Jesus Fellowship Church
Name: Jesus Fellowship Church, aka Jesus Army
Founder: Noel Stanton
Date of Birth: December 25, 1926
Place of Birth: Bedfordshire, England
Year Group was Founded: 1973
Sacred or Revered Texts: The Bible
Size of Group: Approximately 700 members live in approximately sixty communal residences of the Jesus Fellowship. An additional 1800 persons are active members living in various non-residential settings. (See Membership Styles below) for a further discussion of the types of life style options).
The Jesus Fellowship Church was founded in the early 1970s in the context of the New Church Movement in the United Kingdom. The latter began to take root in the late 1960s. The New Church Movement paralleled the Jesus People Movement in the United States in many respects including their exploration of communal life. But the spiritual life of this movement was more akin to the Charismatic Movement that was taking root in enclaves of Episcopalians and Roman Catholics in the United States. In the U.S. the “gifts of the spirit” still remains a rarity among Baptist traditions, but the New Church Movement, which has included many Baptists, early embraced the “charismatic gifts.” John Campbell, a long time member and leader of the Jesus Fellowship Church, writes:
The main thrust of the New Church Movement” was informal, committed relationships and the charismatic movement. I think they were all interested in the “community” in the broadest sense of the word; fewer in its residential aspect. [Personal correspondence, 05/11/01].
This was the context in which Noel Stanton would one day found the Jesus Army. Following a term in the Royal Navy during World War II, Stanton was baptized by a Pentecostal minister and, himself, felt called to the ministry. He studied in a Bible school and then spent some time working in the UK for a West Amazon Mission, and held a couple of jobs in the business world before he would become a Baptist Pastor. It was in the late 1950s that Stanton accepted a call to become a part-time minister to the small Bugbrooke Baptist Chapel, in a small village a few miles west of Northampton.
For almost a decade Stanton pastored the Bugbrooke congregation with little evidence of the renewal he had hoped for. By 1967 he felt he had reached a crossroad and was uncertain as to whether he should continue. Then, during the summer of 1968 Stanton started Saturday evening prayer services in the church manse. A dozen or so joined him in Bible study and a searching of the scriptures for a path to renewal. In time their prayers would be answered. Simon Cooper and Make Farrant, in their story of the Jesus Fellowship Army, describe the breakthrough in Stanton’s own words:
The experience was…so intense that I felt I was just not going to live anymore! I became filled with the intensity of God. This went on for hours and hours and I moved into speaking in tongues and praising the Lord. It was a tremendous experience of life and fullness from which I didn’t come down for a long time–and this was the changing point in my life. [C&F, p 30]
Motivated by this experience, Noel Stanton inspired many in his chapel congregation to follow in his steps in quest of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Not all would follow, but it would also become the changing point in the life of his congregation, for others soon began to have similar experiences.
The group commenced communal living in 1974 and membership grew rapidly in the early years. By 1977 there were almost three hundred in communal residences. The maximum number living communally peaked in the early 1990s with about nine hundred and then slipped back to around seven hundred where it has been stable for a number of years.
The fellowship began as a fairly rural enclave, with the first community homes in large houses in Northamption and the surrounding area. Fairly quickly, however, their felt need to engage in spreading the Good News, and their commitment to a ministry of social service to those experiencing suffering and pain, led them to spread out and establish homes in cities.
The Jesus Fellowship continues to recognize its Baptist roots, takes part in various joint evangelical initiatives, and is a member of the Evangelical Alliance, a major grouping in the UK. The closest alliance is with the Multiply Christian Network, an alliance of like-minded charismatic churches.
The communal life of the Jesus Fellowship is organized as the New Creation Christian Community. By the end of the twentieth century the Jesus Fellowship had fourteen fully established congregations and outreach programs in England with a presence in another dozen locales. In addition to the approximately sixty communal residences that they own in England, they have created a number of successful business enterprises. These businesses provide training and employment for members, many of whom were previously unskilled and unemployed.
The outreach ministries of the Jesus Fellowship operate under the name Jesus Army. This name was at least partially inspired by the Salvation Army which was established in East London in second half of the nineteenth century. (See the Salvation Army Profile Page on this site). The name and the commitment to social services parallel the organization created by William and Catherine Booth in 1865. While members do not uniform, suggesting a further likeness to the military symbolism of the Salvation Army, the male street evangelists usually wear jackets that bear a resemblance to battle fatigues.
There are other resemblances. The Jesus Army focuses its evangelism towards the more down and out members of society. The group is composed of persons coming from many backgrounds, but like many of the Booth’s recruits, a significant proportion are from working-class backgrounds. Many in the Jesus Army have experienced homelessness, problems with drug and alcohol abuse, and some are ex-prisoners.
But the Jesus Army has a distinctive modern-day character. While there is a good bit of discipline in this group they do not have the visible appearance of uniformed Salvation Army workers marching in step. When they work a large crowd, they stand out because of the blazing fluorescent pink crosses around their necks and the colorful Jesus Army logos that are sewn on their bright battle fatigue jackets. We’re it not for these visible symbols, many in the Jesus Army blend right in with the down-and-outs they seek to reach with the Gospel and the offer of a hot meal. The Jesus Army is almost certainly best known to London and in other cities around the UK by their brightly painted Modern Jesus Army minibuses and similarly adorned double-decker buses.
Much of the success and drawing power of the Jesus Army is their ability to create revival services that combine the old-time religion with contemporary entertainment — disco lights, music, dancing and a high emotional tone. People are frequently touched by the Holy Spirit and exhibit a wide array of emotions from laughter to tears. These lively revival services are clearly unconventional by traditional worship practices in most British churches.
The Jesus Fellowship Church proclaims itself to be in the mainstream of Christian doctrine. Doctrinally, the group is Reformed and Evangelical. They profess adherence to the ancient tenets of the Christian faith including the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed. They are swift to note that these creeds may be considered bedrock, universal Christian doctrine. They emphasize in particular that Christ came to the earth to provide salvation, that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, rose again on the third day, and ascended to the right hand of his father in heaven, and he will come again to establish an everlasting kingdom with the righteous. [footnote: www.jesus.org.uk/sof.html]
But in addition to upholding these orthodox Christian teaching, the Jesus Fellowship believes and is engaged in practices that are not so common among most orthodox traditions. They are actively engaged in witness, especially to persons and groups that are neglected by much of the mainstream of the orthodox traditions.
They are different also in their belief and commitment to living a simple, shared communal lifestyle that has roots in the earliest ancient Churches and has been carried forth by the faithful through the centuries. To enter fully into this lifestyle, one turns over ones wealth and earnings to a “Common Purse” of community sharing. By the same token, those who entered the group in poverty and debt can expect to have their indebtedness absorbed by the group. While the price of entry may be great for a few with worldly possessions, the groups’ emphasis on ministry to the down-and-out and the youth means that only a relatively small proportion pay a high admissions ticket.
If the Jesus Fellowship upholds orthodox Christian teachings regarding witness to the Lordship of Christ by holy character, working for a righteous society, and evangelical witness, they are set apart from more traditional evangelical faith groups by their distinctive Pentecostal-Charismatic character.
They believe the signs of the Holy Spirit are at work and in a deep sense of the presence of God, which may be manifested in such things as speaking in tongues (Glossolalia), laughter, tears, and other forms of exuberant worship. And like most other Evangelical traditions that have followed this route from outside the Pentecostal movement, they much prefer to consider themselves Charismatic rather than Pentecostals.
Membership and Lifestyles
Persons can become involved with the Jesus Fellowship and the New Creation Christian Community at a number of levels of intensity. They characterize these levels of involvement as “Styles of Covenant Membership.” All who engage in one of these styles are baptized members of the group and are considered to be a member of the church family.
Style One Covenant Members . Persons who, for various reasons, are not prepared to make a full commitment to communal living. A common reason is being “spiritually ‘young’ in Jesus,” but there are other reasons as well. Style One members will normally attend the Tuesday evening Agape meal in a home and participate in Sunday meetings.
Style Two Covenant Members . Persons committed to living a life of simplicity, sharing and discipleship, but who for various reasons, prefer to maintain their own lifestyle and residence.
Style Three Covenant Members . Persons fully committed to share “all things in common” as was done by the early Christian communities. They live and worship in communally owned housing, sharing wealth, income and possessions.
The New Creation Christian Community actively seeks new members, but it follows well-defined guidelines to assure that the prospective recruit has time to consider the implications of their decision. The Trustees created the category of associate membership that new recruits must belong to with a probationary period of two years. If the recruit is a minor, the probationary period has to extend up age 21.
When the individual makes the decision to become a full-fledged member they give all of their possessions and money to the Trust Fund. These resources are received in the members’ name. In the event that they might later decide to leave the group, they have the right to request that their gift be returned. While the fate of the individual’s contribution is legally at the discretion of the Trustees, Campbell and Bird report that requests to return money to departing members has never been refused [p.11].
Style Four Covenant Members . Persons who are in every sense fully committed members of the fellowship, but live at a distance from any Jesus Fellowship congregation community and, thus, are not able to regularly participate. [source: “Come and Belong”]
In addition to these formal “covenant” commitments, there are additional life-style commitments that people make. For example, approximately one quarter of the community commit themselves to a celibacy.[ Campbell and Bird, p7] There are also a variety of other levels of membership with less commitment, with the aim that “everyone can find their place”.
The communal residences that are home to approximately 700 of the members of the New Creation Christian Community vary considerably in size. Houses consist of between six and sixty people, who live as a large ‘house family’ (Source: Church Alive! p 4). In some locales two or more small residences may be linked together and share common dining and supply resources.
The core units of the church are the local congregations and ‘church households’ (house groups, usually based on a community house). Each church household is led by a team of two or three elders, together with other junior leaders. [Source: Church Alive!, p 3]. .
A group of senior leaders have overall responsiblity for the church, but they do not constitute an administrative elite. They meet regularly to conduct the business of the church and community, but they hold other jobs and do not reside in the same locale.
The basic financial structure for the Jesus Fellowship community is a Trust Deed created by the membership in 1979 for the benefit of members and the collective community. “The Trust Fund receives the possessions and capital of the members, and the Trustees are required to administer the Trust in such a way as to maintain the capital value of these contributions” [Source: Campbell and Bird, p 11]. The Trustees also have oversight of the “Common Purse” into which all income is pooled and dispersed.
Everyone who lives in the New Creation Christian Community gainfully labors either for a community owned business or takes outside employment [except of course students, the sick, the old]. Around 250 are employed within the community.
In a nation that exhibits a high level of secularization, with religious worship substantially confined to formal occasions of quiet grandeur and dignity, the Jesus Fellowship stands out as highly visible and at least a little peculiar. Thus it is not surprising that the Jesus Fellowship has been controversial from its beginning and continues to be so today. We briefly explore several reason why this is so.
The Jesus Fellowship Church effectively elected to be controversial. While many of their beliefs are mainstream, their belief in and practice of the charismatic gifts of the spirit placed them initially outside the mainstream. In the UK in recent years, the charismatic movement has gained rather broad acceptance. Many leaders in the traditional denominations are now charismatics.
Also, their communal living, and the accompanying beliefs and practices in the economic, social, moral and religious realms are, by their own acknowledgement, “markedly different” from the mainstream of Christianity and the broader society. Indeed, they have used the concept “radical” to define their lifestyle.
The Jesus Fellowship came into existence during the same time period as the rise of the anti-cult movement in the United States and Europe. The anti-cultists warned of awful things that were destined to happen to those who fall under the spell of cult leaders. A few disgruntled former members of various new religions served as exhibits to the British newspapers that the warnings of danger were to be heeded. And the tabloid obliged in sensationalizing claims of atrocity. The Jesus Fellowship did not escape the muckraking of the tabloids.
The Jesus Fellowship accepted the reality that some that came into the community would not find a home, and that a few would leave with feelings of bitterness. But they did not see themselves as a part of the “cult” phenomenon. But the high profile recruiting and service presence of the Jesus Army in the streets of London made them an easy target for the anti-cultists and easy for the press to find. Like many groups that have been burned by bad publicity, the leadership of the Jesus Fellowship made a more-or-less conscious decision to avoid the press. Thus, for several years, claims that were made against them went unanswered and they unwittingly became a part of the “cult controversey” they hoped to avoid.
John Campbell, who is responsible for New Creation Christian Community’s communications and public outreach, told us that the leadership now recognizes their withdrawal from engagement with the press was a tactical mistake. And, further, he believes it will take a long time for them to move beyond the lingering suspicions about unanswered charges. He believes that their public image has improved in some measure, but seems to recognize that they will continue to fight an uphill battle. For example, notes Campbell:
We consider ourselves to be a church without prejudice. We welcome anyone without any preconditions to our public meetings and basic church membership–drug addicts, gays, transsexuals, etc. However, if persons decide they want to take steps toward a deeper level of involvement, such as covenant membership, we have biblically grounded beliefs that guide our conduct. Deeper engagement can become problematic if individuals insisted on being a part of the group but refused to accept our beliefs and lifestyle. We recognize that this makes us potentially vulnerable to public criticism. Indeed, we have already been criticized, but that is something we will just have to live with. [ft/nt. personal interview, date]
What of controversy in the future? In time, all religious movements that survive experience a lessening of tension with the broader community in which they live. That process has probably begun with the Jesus Fellowship. At the same time, if tension diminishes too quickly, the product they bring to the broader will likely become less differentiable from other spiritual messages. The Wesleyians, who became Methodists, and the Salvation Army earlier occupied the same turf and experienced high tension with the broader culture for a long while. If the Jesus Army is to survive and become a significant movement in the U.K., and beyond, they will likely continue in tension with the broader culture for a good long while.
Campbell, John and Jeremy Bird. 1989. “Christian Community in Central England: A Personal Account of the Radical Lifestyle of the New Creation Christian Community.” 19pps. Nether Heyford, Northampton, UK: New Creation Christian Community.
Collinson, C. Peter. 1998. All Churches Great and Small. Carlisle, England: OM Publishing.
Cooper, Simon and Mike Farrant. 1998. Fire in Our Hearts: The story of the Jesus Fellowship/Jesus Army. Northampton, England: Multiply Publishing. 2nd Ed. Originally published by Kingsway.
Chryssides, George D. 1999. Exploring New Religions. London: Cassell. Ch 4. “The ‘New Christian’ Religions. 120-163.
Inaba, Keishin. 2000. A Comparative Study of Altruism in New Religious Movements: With special reference to the Jesus Army and the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Theology and Religious Studies, Kings College. University of London.
MacDonald-Smith, Fiona. 1995. “The Jesus Army Wants You.” The Independent: 16
Newell, Keith. 1997. “Charismatic Communitarianism and the Jesus Fellowship” in Hunt, Stephen, Malcolm Hamilton, and Tony Walter (eds.), Charismatic Christianity: Sociological Perspectives. New York: St Martin’s Press.
Wright, Nigel. 1997. “The Nature and Variety of Restorationism and the ‘ House Church’ Movement” in Hunt, Stephen, Malcolm Hamilton, and Tony Walter (eds.), Charismatic Christianity: Sociological Perspectives. New York: St Martin’s Press.
Jeffrey K. Hadden
Thanks to Candace Bryan who prepared the original version of this profile for:
New Religious Movements, Spring 1996
University of Virginia
Special thanks to John Campbell for updated
information and insights in the preparation of this edition.
Last modified: 06/03/01