up to any expectations.
How did the rebellion play out?
Basically, like everything in my life, I did it full-speed. The rebellion was like everything else, as fast and furious as I could do it. I think I stole my first car at 12. Drugs, crime, in and out of jail. Estranged from my family. All that kind of stuff.
Then at 17 I was in jail, for what looked like it would be for some time. I was in a holding cell in the basement of the Toronto City Hall. A Salvation Army officer came to visit me. She was a friend of the family. Her name was Joyce.
I was not pleased to see her. I was trying to get rid of the Salvation Army. I remember thinking, Oh great, here comes a lecture. But she came into the cell, wrapped her arms around me, said “I love you” in my ear and handed me a lawyer’s card.
I didn’t hug her back. I was not thankful. When she was leaving the cell I said, “You didn’t even bring me a smoke.” That’s how receptive I was. Then the door closed behind her, and I realized I was alone, all alone in this clanky basement cell.
Then Jesus showed up.
I don’t really know how to describe it except he came like Joyce did. No lectures. He hugged me and whispered “I love you” in my ear. I was genuinely, well, what I say is, it was as though someone turned on a light inside of me.
You had been running from an angry God and the Salvation Army. What happened next?
I went on a mission trip to Africa. I started to realize that God was bigger than I am. But I was terrible at “Christian things.” My attitude was a residue from my rebellion days. I was in trouble all the time.
We had to pass out tracts. One time I gave one to a girl. It was the world’s worst gospel presentation. She said she was interested, but I made her sit through the gospel four times. She still wanted to invite Christ into her life.
What I couldn’t get was that God could use me. I could contribute. When I figured that out, I knew I had to find a way to do ministry all the time.
How did you reconcile with your father?
At a prayer meeting shortly after my conversion he asked for my forgiveness for his posture and attitude. That was a massive step in our reconciled relationship.
And then in my recovery journey I was able to own and identify areas in my own heart and life that had created barriers between us. Dealing with those has been key to a healthy relationship with my father.
So you committed yourself to ministry, and you chose to stay in the Salvation Army.
I went to Salvation Army training college. It’s a two-year school where you study the Bible and practical application. That’s where I met my husband.
It says something that they were willing to assign a former drug addict and thief to be a church planter.
Yeah, I was 22 years old, and we were told to grow a church. Our first posting was in northern Canada. It was 12 hours away from the nearest Salvation Army office.
After your international experience, did you chafe at doing ministry in a remote small town?
Did I ever! What happened was, I was officially sent—when I was commissioned as an officer—to Russia. I spent a year in Russia as a volunteer when the Salvation Army was headed back there with all the churches reopening after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I was convinced that this was what God wanted me to do.
I actually said to my husband that he had to agree or I wouldn’t marry him. Nothing was going to stand in my way of being a missionary. We got married and spent that summer learning Russian.
Then we got called into the office and they had changed their mind. They never said why. To this day I don’t know why. They said you’re going to this town instead, this small town in northern Canada, and yeah, I definitely did not like it.
It was like, Yeah, you’re in the Army now!
I was very unhappy with that move, but at the same time God did some incredible things to form us as leaders. In hindsight I can see now God using that opportunity to shape us into the kind of leaders he wanted us to be. But I never shook the bug to go overseas.
So we said, Let’s just do this thing. Let’s win this town. Let’s transform this community. How are we going to do that? Well, unity’s going to be the way. Every denomination in town bringing its best flavor. It was quite a learning curve.
Sounds like your approach was collaboration, not competition.
I think it had to do with my first mission being with an interdenominational group. Right then when I was forming my approach to the whole world, I realized we all were the whole church.
Also, when officers are appointed to communities, in the regulations you have to follow as an officer, your actual appointment is to the town, not to the Salvation Army church. I think, too, about our history of revival. My husband and I trained in Toronto, right when the Toronto Blessing happened. It was really controversial, I know, but it also was a great demonstration of God doing something sovereignly, outside of anybody’s control.
So when we went to our first town we definitely weren’t interested in people just transferring from other churches. We wanted people to come to Christ who didn’t know Christ. We wanted the whole church to grow. That collaborating was part of mandate.
How long were you in rural Canada, and what fruit did you see?
For almost seven years. We had some really amazing things happen there. Like all the churches in the town came together. The group actually decided as pastors—we signed covenants with each other—that we would only celebrate growth if the whole church grew together.
That really changed the dynamic of competition a lot. It developed a really beautiful trust and camaraderie with other pastors.
You preached. Did you face hurdles because of that?
I never really saw preaching as this special thing. I always saw it as part of the many things I did. But when I looked back I realize I preached a lot, and at other churches.
I think one of my gifts is leadership and the other gift is preaching. It didn’t feel like I was trying. It almost felt accidental. It came naturally.
You’ve mentioned elsewhere a bad dream around this time, which God interpreted in a way that turned out to be transformative. What was the message?
I feel like God said to me, you’ve walked through a cultural doorway in Western society—into cultural sleepiness. If you give in to that spirit—and I felt like he was talking about the whole church but he was speaking specifically to me—if you fall asleep, you’ll be consumed, but not in a blaze of glory, not fighting for things that matter. You’ll be consumed by things that don’t matter. Like, what type of worship you use, or what color of paint you pick for the wall.
I remember saying to God, I don’t want to die like that. I don’t mind dying, but I want to die doing something that matters. So I said to him, how do I not fall asleep?
He said, you have to wake yourself up. He said, Discomfort is a tool of awakening.
It’s like this: If you’re falling asleep at the wheel while you’re driving, you pinch yourself or you turn up the radio too loud or you open the window. You don’t do that for your comfort. You do because there’s something more important than your comfort. You want to live!
Discomfort as a tool of awakening—What did God wake you up to?
I felt like the Lord was telling me that the reason I wanted to go overseas was to escape what I would call a Western cultural stronghold. But he needed people to live missionally, people who were awake, so that the whole Bride would not be consumed.
It was a real shift for me. For the rest of my life I’ll want to go—to the world. It’s part of what it means to be a Christian, to make disciples everywhere. But the dream and the word from the Lord—Could you wake up in this sleepy culture? Could you live a different way right here?—that was a missional calling he had for me. That was really formative.
In Part 2 of this interview, Danielle Strickland talks about her heart for justice, battling sex trafficking and transitioning from the Salvation Army to serve the broader church.
Read more at OutreachMagazine.com/Danielle-Strickland.