“I WILL have to admit that I did find it a bit frustrating that nobody seemed to want me. Me: 52 years of age, willing and able and not lazy either. But I suppose people couldn’t know that. What am I talking about? I was on the lookout for a suitable place to find peace and inspiration in order to prepare myself for a new start as the pastor of a free church after taking time off from the pastorate for about three years.
Mine was a familiar story: my congregation had not seen eye to eye with the way I was leading them, we locked positions, I developed tinnitus and showed signs of burnout and, before I knew it, I was out.
Subsequently I trained as a therapist and opened my own practice, but somehow none of it really sat right with me. And now I had accepted a call to lead another church and wanted to get recharged before going back into the ministry, to find a place to immerse myself in a Christian community and to live and work alongside people. But finding such a place proved none too easy.
After various attempts had failed (‘Can I ask about your age, Mr Meyer?’) I remembered a trip we had made to London during a rainy Easter weekend six years previously. We had washed up somewhere near Covent Garden and were just wondering what to do next when we heard the sound of worship songs from somewhere nearby. It was a sound to warm the heart in the middle of this dripping city, so we lost no time in finding our way to its source.
Soon we were sitting in a room in the company of an ethnically diverse group of people of all ages, a table with tea, coffee and biscuits nearby. We were told that the service had already started but to help ourselves to refreshments anyway and to feel free to take part in the meeting. How great was this!? We happily sat on our chairs, coffee in hand; far away from home we were made to feel so at home. Quite a lot of the people attending the service had obviously come off the street or were poor in any case, and by and large it was a very unconventional, light-hearted event. We later found out that the service had been organised by the ‘Jesus Army’, a movement with a social/mission emphasis with community houses in various UK cities.
This memory now surfaced again during my search. I tapped ‘Jesus Army’ into my computer, and hey presto! Up came the Jesus Army’s rather modern website: the headquarters were in a place called Northampton in the English Midlands and making contact couldn’t have been easier. And then things happened very quickly, and I was invited to spend a month (or longer) in one of the community houses – these people didn’t even know me! I booked my flight and thanked God for leading me to people who were willing to take me in on trust. I ended up staying nearly five weeks with the Jesus Army and learned no end.
It all started in the Seventies in Bugbrooke, a village near Northampton where a small Baptist church led by Pastor Noel Stanton experienced an awakening. Lots of people were converted and experienced the power of the Holy Spirit in a way that had been unknown up to that point. Reports of supernatural healing and prophecies became common experiences and people who had been bound by occult practices found their freedom.
The movement grew and gained a following especially among young people in the local drug scene; many found faith and turned their back on drugs. It wasn’t long before these happenings became more widely known and people from all over England started making their way to Bugbrooke; both Christians and non-Christians were attracted to the radical life of Bugbrooke’s Baptists and came to hear Noel Stanton’s challenging message. A longing grew among the members to model themselves on the pattern of the first church and to live out uncompromising discipleship in an atmosphere of mutual love and support.
Among Christians in the UK the Bugbrooke church already had a name for being radical, but more challenging things were up ahead. Pastor Stanton didn’t have many earthly possessions, but he did have a brand new car which he decided to sell and share the proceeds with the believers and so started a new movement. The church began to explore a new lifestyle marked by simplicity and the pooling of wealth and began to form a Christian counter culture, a ‘new Jerusalem’ inspired and led by the Holy Spirit. They used the pooled capital and income to buy farms and other houses to accommodate groups of members of different ages.
Businesses with a deliberately Christian ethic were founded where the lowest manual workers would earn the same as the directors. Half of the profits are used to build and advance the ‘kingdom of God’ and the rest is re-invested into the businesses.
As time went by particular callings of marriage and celibacy were discovered and recognised. For either calling, the idea is never to withdraw or get lost in introspection, but to remain open and involved in outreach ranging from street evangelism to marquee-based missions. Mission activity is deliberately aimed at the dark places of society where the light of the gospel is needed the most.
The path of the Jesus Fellowship has never been an easy one, and the church is continuously confronted with fresh challenges. It isn’t hard to imagine that there were conflicts when people started to sell their houses, cars and personal effects and gave away their money. They reluctantly remember troubled times such as when the growing suspicion of Bugbrooke among the Baptist Union led to their exclusion, or when even the Evangelical Alliance distanced itself from the Jesus Fellowship.
These days the church is happy to talk about their past mistakes and possible instances of exaggerated separatism. Efforts have been made to forgive and get reconciled among national church leaders, and the Jesus Army was accepted back into the Evangelical Alliance some time ago.
Another challenge facing the church is the changing world we live in. The Jesus Army was founded during the hippie era when alternative lifestyles were all the rage. This is now a thing of the past, and it isn’t easy to maintain the values of the first church in an increasingly materialistic environment. But Jesus is faithful to his people, and the membership growth of the church has remained stable over recent years.
Although the Jesus Army is now an officially recognised Free Church movement, it keeps on evolving, and with its 800 members and a large number of new friends it is currently the largest communitarian movement in Europe.
As the Jesus Army has its root in the Baptist movement, adult baptism has been an integral part of membership from the beginning, as well as living a shared life in a community house with a common purse (pooling of all wealth and income of all its members) which the community then uses to pay for all necessary living costs and expenses. Over the years a variety of other levels of membership have evolved, from congregational membership and baptised membership (associated with a community house family) through to a community lifestyle commitment in your own house. These levels really developed as a result of the missionary outreach to addicts, the unemployed and people on the margins of society who often struggled with a committed community lifestyle.
Nevertheless the main focus of this movement is still the shared life in community houses in the countryside, in towns and inner city area. In the beginning the Jesus Army acquired old farm houses and manors in the villages surrounding Northampton whereas now some (predominantly young) house families have deliberately chosen to move into troubled town housing estates with the aim of reaching out to people in the neighbourhood through street parties and other events.
Northamptonshire police confirm that there has been a reduction of criminal activity on the estates where there are Jesus Army teams.
The examples of two characters I met during my stay with the Jesus Army illustrate the diversity of people who have chosen this commitment to community living:
Len, in his late 60s, looks back on a typical life on the streets after his family broke up and his life descended into alcohol addiction. A Jesus Army evangelism team met him in London, and he accepted Jesus into his life.
I had the privilege of sharing a house with Len for a few weeks. Every morning he is one of the first in the kitchen putting out the breakfast cereals for those who work away from home and making their sandwiches. Almost every day he then takes a ride to the Jesus Centre in Northampton where he works on the frontline, meeting and greeting visitors. He is a consistently cheerful soul and jokes around with everybody, and the one good eye he has left shines with joy.
Without the help from the Jesus Army, he says, he would probably be dead by now, and they have become his family. He says he’s never alone, and there’s always someone to talk to, and anyway… that there’s always so much to do.
Although he lives in the same community house as Len, Dave is a different kettle of fish entirely. Dave works as a software specialist for a regular outside company and pays his wages into the common fund.
Dave is married, and his children had already left home when a woman left their community house to return to her own life and left her four-year-old daughter behind. Dave and his wife wasted no time deliberating what to do and decided to become foster parents. Together with the rest of the house family they are now providing the care and support she needs.
While most of the community house’s transport needs are catered for by minibuses, Dave’s family is allocated a car to get their foster child to school and to allow Dave’s wife some flexibility as well as money to take the girl out from time to time. Apart from that they take part in the regular life of the community household, renouncing personal possessions.
The focal point of the Jesus Army in this area is an old 1950’s style cinema right in the middle of Northampton, seating about 1,000 people. A huge cross and a big sign over the entrance proclaim that this is a cinema with a difference because it has been made into the central meeting point for the various community houses in and around Northampton and whose doors are open seven days a week. There are facilities for homeless people to take a free shower and to have their laundry done for very little money.
In addition there are free refreshments and sandwiches. The staff and volunteers are happy to help or lend a listening ear. There’s also a café that serves inexpensive meals and drinks, and there are language courses for immigrants and all sorts of other services on offer.
To this day I have not come across any other community movement like the Jesus Army that combines charismatic living with sound scriptural teaching. For them prayer for healing and deliverance, speaking in tongues and prophecy are a part of the normal Christian life. Listening to their teaching one is reminded of the solid biblical teaching and interpretation of the Brethren.
Similar to the Brethren movement, it is the men who are in leadership and responsible for the teaching. Women dress simply, and there’s not much evidence of makeup. My wife asked about this during a later visit. “Of course you have to dress differently to us here,” they explained, “after all you’re a school teacher, and you can’t afford to look too odd. For us on the Farm it’s different – for us it would be vanity.”
What moved me deeply was that no matter where I chose to look, and no matter who I talked to: the Spirit of love was simply everywhere, there’s no room for self-righteousness or stubbornness.
For the first time I noticed something interesting in the Bible that I had overlooked: Jesus already had a common purse with his disciples, so the early church weren’t the first to think this up.
I had a lot of questions, especially about the common purse, which were all patiently answered: What if someone wants to leave? What if someone wants to travel abroad or if someone has a special wish or a hobby? There were precedents for everything, and practical solutions had been found for every problem. People were happy to explain and answer all my questions, and as my respect for these brave followers of Jesus grew, I began to realise that it was time for me to examine my own attachment to material possessions and my attitude towards the poor of this world.
I realised that up to that point I had never questioned my world view or laid it before God. Instead I had simply followed whatever was deemed ‘normal’ in my surroundings and made an effort to be responsible within those limits.
In the community house I had the privilege of a single room, as I wanted to spend some time in prayer. This was a real blessing, as there were so many impressions and inspirations I needed to digest in addition to preparing myself for my new pastorate in Germany. During my times of prayer I reviewed the last few years and handed them over to God. I learnt to love the creaking floor where I could kneel down and be alone with my Lord. On many occasions the theme of these times of solitude were complemented by the teaching I heard. Again and again issues would come up in sermons that I had been praying about in private, and I realised that my Lord was speaking to me personally. I sensed that Jesus had been walking with me all this time, and that he was now saying, “Stop looking back over your shoulder and look ahead; I am with you!”
A few months later during a visit to my daughter in Portsmouth, I was introduced to a young man who told me how the Jesus Army had helped him to find Jesus, break his drug addiction and get himself sorted out. Three years later he left because of a girl who abandoned him only a short time later. When I met him he was in debt, living in a bedsit and doing agency jobs. He wistfully told me how the three years with the Jesus Army had been the happiest years of his life. Maybe he’ll go back one day; I hope he does.