It would be difficult to say when we first became a 'community'. At the time, most of us would have said it started in 1974, when several members of the church sold their own houses and moved to live together in larger houses. Looking back, however, it seems more realistic to recognise the growing spirit of loving, caring and sharing that came with charismatic renewal in 1969 as the true beginning. Without that affecting the whole church, the gradual move into larger houses would never have worked.
Charismatic renewal had brought us a desire to be a living expression of the Body of Christ. Establishing a 'new creation' lifestyle was of major importance to us, and the early years of our community life revolved around creating an atmosphere of brotherhood, of loving and caring and welcoming. We learned how to find our ministries in both spiritual and practical matters. Leaders came to be recognised for their qualities of spiritual life, their abilities to be foremost in loving and serving, giving help and wisdom. Others found they had special abilities in evangelism or welcoming, while some felt happier making tea or jam!
We found God calling many of us to have 'all things in common', as did the Jerusalem church in Acts 2 and 4. The first ten years of community life together saw a concentration on establishing a spiritual and practical outworking of this vision. There were plenty of growing pains as we found the difficulties of renouncing selfishness and materialism, and learned interdependence rather than independence. But we felt God was with us, and there were many victories and much rejoicing on the way. We established a legal Trust Fund for the newly-named New Creation Christian Community, expanded our community base, and developed co-operative businesses to provide employment and income.
The practical running of houses had to be worked out. Several housewives converging on one kitchen need some careful handling! But cooking and cleaning and washing had to be done. It soon emerged who had best skills in which area, and who desperately wanted (or needed!) training! Love and consideration in the kitchen had to be learned, being together in the evenings when there were no formal meetings was of great importance in establishing relationships.
We weathered storms of suspicion regarding our community lifestyle, and through them learned to look at ourselves and our practices more critically. We learned how to cope with those who chose to leave. We found that the purpose of our Christian Community was not to be reclusive but to develop open-heartedness, both to other believers and those in need. We realised our need to build bridges with other churches and to take our place amongst other charismatic 'new churches'.
As the years advanced we became increasingly aware of the needs of people who had never heard of God's love.
Gradually the concentration on 'working out community' fell into the background. It became the groundwork from where we could share more widely what God had given us. We were able to use our houses as bases for evangelism, offer shelter, help people find God, find peace and a radical alternative 'new creation' lifestyle.
We saw many new faces and had many temporary visitors. We discovered how to welcome a wide range of people into our houses — some of whom had been homeless and knew little in the way of 'family' life. We learned how to have community identity without being exclusive.
The church as well as the community has grown enormously, with around 2,000 people now part of the Jesus Army's congregations, and community houses now exist in many parts of the UK. Much of our organisation is still central, with a group of Senior Leaders taking overall responsibility for the church. Because of the geographic spread, local motivation has become more necessary and individual Senior Leaders are also responsible for particular regions.
Practically, life in community is much the same as it has always been. We still find a good mix between young and old, celibate, single, married and families. Our pioneering businesses have become part of our daily routine. In worship we have known times of joy and exuberance, times of quiet soul-searching, and as present when God seems to be meeting people in so many ways at once, there are tears of repentance, tears of joy, laughter and dancing, Holy Spirit anointings freeing people in expression to God.
Although the New Creation Christian Community now forms the 'core' of the Jesus Fellowship/Jesus Army, the majority of the Fellowship do not live in community houses. They are linked to community houses for pastoral purposes and for midweek friendship meals and small meetings. All are part of the church, all participate in the love and sharing heart of the wider church community and the pentecostal vision of a church on fire with first love.
Val Oakey is a member of the Jesus Fellowship/Jesus Army and writes from her own experience of the amazing growth of this charismatic evangelical church.
Of the total of around 2000 people in the Church, about 500 live in community houses.
This article first appeared in 'Community' magazine (figures have been brought up to date).