Friday, August 31, 2012

The Salvation Army: A Frustrating, Wonderful Church

This is part of a series of Essays from a Christian Perspective.

Joy, joy joy! There is joy in the Salvation Army!
Joy, joy, joy, 
In the Army of the Lord.  
—"Joy in the Salvation Army," William Pearson & William Bradbury 

Note: inspiration for this week's blog post came from two sources: my friend Julia, who asked me about my church, and the BBC show "Rev.," which is about a vicar in the Church of England and his struggles with, among other things, the idiosyncrasies of the modern Christian church—it's an awesome show!

I grew up attending church at the Salvation Army. It was a great place—and a great way—to grow up.

That the Salvation Army is a church surprises a lot of people: most folks in the States associate it with thrift stores, or social work, or perhaps disaster relief. So a pretty stable part of my childhood, and indeed my whole life, has been explaining that in addition to those ministries, the Salvation Army is indeed a denomination of the Christian faith. In the early years this was frustrating, but now it's as natural as breathing.

I was not big on tough questions, analysis, or challenging authority as a child, so I viewed the Salvation Army as a wholly benevolent and wonderful organization until I became an adult. These days, I still have a lot of good to say about it, but I also have a number of profound frustrations; some of them based on my personal preferences and beliefs, and a few that I see as objective problems with the church, regardless of my beliefs.  I thought it would be healthy for me to articulate both frustration and joy here. (Disclaimers: if you are a member of the Salvation Army, please take these criticisms constructively, because I love the Salvation Army and would never mock or insult it; if you are not a member of the Salvation Army, and are not familiar with it, please remember that these are simply my opinions, and not necessarily the whole truth on any of the issues at hand.)

I'll start with the criticisms and then get to the good stuff.
  • Bureaucracy: This one is common to most churches today, especially in the West, where various scandals and lawsuits have made red tape inevitable. (If you've got 30 minutes to spare, I highly recommend season 2 episode 1 of Rev. for an amusing angle on the subject.) But the Salvation Army is the place where I have the most direct exposure to church bureaucracy and where I am frustrated by it the most. In particular, many administrators seem to enjoy exercising their power by creating and enforcing rules for rules' sake. A case-by-case approach or one taking mitigating factors into account is rare. Example: I was teaching a class (on my own and the student's free time—not a scheduled course) to some students at the Salvation Army's seminary, and after a few months got hauled in to an administrator's office and reprimanded. My crime? I hadn't told any higher-ups that I was on campus teaching a class ( my friends...on our free time). I was accused of "sneaking around" and violating various rules that I didn't know were rules. My students were also reprimanded.
  • Christian Fundamentalism: The Salvation Army as a whole is not a fundamentalist sect. But there is a strong trend toward and identification with fundamentalism among many of its laypeople and leaders. Fundamentalism is, in my understanding, a modern phenomenon. It is a way of reading scripture and practicing Christianity that is not, as it might claim, adhering to age-old tradition and practice, but rather by nature a reaction against modernism and therefore quite recent. Its focus on Biblical literalism, rejection of scientific advancement and reason, and frequently apocalyptic mindset strike me as both deeply troubling and thoroughly backward. Example: when I was waiting with family in the hospital while my mom was having surgery, the Salvation Army ministers waiting with us tried to strike up a conversation about how Obama was probably the Antichrist. (I was livid, but I walked it off.)
  • Social Conservatism: I identify as a left-leaning moderate (or a straightforward liberal; it depends on the day) politically. So I find conservative viewpoints to be frustrating, especially when they are backed by religion, which they often are in the Salvation Army, from pulpits or in Bible study or youth groups. That is not to say that conservative viewpoints are all wrong or incompatible with a right reading of scripture, just that I find them frustrating. That said, I do thoroughly disagree with the Salvation Army's conservative take on homosexuality, which you can read here. Go ahead and read it if you like; it's actually a very gentle, kind statement, to my eyes, not particularly harsh or judgmental. But it is based on a fairly narrow reading of scripture, and it makes little attempt to account for the fact that, if we are God's creations, then some of us are created homosexual. I will not go into all the reasons I disagree with the Salvation Army's position; my thoughts and those of many others on the subjects of homosexuality and traditional marriage are decently summarized (if somewhat playfully) here and here
  • Worship Style: I've discussed things like this before, so I won't dwell on it much. The Salvation Army has some very unique worship elements, but overall it's often very similar to many other "low church" settings: guitars, drums, words projected on a screen, PowerPoint sermons, and so forth. It is a style driven by the desire to attract people with the familiar, rather than a desire to connect worshipers with the body of believers past and present. (An episode of "Rev.," [season 1, episode 2] explores this issue; some great commentary on the episode can be found here.)
With all those things I find frustrating, you may ask, why do I bother associating with "the Army" (as we often call it) at all? 

Here, briefly, are some reasons: 
  • Love: The Salvation Army is full of wonderful people who love each other, God, and their neighbors. There's a reason I've grown into a fairly well-adjusted, kind, faithful person: I had a lot of really good examples to look to when I was growing up in the Army.
  • Social Justice: More than any church I've ever visited, been a part of, or read about, the Salvation Army views its primary mission as serving others, especially the poor, broken, and suffering. This, to my mind, is a fundamental element, if not the primary function, of the Church of Christ in the world (though it shames me to write it, as one who often neglects this duty). I'm proud of the Army for holding up this example to other churches and to the world.
  • Global Family: Salvationists (as we call ourselves), no matter where we are on the globe, feel connected to one another as part of the same church, in a way that I've rarely heard described in other churches. I've done a fair amount of travel, and whenever I visit a Salvation Army, be it in another state or another continent, I am instantly welcomed, and often I am already known. This is the universal experience of Salvationists. Perhaps it is because the church is so small—100,000 members in the U.S., 1,000,000 worldwide—but I think we welcome and befriend each other so readily because we know what the Army is about (loving one's neighbor, caring for others) and we trust that other Salvationists know it too.
I assure you there are other reasons to love the Salvation Army; these are the big three for me. I hope I have been able to communicate my care for this church adequately; I am frustrated by it because I love it. I do have high hopes for it in the future. 

Photo 1: 
Photo 2:


  1. Thanks for this balanced essay.

    My favorite part, though: the story of getting reprimanded for organizing an after-school CLASS.

    Yes, I'd say the same goes for public education. It's flawed and valuable at the same time.

  2. Well said, James. I especially enjoyed your description of fundamentalism. And you peg the Army very well in your three reasons for continued association with it. Too bad about that CFOT thing, sheesh.