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It's the little things that let Lt. Colonel William E. McHarg of the Denver post of the Salvation Army know Christmas is near.

Certainly the sound of a ringing bell at one of the group's familiar red kettles, calling people to make donations to help the needy.But also the sound of a ringing telephone.

Just before Thanksgiving, a woman called threatening "to sue us because she thought that having to hear the bells at the kettles when she went shopping violated her civil rights," said McHarg, who led several U.S. missions, and work in Central America and Spain, before going to Denver.

"I thought I'd heard it all. I guess it's just a sign of the times."

Ah, that Christmas spirit.

Truth is, the pre-Christmas season is a complex one in the Salvation Army. Christmas sights and sounds are as much a part of this unique Christian group's identity as blue military-style uniforms. Yet the season is more than symbolic. While the Salvation Army has a wide financial base, money tossed into Christmas kettles continues to play a crucial role in its work.

Also, the season magnifies needs in thousands of homes and city shelters. Salvation Army leaders never forget - least of all at Christmas - that nationwide aid requests have risen at a rate close to 20 percent in recent years.

Thus, Salvation Army officers walk a spiritual tightrope between duty and devotion during the holidays. It's a time for watching the financial chart's bottom line, while trying to remember the spiritual importance of Christmas and of the group's ministry.

This is a crowded agenda for the head and heart. But in many ways, it's business as usual for the Salvation Army - which struggles to remind people it is a church as well as a social work agency.

"Our movement is like an airplane," explained Gen. Arthur Brown, who led the global Salvation Army from 1977-81. "It has two wings. Evangelism is one wing, and social services is the other. It takes both wings, in balance, to keep the plane in the air."

Ordained Salvation Army officers don't draw much of a line between "saving" souls and bodies - believing the church is called to do both, said Brown, who lives in Toronto. But that work can be difficult when the group's media image is dominated by one side of the body-and-soul equation.

The Salvation Army began in 1865 in the East London slums. A Methodist evangelist, William Booth, started organizing new missions when he discovered many of his down-and-out converts did not fit in traditional churches.

Soon, his followers donned uniforms, formed bands to play martial hymn arrangements and embraced a fervently evangelical 11-point doctrinal manifesto called the "Articles of War."

Today, about 3 million "soldiers" and ordained "officers" work in about 90 nations. In other parts of the world, McHarg said, the Salvation Army has been more successful mixing church growth with programs focusing on food, shelter and education. U.S. Salvation Army leaders are now discussing new ways to help their churches grow.

No one doubts that Salvation Army officers already have their hands full - not to mention their calendars - handling their ministries with the needy. But finding new soldiers for the cause means strengthening work in the pews.

Still, it will be tough to close the image gap.

"Some people aren't sure they want to become associated with a social service agency, when it comes time to pray and worship," McHarg said. "But, that's a mistake . . . We have two hands - the church and the social work - and we are always trying to bring those two hands together."