Jesus people, loving people

The radical kingdom of the Jesus Fellowship

by Stephen J Hunt, from Pneuma

While there exist fairly well-documented accounts of charismatic intentional communities in the USA, on either side of the Roman Catholic/Protestant divide,2 considerably less is known of those communities which are to be found in Europe. This disparity in documentation is partly because there are simply relatively few European charismatic communities in existence. Moreover, those which do exist tend to be rather small numerically, by way of those committed to a distinct way of Christian life.

This article considers the growth, dynamics and structure of one of the most noteworthy of the European charismatic communities: the New Creation Christian Community (NCCC), otherwise known as the Bugbrooke Community, a charismatic collective which has remained in existence in Britain for some thirty years. The NCCC is the communal element of the Jesus Fellowship which, in turn, is a distinctive “strand” of the “New Church” wing in Britain – matching, in scale of membership, those such as New Frontiers, the Pioneers and the Ichthus Christian fellowship. While the Ichthus Christian Fellowship has been influenced primarily by the so-called Dominion Theology largely associated with Peter Wagner at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, New Frontiers and the Pioneers were initially at the forefront of British Restorationism. In terms of theology and ecclesiastical structures the Jesus Fellowship approximates that of Restorationism, while constituting a unique New Church strand in its own right.

There are two principal reasons why the broader Jesus Fellowship movement is significant. Firstly, the innovations associated with the fellowship in terms of the overlapping considerations of a distinct theology and its communal structure which has brought to the surface a number of paradoxes as the communitarian wing has expanded and developed. Secondly, it ranks as one of the largest communities in Europe, charismatic or otherwise. Controversial at times, it may be deemed successful in terms of sustaining community living, numerical growth and a unique evangelizing ministry to the poorer sections of society, or what is frequently designated as “the underclass.” For these reasons, the NCCC 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.

Early Inspirations of the Fellowship

Initially, the Jesus Fellowship was inspired by two sources. The first is the Church of the Redeemer, Houston, Texas established by the Episcopalian priest Graham Pulkingham. In charismatic folklore the Redeemer church is typically regarded as the earliest, and certainly the most noteworthy attempt to create a thoroughgoing charismatic community. Beginning in 1965, five families and a number of single individuals came together to form extended family units which, in 1966, took on communal identity. By the early 1970s, community households had been established in Pulkingham’s parish and, subsequently, acted as a model for communitarian renewal in other charismatic churches in the USA. In 1972 Pulkingham moved his household to Coventry, England, and inspired other communal projects in the 1970s such as the Fisherfolk,3 the Post Green Community in Dorset,4 and the Community of Celebration in the Isle of Cumbrie, Scotland.5 While Pulkingham’s model of community living epitomized the conviction that collective life would provide a deeper expression of the Christian faith and the charismatic experience, his ministry to the poor inspired a number of Christians in Britain committed to ministering to the needy,6 the Jesus Fellowship among them.

There was a second fount of inspiration for the Jesus Fellowship. While the early 1960s charismatic movement provided spiritual power for the church, the counter-culture of the early 1970s established a focus for evangelizing out-reach, and gave an impetus for an emergent way of life by largely separating members from the secular world through a new social arrangement based upon “Kingdom values.” In this respect, from the very beginning, the Jesus Fellowship mirrored developments of the “Jesus Movement” (or the “Jesus People”) which sprung up in the late 1960s in southern California, and from there spread to other regions of the USA.7 Outside of the established denomination boundaries, such community-based groups as the Children of God (now “The Family”) and Gethsemane Chapel lacked the respectability of other charismatic communities. Frequently labeled as “cults,” those groups associated with the Jesus Movement tended to display a curious mixture of Right-wing “fundamentalist” values, strong overtones of holiness theology, and the features of the 1960s counter culture – most obviously the trappings of “hippie” dress and rock music.8 While the Jesus Fellowship had no direct links with the Californian Jesus People, it did provide a similar model in terms of communal living and the adoption of countercultural themes.

Largely because of sectarian divisions, the community-oriented North American Jesus Movement did not survive to the end of the decade. Forgoing communal life, the larger groups that comprised it either joined established Pentecostal churches, or began to create formal church organizational structures of their own.9 In time, the original adherents became part of the more respectable and culturally-accommodating churches in southern California.10 By contrast, in Britain, the Jesus Fellowship has endured, in many ways in its original form – retaining a communal life of austerity and simplicity which is rather reminiscent of traditional anabaptist communities. At the same time, it has continued to develop a culture which is “up to date” in the sense that it carries aspects of the 1990s youth-culture and has adapted for the purpose of evangelizing the young, particularly those which are to be found living on the streets of Britain’s towns and cities.

Stages of Development

Despite the initial inspirations of the Pulkingham community and the North American Jesus Movement, the Jesus Fellowship had its own distinct origins and has developed in its own right, both as a charismatic community and a powerful force of evangelism. Through various tracts and publications the Fellowship has helpfully identified different stages of its own fellowship, growth, and evolution.

The first stage was between 1968-73 and began in Bugbrooke, a small, insignificant, “very English village”11 on the southern outskirts of Northampton, a large agricultural town situated just south-east of the midlands region of England. Describing early events, a Jesus Fellowship leaflet briefly refers to how, in 1968 “a handful of disappointed Christians from Bugbrooke Baptist Chapel gathered every Saturday night: to find the secret of the early church.”12 The pastor Noel Stanton, who still holds the prominent leadership position within the Jesus Fellowship, led a series of prayer meetings for revival. Having previously mixed in Pentecostal circles and having received “baptism in the Spirit,” Stanton had attempted to move the church more in a charismatic direction with the support of this faction of the congregation.13

After laying claim to their own spiritual baptism and charismatic experience, Stanton and his circle led a revival that spread through the village and outlying areas so rapidly that it drew national media attention. Although a rather exaggerated account of the spread of the Bugbrooke revival, a British newspaper at the time commented:

More than 200 people in a village of 800 have dramatically dedicated their lives to Jesus. Nowhere else in Britain has experienced such a concentrated surge of religious fervor…. So much was written about the Jesus Freaks. But the pattern here, though similar, is dramatically different. For this extraordinary revival slashes through all barriers of age and background.14

The revival saw the creation of the Jesus Fellowship as a distinct and separate movement from the Baptist roots from whence it came. However, it was not until the years from 1974 to 1978 that the fellowship entered the second state of development when a community was officially established for its growing membership. Bugbrooke’s Anglican rectory was purchased and was subsequently renamed New Creation Hall which at times was affectionately referred to as “the city on the hill” or, alternatively, “Zion.” Several members of the fellowship moved into the building which became the first centre of community life. In 1976 a farm in Nether Heyford, just outside of Northampton, was bought as a replacement for the rectory as the New Creation Hall and, by 1979, several other large houses in the surrounding villages were purchased to afford accommodation for some 350 people.

By the end of the 1970s it was clear that the expanding membership was largely derived from two distinct social origins. For the first three years the core charismatic group that met at the Bugbrooke chapel was joined by new converts drawn principally from “bikers,” drug-abusers, “hippies” and other elements of the counter-culture to be found in Northampton and its outlying areas. Indeed, the developing culture of the Bugbrooke group was, in part, deliberately devised to attract and hold those from the counter-culture and others not typically reached by the established churches. This membership profile again mirrored development in the Jesus Movement in the USA, where by far the larger faction of membership was drawn from the “hippie” counterculture and involved young people who had previously indulged in a life-style of drugs and rock music.15 Almost all adherents were entirely new converts and found collective life for the first time – one which provided a new system of morality and sense of security.16 At the same time however, the Jesus Movement also had its more respectable middle-class element of already committed Christians. So it was with the Bugbrooke community. As the Jesus Fellowship expanded it attracted a middle-class contingent, often professional people, who already laid claim to being spiritually baptized charismatic Christians and who sought a greater articulation of their faith through communal living. This element included a number of young intellectual evangelicals from Oxford and, to lesser, extent Cambridge University.

The third stage in the development of the Jesus Fellowship, between 1979-1986, was a difficult and unstable period. At one level, the economic and the political climate of the times ran counter to the broader philosophy of the fellowship with its emphasis upon communitarianism and the sharing of property. These were the years of consecutive New Right Conservative governments in Britain that preached the alleged virtues of the free market and materialism. In turn, this political agenda helped generate a wider culture of individualism, privatism and self-interest which was hardly the ideal climate for the ethic of community living and self-sacrifice. There was however, considerably more to the story of these troubled years.

Criticism from both the secular world and other Christians centered upon accusations that the Jesus fellowship was cultist in nature. The chief charges focused upon the poor living conditions of communal members, the “shepherding” practices used for new converts and young members, the claimed forceful separation of members from their natural families, and the prevention of the community’s children from integrating with their peers in the outside world. At the same time, the rapid purchase of properties in the Northampton area, by the Jesus Fellowship, alienated local people fed on media rumors and the notoriety of unconventional Christian living. Such controversies and the apparent failure to integrate with other Christians, especially in and around Northampton, led to the fellowship being expelled from the Baptist Union and, in 1986, the Evangelical Alliance.17 There were, however, more favorable responses and vehement defenses by sympathetic Christians. As it was put in one Christian magazine in that year;

The Bugbrooke community have faced accusations of breaking up families… and aggressive authoritarianism…. No evidence has been put forward to substantiate these claims…. Theologically they appear to be as sound as a bell…. No other group of Christians has been at the brunt of so much criticism, lies, scandal, accusations, and suspicion as the Jesus Fellowship. On the other hand there are numerous Christians from house fellowships and other denominations who have visited and gained a very favourable impression of the Jesus People.18

As a result of controversy and persecution, the Jesus Fellowship turned more defensive and introverted to the extent that it became, even if temporarily, sectarian in nature. Retreating from secular society and those who persecuted it, the fellowship increasingly designated the outside world as “Babylon.” This turning inward did unsettle many of the members who had to re-evaluate their commitment. A number left, but the community survived. In fact, although this period was marked by controversy and external persecution it was, paradoxically, also a period of sustained membership growth and increasing evangelizing activity into urban areas.

The latest stage of the fellowship since 1987 has been marked by two key developments. In that year, the Jesus Army was created as the evangelical wing of the Jesus Fellowship. It has been comprised of mostly young members either involved in community life, or merely drawn from one of the other forms of membership which have subsequently evolved. The second development was the greater openness to other churches and the entry of the Jesus Fellowship into the charismatic mainstream. Initially, it had developed independently from both the Charismatic Renewal movement of the established denominations and was also placed outside of the rubric of the alternative expression of neo-Pentecostalism in Britain – the major “streams” of Restorationism. However, in some respects the Jesus Fellowship has considerable overlaps with the latter. Initially, the early Restorationists shared the conviction that the renewal of the Church could only be achieved outside of the traditional denominational structures and were distinctive because of their post-millenarian preferences. Andrew Walker in his overview of Restorationism distinguishes between “Restoration One” (typified by Bryn Jones’ Bradford Community Church) and “Restoration Two” (identified with New Frontiers, the Pioneers, and Team Spirit). “Restoration Two” is the more liberal and successful in terms of church members, while “Restoration One” has proved to be more conservative in theology, cultural outlook, and in church practices such as shepherding and the position of women.19 Arguably, the Jesus Fellowship is closer to “R1” in many respects. However, in terms of forging links with other churches, it is more closely associated with “R2,” as well as denominational charismatics. Nonetheless, prominent leaders of practically all the strands of the British charismatic and Pentecostal scene have spoken at the large public meetings of the Jesus Fellowship, and are frequent contributors to its major publications “Jesus Life-style” and “The Jesus Revolution Street Paper.”

The assimilation into the charismatic mainstream has also meant that the Jesus Fellowship has been influenced by the same developments. These influences include features of worship identified with the late John Wimber’s Vineyard organization20 and later an involvement with the so-called “Toronto Blessing” which swept through Vineyard churches and those closely associated with them.21 Moreover, this more accommodating stance towards other Christian churches has, to some extent, given the Jesus Fellowship increasing respectability and credibility, although controversies still remain. Indeed, the rapidly adaptation to the wider culture of the British charismatic churches, while at the same time retaining its distinct characteristics, has reaped rewards for the fellowship in terms of accelerated growth of the membership which has doubled at a time when congregational growth in the New Churches has stalled.

Kingdom Theology

A full set of the teachings of the Jesus Fellowship has yet to be published. Arguably, the failure to do so after thirty years of existence can, in part, be put down to a greater emphasis upon the “experience” of charismatic living, whether of the Spirit or the community, rather than the desire to establish clear theological dogma. Nonetheless, there is a comprehensive set of leaflets, called “Flame Leaflets,” that cover the key doctrines and practices. In addition, the publication “Living in the New Creation” provides the clearest statement of doctrines, as taught to members. It originated in study notes for the weekly agape and comprises study books for new members. Finally, another source of information indirectly outlining doctrine is “Fire in Our Hearts” – a publication produced by two of the Jesus Fellowship’s leading activists who detail the history of the fellowship.22

The Jesus Fellowship’s Statement of Faith published in the official magazine “Jesus Life-style” reads:

The Jesus Fellowship Church, which includes the New Creation Christian Community, upholds and practices orthodox Christian truth, being reformed, evangelical and charismatic. It practices 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….

Such statements clearly put the Jesus Fellowship well within the boundary of Christian orthodoxy. Simultaneously however, theological doctrines also place a great deal of emphasis upon community life as a natural outcome of the Christian experience. More succinctly, there is the felt need to establish “an ‘Acts 2’ community.”23 Implicit here is not just the priority of spiritual growth, but of the growth of the Christian community, the two being virtually synonymous. Such a way of life is, for the Jesus Fellowship, the missing element of charismatic Christian experience and an ignored dimension of church growth strategy.24 Perceived as a counter-balance to the over-emphasis of traditional evangelicals on “personal relationship” with God, this accent on Christian community is the “Radical Christian” principle of a radical Kingdom since it involves the total absorption into the Christian faith.25

There is more to the equation. Inspired by similar sources, including Ern Baxter and Arthur Wallis,26 the Jesus Fellowship can perhaps be said to have taken British Restorationism to its logical conclusion. The chief motivating consideration is the attempt to return to New Testament principles, not only in terms of doctrine, but as a way of life.27 From Restorationism is taken the idea that a truer form of Christianity needs to be restored as part of an eschatological vision, a theological view that tends towards post-millennarianism; the creation of the Kingdom on earth before the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and in the preparation for that advent.28 In the theology of the Jesus Fellowship, the Kingdom is constructed, at least partly, as an earthly theocracy; a “restoration of God’s house,” His holy temple.29

For the Jesus Fellowship, the greatest expression of the desire to restore a pristine Christianity is for Christians to live in community, in “Zion.” “Zion” denotes a spirituality in terms of the “holy nation,” a “royal priesthood” that is also expressed in community terms; the coming together in continuous covenant, a forsaking of the outside, secular world, or “Babylon.”30 This separation from the world does not suggest however, a total disengagement from it. The call to evangelism, means that the “lost” must be reached, brought to salvation and ideally encouraged into community life – an ideal, however, which has been recently compromised by new forms of membership that are outlined below.

Underpinning this ideal of the NCCC is the theology of a “new creation” in spiritual and communal life which is regarded as central to the Kingdom of God. Here the spiritual family gives way to the family of the Kingdom. The “new family” is envisaged as a place of healing, fulfillment and ministry, a place on which the power of the Holy Spirit dwells. At the same time, the act of Christian regeneration brings the individual into a spiritual family that incorporates and transcends the biological family. The envisaged new Kingdom family consists of “mothers,” “brothers” and “sisters,” and men older in age who provide, among other things, a spiritual fathering function aimed at bringing emotional healing and personal spiritual growth.

The NCCC community is seen as the family of God, and the familial relationships are cohesive and all-embracing. In this family, everyone is equal on the basis of participating in the Kingdom, for all are understood as having the spiritual status as sons and daughters of God. Consequently, all are servants and overseers of one another, brother and sisters in the same spiritual family. It follows that those in community are expected to lay aside personal interests and accept a common purpose. Hence, domestic arrangements reflect the Jesus Fellowship’s understanding of the basic values of the kingdom of God as a new society of simplicity and equality. Practically speaking all households conform to set patterns of consumption and activities to which members are obliged to adapt. Such a life-style is justified in terms of the scriptural injunction to forsake self so that individuality melds with others and a new identity is found in conjunction with brothers and sisters. Personal identity is less private and competitive, and more communal. Those in community – and indeed for members not in community – are also understood to assume a new identity when joining. This new identity is indicated by the adoption of a new “virtue” name, where a person’s first name is followed by that such as “Receptive,” “Intrepid” or “Resolute” which are meant to characterize certain personal, and essentially Christian qualities.

Community Life and Structure

Today, the NCCC is no longer limited to its cornrnunal centers of Bugbrooke and its locality. There are now over 60 large houses and 20 smaller ones which have been purchased all over Britain, so that the Jesus Fellowship has a presence in many major cities and towns. The fellowship claims that there are over 800 people, including children, living in community in houses of various sizes modeled on the life of the first century Church.31

From six to 35 people live in a house, though a few larger properties have up to 60 residents. The pattern of community life in the largest, down to the smallest residence, is modeled along the same principles and pattern. Those dwelling in a community house, comprise the household members, along with those who live outside but who are formerly attached to it. Though the household is the basic unit of the fellowship, several households come together to form congregations which are the focus for worship and meetings, along with non-residents and any member of the public who wish to attend. Like many intentional communities, entrance into the community life of the NCCC is gradual and follows a period of mutual adaptation. Those committed Christians seeking a communal existence, in much the same way as new converts off the street, are afforded a welcome, drawn into the community and offered membership, with a personal decision expected within months. Before embarking on full community life however, a member must be over the age of 21 years old and is expected to go through a probationary period of two years. During the probationary time the prospective member’s income and any capital assets placed in the Community Trust Fund which may also pay off debts previously incurred by new members. At the end of the probationary period, any assets an individual may have are contributed to the Trust Fund and entered into a legal register against their name and are refunded should a member wish to leave the Jesus Fellowship.

New members, especially if they opt for community life, will have a “shepherd” who will oversee his/her spiritual development.32 Shepherding, in most cases, lasts usually for two or three years, or until the individual reaches what is perceived to be spiritual maturity.33 Shepherding is, for the most part, conducted on a one to one, same gender basis, with the shepherded and the shepherd almost always sharing the same residence, and in the larger houses, the dormitory or bedroom. This controversial practice has been diluted or abandoned in many of Britain’s New Churches. The reason why it is retained by the NCCC is probably practical, as much as theological, in that new converts are often taken from the streets, are unemployed, alcohol or drug abusers, or young people who have suffered emotional damage and have grown up in dysfunctional families. In this way, the purpose of a structure of authority, along with mature adults and peers in the household, is calculated by the NCCC, to offer rehabilitation and “re-parenting.”

The practice of shepherding, however, is part of a wider process. For the Jesus Fellowship community life is regarded as a healing experience in itself. In this context, openness to others means listening to constructive criticism and spiritual guidance from other brethren, and is intended to remove self-deception and foster the ability to learn. This kind of social interaction varies from one household to another, but the Jesus Fellowship claims that it is uncoerced, unstructured, relaxed and normal because these are components of the everyday round of activities.

Those who live in a NCCC house have a routine and life-style different from those members of the Jesus Fellowship who live outside. Individuals may be absorbed into community life by staffing the ministries of the church and being available to others for companionship and support, and are expected to work for the house’s common purse either through outside employment, or one of the fellowship’s businesses. Church households are regarded as a “family” of brothers and sisters and in the household, the spiritual family takes precedence over a member’s natural kin who may or may not be part of the community. Certainly, at some stage, each member is expected to resolve any conflict of loyalties between their ties of natural kin and the fellowship.34

Community living brings constant contact with fellow residents, often structured around church meetings or other activities. On Saturday evenings, if there is not a main church celebration, house groups engage in worship and exhortation. Tuesday evening is agape, the covenant meal eaten together by the household. Wednesday evening is for the meetings of the “servant groups” or “cells”35 of which there are in the fellowship some 200 nation-wide. As the core of the church, the “cells” are constituted by some four to twelve people, adult members and their children as well as “new friends,” who are those on the fringes of the membership. When they grow too large they divide and become the basis for the “planting” of new “cells” or even local congregations While their immediate function is nurturing fellowship, worshiping and praying, they also provide the training ground for future leaders and ministry.

Generally speaking, in most houses communal life is a spartan existence and simple lifestyle. There is no television or radio, and rarely newspapers to be read. Most possessions are divested when entering the community, except for clothes and a few personal items. Married couples have more possessions, and a room to themselves with separate rooms for children. Meals are taken collectively in the dining room, and the lounge is like a common room. Meal times are fairly structured and provide an important basis of fellowship for sharing news and welcoming guests. Except for the bedrooms, all areas of the house are common space, for mingling with other residents and those on the fringes of the Jesus Fellowship movement.

While the community is seen to be constituted by equal brothers and sisters, there remains both a strict hierarchical structure and stringent division of labor, particularly along gender lines. Like a monastic order, the organizational, hierarchical structure is up and running when a member joins so that there is little internal democracy. At the organizational level there are, within community, different functions. In matters concerning leadership, headship, and occupation, for example, elders and “shepherds” are the principle mediators of authority and providers of pastoral roles. In addition, other designated roles such as “domestic sister” (female head of household) or “leading servant brother” (a leader of a “servant group”) all signify different ministries and elements in a fairly authoritarian structure.

Decision-making is hierarchical, with a group of senior leaders setting the direction for the whole church, which devolves down to decision-making at the regional and house-hold level with the spiritual injunction for all members to submit to and obey all those placed over them. It is, however, at least in theory, an open hierarchy with members being permitted to assume different ministries as spiritual maturity occurs and community living experience is gained. Day to day decisions and disputes are resolved in the community house, the house elders having to deal with local and internal issues, and their success in this managerial role is, arguably, one reason for the community’s endurance.

Family, Marriage and Gender Roles

Marriage and the family, along with specific gender roles, are afforded a high priority. In the Jesus Fellowship the marriage relationship, becomes more open to others, in the sense that much of it is lived out in conjunction with the other house residents. Marriage is seen as a ministering relationship in which human warmth and Christian fellowship is offered to others in the house, providing spiritual parenting for those who are emotionally damaged. Marriage is seen as a covenant relationship “first with Jesus then with one another and always for the sake of furthering ministry and function within the church group.”36 Where problems in child-rearing occur, support and advice for the parents is on hand from fellow residents in the community house. For the children there is not a total separation from the outside world for the young. All children go to state school since there are not the resources to run an independent school, although this type of schooling would remain an ideal.37 At the age of 18 years old those children of parents in the NCCC are encouraged to make up their minds whether or not to be committed, and if not, are expected to find their way in the outside world.

There is particular teaching concerning males and females, each having a specific social support and spiritual role in terms of authority and a division of labor. Indicative of this organizational structure is the strong emphasis on headship of male leaders at all levels and their role in heading up the major ministries within the church. Men and women are also expected to dress differently. Female dress is simple and modest with an emphasis on non-sensuality. For instance, make-up is not encouraged. Gender roles are strictly segregated with men expected to work in the community’s businesses, farms, or outside employment. While women may be involved in office work, their roles are primarily seen as domestic. The aim is to recreate gender identities as interpreted from Scripture with parallel occupational patterns so that the young will grow up, so it is reasoned, unspoiled by the temptations of the secular world. This goal is clearly stipulated in a tract produced by the fellowship:

In today’s society the roles have become blurred. Men often wear the pinny, whilst women go out to work! … But it’s not God’s perfect way. God wants men to be men. Masculinity! And women to be women! Femininity! It makes sense really. Call for women to accept the headship of strong, godly men. This is not a question of equality but of social and spiritual role.38

Contact between males and females is limited. In a reasonably sized house there will be female and male dormitories. If a male wishes to “date” a female “sister,” she is generally first approached by a shepherd or elder and dating occurs only with expressed permission. Men and women also have their own meetings, with servant groups frequently single-sex. In addition, males and females regularly have their own national “praise days” of song and celebration in which gender identity is given a high profile. In the case of the males, the “Men Alive” meeting, which is usually held in a large venue in one of Britain’s major cities, frequently attracts 600-700 males.

Forms of Covenant

The idea of covenant as a distinctive form of commitment can be found in many forms of charismatic community.39 It might best be cogently described as a formal commitment sealed by a vow to indicate dedication to the community and an oath to participate in a distinct lifestyle and mission. The Jesus Fellowship places considerable stress on the covenant bond. Covenant comes in various forms: either to communal life or to one of the other forms of membership, and, if chosen, to celibacy.

Baptism for the new convert is followed by the option of making covenant – a choice also open to those Christians long-standing in the faith. Many prefer, at first, to consider this option after nominal membership. Covenant ratifies the close commitment to the fellowship and brotherhood which might already be experienced in community living. The metaphor of marriage is often used in teaching about the nature of covenant. Making covenant signifies commitment to the community. The intention is that this commitment is for life and is meant to express the social relationships that derive from being “born again” into a new family as sons and daughters of God. Members of the Jesus Fellowship who give an oath of covenant pledge to keep the following sevenfold commitment: 1) uphold the pure biblical faith, 2) be loyal to the brotherhood of the church, 3) consecrate their whole being in service to God, 4) love each other in social equality, simplicity and righteousness, 5) accept suffering for Christ’s sake and face opposition without retaliation, 6) accept wisdom and help from other members of the church with mutual correction, confession of faults, forgiveness and reconciliation, and 7) unite with each other in full bond of unity in Christ with an intention that this should be the life-long pledge.40

Such covenant exists for those who want to live the Christian faith in a communal setting and who are dedicated to a total discipleship. However, today only a third of the Jesus Fellowship’s 2,500 adherents actually now do. It is apparent that the church has come to recognize that not all members find it appropriate to respond in the same way, so it provides four different styles of covenant membership, which entail different levels of commitment. Style 1 covenant members have been baptized, have undertaken covenant, and live in their own home. They have their own jobs and participate in various non-church as well as church activities. Style 2 covenant members resemble style 1, except they enter into a closer identification with the Jesus Fellowship “kingdom” culture in terms of time, finances and services. They possess their own homes but retain a life-style of simplicity, discipleship and sharing. Style 3 covenant members live in NCCC households, sharing all wealth, possessions and income. Style 4 covenant members resemble style 1 except that they live at a distance from a congregation and cannot regularly participate in meetings.41

Celibacy is a distinct form of covenant. In fact, the Jesus Fellowship is the only “New church” stream in Britain that advocates and practices celibacy for those felt called to it. A prospective celibate must be over 21 years old and initially enters a probationary year before undertaking the commitment, which is assumed to be for life. The decision is sealed with a vow and is taken as seriously as the ordinances of a monastic order.

The formal justification for celibacy is biblical, and is based upon the Pauline injunction that the single life allows more dedication to Christ. It follows that the celibate has no other distractions, allowing a greater dedication to evangelism and freeing a member for ministry particularly in the unsocial hours that the Jesus Army campaigning requires, that is, evening missions in inner-city areas. For the Jesus Fellowship, celibacy is “a gift of God for the church, enabling men and women to live undiluted and undistracted lives for Him.”42 Celibacy however, is not seen as superior to marriage. Both are regarded as high callings. Neither does celibacy constitute a form of segregation. Although celibates have their own meeting for moral support, in the community context, couples and celibates live side by side.

Kingdom Economics

In many ways the NCCC is self-sufficient. A community distribution center at one of the larger properties just outside of Northampton has been functioning for several years by way of providing the food, clothing and other basic daily needs of the numerous households through national transportation and distribution network. Goods are initially bought wholesale, and then distributed to each house as the weekly order is sent in, even though local supermarket supplies might be cheaper and of a better quality. In addition, the Jesus Fellowship has its own medical, legal and architectural-design practices, inasmuch as they are staffed by members of the community in their professions, but not literally owned by the fellowship.43 Such attempt at self-sufficiency is forged by the theological imperative to be removed from the secular world and devised to encourage members into a new way of living which welds together every area of life. This self-sufficient way of life includes the economic aspects of community life as well. Indeed, one of the striking features of the Jesus Fellowship is its economic organization.

In line with the basic theology, all members are deemed as equal in an economic sense. As we have noted, there is little by way of private property for those who live in community. At a time when even religious life has been increasingly influenced by the dominant cultural ideology of materialism and worldly success,44 the Jesus Fellowship has eschewed 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 Faith ministries originating in the USA, is singled out for particular ridicule. Wealth is not perceived as a blessing, particularly for the individual, and an official publication states that “the love of money brings selfishness in human hearts.”45 As far as the fellowship is concerned “wealth for Jesus” means to the benefit of the Christian community. As mentioned above, the wealth deposited in the common purse includes members incomes and salaries. Approximately half of this wealth is used for the needs of the community itself and to fund evangelizing endeavor. The other half is re-invested in the fellowship’s businesses or in paying off bank loan’s for new business ventures.

In many respects the economic structure of the Jesus Fellowship might be said to be “socialist” in orientation and is most readily seen in the propertyless community and the philosophy of “each according to their need.”46 However, this interpretation has to be modified in light of the way the Jesus Fellowship relates economically to the outside world. Indeed, if there is anything which is indicative of the growth and success of the Jesus Fellowship, apart from its membership growth, then that is the size of its business enterprises. In this respect the key aim is to extend the practices of brotherhood and sisterhood into, working for the common good and in providing a non-alienating environment with sufficient work time flexibility as to allow members to take time off for evangelism and church-planting.

In the early stages, those who begun the Northampton fellowship lived from communal earnings and savings. Because of relocation and mismatch of skills of an expanding membership, it was necessary to develop new means of generating income. There was also the need to support the growth of living accommodation, as well as providing for those who were unemployed and less well off. As a result, beginning in the mid-1970s, financing through business enterprises, all within a few miles of Northampton, became a priority.

The first means of wealth creation was the farm at Nether Heyford which became both a focus for community living, and a means of economic support. The fellowship now has two farms and while some agricultural produce is consumed in the households, the rest is taken to market to be sold. There are also numerous orchards at New Creation Hall, along with other fruit crops which are distributed throughout the local Jesus Fellowship communities. At times of harvest, members of the households in the Northampton area are expected to give spare time over to working on the farm according to the season of the crop.

Since this first free-market venture, a number of business enterprises have developed, largely emerging from the light industries needed to keep the NCCC functioning and serving the community’s needs. The most important are those businesses specializing in building, plumbing and vehicle repair. While the building47 and plumbing businesses began in order to upkeep community dwellings, the vehicle maintenance business was initially established as a garage to deal with repairs to the fellowship’s fleet of buses used for evangelizing crusades, as well the member’s private vehicles. In all of these businesses about half the work now conducted is to satisfy the demands of customers outside of the community.

In addition, to these businesses originating with the needs of the NCCC, others have been created based on calculating consumer demands in the outside world. Hence, the opening of the “House of Goodness” chain of health food shops which begun with its first outlet in 1976. Since then, there has been established retail outlets selling jeans and outdoor wear shops. All the businesses are owned and controlled by the community through the Trustees, to whom they are accountable. The Trustees is a group of senior members who monitor performance, spending and use of assets, and look for new ventures. Business turnover now exceeds 12 million pounds sterling per year.

Put together, there are some 250 people employed by the Jesus Fellowship, by far the greater number of which are members. The egalitarian ethos is retained since all are paid 500 pounds per month whatever their type of work or authoritative position in a business. This income is placed directly into the community purse. While there are statutory holidays, members are expected to spend this time evangelizing.

As far as the economic dimension of the Jesus Fellowship is concerned, there is a clear career employment structure within the church, along with training opportunities and ethical wealth creation. In this context, one of the principal considerations is in developing manual skills. While there are office jobs, and scope for professional work to be found, it is calculated by the Jesus Fellowship that manual work involves training lower class male youth converts with vocational rehabilitation especially for those who have never known employment.

Evangelism

Almost fanatical in its proselytization, the Jesus Fellowship immediately gained a high profile in British cities. It took some years, however, for the community to develop to the extent that it could systematically set about its goal of evangelizing the poor and those outside of mainstream society through the Jesus Army. By the mid 1970s, the fellowship felt sufficiently strong enough to undertake evangelism in urban areas, and households were felt large and secure enough to absorb newcomers from the streets who might be both disturbed and disturbing as a result of drug and alcohol abuse. The farm at Nether Heyford is the most successful example of this outreach, housing several dozen, mainly “underclass” people. In this way the Jesus Fellowship see strong parallels between itself and the Salvation Army. In an article in its magazine it states as much when it quotes William Booth that “Those who belong to no-one else belong to us.”48

Declaring a significant “prophetic word” from the Holy Spirit, the Jesus Fellowship sees its mission as fulfilling God’s will to “adopt the lost generation,” claiming that “young men and women from broken families, often living on the streets, will find new birth in Jesus and be brought by God into His family.”49 Part of this endeavor includes the idea of a “moral revolution.” Hence, a strong ethic of the fellowship informs its stance against drug abuse, abortion, promiscuity and crime, the call for the strength of family life, selflessness and service, and the replacement of a lost young “Generation X” by “Generation J” (the Jesus Generation.”)50

As an evangelizing church, the Jesus Fellowship runs the normal programs of any other “New Church,” alongside those it has initiated on its own. There is evangelism through street work (along with colorfully painted double-decker coaches), marquee campaigns, local initiatives, church-planting, renewal weekends and “celebration rallies” (alternatively referred to as “Praise Days”).51 Many of these “celebration” activities attract several thousand people and tend to be calculated to appeal to the contemporary “rave” culture, complete with light shows and rock music, of a younger generation. Such strategies can produce contacts who are subsequently welcomed to visit the Nether Heyford farm or drawn into a household for follow-up evangelism and absorption into further church activities.

Future Prospects

In the modern world intentional communities are notoriously short-lived, with only a few of those established in the 1960s surviving into the 1990s. Such communes tend to create their own internal tensions and contradictions. Those with a clear ideology or spiritual orientation tend to survive longer,52 but frequently only a generation. The greatest visions and aspirations cannot compensate for the difficulties either generated by the community itself, or in its relationship with the outside world. The success of the Jesus Fellowship rests partly upon unity of purpose and commitment which has overridden the internal conflict that has destroyed other communities. Kingdom theology, concepts such as “Zion,” brotherhood, and “servant hearts” have bound together members of the community through the difficult times. Clear structure, roles and organization, role performance and leadership have also provided a viable community structure which has endured.

Another key to persistence has been adaptability to the outside world. The decision in the late 1980s to become more open and link with other New Churches has been of particular importance. So has the decision, over the last decade, to broaden the membership so that now community residences form only one-third of the church. It is in the development of its four levels of covenant that the Jesus Fellowship indicates its willingness to adapt to social change. There is the awareness that members’ life circumstances change and it may be the case that an alteration in style of membership may prevent some from leaving.53 It has certainly introduced a new dynamic into the church/community relationship, and presumably if this trend continues it will dilute the uniqueness. It may be that the Jesus Fellowship’s more radical element – materially egalitarian but structured communal living – will continue to involve a decreasing proportion of overall membership, leaving it as just another strand of the New Church movement in Britain.

Two interrelated concerns still remain. First, the problem of the succession of leadership after the first generation has grown old or died. Such was the case with Pulkingham’s communities in the USA and Britain where poor leadership led to the disbanding of community living in 1977. Second, there is the matter of establishing aims and priorities above and beyond the initial vision. It follows that while the Jesus Fellowship has been a success story, particularly in terms of community living, future success, indeed survival, will probably be contingent upon the second generation since the founders are now middle-age. If sufficiently vibrant, this younger generation will write the next chapter of the story. If the fellowship survives it will undoubtedly remain a distinctive element of neo-Pentecostalism. 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.

  1. This article was initially intended to be a joint contribution with Keith Newell, who was a fellow sociologist and member of the Jesus Fellowship. Keith was taken mortally ill when speaking on the subject of the Jesus Fellowship at a conference of the Ilkley Group of Christian Sociologists in November 1997. This article is dedicated to his memory. Keith’s unique academic contribution is his work “Communitarianism and the Jesus Fellowship,” in Charismatic Christianity: Sociological Perspectives, ed. Stephen Hunt, Malcolm Hamilton, and Tony Walter (Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1977), 120-139. I would also like to thank the Jesus Fellowship for permitting me to stay in community, on several occasions, as an outside observer.
  2. For instance; Peter Hocken, “Charismatic Communities,” in Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements, ed. Stanley M. Burgess and Gary B. McGee (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1988), 128.; Michael Harper, A New Way of Living (Plainfield, NJ: Logos International, 1973); Mary Ann Jahr, “An Ecumenical Christian Community: The Word of God, Ann Arbor, Michigan,” New Covenant 4 (February 1975): 4-8; David and Neta Jackson, Glimpses of Glory: Thirty Years in Community (Elgin, Il: Brethren Press, 1989); Theophane Rush, “Covenant Communities in the United States”, PNEUMA: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies 16 (fall, 1994): 233-246.
  3. Graham Pulkingham and Michael Harper, Sound of Living Waters (London, England: Hodder, 1995).
  4. F. Lee and J. Hinton, Love is Our Home (London, England: Hodder, 1995).
  5. Mike Durran, The Wind at the Door (Eastbourne, England: Kingsway, 1986).
  6. Harper, A New Way of Living; Graham Pulkingham, Gathered for the Power (London, England: Hodder, 1973); Graham Pulkingham, They Left Their Nets (London, England: Hodder, 1973).
  7. David Foss and Richard Larkin, “‘From the Gates of Eden’ to the ‘Day of the Locus’: An Analysis of the Dissident Youth Movement of the 1960s and its Heir in the 1970s Post-Movement,” Groups, Theory and Society 3 (1976): 45-65.
  8. Robert Palms, The Jesus Kids (London, England: SCM Press, 1971).
  9. Richard Quedebeaux, The Charismatics II (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 982), 130.
  10. A. Mauss and P. Peterson, “Les ‘Jesus Freaks; et le Retour la Respectable,” Social Compass 21.3 (1974): 283-302.
  11. Simon Cooper and Mike Farrant, Fire in Our Hearts (Eastbourne, England: Kingsway, 1997), 21.
  12. “The Fire Begins and Spreads,” Flame Leaflet no. 2.
  13. Cooper and Farrant, Fire in Our Hearts, 21-30.
  14. The Daily Mail, 16 September 1973.
  15. “God’s Gentle Irony. The Jesus People,” Eternity, August 1971.
  16. Robert Tiger and Robert Fox, “Mainlining Jesus: The New Trip,” Society ebruary 1972): 56.
  17. The Evangelical Alliance is the largest umbrella organization for evangelical fellowships in Britain, the great bulk of which are charismatic in persuasion. It is not entirely clear whether the Jesus Fellowship was, in fact, expelled. The church’s side of the story was that it left as a result of persecution, Cooper and Farrant, Fire in Our Hearts, 226-230.
  18. “Bugbrooke – Cultic or Christlike?” Buzz Magazine, April 1986.
  19. Andrew Walker, Restoring the Kingdom (London, England: Hodder, 1998), 41-50.
  20. Cooper and Farrant, Fire in Our Hearts, 251-252.
  21. Stephen Hunt, “The ‘Toronto Blessing’: A Rumour of Angels?” Journal of Contemporary Religion 10.3 (1995): 257-271.
  22. Cooper and Farrant, Fire in Our Hearts, 251-252.
  23. Cooper and Farrant, Fire in Our Hearts, 17.
  24. Cooper and Farrant, Fire in Our Hearts, 17-18.
  25. Living in the New Creation, Jesus Fellowship Church (1991).
  26. In the early stages of the movement, the Jesus Fellowship received visits from some of the leaders of the British Restorationist movement, Cooper and Farrant, Fire Our Hearts, 33-40.
  27. Cooper and Farrant, Fire in Our Hearts, 84.
  28. Walker, Restoring the Kingdom, 147-165.
  29. Cooper and Farrant, Fire in Our Hearts, 100.
  30. Cooper and Farrant, Fire in Our Hearts, 85.
  31. “Zion, City of God,” Flame Leaflet, no.5.
  32. “Christian Community,” Flame Leaflet, no.7.
  33. I discovered cases in which shepherding remained for up to twelve years.
  34. “Building Church Households,” Flame Leaflet, no.16.
  35. The idea of the “cell” as the building block of church life was first devised in Britain by Roger Forster of the Ichthus Christian Fellowship; see Anthony O’Sullivan, “Roger Forster and the Ichthus Christian Fellowship,” PNEUMA: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies 16 (fall 1992): 247-293.
  36. “Single for Jesus,” Flame Leaflet, no.9.
  37. Children, however, are prohibited by the Jesus Fellowship from playing competitive sports at school.
  38. “Women in the Church,” Flame Leaflet, no.10.
  39. Rush, “Covenant Communities in the United States,” 239-240.
  40. A Covenant people,” Flame Leaflet, no.12.
  41. “A Covenant people,” Flame Leaflet, no. 12.
  42. “Single for Jesus,” Flame Leaflet, no.9; Jesus Life-Style 24, (second quarter, 1993): 25.
  43. The medical practice is typical of this development, There are five doctors running a medical practice in Northampton.
  44. See, for example, Howard Perkin, The Enterprise Culture in Historical Perspective: Birth, Life, Death – and Resurrection? (London, England: Routledge, 1992), 36-60; Richard Roberts, “Religion in the ‘Enterprise Culture’: the British Experience In the Thatcher Era,” Social Compass 39.1 (1992): 15-33.
  45. Wealth Creation for Jesus,” Flame Leaflet, no.21.
  46. Jesus Army Lifestyle, 25, Third Quarter, 1993,8-9.
  47. The building firm is called Skaino Services – derived from the Greek in reference to St. Paul’s tent making business which economic supported during his mission.
  48. Jesus Lifestyle, 27, First Quarter, 1994, 3.
  49. Jesus Lifestyle, 27, First Quarter, 1994, 3.
  50. Another key element of evangelism are the Jesus Army marches through Britain’s larger towns and cities – a strategy which takes much of its tone from dominion theology.
  51. Christopher Coates, Diggers and Dreamers, 96-97: The Guide to Cooperative Living (Winslow, England: Edge of Time, 1995).
  52. The annual dropout rate of baptized (non-covenant, non-community) members is 30%, but of established community members it is less than 10%. Thus, the greater dropout rate is among the styles of membership with fewer demands; the high profile Jesus Army activities succeed in recruiting a somewhat transient population, in addition to new members drawn from other churches and second generation members.
  53. Julia Duin, “Where Have all the Christian Communities Gone?” Christianity Today, 14 September 1992, 24-25.

Reprinted with permission. Source: Hunt, Stephen J. ‘The Radical Kingdom of the Jesus Fellowship’ in Pneuma, The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies, Vol 20, Number 1, Spring 1998 (Hagerstown, Maryland, USA) Pp.21-41

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