On weekdays, Jim Curl oversees Salvation Army Christmas programs and other services for the needy. But on Sundays, he heads across the hall to lead a worship service in a place few people have heard of — the Church of the Salvation Army.

Folks in the pews are called Salvationists. Curl and other ministers are titled Major instead of Reverend. A brass band, not a church organ, belts out hymns for an unusual evangelical Protestant denomination with its own seminaries and missions across the world.

“People on the street are always surprised that we’re a church,” said Curl. “I recall when we bought a church building at another location. People would ask, ‘Who uses the chapel upstairs?’ ”

Although the Salvation Army is one of the nation’s largest and most visible charities, with $3.7 billion in annual revenue last year, it is one of the smallest denominations, with about 90,000 adult members. Therein lies its remarkable success and its challenge for the future.

On this Christmas Day, about 2,000 faithful will head to small gatherings in Minnesota and North Dakota, the army’s northern division. Some are longtime members, some are neighbors, some are former clients in social services and recovery programs. The mix reflects the church’s historic mission — to serve both the physical and spiritual needs of its neighbors.

Soldiers and majors

Curl’s church in the army’s Maplewood service center is one of eight in the Twin Cities. Another 13 churches are scattered across the state, said major Robert Doliber, general secretary of the Salvation Army’s northern division.

On a recent Sunday, about 50 people sat in the pews of what looked like a typical Protestant house of worship. They opened their hymnals to “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” listened to the Advent gospel reading, and took in a sermon about injustices in the world.

“Dear Jesus, when life seems unfair, we can count on you to make things right,” they prayed.

Instead of a minister’s robe, Curl wore a blue military-style uniform. No one received communion. No one has been baptized in the church. The Salvation Army does not have sacraments, Curl said later, because they were viewed as a barrier between those who can participate and those who cannot.

“The church is about welcoming everyone,” he said.

That includes the ministers’ wives, who must also be ordained Salvation Army ministers. They are co-ministers in title and in deed and have been welcome to preach in public since the church’s founding 150 years ago in London.

That’s when William Booth, a former Methodist lay preacher, launched the army as “soldiers of Christ,” reflecting the era of military might at the height of the British Empire.

Brenda Schweizer was among the lifelong Salvationists at Curl’s Maplewood church and a lead singer during the service. She appreciates the church’s sense of family and community.

“I could tell you almost everyone’s name in this congregation,” Schweizer said as people filed out.

Schweizer admits that the Salvation Army has the same challenges as other Protestant denominations, with younger members drifting away or drawn to bigger, more dynamic evangelical churches. There used to be more parents and children, she said. “When we grew up, there would be 150 people here.”

It probably doesn’t help that the Salvation Army is strict with its “soldiers.” They are not supposed to smoke, drink or gamble. And they become part of a quasi-military structure that seems out of sync with the 21st century.

Doliber sees the military motif as a mixed blessing. It is a well-known, global brand, he said. “Unless you came from another planet, you’ve heard of the Salvation Army.”

While often an asset in developing countries, the military motif can be alienating to some in North America and Europe, leaders acknowledge.

“It’s something the army is looking at,” said Curl. “I don’t think the uniform will ever go away. It shows the unity of the organization. It’s internationally recognized — except it gets a bit confusing at airports.”

Military images show up in all aspects of the church hierarchy, which Curl said was modeled after the Catholic Church. Instead of a pope, it has a general in charge of the global church. Instead of cardinals, it has commissioners.

Aaron Johnson, the guest preacher Sunday, is a cadet. The Indiana native is attending a seminary, known as a college for officer training, in Chicago, one of four in the U.S. He felt drawn to the organization after he landed in jail for drunken driving several years ago and was referred to a Salvation Army treatment center.

Johnson wound up being offered a job in the rehab center and given a chance to train for the ministry — something he always felt called to do.

“The Salvation Army is authentic,” said Johnson. “They love people and they show they love people. My job is to tell people about the love of Jesus and to serve them without discrimination.”

That said, some Salvation Army charity centers have been accused of discrimination by LGBT clients, a sensitive issue for an organization that prides itself on serving everyone. Salvation Army leaders insist that everyone is welcome at its centers, shelters and churches. But LGBT people are less likely to become church ministers, because the church’s conservative theology is not a natural fit.

Global growth

Salvation Army membership in the U.S. has dropped slightly in the past decade, hovering around 90,000 since 2000, Doliber said. Global membership, now at 1.1 million, grew by about 200,000 during the same period.

Its growth today comes from global outreach as missionaries make inroads in 127 nations. Doliber, for example, just returned from seven years in Haiti, where the army provided disaster relief after the massive earthquake in 2010.

Doliber and Curl — and their co-minister wives, Rae and Candy — have dedicated their lives to the army. This week alone, they helped distribute the more than 150,000 Christmas toys the army collects each holiday season. The northern division also provided more than 771,000 hot meals last year, 381,000 nights of housing for the homeless, and 204,000 items of clothing, according to the charity’s statistics.

But both leaders are nearing retirement, and that points to one of the church’s — and charity’s — big challenges.

“How do you recruit and maintain interest in what is a very tough role?” said Curl. “This time of the year it’s 14 hours a day, six days a week … and it’s a commitment for a lifetime.”

Juggling multiple jobs in both church and charity “can reach the crazy level,” he said. “But when you can see the effect of your ministry on one person’s life, on a family — it makes all the difference. You live from blessing to blessing.”