[Source: Renewal Magazine (now Christianity Magazine) Published: Monday, 1 June, 1992]
review by Nigel Wright
This book is dedicated among other things to the advancement of the exclamation mark! In consequence it comes across as both a ripping good yarn and a prime example of religious enthusiasm.
The Jesus Army have made their mark upon the Christian scene in no uncertain way, and the sight of flak-jacketed warriors fighting for us and Jesus is a sight we have just about gotten used to. When I first heard about this new phenomenon after a March for Jesus some years ago, I wondered what on earth was going on and whence it had come. Fire in Our Hearts tells us.
It starts as the story of a village Baptist church, Bugbrooke, which experienced renewal. At this stage the narrative is familiar and to be paralleled in many places. But then unfamiliarity strikes as this particular group moves into community living, disciplined structures, communitarian business enterprise, street evangelism, church planting and expansion, combat uniforms and disfavour with other Christians. The book is honest enough to record some of the difficulties and struggles along the way.
Several factors interested me in particular. The book records an uneasy mixture of elements. The title ‘Jesus Fellowship’ is a deliberate evocation of the Jesus People of the 1960s, their cultural styles and successors. In that sense the movement is bound to a particular cultural phenomenon. At the same time, the theme of separation from the world and distance from contemporary culture is a primary emphasis.
The book contains a potted history of the moods and currents of the renewal movement over the last 30 years with any-charismatic-body who is anybody appearing in the plot. So a picture is painted of a ‘sectarian’ body which remains radically open to developments in the wider evangelical church. Beyond this there is a plundering of Christian history recounted here, with the Puritans, the Wesleys, the Hutterites and the Salvation Army (to name but some) all being appealed to at one time or another as inspirations. The present Jesus Army is a conscious imitation of the methods of William Booth and his strategy of winning the lowest and the worst.
A deeper concern of the book is to tell the story in a way that builds bridges and makes friends. This has been an enduring concern of the Jesus Fellowship since it was excluded first from the Evangelical Alliance and then from the Baptist Union for (as far as I can gather) behaviour perceived as separatist and unbrotherly. It says something for the movement and its leading pastor, Noel Stanton, that instead of letting this push them into sectarianism they have worked hard to find acceptance. It is about time the file on Bugbrooke was reconsidered.
It has to be said that whatever the Jesus Fellowship has done has its parallels in Christian history. Those like the Hutterites or Booth, who took such stands in times past, are now treated with honour and respect. It must also be said that the Jesus Fellowship and its Army is reaching people that nobody else is reaching, and through its community life and businesses has the resources to rehabilitate those who have fallen, in a way few others can. The signs of the kingdom are here and should not be ignored. We should respond to the intent of this book and work for re-inclusion in the wider family.
I say this knowing that the movement is not one to which I could belong. This is more to do with me than them. I doubt that I am capable of the intense religious emotions which it requires. I wonder at what point such emotion becomes unsustainable and wears people out. The title of the book is itself revealing. Fire needs something combustible to consume. The book shows that to maintain high levels of intense zeal (without which the movement would not continue) not only must it consume everything that it is offered – all the new teachings and insights in the contemporary church – but it must reach back into Christian history for yet more. I ponder this as a style of life an wonder whether a less intense and more sustainable style of life, but not a less sincere one, is not ultimately a preferable one. But then again, it takes a movement that breaks the mold to reach those who are unreachable.