October 26, 2004
Cryin' at the doorstep of those armies of salvation

One of my complaints about churches has been that they don't seem to take the idea of Christian service seriously. So I thought, why not check out the Salvation Army? That's what they're known for.

I've had virtually no contact with the Salvation Army outside the usual (calling them to take away my old furniture), although I did know a woman at Christian Assembly whose husband was in their rehab program, and she was very positive on them. I figured it would be a 180-degree turn from the Eastern Orthodox service last week, since my image of the SA is of earnest Victorian practical do-gooderism. I figured it would not be very pleasing aesthetically, an impression reinforced by the building, which is a hideous grey block that doesn't look anything like a church.

It's right in the shopping district of downtown Santa Monica, and in fact when I went there I parked at the huge garage I normally use to go to the mall. It was pretty strange parking there and getting into the shiny silver elevator and telling myself that I was actually going to church, not to try on jackets at Macy's.

The sanctuary itself, fortunately, was a lot pleasanter than the outside of the building. It was plain but had a warm, cozy feel to it. Because it was small even the full room probably had less than a hundred people in it, but it was the most diverse congregation, both in terms of ethnicity and age, that I've seen since I went to the local Catholic Mass more than a year ago. And perhaps more surprisingly, given this, there was a warm bonhomie among the group. People chattered and hugged as they gathered and the service was punctuated with amens and hallelujahs and with good-natured heckling when the video system cut out. Even the kids seemed to be having a good time, which is a rarity in church.

The service itself was a lot like other evangelical services I've been to, although it didn't have a full-blown rock band (which was good, given the small venue). Also, this was the first service I've been to where the offering actually came before the worship started. But I guess that fits with the SA's priorities.

There was also that peculiarity of the SA, the military imagery. The pastor was called "Captain," and there was also a Major doing part of the service. Both wore those characteristic SA uniforms. I have to say I find the whole military thing unappealing, even though of course it is not meant violently. I kind of sympathize with Vaughn Thompson about the whole "armies of compassion" idea. But I also know that the imagery goes straight back to the New Testament. Dwight remarked on this on his second Revelation post:

When I first met Stanley Hauerwas – one of the most combative and consistent pacifist theologians one is likely to meet or read – he autographed one of his books to me, encouraging me to faithful service in the “Army of God.” I questioned his use of a military term to refer to the life of faith. He responded that the people of God ought not to let others set the terms of discourse or to claim exclusive right to the use of certain well-established terms in the Christian lexicon. His point was that the Scriptures (especially the New Testament) speak of the army of God without in any sense intending to portray them as militarists. While there is a war to be fought, the weapons of that war are not swords, guns, or missiles; rather, the weapons are the Word of God (on our part, at least). I now see that he has a most apt apocalyptic view of the life of faith.

From what I know of Hauerwas from others, I gather a lot of what he likes about the idea of a Christian army is its sense of discipline and urgency. "Peacetime" implies a state where everyone goes about their personal business, making money and raising families, and that isn't what Christians are supposed to be focusing on. So I respect the SA's use of military terms. But I still think the uniforms are ugly.

Anyway, the sermon topic was church unity. The captain didn't actually address this in terms of resolving disputes over doctrine, but in terms of church members participating in projects together. (That's a very Salvation Army way of looking at it, now that I think of it.) After he wrapped up the sermon and said a prayer, the captain asked anyone who wanted to make a commitment to participating in the church to come down to the front. When I looked up again, there was a whole row of people kneeling at a rail in front of the podium.

I realized I was witnessing something I'd heard about, but had never actually seen: an altar call. These are apparently standard procedure in the Bible Belt, although unlike this case they're normally about winning converts rather than commitments to action. The Internet Monk is so frustrated with the ubiquity of altar calls among evangelicals that he wrote a massive three-part essay denouncing them.

Like I said, I'd never seen an altar call per se, but reading Michael's essay I did remember how the culture of "invitationalism" sometimes emerged at Christian Assembly. Perhaps the oddest example was when I was most of the way through the Alpha course, after my table had had many discussions and had gotten to know each other pretty well. One of the table leaders turned to me and said something like, "We've been talking to you about this great thing, like here's this delicious strawberry pie that we've been eating, and we've never actually offered you any." And thus followed a formal invitation to me to come to Christ.

I sort of smiled politely the way I did when church people did things that didn't make sense to me. After all, even at this early stage of things I'd been attending the church for several months, had been pestering Telford with endless questions (which is why he suggested going through the Alpha course to begin with), had volunteered to go to Watts and hand out food to poor people, and was driving an hour and a half through rush hour to get to Alpha. So to act as if I were passively waiting for someone to invite me in was ridiculous. But maybe that was simply the conversion template that he'd learned.

There's something a bit more pernicious underlying his metaphor of God as a strawberry pie, though, which the iMonk hints at but doesn't exactly spell out. It's the idea that God is somehow the property of the church, for them to hold or give out at will. This attitude is most obvious when churches are possessive (e.g., those protestors around the Ten Commandments monument saying, "Keep your hands off our God!"), but it also comes through when they're trying to be generous. It's tricky because the church is clearly meant to be a special vehicle of God, and therefore necessary for Christians to participate in, but it still belongs to God, not vice versa.

Anyway, I can't help thinking this mindset was also behind the one conversation I had after the service. I was actually feeling ill (from a virus as it turned out, not from the service), so I didn't hang around to talk to people afterward, but I stopped to pick up a free magazine outside the sanctuary. While I was in the middle of stuffing it into my purse, a guy who had briefly introduced himself to me before the service came over and asked, "So, will we see you again next week?"

I've been asked that question at churches before, but at the end of conversations, not as an opener. I didn't know what to say, and blinked stupidly at him. He seemed to realize his mistake, because he amended himself to, "I hope we'll see you again next week," and held out his hand to me again. Then he was gone.

Posted by Camassia at October 26, 2004 09:50 AM | TrackBack

Hi Camassia-
Some very thoughtful reflections here. Like yourself, I'm very sympathetic with Hauerwas' apocalypticism (which certainly includes some war imagery). He's very nuanced about this. But its imagery is really difficult for me to invoke inasmuch as it often has a bad effect on other people. Other Christians hear the word "war" and think violence. So, I sort of feel ambivalent about the imagery. Its accurate, but most people misunderstand it in the Christian context.

Thanks for your thoughtful posts!

Posted by: Vaughn Thompson on October 26, 2004 11:43 AM

You obviously know far more about psychology than me but I assume the invitation is what some want. In the political realm it's an article of faith that a politician must literally ask for your vote. I'm always put off by that, thinking "Duh! Isn't that obvious? You're not running for President for your health." But I've always thought that it must work on some else it wouldn't be such a long-standing practice, just as these offers to indulge in "strawberry pie" are.

Posted by: TSO on October 26, 2004 07:14 PM

Thanks Vaughn. Obviously today Christians have baggage that they didn't have in St. John's day -- there hadn't yet been any actual Christian armies going around killing people! Of course, Hauerwas is the last person to think Christians should worry about their "image", but certainly you have to think about context whenever you try to communicate (I think that Jesus did).

TSO, no doubt that does work for some people. I didn't mean that there's anything wrong with inviting people, really, but I was struck by the iMonk's description of how much evangelism in that arena has come to be organized around that model. It may explain why the table leader applied it to me, even though it was inappropriate. But then, I tend to see a huge theological superstructure behind every remark ...

Posted by: Camassia on October 27, 2004 10:16 AM

Great post Camassia. Very thoughtful and thought-provoking.

I've never seen any (within evangelicalism, that is) complaint or critique of the "alter call" approach. That's refreshing! :) "Invitationalism" and "owning" God. I have never viewed my days in a fundamentalist church as having those qualities of attitude, but it did!

For me, I think the problem I have with the "friendly" approach (as you note in your post) in some evangelical churches is that the friendliness seems to have this underlying agenda to get me to join the church so that they can feel successful at "winning souls". Thus, I'm another number to tack to the sum of "new members" or "souls for Christ". Seems as if the faith is a product to sell so as to ramp up the customer base. Or at least that's the impression I have gotten sometimes.

The whole issue of military-speak: early Friends often wrote in similar language despite their insistence that they would never take up literal arms against God's creation. Nonetheless, they saw their struggles and purpose in the world as part of "the Lamb's War". I rarely read or hear any (liberal) Quakers use such language these days. :)

Posted by: Joe G. on October 28, 2004 12:19 PM
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