The Jesus Army, also known as the Jesus Fellowship Church and the Bugbrooke Community, was a neocharismatic evangelical Christian movement based in the United Kingdom, part of the British New Church Movement. The name Jesus Army was specifically used for the outreach and street-based evangelism for which they were known.The Jesus Fellowship was founded in 1969, when Noel Stanton (1926–2009), at that time the lay pastor of the Bugbrooke village Baptist chapel near Northampton, East Midlands, was inspired by a charismatic experience which led him to successfully expand the congregation, largely by appealing to a younger generation of worshippers. As the new church grew and became more charismatic in nature, many of the original congregation left to continue worshipping in more traditional churches. The Jesus Fellowship grew considerably and by 2007 there were approximately 3,500 members in around 24 congregations in various cities and towns of the UK.The Jesus Fellowship frequently engaged in evangelism in public places, seeking through outreach to demonstrate the love of Jesus and the moving of the Holy Spirit. The Fellowship used various slogans, in its early days adopting "Love, Power & Sacrifice" and later "Jesus People, Loving People", and the name "Jesus Army".
The church announced in May 2019 that it "will cease to exist and the current National Leadership Team will be stepping down from their roles once the winding up of the central Church has been completed". Members had voted on Sunday, 26 May 2019, to revoke the Church’s constitution, after a decline in membership to less than 1,000 following claims against its founder and two other then members of the church of historical sexual assault during the 1970s. It is planned that the Jesus Centres charity the church created will continue to operate. and that individual churches will become independent congregations. Less than 200 people are still living in communal households of the Jesus Fellowship.
The Jesus Fellowship operated like the house church movements, or the more radical elements of the larger, more conventional churches. It was affected by the charismatic movement of the late 1960s and early 70s, and influenced by the Jesus people movement in the US. According to William Kay, Stanton was highly influenced by Arthur Wallis's book In the Day of Thy Power, and associated with a number of the early leaders within the British New Church movement.
The beliefs of the Jesus Fellowship are in line with historic Christian orthodoxy. Nevertheless, there are various aspects of the Jesus Fellowship's way of practising Christianity that are distinctive when compared with more conventional churches.
Jesus Army, evangelism and ministry to the marginalised
The UK general public were most likely to be aware of the Jesus Army by its brightly coloured minibuses and coaches and highly visible multi-coloured camouflage jacket often worn by Jesus Army evangelists on the street.The Jesus Army was launched in 1987 as the campaigning identity of the Jesus Fellowship. Following the example of the early Salvation Army, and with a stated intention to "go where others will not go", the Jesus Army engaged in what has been called "aggressive and effective street evangelism among the marginalized sections of society". The Jesus Army's mission has been described as "essentially one to the poor, the disadvantaged and the marginalized" .Since 1987 The Jesus Army held an annual high-profile gospel event in London called London Jesus Day with a three-hour public event on Trafalgar Square, then (until 2005) an evening event in a marquee on Roundwood Park.
Jesus Army Charitable Trust and Jesus Centres
Growing from the Jesus Army's work among homeless street people, those involved in drug or alcohol abuse, and prisoners and ex-prisoners, the Jesus Army/Jesus Fellowship founded a charitable trust "to develop and enhance its existing work with many disadvantaged groups and individuals", largely through the founding and running of "Jesus Centres" in UK cities and towns.In 2002, the Jesus Fellowship opened the Coventry Jesus Centre including a Drop-In Centre known as "The Bridge", which provides services such as a subsidised breakfast, free clothing, showers and hot drinks, as well as social support, job training and medical help to vulnerable people. The Centre also assists in finding rented accommodation for the homeless, though a major emphasis of these activities is evangelistic, "bringing people to Jesus". Other Jesus Centres have been opened in Northampton (2004), Central London (2008) and Sheffield (2011), with more expected to follow.
Multiply Christian Network
The Jesus Fellowship was also linked to around 250 other churches and groups in the UK and elsewhere through the Multiply Christian Network, which it initiated in 1992.
From 2007 to 2017 the Jesus Army hosted a yearly event for young people aged between 15 and 35 called "RAW (Real and Wild)". In contrast with many Christian churches which often have an ageing population, the Jesus Army had a comparatively high proportion of young members.
New Creation Christian Community
In the early years of the Jesus Fellowship, a residential Christian community was founded for its growing membership. Initially a large Anglican rectory in Bugbrooke was purchased and renamed "New Creation Hall". Several members of the Jesus Fellowship moved in and it became the first centre of a community lifestyle. By 1979, several other large houses in the surrounding area were purchased and "New Creation Christian Community," as the entire community was named, was established, with some 350 residents. At its height in the early 1990s there were c.850 residents in about 60 communal households, but their numbers recently dropped to less than 200 persons.
Motivation for the Jesus Fellowship's venture into residential communal living and the sharing of possessions came primarily from their interpretation of Biblical descriptions of the early church. The Jesus Fellowship's community had many features in common with other charismatic Christian intentional communities and part of the initial stimulation towards starting the New Creation Christian Community came from the Church of the Redeemer, Houston, Texas, established by the Episcopalian priest Graham Pulkingham. New Creation Christian Community was one of the largest intentional Christian communities in Europe, charismatic or otherwise. According to sociologist Stephen Hunt, the Jesus Fellowship's community "has been a source of inspiration and frequently attracts visitors from Europe and beyond who wish to observe, and sometimes imitate, a vibrant and enduring model of charismatic community life."From six to 60 people lived in a community house. The pattern of community life in the largest, down to the smallest residence, was modelled along the same principles and pattern. Those dwelling in a community house, along with the majority of members who lived outside but who are formally attached to it, made up the "church household".
The church household was the basic unit of the Jesus Fellowship, usually comprising both members who lived in community and a majority who did not. Several church households usually came together to form congregations for public worship along with members of the public who wished to attend. Jesus Fellowship congregations typically met in a hired venue such as a school or community centre, although latterly the church purchased "Jesus Centres" in some cities and towns: the Jesus Fellowship in these places used these centres as their venue for public meetings.
The community founded a series of Christian businesses (House of Goodness group) employing once up to 250 people. Profits from the businesses helped fund the wider work of the Jesus Fellowship. Businesses and community houses were owned by a Trust Fund ultimately controlled by the members.In 2001, one of the houses was featured in a Channel 4 television documentary, Battlecentre.
There were a variety of levels of commitment in the Jesus Fellowship with corresponding types of membership. Those in the loosest forms of membership may have merely attached to a Jesus Fellowship weeknight "cell group" or attended only on Sundays. Others would be more involved.
The committed core membership of the Jesus Fellowship consisted of "covenant members", those who had made a "covenant", or pledge expressing an intention of lifelong loyalty to the Jesus Fellowship. Even within covenant membership, there were four different "styles". "Style 1" was the non-resident membership, with a similar membership practice to that of most members of other churches. "Style 2" covenant members entered into closer financial and general accountability. "Style 3" covenant members were the residential members of the New Creation Christian Community: all their income, wealth and possessions were shared, though they may have reclaimed them should they subsequently decide to leave. While they were members, the value of their contribution was protected by the Trust Fund. Becoming a member of the Jesus Fellowship's community was a gradual process and most of those who joined the community had already belonged to the Jesus Fellowship as part of its broader membership first. "Style 4" was for covenant members who lived at a distance and were unable to join regularly in the life of the church.
Celibacy and marriage
The Jesus Fellowship was the only new church stream that advocated and practised celibacy, claiming it leads to a full life for single people. Within the Jesus Fellowship there were both couples and male and female celibates. The Jesus Fellowship claimed both as high callings. The main justification used for advocating celibacy was that it freed a member for ministry, particularly in the unsocial hours that Jesus Army campaigning required. Some critics have maintained that the Jesus Fellowship taught celibacy as a better or higher way, and that single members felt pressured into making the vow. Others deny this and insist that both marriage and family life, and celibacy are held in high regard in the Jesus Fellowship. Celibacy was, however, described by the Jesus Fellowship as "a precious gem".At most some 200 Fellowship members were committed to celibacy, plus a further 100 or so probationers. There were instances where committed celibates subsequently entered into married life within the Jesus Fellowship, but this was not taken lightly. Such a step could involve sanctions such as having one's leadership responsibilities reduced. Noel Stanton, the Jesus Fellowship's original leader, was himself a celibate, and the senior leadership of the church was made up of roughly 50 per cent celibates and 50 per cent who were married.Despite this high view of celibacy, studies indicate that marriage and the family were afforded a high priority by the Jesus Fellowship. According to sociologist Stephen J. Hunt, marriage in the Jesus Fellowship was seen as "a ministering relationship in which human warmth and Christian fellowship can be offered to others, providing spiritual parenting for those who are emotionally damaged". Hunt found that "where problems in child-rearing occur, support and advice for the parents is on hand from fellow members. Even those children brought up in the New Creation Christian Community are not totally separated from the outside world." The Jesus Fellowship's children attended state schools.
Beliefs The Jesus Fellowship upheld the historic creeds of the Christian faith. The creeds are a set of common beliefs shared with many other Christian churches, and consist of the Apostles' Creed, the Athanasian Creed and the Nicene Creed. It believed in baptism in water and the Holy Spirit, in the Bible as the Word of God, and in acceptance of charismatic gifts.The Jesus Fellowship defined their Christian beliefs in the following statement:The Jesus Fellowship Church, which is also known as the Jesus Army and includes the New Creation Christian Community, upholds the historic Christian faith, being reformed, evangelical and charismatic. It practises believer’s baptism and the New Testament reality of Christ’s Church; believing in Almighty God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit; in the full divinity, atoning death and bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ; in the Bible as God’s word, fully inspired by the Holy Spirit.
This Church desires to witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ over and in His Church; and, by holy character, righteous society and evangelical testimony to declare that Jesus Christ, Son of God, the only Saviour, is the way, the truth and the life, and through Him alone can we find and enter the kingdom of God.This church proclaims free grace, justification by faith in Christ and the sealing and sanctifying baptism in the Holy Spirit.
Theology and economics
Underwriting much of the Jesus Fellowship's beliefs and practices was a theology of the new creation. Regeneration brings the individual into a spiritual family that incorporates and transcends the biological family. Critics have claimed that this can tend to break up the natural family, but the Jesus Fellowship maintained that many relationships with parents have been strengthened and that the Fellowship encouraged (and the community paid for) community members to visit relatives, including visits overseas if family members were abroad.In line with this basic theology, all members were deemed as equal in an economic sense. There was little by way of private property for those who live in community. Jesus Fellowship community members aimed to "eschew worldly belongings and seek what is perceived as a simple and more ethical form of economic life". It is not surprising, therefore, that the "prosperity doctrine" espoused by many ministries originating in the United States was singled out for particular scorn. Wealth was not regarded as a blessing, particularly for the individual. An official Jesus Fellowship publication states that "the love of money brings selfishness in human hearts". As far as the Fellowship was concerned, "wealth for Jesus" means to the benefit of the whole church and the deprived individuals it serves. As mentioned above, the wealth deposited in the common purse included members’ incomes and salaries. Approximately half of this wealth was used for the needs of the community itself and to fund evangelising endeavour. The other half was re-invested in the fellowship's businesses or in paying off bank loans for new business ventures. In many respects the economic structure of the Jesus Fellowship might be said to have been "socialist" in orientation and is most readily seen in the property-less community and the philosophy of "each according to their need".One writer has described the Jesus Fellowship as "careful with both members and money". New community members had to live in a community for a probationary period for two years and must be over 21, before being allowed to commit themselves to full community membership. Although New Creation Christian Community members donated all their money to the Community Trust fund, if they later decided to leave the community, their capital was paid back, sometimes with interest. New Creation Christian Community kept its running expenses and its capital completely separate, and has its accounts audited by an international firm of accountants.
Allegations of sexual, physical, emotional and financial abuse
There have been allegations of historic abuse of members of the Jesus Fellowship, including abuse of children and vulnerable adults, by the late Noel Stanton and other leaders of the group.
Several former members have been found guilty of sexual abuse of children. Karl Skinner was recently given a suspended prison sentence for inappropriate behaviour with a young boy, and Alan Carter was sentenced to three years in prison for sex acts on a boy aged between 14 and 16 in the 1990s.After Noel Stanton's death in 2009, the church supplied allegations to Northamptonshire Police of sexual offences against Stanton and others, and as of 2019 there are 43 complainants of historic sexual and physical abuse.
Baptist Union and Evangelical Alliance membership
From its inception, the Jesus Army aroused controversy. The original Bugbrooke Jesus Fellowship had long been a part of the Baptist Union. However, the sudden expansion in members made the new church a nationwide movement. This took it out of the ambit of the Baptist Union, which places authority within a specific congregation. The JA was also accused of "isolationism", epitomised by the JA practice of sometimes rebaptising new members who had already been baptised by other Baptist churches, implying that Christian baptism elsewhere may have been invalid. Consequently, in 1986 the Jesus Army was expelled from the Baptist Union, leaving it on the margins of the Baptist denomination.In 1982, the Jesus Fellowship had joined the Evangelical Alliance, one of whose membership requirements was that the church remain in close fellowship with other local evangelical churches. Earlier in 1986, the Evangelical Alliance had launched an inquiry into the beliefs and practices of the Jesus Fellowship Church and found that it no longer qualified for membership, citing much the same problems as did the Baptist Union later that year. But at least as relevant in both cases was the fact that the rise of the JA came at a time when an international welter of anti-cult activity was under way. Allegations that the JA had too authoritarian a style of leadership and that members were under pressure to commit to lifelong celibacy, together with the corporal punishment of children (rodding) was practised, and that community members were required to hand over their material possessions, left them vulnerable to accusations of cultic practices. Their intense style and requirement of totalitarian commitment led to some allegations of abuse from disillusioned former members, and some hostility from more conventional churchgoers. A number of churches within the Evangelical Alliance threatened to leave if the Jesus Fellowship Church was allowed to remain a member.During the late 1980s and the 90s, the Jesus Fellowship improved its relationships with other churches, and broadened its membership so that community residents became a minority of the church. At the same time it re-examined its practices and loosened its style, with the result that when it reapplied for membership of the Evangelical Alliance in 1999 it received endorsements from both local and national church leaders and was accepted into membership later in the year. It has never re-applied for membership of the Baptist Union, though a number of key Baptist ministers have spoken at Jesus Fellowship events.Despite the entry of the Jesus Army into the charismatic mainstream, the church still attracted a range of views and anti-cult groups like the Cult Information Centre, FAIR and Reachout Trust still included the Jesus Army on their lists.
Writing in 1998, Stephen Hunt summed up the outlook of the wider charismatic Christian fraternity on the Jesus Fellowship at that time as follows: "To some in the broader movement, the Jesus Fellowship will always be something of an enigma, tending towards exclusiveness and displaying a sectarianism incongruent with contemporary Pentecostalism. To others, the Jesus Fellowship will continue to epitomize the fullest expression of Christian and Pentecostal life."
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External links Official website
New Creation Christian Community
In Pictures: The Jesus Army from the BBC
Profile of Jesus Fellowship Church (Jesus Army) in Virginia Commonwealth University "World Religions and Spirituality Project"