JOE CHIRCOP, the founder of Servants of Jesus Community, describes himself as a conservative Catholic who was seeking an encounter with God. Yet, in his own words, he had, “no encounter with the fire of God.”
“I was a good, religious person. I did everything but I had little power to change. In 1973 I was in my local Catholic church when we sang the hymn, Nearer my God to Thee and I encountered Jesus as a person.”
Shortly after, Joe met a young woman at work who persisted in inviting him to a charismatic prayer meeting. At first Joe declined but when he eventually went, was given a word of knowledge from someone – simply – “Nearer my God to Thee”. Joe was astounded – he had not shared his previous experience with anyone and was “filled with the Holy Spirit in a spectacular way” and spoke in tongues.
Joe realised afterwards that this particular charismatic group wasn’t for him. But his experience got him thinking. A read of how the first non-Jews received the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:1-48) showed him that God gives His Spirit to the spiritually thirsty without waiting for them to have perfect theology first. This has become the foundation for Joe’s thoughts about community:
“We have to be tolerant because God is tolerant,” he said.
The 1970s was a time of Holy Spirit renewal and many Christian groups from different persuasions came together.
“What men couldn’t do, God did,” Joe explained.
In the late 70s, Joe was meeting regularly with like-minded Catholics for prayer when they heard of a prophetic word coming from a Catholic charismatic conference in Rome: “Many of you are more committed to your families and friends than to My people.” Joe was convicted:
“I was committed to Christ, yes, but I was individualistic and more committed to family and work friends than God’s people. I knew, too, I needed deep relationships.”
As the group continued to meet they felt God say, “Keep meeting,” and eighteen months later eleven of them made a covenant of commitment to pray, tithe, attend meetings and ‘be part of a people’. Then many others, from every walk of life and every denomination, began joining them.
Joe’s experience had taught him not to exclude anyone on the basis of creed and theology as long as the essentials of Christianity are adhered to – an assent of the Nicene and Apostles’ Creed was enough.
At first the members were dispersed across the Sydney area and now the group felt God speak again: ‘Cluster.’ Many sold their houses and bought ones near to other members of the church – and so community was formed. The community was ‘birthed in prayer and the great sacrifice of many people’.
Servants of Jesus is a community rather than a church: members still belong to a local church. Most (85 per cent) belong to Bread of Life Catholic Fellowship and others belong to Grace Church, a protestant Pentecostal church. Both meet separately at Servants of Jesus HQ at Seven Hills on a Sunday morning. When individual services are finished, members of the community join together for worship. (More distant clusters have regional gatherings every other week.)
The community is made up of ten clusters, each consisting of between three and five houses, and is mainly situated in West and South Sydney. Houses include families (mainly) and singles also share single-sex houses together.
Meals are often shared and the fostering of strong relationships is all important. Cell groups run midweek – running alternatively for men and women.
Covenant making is still a very important feature of the community. Jeff Cross, one of the pastoral leaders, explained to me: covenant initially is taken one year at a time; this is known as the “Formation Covenant”. After five years, and if people are over 25, they can make “Full Covenant”. Both forms of covenant follow a course of “formation” teaching which last one year.
This follows a covenant–making course. Covenants are made once a year in the first week of December. When making Full Covenant, members are saying: “I believe this is where God wants me to be: this is where I will devote my life unless He calls me to something else.” Most see making covenant as a life-long commitment but there may be a reason for some to leave.
At present Servants of Jesus has 500 members, including 171 Full Covenant members and 100 Formative Covenant members.
Simon Black (leader of Grace Church) explained, “Our call is to be a family, to be a community and to be ecumenical. The expression of Jesus’ prayer of oneness (John 17:11, 20-23) is very important to us.”
Chris Noone, moderator of Bread of Life Catholic Fellowship said, “A while ago I was asked, ‘Who are you guys?’ I said, ‘We’re like a platypus’.”
“Originally, when a platypus was sent back to England from Australia people thought it was a joke: a furry animal with a bill like a duck and webbed feet. We are unique: a bridge between the charismatic and traditional church; other such ecumenical communities are very rare.”
How is it possible? Chris continued: “We recognise there are differences but we hold the main things in common and gain from one another’s strengths: the Protestant emphasis on the Word of God and having a personal relationship with God has been a blessing to us Catholics. The charismatic dimension, too, of our lives has come through Pentecostals.”
Community Care first began in 1995. It is the community’s charity for the relief of poverty and suffering. It provides food parcels for homeless people and a barbecue for them on Fridays. Simon Black said:
“Australia has a very good welfare system, but we are up against the poverty of dysfunctionality.”
Bringing the gospel to young people is also a very important part of the community’s life and ‘Fire Power’ youth meetings are held twice a month.
Commenting on the future Joe said: “The Community was built on prayer. It was God’s idea and it began with us being baptised in the Spirit. I didn’t want to enter a covenant community. God led me step by step. It’s not all been easy – people always bring problems.”
“The future? The spiritual climate is very different now – there’s not such a spiritual hunger among God’s people now as there was. We’re crying out for a fresh move of God.”