So,I didn’t realize that Regent’s Hall, the Salvation Army headquarters, would be in the middle of a street full of retail stores. Perhaps because of the videos we watched, or perhaps because of my suburban, Bible-belt church experience, I simply expected a grander, bigger structure than the one we entered. Pretty sure I would have walked right past the Salvation Army sign had I not been with a group of students from our class; I was expecting a building more like this miniature, beautiful Catholic church right down the road from our South Kensington residence. I certainly wasn’t expecting the essentially modern space we walked into, or it’s placement on Oxford Street.
As Sarah said at lunch, the whole experience seemed to me an odd combination of inclusivity and exclusivity. I was pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of many of the “soldiers” because I find that’s rare in a church, to be so welcoming to newcomers. Then again, we did stand out as a rather obvious group, which may have had something to do with the welcoming behavior. One man in particular, the gentleman in charge of the visiting international officers, did ask if we thought we’d come back and I wasn’t quite sure how to react. Naturally, we informed him that we’d return later in February, but had we not already planned that event, I’m not sure what I would have said. After all, there’s really no tactful way to tell someone that you find their preachers boring.
Though I didn’t find the service particularly fascinating, I did enjoy the brass band music in spite of the fact that the standing outside bit made me a bit uncomfortable. I’ve grown fairly against that type of evangelism because it doesn’t allow you to get to know the people you’re preaching at before you preach at them, but I recognize that this is a very personal, biased opinion. The music was nice and for the most part sounded good; the band wasn’t together for the last notes of pretty much every song, but I’m sure I only noticed that because I used to be a band student. As I said before, overall the soldiers were very friendly; several people came up and asked where we were from, what we were doing at the service and in London, but the open air service itself almost struck me as a sort of show. There were people passing by and there seemed to be a soldier who had slips of paper with Salvation Army information to give to people, but he wasn’t exactly doing the standard evangelizing, approaching to strangers reel. The soldiers just did their own spiel and let passersby listen or ignore them. I suppose that the people who regularly shop at Oxford Street on Sunday mornings must be used to the open-air spectacles by now and I noticed a few people stopping but, for the most part, people seemed to ignore the lot of it.
The service might have felt like a performance to me because the musicians are just used to doing this weekly and perhaps they see it as an essentially ineffective exercise. It just seems to me that an open air service, in 2013, is in fact ineffective and much more of a performance for tradition’s sake than a truly useful evangelical tool. That isn’t to say that the men speaking sounded forced: on the contrary, the man playing the trumpet and the other gentleman did seem sincere and warm when they spoke, it just felt as though they didn’t expect anything to happen as a result. Overall, the juxtaposition of the microphone and amplifier with uniforms and brass band instruments was rather strange, and felt very much like an attempt at whatever the modern-day equivalent of preaching on a street corner is supposed to look like.
However, more than the slightly uncomfortable open-air service, more than the overtly friendly soldiers, what I was most interested in was the title of the youth service, “Trust and Obey.” Quite frankly, I found it irritating. Now, I am aware that everyone comes with a rather unique set of religious baggage and that I am no exception, so I recognize that my reaction is very much tinged by what I believe about God and religion. That being said, I simply do not understand why in the world that title made logical sense to anyone creating an outline for today’s service. I’ll agree that trust and obedience are important attributes of one’s relationship with whatever higher power one chooses to follow, but I find it upsetting that this service made it seem like the Salvation Army does not encourage its children to think for themselves. They don’t need to give the children some kind of non-Amish Rumspringa, but I do think it’s important to encourage children, and even your adult religious community, to decide as individuals what to believe. The title of the message today did not do that; in fact, it seemed to promote unquestioning, unthinking obedience to God and/or the Salvation Army church’s interpretation of him. This kind of message is particularly frustrating to me when I come across it in religious settings because it’s stereotypically what people expect of Christian religious institutions and because, whenever people in those institutions do decide they ought to think for themselves, the feeling that the church has been controlling them tends to push those same intelligent people away from the church and God.
On a more minor note, it also seemed like they could have picked a more relevant scriptural message for the theme of “Trust and Obey,” to perhaps make more clear the explanation of why it’s important to listen to and trust God. Admittedly, both of these themes are present in the Noah’s ark story they discuessed, but the reasons behind them weren’t presented during the sermon at Regent’s Hall. Stories of Abraham and Sarah, Samson, or Moses would all have been extremely relevant, and in my opinion would have more clearly demonstrated why these attributes are important to the Christian faith.
All in all, the service at Regent’s Hall was an experience not terribly different from other conservative churches I have visited and attended. The most unique part of the service was certainly the open-air portion, which was unlike anything I’d previously experienced outside of high school marching band. The genuine friendliness of the soldiers made the service pleasant, but I’m still skeptical about the validity of certain aspects of this type of church service.