The Salvation Army's community center on Sherman Avenue in Northwest Washington, where the heat conks out regularly, is a far cry from the showcase community centers to be built with a huge new bequest from McDonald's heiress Joan Kroc.

But Maj. Denny Hewitt and his assistants, Capts. Cedric and Evelyn Middleton, show it off proudly. There's the high-ceilinged gym where dozens of schoolchildren shoot hoops every day after school, the cafeteria where senior citizens gather and a kitchen where free meals are prepared for as many as 100 people three times a week. A small exercise room, a food pantry, tutoring rooms and a game room for teenagers are also part of the setup.

And there is the staple of all Salvation Army facilities: a spacious worship center with a dozen rows of polished wooden pews.

But the three "officers" -- Salvation Army parlance for its ordained clergy -- worry about their 40-year-old building. Apart from the balky heat, the gym is too small, the cafeteria cramped, the exercise equipment rickety and the commercial kitchen antiquated -- and there is no hope for those problems in Kroc's $1.5 billion grant, which is earmarked for new buildings, not old ones.

The Sherman Avenue center is an anachronism that keeps on working -- like the Salvation Army itself. Developing the new community centers is one of the boldest undertakings ever for the U.S. branch of the organization, which is still run much as it was when it was founded in Victorian England.

Management consultant Peter Drucker has called it "one of the most effective organizations in the United States." And that is precisely why some Salvation Army officials wonder whether the Kroc gift will strain its insular culture and its focus on God.

"What have we gotten ourselves into?" Maj. George Hood, the group's spokesman, asked in an interview last week after the bequest was made public.

Salvation Army officials said they were stunned and elated when they learned late last year that Kroc, who died last fall at age 75, had left most of her fortune to them. Having contributed $92 million during her lifetime to build an elaborate community center in San Diego -- with swimming pools, basketball courts, an arts center, a skateboard park and a hockey rink -- she gave an additional $1.5 billion at her death to build a dozen similar ones.

The Salvation Army is one of the largest providers of social services in the country and among the largest charitable employers, with more than 50,000 employees, 1,700 community centers, 1,700 thrift stores, 55 medical facilities, 160 addiction rehabilitation programs, 212 day-care centers and more than 300 senior centers, according to its most recent annual report. It also runs countless homeless shelters and soup kitchens and provides shelter, food and counseling at disaster scenes.

But most of its money comes in one small donation at a time. Of its $2.4 billion in revenue in 2002, almost $1.5 billion came in the form of cash stuffed into its kettles, checks sent in response to mail appeals and thrift store purchases. It doesn't even have a system for soliciting large corporate donations.

Kroc's last gift is structured like her first one, with half designated for construction costs and half to be socked away in endowments to help cover the new centers' operating costs. But Salvation Army officials say local divisions will have to raise millions of dollars each year to help cover operating costs.

The new centers also will require the Salvation Army to hire thousands more employees to staff them and hundreds more officers to run them. That will mean extending its fundraising efforts into the world of corporate giving and philanthropic foundations.

"It really is going to catapult us into a new era," Hood said.

Although it is chiefly known as a charity, the Salvation Army is a worldwide evangelical church, founded in the 1860s by a former Methodist minister and his wife who combined preaching the Gospel with helping the needy in the teeming slums of London.

Nearly 140 years later, "the basic culture has remained unchanged," said Diane H. Winston, professor of media and religion at the University of Southern California and author of the recently published book "Red-Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of the Salvation Army."

The group, which spread to the United States in 1880, still maintains the same military-and-Christian format pioneered by William and Catherine Booth, whose Hallelujah Army first preached in the streets and fed the poor in soup kitchens.

Its 5,500 ordained ministers in this country still wear military-style uniforms, live in lodging provided for them by the church, drive company cars and sign a covenant called the Articles of War that includes a strict code of conduct: no smoking, no drinking, no sex out of wedlock. For a modest wage -- about $200 a week, depending on family size and length of service -- many work 100-hour weeks in the communities to which they are assigned.

"This is our calling," said Hewitt, who has been an officer for 30 years. "We know that, by the grace of God, we can change lives."

Salvation Army officers, often married couples, run the organization's community centers, operate drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers, operate summer camps, run Bible study groups and preside over Sunday worship services.

Officials estimate that they will have to hire as many as 8,000 people to staff the new centers and recruit as many as 150 officers, who, beyond their rigorous two-year training process, would need additional training before taking up their posts at the centers.

Maj. Tim Foley and his wife, Cindy, who run the two-year-old Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in San Diego, find themselves taking on decidedly un-Salvation Army-like tasks: booking performers for the arts center, keeping the ice rink chilled and courting big donors to bring in the $4 million needed every year to run the center.

All while trying to maintain the organization's focus on serving God.

"That's the challenge," Hood said. "This is a tremendous stewardship responsibility that she has handed us, and our organizational integrity is on the line. Clinging to our core values is a very, very critical issue for us."

It is too soon to tell whether the National Capital and Virginia Division of the Salvation Army -- which also encompasses the Maryland and Virginia suburbs -- will get such a center.

Kroc, whose fortune came from her husband, McDonald's mogul Ray Kroc, stipulated that her money be divided equally among the Salvation Army's four regions. But the organization says it is months away from putting together a procedure by which local Salvation Army divisions can apply for the funds.

That hasn't stopped officers in this area from dreaming.

Maj. Todd Smith, the division's general secretary, said he considers Loudoun and Prince William counties, where land is available and existing Salvation Army facilities are small, as possible sites for a Kroc center.

One complication is that the National Capital and Virginia Division recently received a windfall of its own when the Eugene B. Casey Foundation scuttled plans to donate 16.5 acres of prime real estate in the Foxhall area of the District for a mayoral mansion and instead gave the land to the Salvation Army.

The prospect of selling the land, for perhaps $15 million by Salvation Army estimates, has allowed the local division to accelerate plans to build a five-story community center on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Anacostia, which would replace a 1940s building. But Smith said he doesn't think that the Anacostia center, due to open in 2006, will hurt his division's chances for something even better.

Smith said that preparing for the future will require larger centers. "That's where we stand," he said.

At the Salvation Army's community center in Northwest Washington, Capt. Evelyn Middleton and Maj. Denny Hewitt talk to people before lunch is served.Maria Rexach is a volunteer at the Salvation Army's community center on Sherman Avenue NW, helping prepare free hot lunches. The 40-year-old building isn't eligible to share in the organization's recent $1.5 billion grant.