Monday, June 10, 2013

Salvation Army Congress 2013

Part of a series on Stuff You Might Not Know About.

Hark! from ruin’s ghastly road,
Victims groan beneath their load,
Forward, O ye sons of God,
And dare or die for Jesus.

—"Storm the Forts of Darkness," Robert Johnson

This weekend I got to see the annual Salvation Army Central Territory Congress.

Congress* is when the Salvation Army seems most real. At other times, it is a somewhat scattered thing, and it's easy for members to forget that they are part of something bigger than their local church. Congress, though, brings people together from hither and yon to a veritable smorgasbord of Salvationism, complete with bombastic and cheerful music, seas of uniforms, reunions of friends long separated by hundreds and thousands of miles, and numerous semi-arcane ceremonies and rituals. It combines the feeling of a corporate retreat, an old-timey tent meeting, an alumni reunion, and a graduation ceremony. (That is to say: Congress is where Salvation Army folks hear about the state of the organization, sing songs and commit themselves to God, see old seminary classmates [if they are/were ministers] and friends, and ordain seminary students as ministers, respectively.)

While this annual event has the benefit of bringing members together and reinforcing their sense of purpose and identity, it also epitomizes and demonstrates the Army's many eccentricities: its strange military-style hierarchy, organization, dress code, and language, for one, as well as its somewhat unique status as both a tiny church and huge service organization.

These tendencies get expressed in a number of ways, perhaps the strangest of which (and a personal favorite of mine) is the Army's tradition of singing hymns about itself. While just about any church will sing hymns, for a variety of purposes including worship of God and reminding itself of its principles and mission, no church I am aware of sings songs as explicitly about itself as the Salvation Army does. I think this comes from the fact that the Army has a somewhat unique view of itself. Most denominations have a tendency to view themselves as in some way The Church, with the rest of Christianity somehow "doing it wrong" and therefore not as true to God's purpose as themselves. The Salvation Army, on the other hand, is, like, totally open to the fact that it is merely a segment of the larger church with a special mission, specifically to seek and save lost souls. Since this mission is quite challenging and often discouraging, it can be extraordinarily helpful to sing about it and relate it to a strong in-group identity through song.

Here's four hymns sung at the first service this weekend. Note that the only song not explicitly or implicitly about the Army is "Amazing Grace." Also note that there is an entire song just about the Army's flag.  (PS: Note how stoked we were to have THE GENERAL in town for Congress.)
When singing explicitly or implicitly about itself and its mission, and at all other times, really, the Army has a slightly unnerving tendency to encode martial imagery into things. It's not that the Army is about literal violence and warfare at all; it's just that it tends to view the world in terms of a stark conflict between good and evil, with Christians in general and Salvationists in particular called to engage on the side of good in the "glorious fight of love." The Army focuses on combating sin, but also on alleviating despair and destitution and providing healing and hope. From an outside point of view, this tends to come off as either a lovably eccentric expression of a passion for ministry and service to the lost and broken, or a slightly disturbing worldview that could result in more harm than good. My experience leans toward the former, but I'm obviously biased.

Just look at this thing! It's got swords and "BLOOD AND FIRE" on it for crying out loud.

Other martial/military eccentricities include a reverence for and prominent use/display of a flag, seen here in a parade of flags representing different seminary graduating classes (no, really; see :12 to :20 in the following):

As well as a tendency to encode military language into the organization and habits of the church, including calling seminarians "cadets," clergy "officers," and ordination "commissioning," as well as a bona fide military-style salute; check it out basically anywhere between :55 and 1:25 in this video, where cadets are commissioned by the General:

Watch live streaming video from salvation_army_media_tv at

The coolest part of this Congress was the participation of the General, the global leader of the Salvation Army. The current General, Linda Bond, is a pretty cool person. I went to Congress hoping to hear her speak about a vision for the future, to get a fresh perspective on what the leader thinks is right and wrong with the Army the way the current Pope is doing for Roman Catholicism. The General's vision was both simple and compelling: she encouraged people to stop focusing on being "relevant" to the world and finding the next gimmick to bring people in, and instead to focus on telling people the message of God's love for them. In other words: stop worrying about being a small denomination and start worrying about doing what you can to love and serve others. It was good stuff, and not unlike Pope Francis's focus on caring for the poor and bringing Catholics back to the church. In other words, I was not disappointed. 

*Apologies, by the way, if you're used to the word "Congress" referring to the U.S. Congress; Salvationists tend to use the word without any modifiers to refer to this annual event. See also: our tendency to refer to our church as simply, "The Army," another verbal source of confusion for newcomers and outsiders.

Photo Credits:
Photo 1: Ryan McFarland,, modified 
Photo 2:, modified
Photo 3:

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