Source : 12/10/1984 Northampton Chronicle and Echo
To round off our series, senior elder Mr. David Hawker, Mr. Noel Stanton and other leading elders have contributed this article.
Christianity has always been a radical and at times controversial religion. Jesus was so controversial he was crucified. The early Church was violently persecuted under the Roman Empire. And many Christian groups through the centuries have suffered in similar ways.
So we are not surprised when, as 'Jesus People', we also are regarded as controversial, even in 'Christian' Britain. We hope it is because we have chosen to be radical in following Christ.
Some people are supportive and understanding, others are openly hostile. But most are simply curious, and perhaps a little suspicious of this unusual group of people who have a different lifestyle from their own.
Although to the outsider we may seem mysterious, most of us are quite ordinary people with ordinary jobs, simply seeking to follow Christ in today's society.
We are grateful therefore for this opportunity to share something of our beliefs and lifestyles.
As a Church we are evangelist Baptists; we could be described as orthodox but radical. We are within the mainstream of historic Christianity, and we accept the major statements of Christian doctrine such as the Apostles' Creed.
The charismatic dimension, which we entered in 1969, is now accepted in a large section of Christianity in this country. Community is also widespread, although not normally on such a large scale as ourselves. Some of us recently took part in a national congress of Christian Communities, at which more than 100 groups were represented.
We believe in the Bible as the Word of God. We were sad to see the results of the recent survey in which some Church of England bishops seemed to deny some of the basic tenets of the Christian faith. One of the first things which happened to us in 1969 was that we found a renewed faith in our orthodox Christian beliefs. The Bible came alive for us, as we saw God working in people's lives in wonderful ways.
Community living did not start until about five years later. A book by an Anglican clergyman, the Rev. Michael Harper, prompted us to read again the description of the early church in the New Testament where we found that 'those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common.' (Acts 4:32)
We prayed over what we read, and realised that God was calling us to follow their example.
Pooling our resources and establishing community sharing was a challenging experience as we sought to apply New Testament truths in a 20th Century setting. We made mistakes and learned from them as we went along.
We bought houses as funds became available. Some of us sold individual houses in order to help purchase larger houses suitable for community living. Others contributed their income. Not everyone felt the call to community life. It took about five years for the community structure to develop. Even now there is a large (and growing) section of our Church membership who do not live in community.
During this time, many people followed our progress with interest, if not scepticism. Communities have come and gone over the years - would we fold up or survive?
We have survived, but it has not always been plain sailing. Some have left over the years, although few have seemed as disillusioned as those whose stories appeared in the Chronicle and Echo this week. Most leave simply because they feel unable to sustain the inward commitment needed for life in Christian community. Some remain members of our Church. Many who have left continue to be our friends.
Is it really so hard to leave the Community once you have joined? Not really, although it is not something to be done lightly any more that you would join lightly. We have entered a serious commitment which we would normally hope to be lifelong, as in a religious order, and we are fully aware of what is expected through that commitment.
The close friendship formed in Community are often painful to break, and these things naturally cause a certain amount of pressure upon a person to stay. But if someone expresses a settled intention to leave they can do so, and are normally given financial assistance as well.
There are of course two categories of membership, Covenant Member (Baptism and Community) and covenant Member (Baptism). Joining the Church via baptism or, if a person has been baptised elsewhere the 'right hand of fellowship'.
New members enter a basic covenant in which they express their acceptance of the Christian faith and practice of the Church and their commitment to each other. This means that while they may not actually live in community they agree with the principle of it.
So what motivates community members to live as they do? The sacrifices are undoubtedly real, particularly for those who lived a 'normal' British family life before.
There are three main reasons. Firstly, our lives have already been changed through conversion to Christ. Our inner attitudes have been transformed so that instead of wanting to live selfishly, our desire is to give and share.
Secondly, as disciples of Christ, we want to live in simplicity, following His example. Thirdly, we want to show the world that the Christian Church can be a powerful alternative to the self-seeking materialism of much of modern society.
We seek to show a society of equality, in both financial and social terms. We do not believe in barriers of class or race; in our life together we aim to show that we are 'all one in Christ'. Whatever background our Christian brother comes from - rich or poor, white or black, middle class or working class - we accept his as equal.
We are well-known for our outreach work. Groups of Jesus People with guitars, banners, songs and our evangelical newspaper Lifenews are a familiar sight in Northampton. But we are no longer restricted to Northampton; outreach houses have opened as far afield as Nottingham and Birmingham.
Our critics call it 'recruitment'. But our aim is to bring people to Christ. Our message is the good news of salvation in Jesus. To a generation grown cynical because of problems such as unemployment, the gospel brings new hope and a life worth living again.
There are all kinds of people in the Church. Many of us were ordinary people who responded to the call of God to live as Christians in the world, but others were in particular need. Over the years we have seen God work in powerful ways in people's lives.
Nothing brings us greater joy than seeing drug addicts and alcoholics released from their addiction, the sick restored to mental and physical health, and people finding healing from the traumas of marriage and family break-ups. Our gospel meetings are often full of people giving testimony to what God has done in their life: there seems to be a new story of God's saving work almost every day.
In a country where poverty is reported to be on the increase, we give away many thousands of pounds a year in relieving the material needs of those we meet.
In our outreach work we are following Jesus' command to 'go into all the world and preach the gospel'. For us, 'the world' starts with the towns and cities of the Midlands. We have been much inspired by the early Methodists and Salvationists, who were so filled with love for God and their fellow men that they preached the gospel at every possible opportunity.
Society as a whole benefits from all this. Many of those who have found Christ were 'problems' in various ways. Some had been in jail, some in psychiatric hospitals. Some had required help from social services and many had been unemployed. Often conversion to Christ changes a person's life so deeply that such problems disappear.
But what about this famous 'business empire'? Are we really out to make so much money as we can? Certainly we need to make a profit, as with all businesses. But that is not the main aim.
Some find it strange that Christians should be involved in business, although there is nothing wrong with honourable trade. Through the centuries Christians have run businesses.
Our main purpose is to provide work for community members; and there are other benefits as well. Our businesses are flexible enough to release people for other Christian service when required; they help build a sound economic base for our outreach work; and they provide a service to the public.
Farm work can fulfil a therapeutic need for those who are as yet unable to hold down a normal job.
We hope our businesses are a witness to the high standards of integrity, service and workmanship which should characterise all Christian enterprises.
All our businesses are owned by the Jesus Fellowship Community Trust and administered for the benefit of members. The funds of the trust are the responsibility of trustees who are accountable to the members.
But perhaps the most consistent criticism we face is that individual freedom is restricted in community. We see it as releasing the individual to find a new freedom in service to God and his fellow men.
The commitment is entered into voluntarily with full knowledge of the lifestyle and responsibility involved. There is a probationary period of up to 18 months for new members. Each member agrees to submit his life to the disciplines and loyalties of the community.
It is a little similar to the vows taken by members of religious orders. Of course we are not entirely free just to 'do our own thing' - selfish independence is replaced by interdependence. We recognise towards our Christian brothers and sisters in the things we do. It is the same for all, including leaders.
We know we are not perfect, and we are still learning. Inevitably we have made mistakes over the years and, if we have hurt anyone we regret it. No malice is intended. We ourselves have been hurt at times, but have learned not to retaliate. We are willing to ask forgiveness where needed, and to seek reconciliation with any whom we may have offended.
The community welcomes visitors, both to its public meetings and to its houses. You won't be 'brainwashed'. No one will stand in front of the door to stop you from leaving. But we hope you will be challenged and inspired by seeing a group of people who, despite their many failings, have decided to devote their lives to follow Jesus Christ.