Jesus people, loving people

Probing the Jesus Army

[Source: Aware Magazine Published: Wednesday, 1 February, 1995]

One of the most colourful groups to come out of the Jesus Revolution’ of the early seventies was the Bugbrooke Christian Fellowship, now better known as the Jesus Army. Originating from a Baptist Church in Bugbrooke, Northamptonshire, the fast-growing community soon developed a reputation for the strictness of its lifestyle and its aloofness from other evangelicals. Frequent media sensationalization helped to give it a dubious image. Over the years it has often been feared as a threat and denounced as a cult by other churches. But the Jesus Army has marched on… and has attracted increasing mainstream interest among evangelicals through its massive ‘Wembley Praise Days’, at which non-Bugbrooke speakers have been prominently featured. Just before the latest of these annual events, we spoke to John Campbell, Communications Officer and a senior leader in the community.

Many of us have stereotyped ideas of the Jesus Army, based on what we knew of you in the past. But have you changed in any way?

Over the years we’ve learned to be much more open-hearted to other Christians, and towards the whole spectrum of humanity. Our troubles with the media made us defensive and we’ve tried to lose that defensiveness.

How?

We tended to withdraw into ourselves. So we’ve been active over the last few years in building relationships with other Christian leaders. We’ve been producing a more varied style of church life, too, extending the non-community side of things.

Now half of our membership is non-community based. And we cover a wide area of Britain – from Glasgow down to the South coast – although the largest concentration is in the Midlands.

It was five years ago that we definitely began to change. Noel (Stanton – leader and originator of the Jesus Fellowship) in particular spent much of one year visiting other Christian leaders and re-establishing contact with them. Some New Church leaders had always held out hands of friendship, but others were a bit uncertain to start with.

Nowadays you’re being praised for your extensive caring work among addicts and the homeless. Why are you so effective with these groups, where other Christians struggle?

Our work here goes back to the earliest days at Bugbrooke, when we were quite involved in ministry among addicts and bikers in Northampton. We’ve always had a heart for society’s outcasts. Since we’ve become more open-hearted we’ve been much more able to befriend people and bring them the friendship of the gospel. In addition, our style is quite informal and lively, so people feel welcomed.

There are three things people come to us wanting: an experience of God, a sense of belonging, and a cause to be part of and fight for.

You’ve been accused in the past of employing cult techniques in order to make members…

That’s difficult to answer, because it stems from so many misconceptions. It’s fair to say that our approach now is much more flexible. We befriend and help people. Some will find faith, others won’t.

Your numbers have multiplied to somewhere around 2000. How has this happened?

It began some years ago when we found the leaders of various groups coming to us looking for input, and we’ve sought to develop it. We have fairly informal relationships, though, both in this country and overseas. They’re not an extension of Jesus Fellowship.

Where are you overseas?

Well, in most cases it’s a matter of informal links. There are a number of groups linked with us in Hungary, Belgium, Germany, France, Nigeria, Ghana and Australia.

What’s the reason for the Wembley Praise Day?

This particularly is an event where we seek to build bridges. We involve New Church speakers primarily (though not exclusively). The Anabaptist connection is one of the strands of tradition we do recognize.

How would you describe your theology?

I wouldn’t say theology was one of our great strengths; we’re a practical, active church, rather than a theoretical one, but you could say we were reformed, evangelical and charismatic.

You’re using Wembley to launch a new multimedia evangelistic presentation, ‘Bleeding Life’. Why?

A similar presentation last year was very effective: it broke down lots of barriers, and brought many people to a place where they heard the gospel, and responded. They were surprised by the liveliness of the meetings. We’re taking ‘Bleeding Life’ to Bristol, Northampton, Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield and Brighton – aiming to fill 2000-seater venues in most of these places. It’s expensive, but because Jesus Fellowship members are giving their time free, that keeps down the production costs.

How else do you evangelize?

There’s a fair bit of evangelism on the streets – two, three or four people going out together in an evening. Once a month, we have a night-time campaign in London with a double decker coach coffee bar. And big marquee-based campaigns go to a number of cities throughout the country each year.

How do you see the future of Jesus Fellowship?

I believe God is doing a great thing in this country. We need to make sure it isn’t just people’s emotions that are being touched, but their willingness to serve Jesus and truly go his way.

One of the most heartening things, to me, is that people from a rough background, having found the Lord and come amongst us, find others like themselves and find there’s hope. They continue to have difficulties, of course, and it takes a lot of patience – on both sides! There are plenty of disappointments.

One of our strengths is the way we’re able to share the load because we’re pretty much involved together. People can build a network of informal relationships. Once someone finds faith, they often have lots of friends already.

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